Bush talks tough on Arab reforms

In Egypt, he champions civil liberties, isolating Iran and Syria

May 19, 2008|By McClatchy-Tribune

SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt -- Wrapping up a five-day tour of the Middle East, President Bush told his Arab allies yesterday that expanding democratic reforms and isolating the "spoilers" - Iran and Syria - were crucial steps to a secure and prosperous future for the region.

Bush spoke at the opening of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East in this Red Sea resort town, where 1,500 policymakers have gathered. More lecture than rallying cry, Bush's speech stuck to familiar themes: Iran's nuclear program, more civil liberties, a bigger role for Arab women, free trade and progress on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the end of the year.

Bush, however, heads home to Washington with few, if any, concrete gains on his largely ceremonial tour, his second trip to the Middle East in four months. He failed to win Saudi help with rising oil prices and didn't make any breakthroughs on groundwork for a Palestinian state.

Bush took a strikingly tougher tone with Arab nations than he did with Israel in a speech Thursday before the Knesset. Israel received effusive praise from the president, while Arab nations heard a litany of U.S. criticisms mixed with some compliments.

"Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail," Bush said. "The time has come for nations across the Middle East to abandon these practices, and treat their people with the dignity and respect they deserve."

The stern remarks - in which Bush pointedly included his host, Egypt, as among Arab nations with a long way to go toward democratic reform - was an abrupt departure from the glowing address the president made Thursday before the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. After Israel, Egypt is the top recipient of U.S. aid, receiving an annual package of up to $2 billion, most of which goes to defense spending.

In private remarks, however, Bush voiced confidence yesterday that Israeli and Palestinian leaders can agree upon the outlines of a new Palestine state by the end of this year.

Yet the White House maintains that Bush gained confidence in a series of private talks with Mideast leaders during this journey - Israeli, Palestinian, Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian - that the outlines of a new state can be drawn by the end of his own presidency. Without elaborating on secretive talks, the administration cited "tangible progress on hard issues" during the past few days, leaving the door open to another Bush visit to Israel, the third this year, before he leaves office in January.

"A peace agreement is in the Palestinians' interests, it is in Israel's interest, it is in Arab states' interests, and it is in the world's interest," Bush said in an address to the forum. "And I firmly believe that with leadership and courage, we can reach that peace agreement this year."

Bush also took the opportunity to lash out again at Iran, wagering that he'd find sympathetic ears in this audience of mostly Sunni Muslim Arabs, many of whom share the U.S. administration's concerns over the growing regional influence of the Persian, Shiite Muslim theocracy in Tehran.

Bush asked the Islamic world to stand by the United States in efforts to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. The Iranian government maintains that its burgeoning nuclear program is solely for civilian purposes such as generating electricity.

Bush's tough talk on Iran drew only scattered applause. While many Arab states are alarmed at Iran's sway in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, leaders have said they're even more fearful of a pre-emptive U.S. strike against Tehran that almost certainly would lead to an Iranian retaliation with the potential to ripple across the Middle East.

"This is an official attitude of President Bush. We have heard it many times," Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite who belongs to an Iranian-backed political party, told journalists after the speech. "The region needs more dialogue, more comprehension, more working together against terrorism. Working together also for peace."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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