Remember him? Bush begins Middle East tour

He is the forgotten leader, scorned by his people, disowned by his party. This week George Bush has a last chance to undo the damage done by his presidency as he begins a Middle East tour
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The Independent Online

Voters in the United States may have switched their attention to the contest to find his successor, but George Bush will embark on an ambitious nine-day tour of the Middle East tomorrow in a last desperate effort to salvage a legacy from two terms in office overshadowed by a catastrophic foreign policy that has earned him the distinction of being one of the worst presidents in the country's history.

The Bush legacy will not be peace in the Middle East nor an end to conflict in Iraq, but it could be a political earthquake among voters so dismayed by the mess he has made of America's foreign policy and fearful of economic recession that they are deserting his party in droves.

As he prepares to board a plane for Israel and wrap himself in the tattered flag of victory in Iraq, Mr Bush's real legacy to the American people is evident in the disillusionment on display in New Hampshire. Enraged Republicans are switching sides to support the Democrat Barack Obama. Others are backing Mike Huckabee, the maverick Christian conservative hopeful. Both triumphed in the Iowa caucuses on a platform of "change".

As he boards Air Force One tomorrow night, Mr Bush must be reflecting that, despite the lip service paid in TV debates yesterday to the "Bush doctrine", the last place Republican candidates want to see him is out on the campaign trail. Despite being a lame duck and a political liability, Mr Bush has another year to run in the White House, and he seems determined to rescue some shreds of credibility even as key components of his "war on terror" come spectacularly adrift.

His decision to enlist Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf as a stalwart ally after the attacks of 11 September 2001 has badly backfired. Yesterday it emerged that so concerned is the Bush administration about the prospect of al-Qa'ida gaining access to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal in the wake of Benazir Bhutto's assassination that it wants to authorise the CIA to carry out covert operations inside Pakistan. The resurgence of the Taliban in the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan is yet another concern.

Vice-President Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, met Mr Bush's senior security advisers last Friday to consider authorising CIA operatives to undertake covert operations inside Pakistan's tribal areas where the army has agreed a truce with the Taliban, while bogged down in combatting al-Qa'ida rebels. The Bush administration apparently believes Mr Musharraf is so vulnerable, that he and the new head of the Pakistani armed forces will allow CIA operations on Pakistani territory, despite Mr Musharraf publicly ruling them out. Ms Bhutto's killing will be high on the agenda of Mr Bush's six-nation tour of the Middle East, his National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley confirmed. "I would say that the killing of Benazir Bhutto is another example of extremists recognising the danger that those who advocate democracy represent to their future," he said.

Mr Bush's trip around the Middle East, only decided upon a few weeks ago, is nonetheless the most ambitious of his entire presidency. It marks a belated decision to step up his personal involvement in the quest for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Few see any prospect of securing an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians but remarkably, this is Mr Bush's first visit to Israel or the occupied territories since becoming president seven years ago.

The visit follows a pledge made at the Annapolis conference in November that he would personally assist negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Mr Bush will spend three days in Israel and travel to the West Bank to try to maintain the momentum initiated by the Annapolis conference in which more than 50 countries participated. Long criticised for a Middle East policy that has blindly backed Israel, many observers believed the conference was the most important US effort to try to make progress since President Bill Clinton left office.

"I am looking forward to sitting down with friends and allies to assure them of my commitment to the Middle Eastern peace and to work with them to make sure they are," said Mr Bush. But his chances of securing an agreement before he leaves office in January 2009 are not helped by the split within the Palestinian leadership following elections which has left Gaza under the control of Hamas and the West Bank run by the Palestinian Authority, headed by the President Mahmoud Abbas.

The White House has said no official three-way talks are scheduled at the moment and that Mr Bush's role will be to encourage the two sides. He may also raise the issue of illegal Israeli settlements inside Palestinian territory and control posts.

Mr Bush will also visit Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt where he said he would consult "our partners in the war against extremists".

Reports say another key focus of Mr Bush's trip will be Iran, long accused by the US administration of trying to develop nuclear weapons but which according to a remarkable recent US intelligence report halted any such programmes in 2003.

There is also speculation that Mr Bush could make an unannounced visit to Iraq, where the 2003 US and UK invasion resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, more than 3,900 US troops and 174 British soldiers. Some observers believe the situation in Iraq has improved in recent months, partly as a result of the "surge" of US troops into the country's capital.

Aid groups say almost 50,000 Iraqi refugees returned in the last three months of 2007 though there is debate as to whether that is because of a decrease in violence or because refugees in places such as Syria have, in effect, been ousted. "People are coming because they are desperate," said Said Hakki, president of the Iraqi Red Crescent organisation. "The majority of them are broke or their visas have expired. That's the bottom line."

Remember them? How previous presidents served out their time

Bill Clinton

In 2000, the closing year of his administration, Clinton attempted to address the Arab-Israeli conflict by inviting the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to meet Yasser Arafat at Camp David: the negotiations came to nothing.

George Bush Sr

During his last few days in office in 1992, Bush issued a series of pardons to six former government employees. Among them was the former secretary of state Caspar Weinberger, who was due to stand trial the following January for lying to Congress about his knowledge of arms sales to Iran.

Ronald Reagan

In 1988, Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev for a fourth and final summit conference in Moscow, following the end of the Cold War. By then, Reagan was perceived as a celebrity in Russia, and he gave a speech on free markets.

Jimmy Carter

With only one day of his presidency remaining, Carter finally resolved the painful Iran hostage crisis, freeing the 52 US diplomats who had been held hostage for 444 days. But the damage to his administration had already been done, with Reagan winning a landslide electoral victory.

Gerald Ford

After losing the election to Jimmy Carter, Ford pardoned Iva Toguri D'Aquino "Tokyo Rose" who was convicted of treason for broadcasting pro-Japanese propaganda to US soldiers in the Second World War, and busied himself with his legacy proposing a Presidential Library at the University of Michigan.

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