Tue, Nov 11, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Bush call for Middle East reform an election gambit

POLITICAL QUAGMIRE The US president is trying to shore up confidence in his Iraq policy and the war against terrorism with an eye towards re-election


US President George W. Bush, in speaking out for Arab democracy, is trying to win sympathy for his Iraq policy at home, as much if not more than to reform the Middle East, analysts said.

In Bush's speech last Thursday he challenged countries such as Iran, Syria and Egypt to liberalize their political systems so that freedom can reign in the Middle East.

But he was also delivering a message to Americans, who polls show are beginning to doubt the wisdom of the decision to invade Iraq in March, the analysts said.

Arabs greeted the speech with scorn, noting that Bush did not mention the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory or his decision to take the US to war in Iraq.

"The main purpose of the speech is clearly domestic because he now has to put the war in a principled framework," said an Arab diplomat, who asked not to be named.

The US occupation of Iraq has proved far more costly in casualties and money than officials had predicted. The last few weeks have been especially violent, with more than 40 American troops killed since Oct. 20.

Saturday's bombing of a compound housing mainly foreigners in the Saudi capital Riyadh came as a bloody reminder of the breadth of instability in the region. Al-Qaeda was suspected of the attack, which killed at least 17 and injured 120.

Bush is working to shore up confidence in his Iraq policy and his war against terrorism, which could have a big impact on his chances of re-election in November next year.

When it invaded Iraq last March, the Bush administration at first contended that the main aim was to dismantle president Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction and end alleged cooperation between Saddam and al-Qaeda.

Since then, no weapons of mass destruction have been found nor any conclusive evidence of links with al-Qaeda.

The administration then argued that the war was for the good of the Iraqis, who had suffered so much under Saddam. Since then armed opposition to the US has increased and the rising casualties and cost seem to many Americans to outweigh any benefits.

"Bush's message will have more of an audience at home than abroad. Here the message will resonate but in the Middle East they will see it as a distraction from other problems theys are facing," said Middle East expert Shibley Telhami, a senior follow at Washington's Brookings Institution.

Bush's speech adopted many of the talking points of the pro-Israeli neo-conservative group in and around the administration, which believes that a strong foreign policy backed by force is good for the US and Israel.

"The United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East," Bush declared, adding that this strategy required the same energy and persistence the US devoted to post-war Japan and Germany.

In the days following the speech, officials have been unable to give examples of anything that would change in the US approach to the region, which for decades has been dominated by the need to ensure oil supplies and the security of Israel.

Asked how Washington would implement the strategy, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher cited old programs including the Millennium Challenge Account, which rewards poor countries for good governance, and the Middle East Partnership Initiative, which backs civil society projects throughout the region.

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