- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2008

President Bush will cover thousands of miles but find it hard to break any new ground as he embarks tomorrow on the longest Middle East tour of his presidency.

While Mr. Bush and his advisers once talked of the “birth pangs” of a new, democratic, pro-Western Middle East in the heady days after the 2003 ouster of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Lebanon’s 2005 “Cedar Revolution,” the White House is determinedly talking down expectations for the trip.

Despite the heady talk of a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli peace deal by the end of this year following November’s Annapolis Middle East summit, Mr. Bush has no plans for a joint meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas while on a visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank to kick off the trip.

“Just his going there is going to advance the prospects,” National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley said last week. “We’re not looking for headline announcements.”

Follow-on stops in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are also not expected to produce dramatic breakthroughs. Mr. Bush plans only one prepared public speech during his trip, on Sunday in the UAE.

Terrorist groups have their own ideas for the trip. In a new videotape released yesterday, California-born al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn urged the group’s supporters to welcome Mr. Bush with violent attacks.

Gadahn called on “militant brothers” in the region “to be ready to receive the Crusader slayer Bush … not with flowers or clapping, but with bombs and booby-trapped vehicles.”

Among political leaders in the region, expectations for Mr. Bush’s trip are modest.

There has been little visible progress in Palestinian-Israeli talks in the weeks since Annapolis. Clashes since last week in Gaza, controlled by the rival Hamas faction hostile to Mr. Abbas, killed 15 Palestinians — four of them yesterday — while Mr. Olmert’s government complained about continuing Palestinian missile attacks inside Israel.

The bloodshed “risks undermining efforts to build confidence and give momentum to the peace process following Annapolis,” British Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells said Friday.

Many Arab analysts see Mr. Bush as a lame-duck president lacking time and political clout at home and still distracted by the difficult military struggle in Iraq. With oil at nearly $100 a barrel, the U.S. economy faltering and Asia the dynamic new market for Gulf exports, Washington’s economic clout is waning as well.

Mr. Bush “is captain of an administration that looks like a ship stuck in the mud of Iraq, in enormous internal economic problems, in an environmental impasse, and in unprecedented international controversies surrounding his leadership,” according to Hussein Shobokshi, TV commentator on the Al-Arabiya network.

Mr. Bush may get his warmest welcome on his first stop, in Israel. While Mr. Bush has expressed concern about new Israeli settlements in disputed lands, Mr. Olmert last week, in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, said he did not expect any uncomfortable pressure from a man he called “a giant friend of ours.”

“President Bush is not doing a single thing I don’t agree to,” Mr. Olmert said. “He doesn’t support anything that I oppose. He doesn’t say a thing that he thinks will make life harder for Israel.”

The president has three primary goals for his trip, according to the White House. He wants to move forward the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, promote regional stability and democracy, and weaken Iran’s influence in the region.

“The trip will be an opportunity to reaffirm the enduring commitment of the United States to the security of our friends and allies in the Middle East, especially the Gulf nations,” said Mr. Hadley.

Middle East stability, from a U.S. point of view, is Iraq-centric. Mr. Bush will no doubt seek assurances from Saudi King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — both Sunni Arabs — that they will do more to work with the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government.

But Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said most Middle East leaders see the terrorism problem much differently.

“Their attitude is, this is a religious issue, it is an ideological issue. It is a matter of dealing with their own young men and finding ways to bring them back into society. It is not a focus on Iraq,” he said.

Mr. Cordesman said that, while the president’s visit will help U.S. relations with and interests in Middle East countries, Mr. Bush’s influence will be blunted by other leaders’ awareness that he is in his last year in office.

“They are well aware that this is not only an election year, it is an election year for an administration that really has no heir that can really speak for the future,” he said.

The president has been criticized for not being more engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process during his presidency. Some say he is going along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s desire in a last-minute effort to burnish his presidential legacy.

Despite his intense support for Israel, this will be Mr. Bush’s first visit to the Jewish state as president. Aside from a stop in Egypt and occasional brief forays into Iraq, Mr. Bush will also be meeting virtually all of the Arab leaders on their home turf for the first time since his election in 2000.

Mr. Hadley, however, defended the president’s record, saying Mr. Bush has been putting “building blocks” in place over several years for progress in the Middle East.

Mr. Hadley said the willingness of the Saudi and Syrian governments to send representatives to the Annapolis summit is proof the U.S.-hosted summit was a success. There is a possibility “that Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation will be in the context of a broader Israel-Arab reconciliation,” he said.

The Annapolis gathering, which attracted more than 40 countries and international organizations, gives Mr. Bush a bit of a tailwind for his trip, after years in which Washington largely avoided the difficult details of dealmaking for the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.

Analysts said Mr. Bush will also get a boost from the progress his “surge” in Iraq has made in lowering levels of violence and bringing a least a measure of stability to the country.

The White House did concede, however, the pace of democratic progress in the broader Middle East has slowed since 2005, to their disappointment. The “Arab spring” of political reform has clearly cooled, and authoritarian leaders like Egypt’s Mr. Mubarak look set to still be firmly in control when Mr. Bush leaves office.

Mr. Bush will also seek on his trip to reassure Arab leaders who are nervous about Iran’s growing influence in the region.

“There’s a lot of concern in the region about Iran, not all of it expressed publicly,” Mr. Hadley said. “The president is going to want to go and talk privately and quietly to indicate that we understand the challenge that Iran represents to the region, that … our friends and allies in the region can count on our commitment to the region and our continued presence in the region.”

Mr. Bush has made surprise visits to Iraq before, and could do so again. He is scheduled to meet in Kuwait on Jan. 12 with Gen. David H. Petreaus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker.

Another possible unannounced visit could be in the cards for Lebanon, where the Bush administration contends that the elected government of pro-Western Prime Minister Fuad Siniora faces consistent destabilizing efforts from neighboring Syria and its Hezbollah allies.

While such a trip would be a high-risk security move, Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at CSIS, said it was “hard to imagine that the president will be so close and not seek to do something that will strengthen the hand of Prime Minister Siniora and his allies.”

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