Inauspicious Visit

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

THE OCCASION of Israel's 60th-anniversary celebrations has drawn President Bush into a Middle East trip he would be better off not taking. Rather than consolidating achievements or clearing a path for his successor, the president's tour of Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will serve to illustrate how much has gone wrong in the region for the United States on his watch -- and how unlikely he is to reverse the tide in his final months. In Israel, Mr. Bush will face the crumbling Israeli-Palestinian peace process he attempted to launch last year; in Saudi Arabia, he will find a regime that has been deaf to his pleas to help with soaring oil prices or support the Iraqi government. In Egypt, Mr. Bush will meet a ruler, Hosni Mubarak, who not only defied the president's "freedom agenda" but also forced the administration to retreat to its old policy of backing corrupt autocracies.

Then there is Lebanon, where what was once one of the administration's clearest achievements is unraveling. Last week, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement launched an offensive against the pro-Western government of Fouad Siniora, which came to power in an election after the United States helped to end Syria's military occupation of the country in 2005. By yesterday, Hezbollah had gained control over western Beirut and other key areas outside the capital and appeared close to establishing itself as the preeminent power in Lebanon -- in essence reversing what Mr. Bush hailed as the "Cedar Revolution." Mr. Siniora's government, in which the administration invested some $1.3 billion in aid over the past two years, has already meekly retreated from an attempt to curb Hezbollah's creeping takeover of the country's airport and telecommunications. The Lebanese army, which has received $400 million of the U.S. aid, has been facilitating Hezbollah's disarmament of pro-government militias and its destruction of pro-government television stations and political offices.

There's not much Mr. Bush can do about these multiple reverses during his tour, and it's not clear he will even try very hard. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the strongest supporter of the peace process, is on the brink of losing his job because of a corruption investigation. Like most Arab rulers, Saudi King Abdullah is waiting to see whether the next U.S. president supports Iraq's government before he commits himself. The 80-year-old Mr. Mubarak, in power for almost 27 years, might at least be embarrassed if the president, while in Egypt, publicly calls for the release of some of Mr. Mubarak's political prisoners, such as the liberal democrat Ayman Nour. But Mr. Bush no longer seems to have the nerve for that.

The White House has denounced the Hezbollah coup in Lebanon, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday held a phone conference on the crisis with Arab and European allies. Saving the Siniora government would require a much more aggressive effort to mobilize a diplomatic intervention in Lebanon. But there's little prospect that the U.N. Security Council, which in recent weeks has declined to act on Zimbabwe or Burma, would be receptive to such an initiative. Mr. Bush's best hope may be that his successor embraces his Middle East agenda -- and proves more successful in carrying it out.


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