While the White House has billed the trip as an effort to reassure his Arab allies in the Gulf that the US will protect them from Iran, it seems the GCC, while it does have concerns about growing Iranian power, prefers constructive dialogue to an exchange of bellicose rhetoric and grandstanding - as in the battle of the videos over the incident in the Strait of Hormuz. As the Saudi foreign minister said at a press conference “I am talking about Saudi Arabia’s point of view. This is not the time for any provocation in the region”.
"Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous" was Bush’s mantra throughout the trip, and he seemed unfazed by the fact that IAEA chief Muhammad el-Baradei was in Tehran to negotiate on outstanding nuclear issues, or by his own intelligence agencies recent report that said Iran no longer had a nuclear weapons program.
As the Saudi Gazette put it, “If this is the Bush definition of diplomacy, he needs to pick up a dictionary”. Editorials in leading newspapers also lambasted Bush’s much vaunted peace plan, which consigns UN resolutions to the dustbin of history, denying refugees their right of return, and declaring Israel’s West Bank settlements, illegal under international law, “facts on the ground” which must be accommodated by the occupied Palestinians . The “viable state” turns out to be a network of Bantustans with no territorial integrity, with the Palestinians deprived of their best land and water resources.
The other ‘carrot’ to the people of the region was a revival of the short-lived ‘freedom agenda’ in his keynote speech in Abu Dhabi. The speech was in part a repeat of the 2003 state of the union address in the build up to the war on Iraq, substituting Iran as state sponsor of terror on the path to acquiring nukes.
Reeling off a list of democratic elections in the region, he mentioned the Iraqi and Lebanese elections, but skipped the Palestinian election of a Hamas government in favour of the earlier election of Abu Mazen. To Arabs watching the speech live, the glaring omissions was proof, if any were needed, that this wasn’t about universal ideals, but about a Bush principle: with us or against us? Again, the idea that you negotiate not with your allies, but with people who disagree with you, seems an alien concept.
But as this administration is on its way out, perhaps some appreciation is in order. Will the next one provide as much material to satirist?
‘Bush bashing’ has become a spectator sport in some quarters, and the urge to lampoon has even reached Arab video clips, whose Arab spin-offs have reached levels of inanity undreamt of in MTV’s philosophy – as exemplified by the craze for cheesy children’s songs by pop-singers.
You’d think nothing could be more apolitical, but one of Nancy Ajram’s contributions to the genre, “Shater, Shater” (Good Boy, Good Boy) proved to have hidden potential. When the US Secretary of State visited to the region, on a tour as empty of substance on key grievances as Bush’s, the song was adapted to suit the occasion.
Some creative editing replaced the pop-star playing teacher with a digitized version of Ms. Rice. And her pupils? The heads of various Arab states depicted as uniformed pint sized schoolboys. Not very subtle, and the lyrics weren’t either:
Teacher: What do we call the boy who listens to his parents?
Chorus: Good boy, good boy
Teacher: What about the boy who does well at school and doesn’t annoy his teachers?
Chorus: We will love him and always call him a good boy
It’s obviously a simplification of US-Arab relations, but one that struck a cord, as the resulting remix spread like wildfire on the internet.
Bush himself appears in “Ahlan, Ezayak” or ‘Hi, how are you?’ in which a Tunisian-Kuwaiti singer, Shams, reworks an Egyptian song about the breakup of a relationship (with lines like “I’m not your relative, or your darling, I’m someone whose sick and tired of your deeds…buy your safety by getting away from me”). Her version stars the American President as the rejected suitor.
The video features an elderly Rambo spraying bullets everywhere, US soldiers being chased through the desert by an incensed woman wielding a slipper, oil fields and cowboy hats, and the words Guantanamo, Democracy and Liberty appearing as props at various stages.
Having berated Bush for his behavior in front of the international media and squared off with Condi in the boxing ring, the singer climbs up steps in the shape of a graph in the middle of oil rigs, pushes Bush off his perch at the top, and then visits a fortune teller to find out who her destined partner will be. Gazing into the crystal ball, she sees herself in a frothy Western wedding dress walking off into the sunset with Handhala, a cartoon charater who was the signature figure of assasinated Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al Ali.
As Mamoun Asfour said, he encapsulated his creator’s philosophy, the figure of a ten-year old boy with his back to the viewer, whom the Palestinian cartoonist described as “neither beautiful, spoilt, nor even well-fed. He is barefoot like many children in refugee camps...However, those who came to know… [him] adopted him because he is affectionate, honest, outspoken…his hands behind his back are a symbol of rejection of all the present negative tides in our region."
The marriage of pop singer Shams and Handhalah at the end of the video clip is thus a concise and powerful way to indicate a rejection of Americas foreign policy.
“Ahlan, Ezayak” generated a lot of controversy, one contention being that it was empty of any real content, a dumbed-down commercialised version of ‘resistance art’. And it is – a one-off ‘political’ video-clip whose success was down to a desire to vent at being made to live through “a long American film” as Ziad Rabani’s musical puts its.
As Bush’s trip competed for air-time with the frenzied coverage of the early stages of the US elections, one can only hope that the next American film will be less bloody.