Bush can still be honest broker in Middle East

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2008, 12:00am

The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States have defined the administration of George W. Bush, for the worse and for too long. Evidence of that can be seen in the consequences of its adoption of unilateralist policies abroad and in its sacrifice of American values, both supposedly justified as part of the so-called 'war on terror'.

In an effort to craft a more positive legacy in his last year in office, President Bush has been trying to do something he should have taken a personal interest in long ago - promoting peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Following the relaunch of talks at a summit in Annapolis, Maryland, late last year at which 50 governments and interest groups were represented, the quest has now taken him to Israel - for the first time in seven years as president - and to Arab neighbours. He says Israel and the Palestinians will sign a peace agreement before he leaves the White House.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, however, are politically weak leaders who will struggle to unite their own sides, let alone resist meddling by interested parties with different agendas. An agreement would be a remarkable achievement for which Mr Bush could claim some credit. It would only be a step towards a two-state solution, but without it there can be no lasting peace in the Middle East.

Alas, Mr Bush himself is a weakened leader who is also part of the problem, and not just because he is a lame-duck president. His political capital remains depleted by a disastrous record in the region, starting with the invasion and tragic occupation of Iraq that squandered international support and sympathy generated by 9/11. Suspicions that the Annapolis summit had a hidden agenda of isolating Iran may be unfounded, but his rallying call to Arab nations to confront what he called Iran's threat to world security fell a little flat after the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had agreed to answer outstanding questions about its nuclear programmes within a month. This came after a US intelligence report found that Iran had halted a nuclear-weapons drive in 2003.

Even if Mr Bush's initiative fails and there is no end in sight to conflict and instability in the Middle East, he can still claim that he has protected his own country from further acts of terrorism. At what price in the end is for history to decide. In the fearful wake of 9/11, Mr Bush and his advisers authorised extraordinary measures that sacrificed American ideals and compromised the nation's moral and political leadership. Its soldiers mistreated prisoners, intelligence agents tortured terrorism suspects and the administration authorised phone-tapping and other spying on Americans without a warrant. Now the US Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into allegations that senior CIA officials destroyed videotapes of the torture of al-Qaeda suspects.

Far from making Americans safer, these measures represent a victory for terror over democracy and the rule of law by undermining respect for the US and its reputation for upholding human rights. This does not make Mr Bush's peace initiative any easier. To Palestinians and Israelis, however, US leadership still represents the best hope of a breakthrough in their conflict. Mr Bush has told Israel that it must give up occupied lands and compensate Palestinians who left or lost their homes, and warned both sides they face difficult decisions on their borders. For the sake of America's image, a better future for a troubled region and international stability, it is to be hoped he is seen to maintain a firm and even hand.