Elephants in the Room

Despite all the polite talk about democracy, no one at the conference mentioned the desperate situation in Iraq, Lebanon's political impasse or Saudi Arabia's poor human rights record.

Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, an ethnic Kurd, rarely spends time at home, in the town of Salah-al-Din in Iraqi Kurdistan. His associates say he is so in enamored of his job that "he has already become an Iraqi." Zebari also loves to travel abroad and represent his country. So it is no wonder that when he received U.S. President George W. Bush's invitation to attend the Annapolis summit, he jumped at this excellent opportunity to meet once again with the president and with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and talk about Iraq's future, which has been somewhat sidelined in recent weeks because of Annapolis.

But even the good news about a decline in terror attacks in Iraq and the discussions between Washington and Baghdad on the future of the international force that will remain in Iraq after 2008 did not manage to penetrate the Annapolis wall: Iraq was not even mentioned there.

Separatist Iraqi Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr called upon his country not to participate in the summit, which, he claimed, was aimed at providing Israel with a sense of Arab normalization. Sadr coordinates his stance with Iran, which also supplies him with financial aid alongside the spiritual and political guidance dispensed by its clerics. And indeed, shortly after Sadr's warning, an Iraqi government spokesman announced that the country would not participate in the conference "because the foreign minister has prior commitments" - a formulation whose wording is nearly identical to the statement published by Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal, explaining why Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem would not attend.

These days no one in Iraq wants to annoy Sadr, who has undergone another about-face and has become a supporter of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Especially not in light of the upcoming meeting between Tehran and Washington on the question of Iraq. Although that event will be less extravagant than Annapolis, its practical importance will be far greater: Iraq wants to end the mandate for the continued presence of the international forces in its territory by the end of 2008. Maintaining quiet in Iraq and ensuring smooth sailing vis-a-vis its administration largely depend on the cooperation Iran will agree to grant the Iraqi government. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is cross at Syria for sending a representative to Annapolis, despite Iran's position. But this is not going to make him give up on the American-Iranian meeting.

In Hezbollah's hands

While Sadr, who heads the Shi'ite Al-Mahdi Army, is dictating Iraq's policy on Annapolis, Bush was able to observe how another organization running its country tried to prevent its foreign minister from attending the celebrations. The talk is of Hezbollah, which nearly prevented Lebanon's participation there. In the end, Syria, which initially rejected the idea of the conference and stipulated conditions for its participation, joined, while Lebanon sent only its Acting Foreign Minister Tarek Mitri, who was appointed to the position last year. Mitri's participation in Annapolis is a kind of "blip" on the monitor, indicating that Lebanon's government, paralyzed for a year now, is still alive.

Lebanon, which was supposed to have been one of the conference's main bridesmaids - in part because the Arab initiative, which forms the basis of Annapolis, was issued in Beirut, and also because it wanted to demonstrate some political independence from Syria - once again found itself held captive in the hands of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. And indeed, as Mitri was announcing his participation in Annapolis, the Lebanese speaker of parliament, Nabih Beri, was holding much more meaningful talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on the question of Lebanon's future.

Annapolis, then, provided a good service for both the Iraqi and the Lebanese extremist organizations, by affording them an opportunity to demonstrate their power to control their countries' foreign policy.

Moreover, it is doubtful whether Bush could have derived much satisfaction from other Arab and Muslim leaders showing up in his backyard. Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example, which supposedly embody America's success in the Muslim world, actually represent Bush's failures: Pakistan was supposed to have been part of the idea of the "broader Middle East," which Bush promoted after the 9/11 terror attacks.

The idea was based on creating democracy in a place where there it did not exist, assuming that democracies do not fight other democracies - a notion that was marketed to Bush by Natan Sharansky.

Nonetheless Pakistan, which has pursued a pro-American policy since its inception while at the same time adopting Islam as a defining national trait, is also a country that has been ruled for most of its existence by military dictatorship. In addition, Pakistan has acquired atomic weapons and is one of the three nuclear states (alongside India and Israel) that are not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Pakistani representative in Annapolis listened very attentively to Bush's speech about the need to establish a democratic and peace-seeking Palestinian state alongside Israel, but he knows exactly who is in charge of his own country. General Pervez Musharraf does not intend to relinquish his control of the army even if parliamentary elections do take place on the scheduled date. The position of commander of the army has now gone to his deputy and it is perfectly clear from whom he will be taking orders.

The Pakistani representative could have exchanged views with his Afghani colleague, in whose country a democratic regime has arisen. But President Hamid Karzai, whose control is limited to the capital Kabul and its immediate environs, is surrounded by a security cordon of American bodyguards.

Adding to Bush's CV

All in all, the word "democracy" had to be whispered in Annapolis, not shouted from the main podium. The process of creating a Palestinian democracy has been desecrated by, among other things, the election of Hamas and the emergence of three states for two peoples. Now all that remains is to see how the results of Annapolis will overcome the Palestinian schism. Will it create a new Palestinian diaspora in the Gaza Strip or will it spur a Palestinian and Arab effort to bring Hamas back into the fold?

And when Bush directed his gaze at another delegate among his honored guests, Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail, he no doubt found it difficult to console himself with how little was achieved despite the participation of so many Arab representatives. Innocents are still being slaughtered in Darfur and the prowess of the world's greatest power is not enough to bring peace there.

It is also doubtful that Saudi Arabia - a country that has in the course of recent years emerged from its indifferent corner - has become an initiator of Mideast policy and has earned the title of "a moderate state." The Israeli-Saudi handshake, to which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert so aspired, symbolizes the internal contradiction in Bush's policy. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia prepared the ground for the Arab initiative, has advanced the peace process, has tried to broker a compromise between Fatah and Hamas, is one of the "good guys" who want to help Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government in Lebanon and is not one of Syria's good friends. But on the other hand, it has signed a security cooperation agreement with Iran, is declaring morning, noon and night that the Iranian nuclear crisis must be resolved by diplomatic means only and is nowhere near to the values of democracy, advancing the status of women, minority rights or freedom of speech - values which the Bush administration is striving so hard to export.

But apparently it is superfluous to check for dirt under the fingernails of the Arab countries at a conference for which the "head count" is of utmost importance. Annapolis will change the Middle East; it will turn into another line in Bush's curriculum vitae. Another chapter in his political biography that will no doubt be published two or three years from now, and which might provide a better explanation for some of the basic contradictions that have accompanied Bush throughout his two terms.