US-President Bush in the Middle East

German Expert: Bush Waited Too Long With Mideast Trip

As US President George W. Bush embarks on a multi-country tour of the Middle East, a prominent German expert says that his chances to achieve something are fairly slim

US President George W. Bush (Photo: AP)
Will he achieve something once he gets down?

​​What's the point of President Bush's visit to Israel? Is it just a symbolic visit or can Bush actually still achieve something?

Udo Steinbach: Well, the US president at least wants to show that he's now set on solving the biggest problem in the Middle East. We've waited a long time for him to do something. Then came Annapolis. That was just a mediocre success, and that's why the president is now trying to break the stalemate. His chances aren't very good, though. He's waited too long and too much has happened in the Middle East for this to be resolved in a limited time period.

Many Arab countries were angry about Israel's settlement policy at the Annapolis conference. Will Israel make concessions in this regard?

Steinbach: Different signals are coming out of Jerusalem in that respect. The construction of settlements hasn't been stopped, but the Israeli prime minister has announced that some outposts will be cleared and that no new settlements will be built. But he's also said that existing settlements, such as Ma'ale Adumim near Jerusalem, will be expanded. One thing is certain: If the American president does not manage to get Israel to take a clear stance on this, we can forget about the whole visit. That would mean that America's influence on Israel is practically zero.

Bush will visit Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, in order to back this Arab alliance against Iran as the hegemonic power in the region. What's your view on the situation?

Professor Udo Steinbach (Photo: Picture-Alliance / akg-images)
Udo Steinbach is one of Germany's leading Middle East experts

​​Steinbach: That concept has been around for quite some time. It means that people are trying to form an alliance of the moderate Arab states on the one hand, i.e. those present at Annapolis, and Israel on the other. But immediately following the return of Arab politicians from Annapolis, we've witnessed something very strange and very telling: The Iranian President Ahmadinejad was invited to the annual meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This means that the Arab states don't trust the Americans; they don't have faith in Bush's ability to be successful with his policies. They choose their own routes and one of them leads them towards Iran rather than letting Americans dictate a policy of isolating Iran.

Bush's standing in Egypt, the most important Arab country, has fallen. Is there a rapprochement between Cairo and Tehran? What kind of consequences would this have?

Ahmadinejad (right) with Arab leaders at the GCC meeting in December (Photo: AP)
Ahmadinejad (right) with Arab leaders at the GCC meeting in December

​​Steinbach: This is a development that's been going on for a while. Iran and Egypt in particular are moving closer together. This has been blocked again and again and there won't be a breakthrough any time soon. But, again, the American plan to unite the Arab world from the Gulf to Egypt against Iran, and especially in an alliance with Israel, will not work, especially since relations between Washington and Cairo have deteriorated in the last couple of years.

There are speculations that Bush could visit Iraq and Lebanon. What kind of perspectives are there for a post-Bush Iraq?

Steinbach: The current American administration is convinced that it moved in the right direction when it increased the troops in Iraq last spring. Indeed there's less violence and the American president could try now to expand the concept to end the conflict in Iraq. We don't know what would happen under a new administration -- especially Clinton and Obama have sent out different signals. But one thing is clear: The conflict cannot be ended in 24 or 36 months, even under a new administration. We'll see how things go with Lebanon. Bush's visit could help to move things along as the country is facing the big problem of electing a new president. The American influence in Beirut could indeed break the current stalemate in this regard.

What's the legacy of eight years of Bush in the Arab world?

US President Bush with Soldiers (Photo: AP)
Even without Bush, US soldiers are bound to stay in Iraq for quite some time

​​Steinbach: A far-reaching chaos. America's leadership role, her role as a policing power in the Near and Middle East, a role that she played over decades, is over. America has suffered a great loss of confidence, especially among its closest friends. The fact that Arabs are moving closer to Iran rather than trusting American protection is telling. This poses the increased threat of a new chaos originating in Iran or the Palestinian conflict or Lebanon.

What can the Europeans do?

Steinbach: The Europeans have probably wasted their chances in the last couple of years. We've seen for a long time that there's a vacuum in the Middle East that's been left behind by the United States, the current administration. Europe was called on to fill it, the Arabs had expectations. But it wasn't possible to formulate a unified European policy and that's why we have to be skeptical whether the Europeans will manage to achieve what the Americans haven't as far as Palestinians and Israelis are concerned.

Eva Usi

© Deutsche Welle 2008

Middle East expert Udo Steinbach until recently headed the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies in Hamburg. He is now a professor at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies at Marburg University.

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