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Bush's Kiss of Death

By Robert Parry
March 11, 2005

George W. Bush’s grab to take credit for a few democratic openings in the Middle East has endangered the region’s reformers while his two-year-old military adventure in Iraq continues to founder, a disaster sinking in the blood of Iraqi citizens and U.S. soldiers.

That grim assessment is, of course, not the imagery favored by the U.S. news media as it resumes its role of courtier press, lavishing praise on Bush and his neoconservative advisers as heroic visionaries leading the Middle East to freedom.

But the American press corps again has gone overboard in its fawning coverage of Bush, much like it did in 2002-2003 when it largely fell for his warnings about an imminent threat from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the discovery of no WMD stockpiles, the U.S. intelligence community came under criticism for a “group-think” that had succumbed to pressure from the White House to hype the danger from Iraq. But the U.S. news media has been equally guilty of “group-think,” both then and now.

Despised Figure

In the latest conventional wisdom about winds of freedom sweeping the Middle East, both mainstream and conservative commentators bought into the notion that Arabs were rallying to Bush’s orations about liberty and finally appreciating his conquest of Iraq. But the reality is that Bush remains one of the region’s most despised figures.

So when Bush rushed to center stage ostensibly to urge on thousands of Lebanese demonstrators demanding Syrian military withdrawal – and implicitly to take credit for the developments – the U.S. news media missed the other story: that Bush’s grandstanding was putting those protesters and their cause in danger.

One of the results was a backlash that saw pro-Syrian Hezbollah stage a counter rally of a half million people in Beirut on March 8, denouncing U.S. intervention in Lebanese politics and accusing Washington of regional “terrorism.” This massive outpouring emboldened Lebanon’s parliament to re-elect pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami, who had resigned just nine days earlier in face of the anti-Syrian protests.

The twin developments were a stunning reversal for U.S. policy in Lebanon, putting the country’s political position back almost where it was when the anti-Syrian protests began following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14. The heightened tensions also have complicated the United Nations’ strategy for pressuring Syria to withdraw its remaining 14,000 troops from Lebanon.

Hezbollah, a radical Shiite Muslim party long denounced by the United States as a terrorist organization, was given a chance to demonstrate that Syria's military presence, which began in the 1970s during Lebanon's civil war, has the backing of a significant part of the Lebanese population.

Hezbollah's muscle-flexing also forced another retreat by Washington. “The United States has basically accepted the French view, echoed by others in Europe, that with Hezbollah emerging as such a force in very fractured Lebanon, it is dangerous to antagonize it right now,” according to a New York Times article by Steven R. Weisman. [NYT, March 10, 2005]

An alert U.S. press corps might have pounced on the Bush administration for overplaying its hand, but virtually across the board the U.S. news media had hailed the pre-March 8 developments as vindication of Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the neoconservative strategy of using force to smash the Arab political structure. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocon Amorality” and “Bush’s Neocons Unbridled.”]

French Favored

A wiser course for Bush on Lebanon might have been to stay in the background and let the French take the lead in helping Lebanon hold free elections this spring. A new study of Middle Eastern public opinion by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan found that France has a much better image than the United States and Great Britain, which jointly led the invasion of Iraq.

The survey of opinions in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine found widespread hostility toward the United States and Great Britain, which were viewed as “racist,” “morally decadent” and “imperialistic.” These opinions were not held about France, which opposed the Iraq invasion

Rather than viewing the Bush administration as supporting democracy, large majorities of those questioned disagreed, condemning the United States as a major human rights violator. More than 85 percent in Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Palestine called Bush’s war in Iraq an act of terrorism. In Lebanon, that view was held by 64 percent. [For more on the survey, see Der Spiegel’s online edition, March 9, 2005.] 

So it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that Bush’s attempt to bask in the glory of the Lebanese protests would have provoked a negative reaction in the Middle East. When Bush boasted that “clearly and suddenly, the thaw has begun,” many Arabs immediately grew suspicious that the anti-Syrian demonstrations were just the latest example of U.S. manipulation of politics in a Middle Eastern country.

For more than a half century, the region has experienced these U.S. covert interventions, such as the Iranian coup in 1953 during which CIA officers spread money around the Tehran bazaars to encourage pro-Shah demonstrations. Middle Easterners also know how the United States historically has protected the region’s dictators, such as the Saudi royal family, as part of a Western strategy to ensure a secure supply of oil.

This reality should have given Bush pause before he so publicly embraced the Lebanese protesters. But Bush couldn’t seem to resist the temptation to present himself as a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia, the white man bringing freedom to the Middle East.

Though Bush’s high-profile pronouncements gave him a boost in his political standing at home, his smooch on the cheek of Lebanon’s demonstrators turned out to be a kiss of death – at least in the short term – for their protest movement.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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