George Bush's magical mystery tour of the Middle East found him inside the insanely opulent Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi Sunday where he delivered his much-anticipated "I Have a Mirage" speech (you gotta see that hotel to believe it!).
Billed as an effort to take his Middle East "Freedom Agenda" off of life support and convince his Middle East audience that democracy is the true path to paradise on earth, Bush could not help but transform what was supposed to be an "uplifting" address into a dire warning that Iran constituted the biggest threat to the Arab world.
Mixing the threat of Iran with a call on Arabs to embrace democracy has a certain oil vs. water quality to it. The problem (like so many ways of the region that remain impenetrably mysterious to this White House) is that most Arabs believe that Bush, rather than Ahmadenijad, or even Bin Laden, is the greatest threat to Middle East peace.
Most Arabs don't understand how Bush can expect to coax them into some sort of an anti-Iran alliance when our National Intelligence Estimate on Iran -- widely disseminated throughout the Arab world -- appeared to discredit Iran as a nuclear threat. And, not to forget, most Arabs do not consider themselves victims of Iranian state-sponsored terrorism (and don't also seem to care one iota that that their fellow Muslims in Iraq, or Lebanon happen to be targeted by Iran's mullahs). As long as those Revolutionary Guards are instigating terror against Israel, well, that's none of their business, I guess.
In a region where Israel is the only true democracy, Bush added another touch of incredulity to his tour when he stated: "To the people of the Middle East,. we hear your cries for justice."
He and his Secretary of State must surely suffer from oft-convenient lapses of auditory reception.
When Egypt's autocratic ruler, Hosni Mubarak tossed Ayman Nour into a dungeon -- the only certifiably, moderate, secular democrat who dared challenge him in his reelection campaign -- Condi Rice just happened to be at a loss for democracy-inspiring words when she met Mubarak in in February, 2006 after a kangaroo court sentenced Nour to 5 years in prison. Best, according to Rice's conduct, not to mix democracy with other, more urgent agendas she has with Mubarak. So much for "...we hear your cries..."
In Saudi Arabia, when one of the nation's young, moderate critics of the House of Saud blogs an occasional webslinger and is picked up by the religious police, Rice must have had her IPOD turned up too high.
Need more examples...well, just read the State Department's 2006 Human Rights reports on Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc. etc., etc.
Arabs have long become accustomed to hearing Bush and Rice pontificate about democracy in the Middle East. But to most Arabs, Exhibit #1 of America's neocon-noble attempt at democracy happened to sadly descend into the carnage that has wracked Iraq since 2003, and like quicksand before an oasis, Arabs are quick to exclaim "laa shukran" (no thanks).
Indeed, the sad commentary is that any Arab that has been seen embracing American democracy assistance has found him or herself victimized, ostracized, and publicly ridiculed due to Bush's low standing even among moderate Arabs (yes, my friends, there are tens of millions of moderate Arabs who yearn for more open, just societies).
If we could only find a way to galvanize them into a real force for change against extremism.
It's taken a terribly long time for Rice -- no expert on the Middle East either before, during, or after her 7th year in this administration -- to understand that "elections" do not constitute "democracy." So inserted into Bush's speech was a call for the development of strong civil institutions upon which to build the foundations of democracy.
Some Middle East countries, such as Morocco and Jordan, as well as several Gulf States, have begun doing just that -- building independent, non-corrupted judiciaries, and civic institutions. But where it really counts -- in Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- such civil institutions remain mirages.
It will take a new president with the credibility of not being this president, to restore some faith and confidence in America's word in the Middle East.
How important is that?
When you come to appreciate, as I have long understood, that the sooner America's full faith and credit are inspirational once again to galvanize the voices of Arab moderates to have the courage to stand up to their local extremists, well then, you will hear me declare: "I have a dream."