President Bush's Air Force One was still airborne on its way back from a six-country, eight-day tour of Middle Eastern capitals when agreements and understandings began to unravel.
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah was noncommittal on pumping more crude oil. With oil near $100 per barrel, all OPEC countries are already siphoning off at full capacity and the desert kingdom's now small extra capacity would be a drop in the global bucket.
The six Gulf states, known as the Gulf Cooperation Council, have already accumulated a cool $1 trillion nest egg — half of which is already assigned to sovereign wealth funds for investment abroad.
Bush's quid for the king's quo was $20 billion worth of high-tech military goodies over the next 10 years (still not authorized by Congress or accepted by the king, who is also shopping in the United Kingdom, France and Russia).
Bush rang the alarm bell about Iran's clear and present nuclear danger, but his diplomatic message had already been overshadowed by last month's National Intelligence Estimate. While his Israeli interlocutors echoed the president's Iranian concerns, Arab heads of state took comfort in the assessment of Washington's intelligence community that said Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program when the United States invaded Iraq.
Bush's explanation that while Iran may have suspended its nuclear activities when it thought the United States might come after Iran after toppling Saddam Hussein, it no doubt resumed as soon as the Iraqi insurgency surfaced. In fact, Tehran fueled the insurgency with sophisticated IED roadside bombs and infiltrated thousands of agents to fan the flames.
The Annapolis "understanding" reached last November requires the Palestinians to "undertake visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt and restrain individuals and groups" from attacking Israel. The Palestinian Authority has no authority over Hamas-run Gaza, where Palestinians went right on lobbing Qassam rockets into Israel's border villages, and Israeli soldiers and fighter bombers launched daily retaliatory raids.
Israel, for its part in the Annapolis bargain, agreed to freeze all settlements and "immediately dismantle settlement outposts since March 2001." While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet this was a solemn obligation, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice added the obligation also included a halt to construction of new housing in Arab East Jerusalem, Israeli opposition gathered its forces against implementation.
Bush also reminded Israelis of the conditions he laid down for the original road map in 2003 for a Palestinian state by 2005: Such a state had to be free of "occupation," a term he has sidestepped in the past, and "contiguous," which means dismantling Israeli settlements that now block direct access between East Jerusalem, the presumed capital of the new Arab state, and the West Bank. The Zionist Organization of America quickly disassociated itself from President Bush's peremptory formulation.
The momentum-building exercise in quick diplomacy never gathered a head of steam beyond Annapolis.
No sooner had Bush moved on to the Gulf to talk up the Iranian threat than one of the partners in Olmert's governing coalition, Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman, walked out, reducing his parliamentary majority to 67 out of 120 seats. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians are willing or able to make the fundamental concessions required for a viable two-state solution.
Bush's principal objective was to convince sheikdoms, emirates and kingdoms (Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) that Iran's nuclear threat will have to be dealt with. The six GCC countries rely on the United States as their principal security guarantor against the ambitious mullahs across the Gulf. At the same time they are fearful Bush will strike Iran's nuclear facilities before he leaves office.
The GCC's military and intelligence establishments see Iran with formidable asymmetrical retaliatory capabilities. This was all too evident when five Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats recently maneuvered in and out of three U.S. warships steaming through the Strait of Hormuz, the channel used to export one-third of the world's daily oil production. Had they been suicide boats, they could have disabled the three U.S. warships, like the USS Cole in Aden in October 2000, stranding them a few miles from the Iranian naval base at Bandar Abbas.
U.S. macro power is helpless against a single micro actor trained in asymmetrical warfare with no return address and looking forward to his reward of 72 virgins in the promised land.
So while Bush talked up Iran as "the world's leading sponsor of terrorism," his princely interlocutors all enjoy, on the surface, friendly relations with Tehran. They even invited Iran's loose-cannon President Ahmadinejad to attend the last GCC heads of state summit. Saudi King Abdullah led him into the conclave holding hands.
When Bush not only warned Abdullah about "the world's leading sponsor of terrorism" but also the "dark rule across the Middle East" that al-Qaida is planning to impose, he may have drawn the wrong conclusion from smiling faces and nodding heads.
Arab culture precludes negative reactions between heads of state.
Arab newspapers and the al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya television networks conveyed the message: Bush is a lame duck who will be blocked by Congress and the intelligence community if he orders airstrikes against Iran.
Bush's customary tough talk about promoting democracy in the Middle East was uttered, but sotto voce. The president's telepathic message: Previous attempts at free elections produced the victory of a terrorist organization in Gaza; chaos in Lebanon, a surge of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; five years of fighting in Iraq.
Free elections in Bahrain, where two-thirds of the population is Shiite and the rulers Sunni, would most probably result in a government that would ask the U.S. Fifth Fleet headquarters in the Gulf to pack up and move to another country.
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