President George W. Bush concluded his Good and Evil Tour of the Middle East on Sunday with a fiery sermon in Sinai. And if he wasn't in a position to hand down commandments like those delivered to Moses, it wasn't for want of trying. Even a Republican congressman was overheard saying that he found Bush's tone "arrogant." But what really was disturbing, indeed sad to watch, was the way the president of the United States wound up wandering in the wilderness.
Bush had just come from Saudi Arabia, where he tried to get an increase in oil production big enough to stop the record-breaking run-up of oil prices. That didn't work. He had been to Israel for the 60th anniversary of its creation as a modern state, but the headline from his speech to the Knesset was a thinly disguised cheap shot at Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama (one of those supposed "appeasers" who would talk to terrorists the way others once wanted to talk to Hitler).
Now Bush was addressing the opening of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East—"Davos in the Desert," as it's sometimes called—at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh. And if he wanted to keep the rich and influential participants talking until the forum concluded Tuesday, he succeeded. But gloom and doom were the unintended keynotes.
Each of Bush's commandments, on its face, made sense. In fact, few if any in the audience of 1,500 men and women would disagree with him on general principles. The problem is the Bush administration's record of turning good ideas into horrible realities in the past, and deep pessimism in the Middle East about the possibilities he has left open for the future.
Looking at Iraq, the peace process, Lebanon, the growing strength of Iran, the continued deterioration of Somalia, the potential disintegration of Sudan, not to mention the vast decline in the value of the dollar and the faltering global economy, the participants at the forum knew only too well they were halfway to hell on roads paved with George W. Bush's good intentions:
Thou shalt democratize. The American "ideals of liberty and justice," which Bush called "as old as the pyramids" have "sparked a revolution across much of the world," he said. Ignoring past American support for iron-fisted dictatorships in Chile, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea, he cited them all as salient examples of good news to come … maybe. "I strongly believe that if leaders like those of you in this room act with vision and resolve," he said with carefully hedged condescension, "the first half of the 21st century can be the time when similar advances reach the Middle East." But the truth is that practical politics and American priorities soon bury such pronouncements like a sphinx under the sand. Egyptian President-for-Life Hosni Mubarak is a case in point. Three years ago the White House put him under enormous pressure to make a better show opening up his system to opposition and elections. But Washington soon realized it needed Mubarak's reliability more than democratic credibility. "I continue to hope that Egypt can lead the region in political reform," Bush said lamely.
Thou shalt not stifle free speech. Bush cited polls showing that well over 90 percent of the people in Lebanon, Egypt and Iran support free speech. But Bush's record of listening to what they say—whether opposing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land or the American invasion of Iraq—suggests that even if they're free to talk he's more than willing to ignore them.
Thou shalt release prisoners of conscience. "Too often in the Middle East politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail," said Bush in a choice turn of phrase that aptly describes Egypt, in fact, as well as most other Arab countries. But it's an incompetent statesman who offers a gratuitous insult to his host with no strategy to effect actual change. You either raise a ruckus and up the stakes, or you work very quietly and very hard. In any case, it's doubtful Bush's posturing will do much good for Ayman Nour, the former Egyptian opposition candidate for president (and husband of my longtime colleague Gameela Ismail) who has languished in prison on trumped-up charges for two and a half years.
And then there's the problematic record that Bush himself established with prisoners at Bagram, Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. And, let us not forget, there was also the CIA "rendition" of suspected terrorists to the tender mercies of Egyptian and other interrogators. Bush's conscience didn't seem too concerned about those prisoners. "The problem is he has no moral ground to stand on," said one of Egypt's most prominent businessmen.
Thou shalt have free trade. At the World Economic Forum, famous for its hallelujah chorus singing the praises of globalization, Bush was preaching to the choir. But even here, the crisis in food prices and food supplies is raising questions about just how brutal you want to be about the free movement of goods and services, wealth and starvation.
Thou shalt educate. Arab leaders, especially those in the private sector, know very well the need to provide better schooling for a population where illiteracy is a persistent curse. But Bush, who tends to see everything through the lens of his Global War on Terror, felt constrained to insist on "primary schools that teach basic skills, such as reading and math, rather than indoctrinating children with ideologies of hatred." Even in Pakistan, where such madrassas are notorious, they are far outnumbered by other schools focused on reading, writing and arithmetic.
Thou shalt give women equal rights and opportunities. The audience at Sharm al-Sheikh, which included several powerful women, from a Saudi tycoon to Egyptian First Lady Susan Mubarak and American First Lady Laura Bush, found this an easy enough proposition to accept. But the Arab women didn't need Bush to tell them about this challenge, and they don't see what he's doing to help.
The Israelis and Palestinians shalt have a two-state solution. To Bush's credit, he was the first American president to make this the explicit cornerstone of his policy in the Middle East peace process, and he did that way back in 2001. But having offered his grand pronouncement for peace, he let the process languish and eventually pushed for Palestinian elections ("Thou shall democratize"), which brought Hamas to power. On the shores of the Red Sea this week there was hopeful speculation about some very secret deal in the works between the ineffectual Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the under-investigation-for-corruption Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, but that sort of thing is less in the realm of politics than of miracles.
Thou shalt not talk to Hamas. "All nations in the region must stand together in confronting Hamas, which is attempting to undermine efforts at peace with acts of terror and violence," said Bush. That's true enough when it comes to the group's gruesome fireworks. But most nations in the region think it's a mistake to isolate the most coherent and powerful force in Palestinian politics. Even France, which has been very supportive of Bush's Middle East policies since President Nicolas Sarkozy took over last year, announced this week that it was indeed in contact with Hamas.
Thou shalt not talk to Iran. The Bush administration has been badly outmaneuvered in Iraq, in nuclear diplomacy and in Lebanon by the regime of an alleged lunatic, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Refusing to talk, under such circumstances, smacks of petulance more than puissance.
Thou shalt not let Iran get nuclear weapons. "To allow the world's leading sponsor of terror to gain the world's deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable betrayal of future generations," said Bush. "For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon." More ringing phrases that fell flat as Bush waited for reluctant applause. The problem here is that everyone in the region remembers Bush arguing that for the sake of peace he had to go to war in Iraq, and nobody trusts him not to screw up Iran just as badly.
"May God be with you on the journey," Bush concluded, "and the United States of America always will be at your side." At this point, unfortunately, that sounds as much like a threat as a promise.