Leading article: A belated awakening to Middle East obligations

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The Independent Online

Given how central the Middle East has been to US foreign policy in recent decades, it is remarkable that it has taken George Bush the best part of seven years to make his first visit to Israel as President. There have, of course, been extenuating circumstances: the preoccupation with terrorism and Afghanistan after the attacks of 11 September 2001; the ill-conceived and mismanaged war in Iraq; and Mr Bush's own home-body temperament. Even at the best of times, he was a notoriously reluctant traveller.

That he begins his last full year in the White House with a tour that will take him not just to Israel, but to the West Bank and most of the other key countries in the region as well, however, is telling. It testifies to concern in the Bush camp both about the modesty of his achievements generally as a two-term President, and about the lack of progress made specifically in the Middle East.

Mr Bush came to office inheriting Bill Clinton's highly active, but ultimately failed, peace initiative. Not entirely through his own fault Palestinian disarray and Ariel Sharon's departure from the political scene played their part Mr Bush failed to take his predecessor's opening further. The Middle East was a victim of the "anything but Clinton" approach to policy-making adopted by Mr Bush in his first term; the rapprochement with North Korea was another. Valuable progress was jettisoned even before the 9/11 terrorists struck.

Nor, so far as the Middle East was concerned, was there any lack of prompting. Tony Blair's foreign policy had many faults, his lop-sided alliance with Mr Bush in the "war on terror" being perhaps the most egregious. In his repeated attempts to persuade Mr Bush that 9/11 and Iranian sabre-rattling were causes, as well as effects, of the unresolved Middle East conflict, however, he was absolutely right. And his urging was not completely without result. George Bush became the first US President to accept a Palestinian state.

It may be hard now to remember what shockwaves were generated by Mr Bush's statement of 24 July 2002 that a Middle East solution should entail "two states, living side by side in peace and security". For most Europeans the two-state solution had long been regarded as almost so obvious that it did not need restating. For a US President, though, this was a first. Alas, most of the good this recognition might have done US diplomacy in the region was undone nine months later when the US invaded Iraq.

The Annapolis conference in November was designed to signal a new start in US peace-making in the region. The presidential progress that begins in Israel and concludes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt is proof that Mr Bush now wants to be seen associating himself personally with that mission and bringing the full weight of his office to bear.

By now, however, that weight is considerably less than it once was. Attention, at home and abroad, is already shifting to the process of electing his successor. The foreign policy failures strewn all around the Bush White House the ill-defined engagement in Afghanistan, the costly war in Iraq, the resurgence of Iran in the region, and the soaring price of oil hardly enhance the President's authority.

Yet they may also make him hungrier for success. And while there is irony in the fact that he finds himself looking for it in the very same place as Bill Clinton, he is in one way more fortunate. Attendance at Annapolis, which included senior Syrians, suggested a new appetite for US diplomacy in the region. If he is to make progress, though, Mr Bush will have to show the sort of vision and purpose in peace-making that he has hitherto applied only to the pursuit of war.

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