By Jim Hoagland
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
President Bush enjoys hosting formal state dinners about as much as having a root canal. Or proposing tax increases. So his decision to schedule a mid-April White House gala for Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah signified the president's high regard for an Arab monarch who is also a Bush family friend.
Now the White House ponders what Abdullah's sudden and sparsely explained cancellation of the dinner signifies. Nothing good -- especially for Condoleezza Rice's most important Middle East initiatives -- is the clearest available answer.
Abdullah's bowing out of the April 17 event is, in fact, one more warning sign that the Bush administration's downward spiral at home is undermining its ability to achieve its policy objectives abroad. Friends as well as foes see the need, or the chance, to distance themselves from the politically besieged Bush.
Official versions discount that possibility, of course. Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national security adviser, flew to Washington last week to explain to Bush that April 17 posed a scheduling problem. " 'It is not convenient' was the way it was put," says one official.
But administration sources report that Bush and his senior advisers were not convinced by Bandar's vagueness -- especially since it followed Saudi decisions to seek common ground with Iran and the radicals of Hezbollah and Hamas instead of confronting them as part of Rice's proposed "realignment" of the Middle East into moderates and extremists.
Abdullah's reluctance to be seen socializing at the White House this spring reflects two related dynamics: a scampering back by the Saudis to their traditional caution in trying to balance regional forces, and their displeasure with negative U.S. reaction to their decision to return to co-opting or placating foes.
Abdullah gave a warm welcome to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Riyadh in early March, not long after the Saudis pressured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas into accepting a political accord that entrenches Hamas in an unwieldy coalition government with Abbas's Fatah movement.
"The Saudis surprised us by going that far," explained one White House official in a comment that reached -- and irritated -- Saudi officials. So don't count on Abdullah to put new force behind his long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative at the Arab summit scheduled this week in Riyadh.
Rice had hoped the summit would provide a boost in her current proximity talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials, but she appears to have struck a dry well. "She is conducting crisis management, not grand diplomacy," a European official who talked to her recently said disappointedly.
Adds an admirer who tracks Rice's intentions and assessments in the Middle East: "Condi is doing everything she can. But she is dancing with a corpse that just keeps flopping over in another direction every time she tries to move it."
A few months ago, Bandar was championing the confrontational "realignment" approach in Saudi family councils: Iran's power would be broken, the Syrians would have to give up hegemonic designs on Lebanon, etc., etc. Now the Saudi prince visits Tehran and Moscow regularly. He helped set the stage for the Palestinians' Mecca accord, which has caused Israel to reduce what little cooperation it felt it could extend to Abbas.
And he delivered the king's regrets about dinner. (The White House declined all comment about the April 17 dinner and Bandar's visit.) This is less a clear strategic reversal than a tactical adjustment for the Saudis: They remain frightened of the expanding ambitions of Iran. And the personal bond between the Saudi royals -- especially Bandar -- and Bush and his father remains strong.
But the Saudis, too, know how to read election returns. They see Bush swimming against a tide of scandal and stench that engulfs his most trusted aides. In the traditional Saudi worldview, this is a moment to hedge, not to indulge in the kind of leadership needed to break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock or the deadly morass of Iraq.
It could be less calculated than that. Part of the royal family was unhappy with Bandar's earlier break-their-bones realignment rhetoric. Abdullah would not want to come to Washington to front for a divided family. He may need more time to patch things.
But Rice will get no relief when she returns to Washington. She will have to deal with more depressing society news: Jordan's King Abdullah, who has spent more time in George W. Bush's Washington than any other foreign leader, has let the White House know that he can't make that state visit discussed for September. Can you do 2008? the king asks instead.