The Imperial Pretension

Nobody except the occasional reporter willing to suspend disbelief and listen to U.S. spokespeople as if they were operating in the real world believed that President Bush’s recent trip to the Middle East would bring substantial progress either in terms of stability in the region or the forwarding of U.S. interests as Bush defines them. But in its wake it is remarkable just how poignantly the trip pinpointed Bush’s failures and their aftermath.

It has become something of a cliché for U.S. presidents reaching the nadir of lame-duckness to take one final stab at trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, as if they really believed that the U.S. election cycle was a more important factor in such matters than conditions on the ground, the relative strengths of the contending/cooperating parties and the degree of war-weariness the people on both sides are experiencing. Clinton tried it at Camp David, only to have the late former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat refuse the deal (whether justifiably or not people still argue).

Now it was Bush’s turn, and he put a brave face on it. But Ehud Olmert in Israel is weak and getting weaker – Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman recently walked out of the governing coalition, reducing his parliamentary majority to 67 out of 120 seats. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has been rejected in elections and rules only tenuously in the West Bank, while Hamas controls the Gaza strip. The recent blockade by Israel and the temporary breaching of the wall between Gaza and Egypt demonstrates just how far away the parties are from anything remotely resembling a resolution.

Israel might not have been saddened, incidentally, if the wall between Egypt and Gaza had come down permanently as a prelude to Egypt assuming effective responsibility for Gaza. By closing the breach almost immediately, however, Egypt let it be known firmly that it had no interest in assuming such responsibility.

Almost every phase of the trip demonstrated how Bush’s policies and actions have led to increased instability and danger.

He tried to rally the Gulf states into a coalition against Iran. But Iran had become more of a regional power – although Iran’s neighbors don’t see as much danger as the wise men in Washington profess to see and have taken steps toward establishing a closer relationship, perhaps on the Godfather’s “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” theory. Insofar as Iran has become a more significant regional power, however – and it has – it is almost entirely due to Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, eliminating any threat of another Iran-Iraq confrontation and giving Iran significantly more influence in Shia-majority post-invasion Iraq.

Mr. Bush’s hosts in the Gulf Cooperation Council smiled benignly as he tried to rally them against Iran, but as Arnaud deBorchgrave put it, “he may have drawn the wrong conclusion from the smiling faces and nodding heads. Arab culture precludes negative reactions between heads of state. Arab newspapers and Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya television networks conveyed the message: Mr. Bush is a lame duck who will be blocked by Congress and the intelligence communities if he orders air strikes against Iran.”

Even Bush’s plaintive plea to Saudi Arabia to pump more oil to try to bring the world price down was met noncommittally, although it was accompanied by a promise (not checked with Congress) of some $20 billion in high-tech military weaponry. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was even noncommittal on that one. He is also shopping in Britain, France and Russia.

The truth is that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states lost confidence in the Bush administration years ago and are taking steps on their own to try to secure their interests. Saudi Arabia has several times stepped from behind the curtain to operate directly instead of indirectly – calling a summit to try to jump-start something on Israel/Palestine, inviting Iran’s Ahmadinejad over for consultations – precisely because it is aware that the United States has been even more bumbling than usual.

To top it off, Bush dropped the brave pretense that his purpose in the Middle East is to bring the blessings of democracy and civil society to the region. Now that he has stirred the pot and created more chaos than before he came into office, he seems to have decided that the only remotely hopeful course is to cuddle up to the region’s autocracies in hopes of improving stability rather than elections that bring Hamas to power or strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood. In doing so, of course, he drew the scorn of the scattering of democratic reformers in the region, who are now sadly resigned to the prospect that the U.S. will sell them out when the going gets tough and revert to the old coddle-the-autocrats mode with which we seem to feel most comfortable.

In some ways the trips seemed like one of those imperial processions that emperors in empires that admitted to being such used to undertake – a trip through the provinces marked by shows of force and banquets and protestations of eternal love and friendship (while behind the scenes people jockeyed for power and tried to assess where the real powers behind the throne lay). While the putative provincials were polite enough, and played their assigned parts with skill if without enthusiasm, however, the trip was more like an imperial pretension, or perhaps a farce.

Everybody in the region knows Bush has only one year left in office and little power to persuade the American people into making lasting commitments. They can’t wait for this clown to return to Crawford, or wherever he chooses to hole up once his disastrous reign has ended. They know the next president is almost certain to begin a drawdown of U.S. troops and might even treat the region with a little more benign neglect. They know the empire, having overreached and found quicksand instead of cheers and flowers, is on the decline, especially with the domestic economy in (not unrelated) trouble. So they smiled and decided to wait it out.

It was a sad and pathetic performance by the supposed leader of the “free world.”

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).