Welcome to the Middle East, President!

Welcome to the Middle East, President!

President Bush begins his seven-day tour of the Middle East and the Gulf today. His itinerary includes Israel, the West Bank, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. And although he can look forward to a royal reception from governments his visit is security chiefs’ worst nightmare, as, let’s face it, Bush hardly ranks as one of the most popular US presidents on the streets of this part of the world. And that’s an understatement.

In Jerusalem, where hundreds of American flags are being hoisted, a contingent of 10,500 police and security personnel will ensure the president’s safety. Together with his sizeable entourage he will stay in a fortified hotel amid closed off streets and a secure air corridor. And he will travel by helicopter as he did during his stay in London’s Buckingham Palace, ruining the Queen’s flower beds in the process.

It’s a bubble but George Bush is used to it. It travels with him wherever he goes preventing him from seeing the sights or getting to know real people with genuine grievances against US foreign policy. In fact, the only people he is likely to meet are friendly leaders, many of whom he already knows well, and US military, naval and diplomatic personnel.

We do know, for instance, that he is scheduled to powwow with Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker on the subject of Iraq and plans to address the US Navy 5th Fleet on his democratic vision.

But wait! How could I forget? He will of course enjoy a reunion with his old friend the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with whom he will discuss Palestinian self-governance. He may be in a bubble but it’s certainly a cozy bubble.

One can only wonder whether Mr. Bush sometimes experiences a tinge of envy for his European counterparts, such as Nicolas Sarkozy who was recently able to enjoy a romantic private holiday in Luxor and the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh. Official reactions to the proposed visit are varied. There are those who believe it will offer a genuine boost to the post-Annapolis peace talks. Others are skeptical, while Hamas, is openly hostile dubbing it a mere “photo-op.”

So what is it that Bush hopes to achieve apart from giving an impetus to the peace process? Believe it or not, he is still pushing for regional democracies even though he knows full well that ballot results are unlikely to be to his liking.

It’s worth recalling that it was the US that pressurized the Palestinians to hold fair and free elections, monitored by the international community. They were stamped fair and free alright but what emerged was a Hamas-led leadership, which the US promptly designated ‘terrorist’. It was a similar story in Iraq, where a pro-Iranian government was initially sworn-in.

He is also set to warn Arab leaders of the threat he believes is still posed by Iran‘s nuclear ambitions, in spite of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) published by US intelligence agencies to the contrary.

Bush is, no doubt, concerned about the warming of relations between Tehran and its neighbors, including GCC countries and Egypt. Such a warm and fuzzy ambience is hardly conducive to any thoughts Bush may still harbor on striking Iranian facilities before he leaves office next January.

Thirdly, Bush will remind the region of “America’s commitment to the security of our friends” and emphasize his support for reformers within “Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Tehran.”

“Prevailing in this struggle will not be easy,” he said, “but we know from history that it can be done.” Fine words, rousing rhetoric but, actually, we don’t know from history — at least recent history — that it can be done. Or, to be more precise, that President Bush is the person to do it. In the early days of his presidency, those sentiments may have held water but given his failure to achieve anything he set out to do in the Middle East to date, they are likely to be received today like a lead brick.

If you remember, he promised to destroy Al-Qaeda but Osama and his deputies are still putting out threatening audio and video tapes. He promised freedom and democracy to Afghanistan and an improved standard of living for all, but that country remains backward, impoverished and war torn.

And he promised to transform Iraq into a model state that would be the envy of the entire region but, instead, it is still the most violent place on the planet and a magnet for extremist elements. Then there was his much-trumpeted ‘Roadmap’, which turned out to be a path to nowhere and nothing. Whether Annapolis will go the same way is yet to be seen. But given the fracture between Hamas and Fatah, the almost daily Israeli strikes on Gaza and the seeming unwillingness of Israel to quit settlement expansion, prospects look dim.

It’s true that the Israeli prime minister has said he will dismantle outposts but at the same time he refuses to say where they are, citing security reasons.

Nevertheless, Bush can look forward to warm smiles and handshakes, along with unprecedented hospitality because that’s what the people here do best. The streets will be spruced up; the flags will fly high; the unflattering graffiti erased, and the crowds cherry-picked.

It’s a pity, though, that Mr. Bush will fly home on January 7th none the wiser.