WASHINGTON — President George W. Bush delivered a broad and upbeat defense of his Mideast policies on Friday, yet cautioned that President-elect Barack Obama will inherit threats from Iran's nuclear programs, an unfinished Israeli-Palestinian peace accord and a fragile democracy in Iraq.
Bush said his administration has been "ambitious in vision, bold in action and firm in purpose" _ although not always popular _ in its approach to the volatile region. Some efforts have not always gone according to plan, and in some areas the administration has fallen short of its goals, he said in a speech at the annual Saban Forum, a gathering on Middle East policy sponsored by the Brookings Institution.
"For example, the fight in Iraq has been longer and more costly than expected," Bush said. "The reluctance of entrenched regimes to open their political systems has been disappointing, and there have been unfortunate setbacks at key points in the peace" talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Still, Bush proclaimed that the Mideast was a freer, more hopeful place today than it was when he took office in 2001. He cited examples: The Lebanese are free from Syria's military occupation; Libya's nuclear weapons equipment is locked away in Oak Ridge, Tenn.; United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are emerging as centers of commerce; Iran is facing greater pressure from the international community than ever before; and the threat from terrorist organizations like al-Qaida has been curtailed.
Administration critics say Bush's view of the region is rosier than reality.
"If you look down the challenges that President Obama will face, he will have to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process almost from the ground up," said Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "He will be dealing with an unstable Iraq, subject to growing Iranian influence, and an al-Qaida, which has been sharply weakened, but not defeated."
"I can't think of a public opinion poll that does not show a sharp deterioration in the U.S. position in the Middle East," Cordesman said, characterizing Bush's remarks as an attempt at "spinning a foreign policy legacy from hell."
On Iraq, Bush defended the U.S.-led invasion on grounds the world could not have risked leaving Saddam Hussein's power unchecked. The president said that while it's true that Saddam was not connected to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the decision to oust him cannot be viewed in isolation.
"In a world where terrorists armed with box cutters had just killed nearly 3,000 people, America had to decide whether we could tolerate a sworn enemy that acted belligerently, that supported terror and that intelligence agencies around the world believed had weapons of mass destruction," Bush said, referring to intelligence reports that later proved false.
"It was clear to me, it was clear to members of both political parties, and to many leaders around the world that after Sept. 11, that was a risk we could not afford to take," the president said about the Iraq war, which has claimed the lives of more than 4,200 U.S. military personnel.
Bush called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the most "vexing" problem in the region.
He noted that he was the first U.S. president to call for a Palestinian state and said he sees progress toward reaching a two-state solution. The Israelis and Palestinians agreed last November at a meeting in Annapolis, Md., to reach some agreement by the end of the year. But after months of publicly insisting that an agreement could still be forged, the Bush administration has conceded that it will hand the fragile, unfinished U.S.-backed peace effort to Obama.
More than 180 people attended Bush's speech, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and members of Congress.