The runup to Bush's trip to the Middle East reminded me very much of Cheney's famous 2002 trip, when all he wanted to talk about was Iraq, and all the Arabs wanted to talk about was the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Bush clearly views the purpose of the trip as mobilizing support for confronting Iran, something in which the Gulf states these days don't seem to have a lot of interest. Most of the Arab media, at least, sees the trip almost exclusively through the Palestinian-Israeli lens. Hardly any other issue rates even a mention in most of the commentary - not Iran, not democracy, not even Iraq.
The coverage largely mirrors the political divide in Arab politics over the last few years. On the one side, you've got the al-Arabiya director Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed (who often gives voice to one part of the Saudi ruling elite) writing a love letter to Bush in al-Sharq al-Awsat which can barely contain his excitement about "the most important visit [by an American President] in fifty years." Despite the sad seven years without a visit, Rashed is overwhelmed that Bush found the time in in his busy schedule to come by. Bush may not have much time left in his term, but he has plenty of minutes to go - and can bring to bear a powerful personality, great experience, a profound vision, and... so on. Only the Palestinian issue is really worth mentioning: Bush's promise to create a Palestinian state, and Saudi willingness to work with him on that goal despite all the other problems. Similar sentiments can be found from Ali Ibrahim (also in al-Sharq al-Awsat), who bravely argues that Bush still has a chance to fulfil his promises about a Palestinian state. Most of the pro-Bush commentary in the Arab media has focused on laying out an array of reasons that Bush will deliver a Palestinian state; very little, if any, has expressed excitement over rallying against Iran.
The influential Egyptian columnist Fahmy Howeydi, on the other hand, pours scorn on the idea that Bush will deliver a Palestinian state: he has already issue quite public guarantees to the Israelis, he writes, which render such an outcome impossible. Abd al-Bari Atwan, editor of al-Quds al-Arabi, yesterday called on Arabs to welcome Bush as a war criminal. Egyptian political scientist Hassan Nafaa writes in al-Hayat that as much as he would love to believe the wonderful claims that Bush was about to finally do something positive in the region, he could find no reason to believe that - all the evidence, he writes, instead points to Bush continuing to pursue the same hostile agenda he's pursued his entire Presidency, and to mouthing empty words on Palestine to gain Arab support against Iran. Mohammed al-Hamadi writes in al-Ittihad (UAE) that Bush had offered the Arabs nothing positive in seven years - why would that change now? And despite the recent charges of the neutering of al-Jazeera, this report at least is full of highly critical Palestinian voices.
Hamadi sounds a theme which runs through several other articles (such as Salah al-Din Hafez in al-Ahram): he hopes that Bush gets more from the meeting than some nice travel photos, and suggests that Bush might talk to some Arabs on the trip and learn a bit about what they actually think. Both point out that Bush would likely learn that not all Arabs are violent terrorists, but that most of them intensely hate his policies towards the region - no matter what his advisers tell him. Hafez and Hamadi both savage Bush over his complete failure to support democracy in the region, a point which his fans in the Saudi media fail to mention.
The overwhelming focus on the Palestinian issue and the virtual silence on both Iran and Iraq strikes me as the most interesting thing in the commentary thus far. The sharp divide between fans and critics of the Bush visit just replicates well-known political divides in the region. The extent of the fawning in the Saudi-dominated media is also notable, I suppose - and was rewarded with an interview on al-Arabiya - but also not that much of a surprise.
Me? I don't expect much from Bush's trip. The time to tour the region getting to know the issues, the countries, and the people was - oh, I don't know, seven years ago? The Annapolis initiative seemed to me DOA, a photo opportunity designed to avoid confronting any serious issues, and nothing which has happened since has made me reconsider. I've already argued that the GCC is largely losing interest in a confrontation with Iran, even if they retain considerable concern about its rising power, and I don't think that Bush declaring his seriousness in person will really tip the tide since I don't think that Arab doubts about American resolve are really the main issue. I don't even expect that he'll get out and meet with many ordinary folks, given the (very real) security concerns. But maybe he will get some nice travel photos, at least.