Iran, Peace Top Agenda for Bush's Mideast Trip

On his tour this week, President Bush will wrestle with stalled peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis and the continued standoff with Iran. Tamara Whittes of the Brookings Institution looks at the presidential itinerary.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Rachel, we're going to ask you to stick around…

RACHEL MARTIN: Okay.

STEWART: …because everybody knows that President Bush - well, we've been talking about the presidential race so much, but he's still President Bush.

DANIEL HOLLOWAY, host:

Yeah, we still have a president.

MARTIN: Indeed.

STEWART: And he still has work to do.

MARTIN: Indeed. A lot.

HOLLOWAY: A lot of work.

STEWART: And he has traveled to Israel today for a weeklong visit to the Middle East. And it's his first trip to Israel since taking office. He is there to hopefully give a little push to the stalled Mideast peace process. He's meeting with Arab leaders about what the president has characterized as a growing international threat posed by Iran.

Now, Rachel, you've been doing a little bit of leg work on this story, right?

MARTIN: A little bit. Yes, this is a big trip.

This is President Bush's first trip to Israel. He's talking with many different Arab leaders who have helped with the war in Iraq. He's going to be talking about Iran. I spoke with Tamara Wittes yesterday. She's a senior fellow with the Saban Institute of Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. And I asked her what this tour means for Bush and a more -American foreign policy in the region.

Ms. TAMARA WITTES (Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy-Brookings Institution): You know, I think the core of this trip is reassurance in both directions. I think President Bush is trying to reassure the Arab states and the Israelis of his commitment - first, to the Arab-Israeli peace process, and second, to staying in Iraq and trying to promote stability there, at least through the end of his term. I think the actors in the region are very aware of the political mood here in the U.S. - the desire to withdraw troops from Iraq. And they're very, very worried about what that might mean for them. So reassurance from Bush to the region.

And also, I think he's seeking some reassurance from them on more specific objectives. From the Israelis and Palestinians, he's hoping to see them get past their staring contest and delve into the substance of the negotiations. And from the Arab states, he's looking for some commitments with regard to Iraq, and also confrontation with Iran over its regional role.

MARTIN: Let's drill down a little bit on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You say that this is going to be, in part, about getting the two parties to cease this staring contest as it were, as you describe it. What realistically do you expect to come from this? Will he get real results from this visit?

Ms. WITTES: Honestly, I'm not optimistic. I think that there are a lot of barriers to progress in the Israeli-Palestinian talks. That said, there's something about having the U.S. president in the room with you, knocking heads together. It tends to get things done. If he can't do it, in other words, nobody can. Events on the ground tend to take over what's happening at the diplomatic level. So maybe with the president coming in, he can get the two leaders together, isolate them a bit from their domestic pressures and see if they can make some diplomatic progress.

MARTIN: Now, this is Bush's first presidential visit to Israel. What does that say, if anything, in your opinion, about where the Middle East has fit into the Bush administration's foreign policy objectives?

Ms. WITTES: This president came into office swearing off personal engagement in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, and looking at the experience of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who was working for that objective literally up until his last day in office…

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WITTES: …and said, well, I don't think that that was a wise investment of presidential capital. I'm not going to do that. I'm going let the parties sort of stew in their own juices. If they can't do it themselves, I'm not going to dive then and try to save them.

What's happened over the last seven years is that Bush has realized the extent to which conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and, more broadly, between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors - really does purvey the mood of the entire region. And it's related to problems that the U.S. is facing in other parts of the region.

So I think that he has come around to personal engagement in this peace process, perhaps against his own inclination, but with a recognition that it's deeply wrapped up with problems like Iraq and Iran that he does want to solve. And therefore, it really demands his attention.

MARTIN: As you pointed out, we have seen this before. It's a bit of deja vu -U.S. presidents on their way out who look to make a dent in the Middle East peace process as they're out the door. Why? Why is that conflict something that they feel they have to touch one more time?

Ms. WITTES: You know, I think that a number of U.S. presidents have felt the pull of Middle East peace as a legacy. I really don't think that's what Bush is doing here. I don't think he's going in with any great hope about the prospects for success in this peace process.

On the other hand, he was the first American president to make it officially U.S. policy to support the establishment of a Palestinian state. And I think he's quite aware that many people in the region question the degree of his commitment to that policy, given that he hasn't really done anything to advance that goal during his time in office. So this is a credibility question for him, I think, more than it's a legacy question.

MARTIN: I want to step away from Palestine and Israel to talk a little bit broader about the visit as a whole. The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan has had indelible effects on that country's political process and situation. How is this current situation in Pakistan going to inform Bush's visit to the region?

Ms. WITTES: You know, I'm glad you brought that up. I think that in many ways, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is going to hang like a shadow over this entire trip - not only because of what it means for Pakistan and the fact that Pakistan is a close ally - not only of the United States, but of a number of America's Arab partners - but also because of what it represents. I think for a number of Arab leaders, frankly, they look at Musharraf and the American pressure for democracy in Pakistan and say to themselves there but for the grace of God, go I, in a sense.

They feel that they themselves are facing some of the same domestic pressures that Musharraf is facing, and some of the same risks of instability. And so they're hoping that when crunch time comes, the U.S. will be there for them. But given the pressure that the Bush administration put on Musharraf when he declared his state of emergency at the end of last year, I think they're very worried about the degree of American commitment to their stability and to their regimes. And they're going to be asking some tough questions of Bush about that when he goes to the Gulf, in particular.

MARTIN: That was Tamara Wittes, senior fellow with the Saban Institute at Brookings in Washington, D.C.

There's clearly a lot on the agenda for President Bush - Middle East peace, growing tensions with Iran, tensions over the nuclear program there - and we saw that rhetoric against Iran ramp up this week ahead of the trip. It's also interesting to note that many folks think that he'll be making a (unintelligible) to Baghdad during this trip. It would not be surprising, as it were.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: We shall see. We'll be on that of it. Hey, Rachel, thanks a lot.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.