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Bush’s Bahraini Fumble

In case you had any doubts, the primary target of President Bush’s eight-day sojourn in the Middle East remains Iran. Whether the President is pitching Israeli-Palestinian peace or promoting political liberalization, rolling back Iranian ascendancy is the name of the game. Bush’s strategic reasoning is as follows: if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved and liberal democracy proliferates, Arabs will reject the radical extremism that stands at the heart of Tehran’s political program and stifle Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony.

Yet in pursuing this strategy, Bush has sought out the wrong audiences. Rather than reaching out to Arab publics and explaining the benefits of peace and democracy, the President has presented his thesis before Arab monarchs and their ministers—the very individuals who have long thwarted democratic movements and undermined Arab-Israeli peace. In this vein, Bush’s praise for Israel as having “raised a thriving modern society out of rocky soil” before an Abu Dhabi conference of government and business leaders likely fell on deaf ears, while his declaration that Iran is “the world’s leading state sponsor of terror” predictably elicited no response—business-conscious U.A.E. is Iran’s biggest trading partner.

But perhaps Bush’s greatest misfire came in Bahrain. With an entrenched Sunni monarchy that rules over a 70 percent Shiite majority, Bahrain might have provided a remarkable opportunity for Bush to engage a key Shiite population and promote the benefits of human rights and democracy over the religious extremism that Iran embodies. Yet Bush did the opposite, grinning with King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa, whom he lauded as standing “on the forefront of providing hope for people through democracy.” Any Shiite paying attention would have been dumbfounded. Bahrain’s constitutional monarchy holds half of all cabinet positions; controls all of the major security services posts; and appoints the upper chamber of the legislature, which has veto power over the elected lower chamber. How can an American president term such arrangements democratic?

Granted, Bush probably had little hope of winning over Bahrain’s Shiites, some of whom protested his visit in the days prior to his arrival. Indeed, having personally traveled in Bahrain, I can attest to the prevalence of Khomeini posters and pro-Hezbollah slogans that line the streets in the heart of Manama—good indicators of anti-American hostilities that few presidential addresses could reasonably overcome.

Still, for all the lip service that the Bush administration has given to empowering Arab publics through democracy, it would have been refreshing to see the President just once address some of his harshest Arab critics face-to-face, rather than continually talking over them. After all, if the freedom agenda holds the key to liberating the region from Iranian hegemony, then Bush has wasted precious time praising democracy to an unpopular monarchy.