He came, he saw, he walked away with a shed load of contracts that will put more than $20bn into the coffers of American arms manufacturers. What is left to say about President George Bush?
If his visit to the region had not come six or seven years too late, his words on peace for Palestine would have been impressive and given much hope to many people.
Sabri Jawhar, a columnist in the Saudi Gazette hit the nail on the head with the observation: “It’s unfortunate, indeed a tragedy that Bush decided to visit us in his final year in office... Imagine what could have been accomplished if he had visited us in 2002.”
Certainly, the president talked the talk. In Israel he said the “outposts” must be removed; that there must be an end to the building of settlements and that he was “committed” to helping broker a peace deal by the end of his term in office. He used the trip to, among other things, convince Arab opinion of his sympathy for the Palestinians. “The establishment of the state of Palestine is long overdue,” he said. “The Palestinian people deserve it.”
Oh George, George, what took you so long? Did Condi fail to appraise you of the depths of misery and deprivation she witnessed among the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories? And special Middle East envoy Tony Blair, who helped raised $7.5bn internationally to help the cause in just a matter of months, did he fail to point out that Israelis were bulldozing Palestinian homes, building their detested Wall through Palestinian orchards and olive groves and allowing seriously ill patients, including children, the elderly and pregnant women, to die in ambulances at Israeli checkpoints?
Now it is all over and Mr Bush is back in the United States, the whole Middle East tour looks like an impressive but hollow road show, more designed to drum up business for American companies and turn Arab public opinion against Iran, than to offer any real solutions for a workable Palestinian Israeli peace.
On the first count George achieved quite a result, plucking some glittering baubles from Gulf potentates in the form of contracts that will help shore up the faltering US economy for several years to come. The jewel in the crown of these being the Saudi arms deal. The president tried to persuade Saudi Arabia, the region’s most influential state, to help contain
Iran and offset the influence of the country he has branded “a danger to the oil rich region and to world security”.
Iran loomed large in George Bush’s talks with all his Gulf hosts but while Gulf Arabs might share American concerns about curbing their powerful Shi’ite neighbour, they want to avoid another war on their doorstep at all costs.
The rich Gulf oil producers have become familiar with paying for their friends and it is likely the Saudi deal amounted to little more than that, an acknowledgement of the importance of the strategic US-Saudi friendship, and, as such, a move well understood by both sides. The kingdom makes multimillion dollar arms deals as a matter of course – more than $21bn in 2005 alone, and in the current political climate it pays to be ‘in’ with Washington, rather than, on this occasion, Paris or London.
But does the deal mean King Abdullah believes Iran is, as President Bush postulated on the Abu Dhabi leg of his tour, “the world’s leading state sponsor of terror”?
No Sir, it does not. The Saudis and their Gulf neighbours are no strangers to the voice of Washington banging on about ‘the ultimate threat to GCC security’: “It’s Iran. No, it’s Iraq. Okay, it’s Iran again,” the pattern has been the same for more years than any of us care to remember.
The Gulf leaders are much too wise and experienced to be taken in by Mr Bush’s predictions of doom. So, I believe, that on his second mission – seeking GCC backing to curb Iran – Mr Bush failed.
In a recent television interview I was asked by a western commentator: “If Iran’s aims are not aggressive, why is the country’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad trying to frighten the West?” My opinion remains, the same after the US president’s visit as they were before: I have heard absolutely nothing that persuades me Iran is trying to frighten the West. With the help of George Bush I think the West is doing a pretty good job of trying to frighten itself.