President Bush’s condemnation of Russia as a bullying intimidator in the Georgian conflict struck a hypocritical note in a Middle East that has endured violent reverberations from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and where the sharp White House rhetoric against Moscow echoes what many Arabs feel in turn about the U.S.
Many in the region are angered by what they see as the president’s swaggering style and frequent veiled threats of military force. His administration has been accused of alienating Muslims and instigating turmoil in a misguided war on terrorism.
Now Bush’s spirited criticism of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Georgia has raised derisive smirks among Arab commentators, who say the U.S. president is condemning the same power politics he practices.
Bush should be “too ashamed to speak about the occupation of any country, he is already occupying one,” said Mohammed Sayed Said, editor in chief of the Egyptian independent daily Al Badeel. “U.S. forces have been in Iraq for five years and they still fight in an unacceptable manner that violates human rights conventions. Bush had better talk about his own occupation of Iraq.”
Bitterness and suspicion toward Washington are easily summoned, from Cairo to Beirut to Baghdad. The Iraq war, the sense of drift over the Palestinian question, and Washington’s perceived failure to pay more than lip-service to promoting democracy and human rights have all undermined American standing.
It is also widely noted here that Washington stood by uncritically during Israel’s military incursion into southern Lebanon in its 2006 war with Hezbollah.
So when Bush declared Friday that “bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century,” many dismissed his statement as a double standard.
“The U.S. administration is stumbling in the Middle East without considering any horizons for the future,” said Sateh Noureddine, political analyst and columnist at the Lebanese daily As Safir. “It is totally obsessed with the idea of its war against terrorism and this makes it lose even in the simplest political sense.
“The U.S. administration has done more harm to its allies in Georgia and the Middle East than to its enemies.”
But the Arab view is not solely driven by what goes on in the region. Some see a game of disingenuous revisionism in the administration’s backing of an independent ethnic-Albanian Kosovo -- part of Serbia until this year -- and its anger at Russia for sending troops into the Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow says its tanks and battalions entered the former Soviet republic to stop atrocities committed by Georgian troops and paramilitaries against Russian sympathizers.
“Bush did not realize that by intervening heavily in other countries’ affairs, he would give the same right to other players,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad, an analyst with Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “The U.S. had no problem to interfere and separate provinces from bigger states like it did with Kosovo.
“This is exactly what Russia is doing now: intervening to prevent the annexation of certain provinces to Georgia. Russia is using the same logic that the U.S. used.”
Others have a nuanced view of Bush’s motivations. Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labeed Abbawi said there was no comparison between Russia’s actions in Georgia and the U.S. assault on his country.
“In Iraq we were dealing with a fascist government, which was hated by all Iraqis because of the suffering that was inflicted on them,” he said. "[Saddam Hussein’s] regime threatened regional stability and made war with neighboring countries.”
But the prevailing street-level opinion is simply that this is how big powers behave, with Russia acting the same way the U.S. would.
“Why should Bush care what Russia does to Georgia unless he or his administration has an interest in the issue to start with?” said Mohammed Abdullah, an Iraqi electrician. “The news is saying that the Americans trained the Georgians and apparently wanted them to join NATO. I can’t blame the Russians for doing what they’re doing. There’s a threat in their immediate vicinity and they decided to take care of it.
“What would the United States do if suddenly Mexico became an Iranian or Russian ally? They’d crush every last Mexican one way or another.”
Times staff writer Said Rifai in Baghdad and special correspondents Noha El-Hennawy in Cairo and Raed Rafei in Lebanon contributed to this report.