President Bush Begins Mideast Trip

Map of Bush Trip i i
Alice Kreit, NPR
Map of Bush Trip
Alice Kreit, NPR
President Bush and Turkish President Abdullah Gul speak to reporters at the White House. i i

President Bush (right) and Turkish President Abdullah Gul speak to reporters after a meeting at the White House on Tuesday. Bush was scheduled to leave for the Middle East later in the day. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images
President Bush and Turkish President Abdullah Gul speak to reporters at the White House.

President Bush (right) and Turkish President Abdullah Gul speak to reporters after a meeting at the White House on Tuesday. Bush was scheduled to leave for the Middle East later in the day.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Bush sets off Tuesday on an eight-day swing through the Middle East.

He's going to visit key Gulf allies to talk about what he sees as a rising Iranian threat, despite a recent intelligence report that says Iran halted a nuclear weapons program. The president is also going to try to nudge Israelis and Palestinians toward peace.

This will be his first trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories as president. It will also mark a change in style.

"After vowing to transform the Middle East, the administration is submitting to it, resorting to the sort of process-driven incremental diplomacy that previous administrations had pursued and that this administration had disdained," says Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he says, is the case in point.

"A friend who used to work in the White House told me this president doesn't like to tee things up; he's a closer. He likes to close deals. And this deal is not ready to be closed," Alterman says.

President Bush says that by the time he leaves office, he thinks he can help the Israelis and Palestinians reach a vision of what a Palestinian state would look like. But he and his staff have played down any expectations of a breakthrough on this trip, saying the visit is mainly about trying to keep up the momentum.

"I will make clear that America is deeply committed to helping both parties realize the historic vision we share: two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," Bush said.

Bush is to meet separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — and squeeze in some tours of the Holy Land.

The second part of the president's trip will be to the Gulf, where he will visit with troops in Kuwait, get an update on Iraq, and visit the U.S. Navy 5th fleet in Bahrain.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley says a key issue in the president's talks with Gulf leaders will be Iran.

"There's a lot of concern in the region about Iran, not all of it expressed publicly. And I think the president is going to want to go and talk privately and quietly to indicate that we understand the challenge that Iran represents to the region, that our friends and allies in the region can count on our commitment to the region and our continued presence in the region," Hadley says.

But Vali Nasr, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University says Gulf leaders are skeptical that Bush knows what he's doing — and doubt a strategy of containing Iran can work.

"The president is going to the Middle East at a very bad time — in a sense that he's going with the aim of trying to sell an old policy without coming up with a new policy to sell, trying to sell an old policy of containment literally right after the Arab governments have signaled they are shifting away from that policy," Nasr says.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was recently invited to a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting and went on the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Egypt also hosted an Iranian envoy recently.

Several analysts say they expect President Bush will be on the receiving end of a lot of lectures about the realities in the Middle East — though all of that in private. CSIS's Anthony Cordesman says many in the region have already written off this president.

"People are going to be polite. They will be accommodating in some ways, but they are well aware that this is not only an election year. It is an election year from an administration that really has no heir that can really speak for the future or run for the future," Cordesman says.

In one recent interview, Bush said he hopes people in the region will remember him as the "guy who was willing to fight extremists .... and who had faith in people to self-govern."

But if this is a trip about burnishing his legacy, he's not expected to change his tune on what he calls the "freedom agenda." That will be the main theme of a speech in the United Arab Emirates.

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