BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week, President Bush returned from the Middle East, where he has been touring with a three-point agenda — peace, Iran, and oil – or, as some may have heard it, Iran, Iran and Iran.
The Week’s Susan Caskie has been following the commentaries from a uniformly skeptical – no, make that scornful – Mideast and Persian Gulf press. Susan, welcome back to the show. SUSAN CASKIE: Thanks. It’s good to be here. BOB GARFIELD: Let's start with Iran. Despite the recent NIE, the National Intelligence Estimate, concluding that Iran halted nuclear weapons research in 2005, the President used his trip to wave more red flags about what he called the Iranian threat to the region and the world. How did that go over? SUSAN CASKIE: You said “scornful.” That’s a good word to use. The Iranian press was stressing the entire time that while Bush was touring the region, Mohamed ElBaradei, who’s the head of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, was actually in Tehran meeting with a bunch of Iranian bigwigs.
And in editorial after editorial, they're saying we have concluded a new agreement to lay to rest all issues in the next four weeks, and therefore, you know, Bush is just spouting empty propaganda.
But the interesting thing was that that was echoed in the Arab world. There were plenty of Arab newspapers that agreed and said, yes, we too think that when Bush says that Iran is a threat, he has no leg to stand on. BOB GARFIELD: And this is interesting, because they are in the very region that is presumably most threatened by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. SUSAN CASKIE: What was interesting about the reaction was that much of the skepticism came from newspapers in countries that are U.S. allies – Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. One Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram in a commentary by Imad Uryan, he said the speech was, in fact, a declaration of war, reflecting the continuation of current U.S. administration desire to devour Iran militarily.
And then in a Jordanian paper, Al Rai, an editorial said, “We do not underestimate the threat of Iranian nuclear armament or that of the Iranian role in the region. But we cannot accept Bush’s attempt to promote the Iranian danger as more severe than the Israeli danger or to depict Iran as an alternative enemy to the Arabs.”
And that was a theme that I saw in several different newspapers across the region, saying, you know, Bush has come here and he’s trying to tell us that Iran is our enemy, but we all really know that Israel is the enemy, and we won't let him tell us any different. BOB GARFIELD: Let's turn to President Bush’s attempts in Israel and Palestine to scramble to get a Palestinian state formed by the end of 2008, just as he’s turning out the lights on his presidency. The reaction from the Arab press, though, was simple incredulousness, eh? SUSAN CASKIE: It was. In fact, it seems like in the Arab press, President Bush cannot catch a break right now. He was the first president to use the term “occupation.” Several newspapers commented on his use of the word, but, in fact, as one, Saudi Arabia’s Arab News, said “We should be excited by his call for an end to the Israeli occupation, all the more so because occupation is a word so rarely used by the Americans.”
But then the editorial went on to say, “Unfortunately [LAUGHS] we can be absolutely certain that Washington is not going to exert the pressure needed to force the Israelis to make concessions, that President Bush simply does not have the clout right now.” BOB GARFIELD: In fact, I actually read that piece and concluded, with the thought, everything he touches turns to dust and ashes. SUSAN CASKIE: Harsh words. Yes. Quote after quote. One Jordanian paper said “He has proved a disaster.” Another Jordanian paper said “Bush: failure.” BOB GARFIELD: The third leg of the stool on this trip was oil. He specifically wanted Saudi Arabia to boost production in order to lower prices and help the flagging U.S. economy. But he kind of did an end run around the oil minister of Saudi Arabia, went directly to the king, sort of hat in hand, if not actually on bended knee. How did that play? SUSAN CASKIE: Well, it didn't turn out so well, because he did not win any concessions on oil prices. And, in fact, the very next day, in a newspaper called Al-Jazeera, which is not the Qatar-based television station but a newspaper in Saudi Arabia of the same name, they had an editorial the next day saying “Well, the U.S. is worried about the hike in oil price. This is why it is in the U.S. interest not to push the region into confrontations, especially regarding the Iranian nuclear file.”
So that was a warning from Saudi Arabia saying, you know, if you’re upset about oil, then you really want peace and stability in the region and we should not be doing any saber-rattling with regard to Iran. BOB GARFIELD: Is it fair to say, then, that the three goals of this trip were sort of mutually contradictory, to make a bogeyman of Iran and to find peace between Israel and Palestine and also to stabilize oil prices? Was that an impossible agenda from the start? SUSAN CASKIE: Well, that’s certainly the way the region saw it. There was one editorial in an Egyptian paper saying “Did you come to spread peace or to sow the seeds of war?” And as far as the third goal of the trip goes, several editorials in leading Arab papers, including Alquds Alarabi, which is out of London, it came out and said, the point of this trip was oil prices. The goal was not peace. The goal was not anything to do with the Palestinians. BOB GARFIELD: Susan, as always, thank you very much. SUSAN CASKIE: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Susan Caskie is the international editor at The Week Magazine.