Bush stands firm

Now George W. Bush has secured his second term as US president, what does this mean for the Middle East? Massoud A. Derhally reports.

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By  Anil Bhoyrul Published  January 30, 2005

Bush stands firm|~|bush.jpg|~||~|Now George W. Bush has secured his second term as US president, what does this mean for the Middle East? Massoud A. Derhally reports. When George W. Bush was running for US presidential elections against Al Gore four years ago, most Arabs were eagerly rooting for him to win. And when he did, there was a huge sigh of relief. To many in the Arab world, here was someone they thought would continue along the same path as his father, whose presidency was largely cordial with Arab states. The picture now is markedly different, with George W. Bush viewed with much suspicion in the Arab world. His re-election, seen as a victory by the neo-conservatives, has increased apprehension about possible further violence in the region. The recent article of investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, ‘The Coming Wars' in the New Yorker, claims Bush has an aggressive and ambitious agenda in place “against the mullahs in Iran and against targets in the ongoing war on terrorism—during his second term”. In his inaugural speech on January 20, Bush told his audience: “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” Curiously, there was no mention whatsover of the events in Iraq. Paul Sullivan, economics professor at the National Defence University in the US, says while it is early days to determine the demographics of American foreign policy in the Arab world in the coming term, the “neo-||**|||~|Liberty.jpg|~|LIBERTY: President Bush has fun at his inauguration and spreads the message of liberty, but the Arab world seems not to be impressed.|~|conservatives seem to think the election was a reaffirmation of their policies". “We are really likely to see much of the same … there are lots of personal animosities driving the anger at Iran,” he adds. No surprise, then, that Bush's inauguration speech about freedom has not made a huge impact in the Arab world. “It was bizarre,” says Khaled Al Dakhil, a pro-reform professor of political sociology at King Saud University. “That was the first term that came to my mind when I heard the speech. “He was talking about fighting terrorism and spreading democracy and liberty, and making connections with the freedom in the United States and spreading it all over the world. But his policies really undermine all that he talks about. You hear something, but you see policy on the ground that says something totally different.” Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian democracy activist who heads the Ibn Khaldun centre for sociological and political studies, regularly invites anti-Islamist intellectuals and reformist thinkers to debate the problems of the Arab world. He says Bush’s speech and forthcoming policies mean different things for those wishing to reform and democratise and those who thrive of the current status quo. “Pro-democracy groups should carefully rejoice because Bush has promised the issue of freedom will be a fundamental goal of his second term. Those who are the enemies of freedom should be glum should they decide to include America in the equation,” says Ibrahim, who plans to run in the next Egyptian presidential race. “Arabs are not a single people, but a number of different groups who comprise democratic freedom groups as well as enemies of democracy and those who are indifferent and don’t know exactly what they want,” he adds. “What the US needs is a more sophisticated, nuanced approach to the region,” says Sullivan of the National Defence University. But such an eventuality is not likely to take place anytime soon, even though the newly elected Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas is on the good side of both Israel and the US. Ibrahim believes whatever pressure the US may choose to place on Israel, it will be non-confrontational. “America has realised now and Europe has affirmed [that the] settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is key to the stability of the Middle East and to the US’s exit from the Iraqi theatre without losing face,” he says. The Americans, says an Iraqi dissident, who fled Iraq in 1968 and was prominent in calling for the recent American-led invasion, are serious in different ways about promoting democratic change in the Middle East. Speaking anonymously, the scholar says: “There is a firm conviction in this White House, and this is connected with 9/11, that their engagement with the Middle East has to be on different basis than in the past. There is no question whatsoever that this administration has functioned on that premise since 9/11 and will continue to do so after that.” Rami Khouri, executive editor of the Lebanon-based Daily Star newspaper, is equally certain that 9/11 has dictated Bush's policies. He says: “People in the Arab world don’t appreciate the role of 9/11 in giving birth to the policy Bush has been pushing. There isn’t sufficient appreciation for how the Arab-Israeli issue has been downplayed and is a smaller priority in the American order of things. It will take some time to understanding what his latest speech means.” Fouad Ajami, a John Hopkins University professor, said to have attended a meeting with White House aids while Bush's speech was being drafted, says: “Arab people should walk away with the impression that this administration wants to be on the side of liberal reformers ... The message to the Arab rulers is we are putting you on notice." At the moment, America is determined to make a success of the Iraq experiment. The challenge there will be to have a ‘Plan B' should it be dragged into a civil war. As Khouri says, the changes taking place in how America now deals with the Middle East are partly a consequence of the failure in Iraq. The next four years will determine how right he is. Most observers believe the US president's actions (or lack of actions) on Iran and North Korea will have a huge impact on how he is perceived throughout the Arab world. ||**||

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