24 Oct, Sunday
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Bush’s Middle East Visit Leaves Arabs Divided

US President George W. Bush (2nd L) holds an umbrella as he is escorted by President of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan upon arrival in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday. (Reuters)

US President George W. Bush’s ongoing visit to the Middle East has left many Arabs with mixed feelings about his legacy and intentions toward the region. The mess that Iraq was left in after the 2003 US invasion, whose motivation was to overthrow the dictator Saddam Hussein, is one of the main things that critics of US meddling in the Mideast have latched on to.

Although Bush did visit the West Bank when he stopped in Israel, he didn’t exactly come out swinging in defense of Palestinian statehood, which left many Palestinians feeling cold and disappointed. They, realistically, were not expecting Bush to bash Israel, but a few firmer words of support would have gone a long way to convince the Arab street that an American administration was finally trying really get a Palestinian state created, instead of just talking about the concept.

Iran is going to figure high on the agenda in Bush’s talks with Gulf leaders, including UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. Unfortunately, as we saw last week with the video and audio released by the US military supposedly showing Iranian boats threatening a US warship in the Straits of Hormuz, the US version was quickly shown to have been a doctored attempt at painting Iran as a bullying aggressor as soon as the Iranians released their own version of the events. One would have hoped that the Bush administration would have already learned that it cannot get away with using such childish tactics, but it seems not to have.

My friend Scott MacLeod has an interesting interview today with a female Bahraini democracy activist on Time.com. Ghada Jamsheer said that she did not protest his visit to Bahrain yesterday because she said that his push for more democracy and transparency had given her and other activists a tiny space to speak out in: “There are a lot of demonstrations. I didn’t participate, because I feel that until Bush started his democracy project, we could not talk in Bahrain. You know what I mean? After he started this, at least we could talk. There are still criminal courts [for dissidents], there is a lot of pressure and dirty games from the royal court against human rights activists, including me. But still, we now have a petite space, we can work in it, we can talk. So I am not against the visit of Bush to Bahrain. I am silent.”

It will be interesting to see what happens to jailed Saudi blogger Fuad al-Farhan when Bush visits Riyadh on Monday and Tuesday.

FORMER US ambassador to Saudi Arabia Wyche Fowler, Jr. had an interesting Op-Ed piece in the Atlanta Constitution-Journal last week arguing that the US is being well-served by the Al-Saud ruling family. He does point out the many things that need improving in the kingdom, such as more rights for women, but his main point is that the democratic alternative would probably be an Islamist government that was rather anti-American.

Which brings us to the conundrum that the Bush administration has found itself in ever since it declared that one of its main goals in the Middle East was the promotion of democracy. In Lebanon, the Shiite Hezbollah gained strength in elections that left it at loggerheads with the current pro-Western government, and in Palestine Hamas won the elections and ended up splitting off itself and Gaza from the pro-Western faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the West Bank. It seems that President Bush should be careful what he wishes for!

THE British writer William Dalrymple who is in love with India and its Moghul history, has been very busy these past few weeks writing basically the same piece for the various American newspapers and magazines about how awful the late Benazir Bhutto was for Pakistan.

Given the bitter rivalry between India and Pakistan, one needs to take anything written about Bhutto by Dalrymple with a huge handful of salt. In his piece for Time magazine he makes the absolutely outlandish claim that Benazir was responsible for the creation of Al-Qaeda by allowing her military to arm the Taleban in Afghanistan when she was in office.

“Had Bhutto taken a more robust stance toward the jihadis her intelligence services were patronizing, it is quite possible that 9/11 would never have happened — and she still would be alive,” writes Dalrymple.

First of all, Benazir denied in the updated edition of her autobiography “Daughter of the East” that she had allowed her military to arm the Taleban. As she points out, the arming of the Taleban started during the term of her predecessor Gen. Zia ul-Haq, the military dictator who overthrew her father and had him hung later. Second, she claims that she couldn’t control everything her military was doing but does document several verbal confrontations with top generals, who obviously just decided to ignore her orders. This speaks volumes to the immense power that the Pakistani military yields over the whole country, and not to some imaginary deal-with-the-devil in which Benazir winked at her military and said “go ahead and arm them.”

I do agree with Dalrymple that Benazir failed as an effective leader during her two terms in office, but that was due to the immense resistance she faced from conservative Pakistanis who could not bear to be ruled by a woman.

Which brings me to the film Charlie Wilson’s War which I saw yesterday. The real story of how a US congressman helped get US and Saudi funding for the mujaheedin fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviet invaders. That aid started out at a measly $5 million in covert funding, and ended up at $1 billion, split evenly between the US and Saudi Arabia. The Soviets were defeated in 1989 when they retreated from Afghanistan, but what it spawned, mainly the Taleban and Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terror group, is not touched upon in the film. Which is a shame really. But then, can we really blame the formation of Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden turning against the US, on the CIA training of Bin Laden and his fighters when they were fighting the Soviets? Not really, as no one ever knew that the killing machines they had helped create would one day turn so savagely on them.