Faith, Freedom and Bling in the Middle East

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Maureen Dowd

January 16, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist

Faith, Freedom and Bling in the Middle East

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia

As a Saudi soldier with a gold sword high-stepped in front of him, President Bush walked slowly beside King Abdullah through the shivery gray mist enveloping the kingdom, following the red carpet leading from Air Force One to the airport terminal.

When the two stepped onto the escalator, the president tenderly reached for the king’s hand, in case the older man needed help. He certainly does need help, but not the kind he is prepared to accept.

It took Mr. Bush almost his entire presidency to embrace diplomacy, but now that he’s in the thick of it, or perhaps the thin of it — given his speed-dating approach to statesmanship — he is kissing and holding hands with kings, princes, emirs, sheiks and presidents all over the Arab world and is trying to persuade them that he is not in a monogamous relationship with the Jews.

His message boiled down to: Iran bad, Israel good, Iraq doing better.

Blessed is the peacemaker who comes bearing a $30 billion package of military aid for Israel and a $20 billion package of Humvees and guided bombs for the Arabs.

Like the slick Hollywood guy in “Annie Hall” who has a notion that he wants to turn into a concept and then develop into an idea, W. has resumed his mantra of having a vision that turns into freedom that could develop into global democracy.

W.’s peace train quickly gave way to the warpath, however, with Mr. Bush devoting a good chunk of time to the unfinished war in Iraq and the possibility of a war with Iran.

In meetings with leaders, he privately pooh-poohed the National Intelligence Estimate asserting that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. On Fox News, he openly broke with intelligence analysts, telling Greta Van Susteren about Iran: “I believe they want a weapon, and I believe that they’re trying to gain the know-how as to how to make a weapon under the guise of a civilian nuclear program.”

Less than a week after the president arrived in the Middle East, three violent eruptions — an Israeli raid killing at least 18 Palestinians, 13 of whom were militants; an American Embassy car bombing in Beirut; and a luxury hotel suicide-bombing in Kabul — underscored how Sisyphean a task he has set for himself.

“This is one of the results of the Bush visit,” said Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, as he went to a Gaza hospital to see the body of his son, a militant killed in the battle. “He encouraged the Israelis to kill our people.”

Arab TV offered an uncomfortable juxtaposition: Al Arabiya running the wretched saga of Gaza children suffering from a lack of food and medicine during the Israeli blockade, blending into the wretched excess scenes of W. being festooned with rapper-level bling from royal hosts flush with gazillions from gouging us on oil.

W.’s 11th-hour bid to save his legacy from being a shattered Iraq — even as the Iraqi defense minister admitted that American troops would be needed to help with internal security until at least 2012 and border defense until at least 2018 — recalled MTV’s “Cribs.”

At a dinner last night in the king’s tentlike retreat, where the 8-foot flat-screen TV in the middle of the room flashed Arab news, the president and his advisers Elliott Abrams and Josh Bolten went native, lounging in floor-length, fur-lined robes, as if they were Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif.

In Abu Dhabi, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan gave the president — dubbed “the Wolf of the Desert” by a Kuwaiti poet — a gigantic necklace made of gold, diamonds, rubies and emeralds, so gaudy and cumbersome that even the Secret Service agent carrying it seemed nonplussed. Here in Saudi Arabia, the king draped W. with an emerald-and-ruby necklace that could have come from Ali Baba’s cave.

Time’s Massimo Calabresi described the Kuwaiti emir’s residence where W. dined Friday as “crass class”: “Loud paintings of harems and the ruling Sabah clan hang near Louis XVI enameled clocks and candlesticks in the long hallways.”

In Abu Dhabi, the president made a less-than-rousing speech about democracy while staying in the less-than-democratic Emirates Palace hotel’s basketball-court-size Ruler’s Suite — an honor reserved for royalty and W. and denied to Elton John, who is coming later this month to play the Palace.

The president’s grandiose room included a ballroom, in case Mr. Bush wanted to practice the tribal sword dancing he has been rather sheepishly doing with some of his hosts, something between Zorba and Zorro. The $3 billion, seven-star, 84,114-square-foot pink marble hotel — said to be the most expensive ever built — would make Trump blush. It glistens with 64,000 square feet of 22-carat gold leaf, 1,000 chandeliers, 20,000 roses changed every day, 200 fountains, a dome higher than St. Peter’s, an archway larger than the Arc de Triomphe, a beach with white sand shipped in from Algeria and a private heliport. The rooms, scattered with rose petals, range from $1,598 to $12,251.

Puddle jumping through Arabia, the president saw his share of falcons in little leather hoods — presumably not a Gitmo reference — and Arabian stallions, including one retired stud from Texas — presumably not a W. reference. But there was a distinct dearth of wives and dissidents.

It does not bode well for the president’s ability to push the Israelis and Palestinians that he has done so little to push Musharraf on catching Osama, despite our $10 billion endowment, or the Saudis on women’s rights and human rights, even with the $20 billion arms package.

At a press conference last night, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, was asked what the president and king had discussed about human rights.

“About what?” the prince repeated flatly.

“Human rights,” Condi prompted.

“Human rights?” the stately prince pondered, before shimmying out of the question.

Though W. has made the issue of the progress of women in the Middle East a central part of “the freedom agenda” — he had a roundtable over the weekend with Kuwaiti women on democracy and development — he doesn’t seem bothered that 17 years after his father protected the Saudis when Saddam invaded Kuwait, Saudi women still can’t drive or publicly display hair or skin and still get beheaded and lashed because of archaic laws. Neither does the female secretary of state of the United States.

“It’s not allowed for ladies to use the gym,” the Marriott desk clerk told me, an American woman in an American franchise traveling with an American president.

W. was strangely upbeat throughout the trip — “Dates put you in a good mood, right?” he joked to reporters yesterday, specifying that he meant the fruit — even though back home the Republican candidates were running from him and clinging to Reagan.

The Saudi big shots I talked to were intrigued that W. is now more in the sway of Condi than Bombs Away Cheney. They admire his intention about making peace, even though they’re skeptical that he has the time or competence to do it; and they’re sure that the Israelis need more of a shove than a nudge.

They are also dubious about his attempts to demonize and isolate Iran.

“We don’t need America to dictate our enemies to us, especially when it’s our neighbor,” said an insider at the Saudi royal court. The Saudis invited the Iranian president, I’m-a-Dinner-Jacket, to their hajj pilgrimage last month.

Saudis and Palestinians grumbled that they find it hard to listen to the president’s high-flown paeans to democracy when he only acknowledges his brand of democracy. When Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood won elections, W. sought to undermine them. The results of the elections were certainly troubling, but is democratization supposed to be about outcomes?

They also think W.’s plan cancels itself out. The Israelis don’t have to stop settlements if rockets are coming in from Gaza, and Abbas, the Palestinian president, can’t stop rockets from going out of an area he does not control.

The president who described himself at Galilee as “a pilgrim” makes peace sound as easy as three faiths sharing, when history has shown that the hardest thing on earth is three faiths sharing.

Asked by ABC’s Terry Moran what he was thinking when he stood on the site where Jesus performed miracles at the Sea of Galilee, W. replied: “I reflected on the story in the New Testament about the calm and the rough seas, because it was on those very seas that the Lord was in the boat with the disciples, and they were worried about the waves and the wind, and the sea calmed. That’s what I reflected on: the calm you can find in putting your faith in a higher power.”

Clearly, the man believes in miracles.

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