In a sweeping, optimistic speech, President Bush on Friday said his policies have left the Middle East “freer and more hopeful” than it was eight years ago.
In the Saban Forum speech, another sign that Mr. Bush’s legacy-burnishing effort has kicked into high gear, the president said the removal of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has made the region safer. He also said Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are headed in a positive direction, and he pointed to the tangible signs of progress in the region.
“We see it in women taking their seats in elected parliaments and bloggers telling the world their dreams,” the president said, speaking at the event hosted by the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
“We see it in skyscrapers rising above Abu Dhabi, and thriving Middle Eastern businesses connected to the global economy. And we see it in a Saudi king sponsoring an interfaith dialogue, Palestinian reformers fighting corruption and terror, and Israelis who love their ancient land but want to live in peace.”
With two wars ongoing, the Middle East is the region which, more than any other, holds the key to how Mr. Bush will be remembered.
In language more poetic than usual, Mr. Bush said “the Middle East is closing a chapter of darkness and fear and opening a new one written in the language of possibility and hope.”
But the president’s optimism was not shared by some skeptics in the audience and by experts who read the speech.
Martin S. Indyk, former ambassador to Israel under President Clinton, who hosted the event at the Newseum as the Saban Center’s director, has been very critical of the Bush administration’s Middle East policy of late, saying in a new book that “the Middle East is deeply unsettled.”
“For almost a decade, the United States has done little to address the region’s principal conflicts and concerns and instead has opened the way for Iran to make a bid for hegemony in the Arab heartland. In the process, the United States has developed a reputation for arrogance and double standards,” Mr. Indyk wrote in a new essay with Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Mr. Indyk helped introduce the president at the event. Others in the audience included Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, columnist Thomas Friedman and others.
Anthony Cordesman, a regional specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also gave a bleak assessment of Mr. Bush’s impact on the region.
“Presidents perhaps are entitled to try to describe their mistakes as successes when they’re leaving office, but it’s a remarkable speech,” Mr. Cordesman said. “I can’t think of any opinion poll in the region that doesn’t see a massive deterioration of American credibility during Bush’s time in office.”
Mr. Cordesman’s greatest criticism was that the Bush administration’s actions, taken together, have increased Iran’s influence and power in the region.
“The fear of Iran is growing because of our actions,” he said. “It’s pretty difficult to think that any administration left its successor a worse situation in this region.”
Mr. Mofaz’s speech, which came after the president left, confirmed this preoccupation with Iran and its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
“A nuclear Iran is not an option,” Mr. Mofaz said. “Our leadership will not allow a second Holocaust to happen.”
Mr. Bush admitted shortcomings in his Middle East policy.
“In some areas we have fallen short of our hopes,” he said. “For example, the fight in Iraq has been longer and more costly than expected. The reluctance of entrenched regimes to open their political systems has been disappointing. And there have been unfortunate setbacks at key points in the peace process - including the illness suffered by Prime Minister Sharon, the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections, and the terrorist takeover of Gaza.”
Mr. Indyk and Mr. Haass, in the new book, “Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President,” summed up the impact of these failures.
“The net effect is an impression left by the Bush administration that the United States is unable to deliver and that when it tries, it tends to make matters worse. In so doing, the administration has raised serious doubts about American competence and intentions.”