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Friday, 18 January 2008

18 January 2008

I’m glad I’m not the hapless individual who has to prepare a digest of Middle East press comment for President Bush after his trip round the region. He wouldn’t like it much.

He’d like it even less if I pointed out to him that in most of the countries he visited, the newspapers are either controlled by, or are close to, those very same leaders who received him with such apparent warmth and showered him with gifts.

Just a couple of examples to give you a flavour: the Saudi Gazette, which undiplomatically contrasted Mr Bush’s visit with that of another guest dignitary – “It would be difficult to argue that French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to the Kingdom was not in almost every way a success … It's refreshing to see a Western leader come to the Kingdom speaking of peace rather than just issuing warnings …” Ouch.

And the Jeddah-based Arab News: "It is impossible to feel any excitement about Bush's words, because no Palestinian, no Arab, believes he will, or can, deliver.”

In Beirut, which was not on the President’s itinerary, a commentator in Al-Mustaqbal wrote: “No country in the world has been more successful than the United States in making itself hated by nations, especially among the poor classes, the marginalised, and the liberals …”

The bloggers were no kinder. In Bahrain, they complained bitterly about the disruption caused by the Presidential cavalcade. “Roads were blocked all over … George W simply screwed up our day. It’s amazing, just by being here he can screw things up! It's like he has an aura around him or something!”

In Israel, the complaint was exactly the same. “Jerusalem traffic has already slowed to about half its usual speed. Military choppers keep buzzing overhead in both Jerusalem and Ramallah ... People are avoiding making appointments for the next couple of days. This had better be good.”

The President had two priorities on this week-long tour: to persuade Arab leaders to take seriously his belief that there can be peace between Israelis and Palestinians before the end of the year, and to share his conviction that Iran remains the biggest threat in the region. He seems to have made little headway on either.

On Iran, the English-language Beirut-based Daily Star wrote: “Arab audiences still seem less worried today about the possibly nefarious aims of the Islamic Republic than they are about the US president's proven track record of stirring up chaos and instability in the region. Indeed, fears that another Iraq-style calamity will occur on their doorstep have prompted several Gulf Arab leaders to reach out to their Iranian neighbors like never before in a bid to ease regional tensions.”

As for his insistence that the US is promoting the spread of democracy in the region, critical commentators pointed to the countries he visited – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt – in all of which democracy is conspicuous mainly by its absence.

The New York Times, reporting on the President’s three-hour visit to Egypt, said: “President Bush lavished praise on President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt … emphasising the country’s role in regional security and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process while publicly avoiding mention of the government’s actions in jailing or exiling opposition leaders and its severe restrictions on opposition political activities.”

In a year from now, Mr Bush will be preparing to leave the White House at the end of his eight years in office. I have the distinct impression that those he met over the past week have already made a note in their diaries. “January 21, 2009: phone White House. Talk to new President.”

By the way, next Friday, the 25th, we’re planning a special programme in which we’ll be debating “British values”. As you may recall, Gordon Brown has said he wants to “engage people around the country in a discussion on citizenship and British values.” So that’s what we’re going to do, with the minister responsible, Michael Wills, and a panel of guests. If you have any thoughts that you’d like me to throw into the pot, drop me a line …

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