Charles Levinson
Usa Today
May 19, 2008 - 5:47pm

President Bush wrapped up his five-day Mideast tour Sunday with little visible progress on either of the main issues he highlighted: rising oil prices and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Instead, Bush was subjected to a wave of criticism as he delivered a lecture to the Arab world on the benefits of democracy.

"This trip was an exclamation point on the fact that the mystique about American power is no longer there," said Steve Clemons, an analyst at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington.

On the final leg of his trip, Bush came to the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheik, where Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak greeted him with a half-dozen soldiers and none of the pomp given Bush on other state visits. Instead, Egypt's state-controlled newspapers slammed the American president in stinging front-page editorials.

"It was clear that America is neither loved nor feared," said Hisham Qassem, a prominent Egyptian newspaper editor and democracy activist who won the National Endowment for Democracy's annual democracy award last fall and visited with Bush in the Oval Office.

"America is deeply concerned about the plight of political prisoners in this region, as well as democratic activists who are intimidated or repressed, newspapers and civil society organizations that are shut down and dissidents whose voices are stifled," Bush said in his speech in Sharm el-Sheik.

The critical tone contrasted with a congratulatory speech he delivered to the Israeli parliament on Thursday.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had dinner with Bush Saturday night, then said Sunday he was "angered" by Bush's speech to the Israeli Knesset because it did not touch enough on Palestinian hopes for statehood.

National security adviser Stephen Hadley assured reporters that there was "tangible progress" in peace negotiations. He declined to be more specific.

Abbas' comments Sunday suggested a deep satisfaction with Washington's role in the peace process, however.

"We do not want the Americans to negotiate on our behalf," Abbas said. Meanwhile, Lebanon's Prime Minister Fuad Saniora canceled a face-to-face meeting with Bush in Egypt to meet instead with leaders from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group that has destabilized Lebanon in recent weeks.

Saniora came to power after hundreds of thousands of Lebanese, inspired in part by Bush's first-term vow to get tough on Mideast dictators, poured into Beirut's streets in 2004 demanding an end to Syria's occupation.

But as Saniora left for his meeting with Hezbollah on Saturday, he criticized Bush for not doing enough to support Lebanon and called on him "to pressure the Israelis to end their occupation."

"Our Arab allies feel they've overinvested in us and we haven't delivered, so now these states are putting distance between themselves and the U.S," Clemons said.

Washington's reputation in the region also has been damaged by its inability to lay out an effective strategy to deal with Iran, said Meyrav Wurmser, director of the Middle East program at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

America's traditional Sunni Arab allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have expressed deep concern over the rise of Iran, which is Shiite-dominated. "The image of weakness, which I think America is giving, is because that despite all the tough talk we're not confronting Iran," she said.

In his speeches during the trip, Bush described a Middle East that included a free and democratic Palestinian state, that was free of Islamist extremist groups like Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and Hamas, and where Arabs across the region lived in free societies.

When Bush first launched his Mideast democratization push in the wake of 9/11, he thought he could achieve those goals by the end of his second term, Wurmser said.

On Sunday, Bush described the goals as predictions for the year 2068.

"Sixty years! Is he kidding?" Qassem said. "I had hoped to see some movement in my lifetime."

"I think those speeches showed that he realizes this is … harder to do than he thought," Wurmser said. "It's not so easy to give these people democracy."


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