Washington Post: As he toured the Middle East over the past five days, President Bush tried to shore up support for his strategy of isolating Iran in meetings with the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian territories.
The Washington Post
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008; A12
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, May 18 — As he toured the Middle East over the past five days, President Bush tried to shore up support for his strategy of isolating Iran in meetings with the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian territories. But the one session that did not take place laid bare the problems his administration faces as it tries to persuade its allies to keep the faith.
Bush was supposed to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on Sunday. But Siniora had to cancel to deal with a political crisis at home that has highlighted the commanding position the Shiite movement Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, has assumed in Lebanon.
With Iranian-backed Hamas consolidating control in Gaza and Iranian-backed militias making trouble for the U.S.-backed government in Iraq, Iran and its proxies appear to be on the march, and U.S. allies are concerned that the Bush administration does not have an effective plan for coping. One Arab diplomat said Iran is on an unchecked "rampage."
"Everyone is focusing on the Iranian nuclear bomb, which doesn't exist, but in the meantime the Iranians are winning the souls of the people," said Alon Liel, a former senior Israeli diplomat. "They are winning the battle in Lebanon, and they are winning the battle in Palestine through Hamas."
Speaking to reporters traveling with Bush on Sunday, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley acknowledged a certain "tactical success" by Iran in Lebanon, where Hezbollah defeated government-allied militiamen last week and made clear it is the most powerful force in the country. But he argued that the move could turn out to be a "strategic failure" by undermining Lebanese public confidence in Hezbollah because it used its militia to fight government-allied forces.
Hadley said he sees "an opportunity for the Lebanese forces of democracy and freedom, and for those in the region that support it, to hold Hezbollah to account and hopefully to clip its wings a little bit." He added: "We will have to see. This is a story very much in progress."
Bush, in a speech Sunday at the World Economic Forum here, criticized both Iran and Syria, which also backs Hezbollah, and singled out Iran for what he believes are its efforts to obtain a nuclear bomb.
"Every peaceful nation in the region has an interest in stopping these nations from supporting terrorism," Bush said. "And every peaceful nation in the region has an interest in opposing Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. To allow the world's leading sponsor of terror to gain the world's deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable betrayal of future generations."
Bush described the two countries as among the "spoilers who stand in the way" of positive reform in the Middle East.
Bush concluded his Middle East trip with meetings with leaders gathered for the economic conference. He met for the first time with Pakistan's new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani; discussed conditions in the occupied territories with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; and conferred with several senior Iraqi officials.
The president also restated his long-standing call for democratic reform in the region, calling on leaders to allow competitive elections, release political prisoners and grant more rights to women. He seemed undeterred by previous resistance to such proposals and by irritation from some leaders over lectures from the Bush administration. He offered a pointed barb at the region's autocrats: "Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail."
Hadley said the White House thinks Bush made progress in his goal of achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the end of his term. He said Bush might even return to the region "when there is work for him to do to advance the process."
The view from the region was mixed. Israeli officials were clearly delighted by Bush's strong show of support, but Arab leaders appeared cautious: Many officials were upset with Bush's speech in the Israeli Knesset on Thursday, which they saw as tilted to the Israelis. Bush responded to that criticism by saying that the vision he delivered Sunday — of freedom for all countries in the Middle East and an independent Palestine — is exactly the same as he promoted in Israel.
Bush also offered a much more forceful endorsement of the Palestinian cause, saying that "we must stand with the Palestinian people, who have suffered for decades and earned the right to have a homeland of their own."
But many countries in the region are beginning to hedge their bets as the end of the Bush administration looms. One Saudi analyst saw that dynamic at work in the unwillingness of Saudi officials to make more than a token gesture in response to Bush's plea that they ramp up oil production to help bring down the skyrocketing price of gas.
"They don't feel they need to reward President Bush," said Adel Al Toaifi, a political analyst and columnist in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. "He is leaving in a few months, and it won't benefit him."
The same dynamic probably explains the caution many countries in the region feel about lining up with any further Bush efforts to isolate Iran. Bush has secured three U.N. sanctions resolution on Iran and has had even more success, officials believe, in pressuring the country with unilateral U.S. sanctions.
U.S. officials also said they are taking heart in what they described as the Iraqi government's success in beating back Iranian-backed militias near the Iraqi city of Basra.
The Iranians demonstrated "vulnerabilities in southern Iraq when they backed the special groups in Basra that ended up being overrun by the Iraqi security forces," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "They were armed and trained by Iran, and they got beat in southern Iraq."
But Iran has shown no signs that it is willing to halt uranium enrichment; Bush and his allies have set that step as a condition for opening talks. It has almost certainly not been lost on Iran that it might be able to get such talks without preconditions from the next president.
Hadley said Bush discussed several ideas with his counterparts last week about how to confront Iran, but he would not provide details. "I would say that this is also going to be a long and difficult problem, and that Iran has over the last several years gotten much more active, and it needs to be understood," he said.