Posted on July 13, 2001 in Washington Watch

By now, Arabs have come to the realization that the Administration of George W. Bush will not be a simple replay of his father’s 1989-1993 term in office. Expectations for the new Bush Administration were set too high and are now crashing, leaving in their wake a dangerous disillusionment. The reasons behind this situation are complex and require some examination.

Memory can play tricks.

Former President Bush had become a mythic figure in many Arab capitals. He was remembered for forging a decisive coalition to liberate Kuwait and using his prestige to convene the international Middle East peace conference at Madrid. Along the way, Bush also earned credit for standing up to Israel’s then-Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, denying him $10 billion in loan guarantees to resettle Russian Jews in Israel.

Forgotten, of course, was the fact that he left office with the situation in Iraq still unresolved and many rounds of post-Madrid negotiations yielding little but frustration and impasse. Also forgotten was the fact that the loan guarantees were finally released to the newly elected Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and the opening of Israel to the eventual immigration of over 600,000 Russian Jews.

Taking office in 1993, Bill Clinton had an additional unresolved crisis to address: Rabin’s expulsion, in the waning months of Bush’s term, of over 400 Palestinian activists who were sent to Lebanon.

Clinton, in fact, inherited a whole range of international crises from his predecessor: US troops in Somalia; a growing crisis in Haiti; savage genocide in Bosnia; continuing conflict in Northern Ireland, as well as the stalled Middle East peace process and the stand-off with Iraq.

Recognizing the urgency of a US response, as well as the limits of US power, the new Administration played with the hand they had been dealt. There were successes in some areas and failures in others, most notably in the Middle East.

As Arab frustration grew following eight years of unresolved confrontation with Iraq and the perception of a clear lack of balance in the US approach to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, there was widespread hope for change. Whether justified or not, fear that a Gore-Lieberman administration would be even more one-sided, only compounded this Arab concern.

And so, despite his strong pro-Israel platform and policy pronouncements, many Arabs came to hope that George W. Bush would be a reincarnation of their best memories of his father.

But Bush had learned other lessons from his father’s one-term presidency. Despite father Bush’s great prestige as a world leader, he had lost his reelection bid for reasons that were wholly domestic and political.

I vividly remember Arab bewilderment in 1992, as Democrats aggressively challenged Bush, terming him ” a failed President”. How could that be said, they wondered, about the “liberator of Kuwait”? The facts in the US spoke to a different reality. The US was in an economic recession and a weakened Bush could not move his agenda through an increasingly resistant Congress. In addition, growing deficits in the national budget had swelled the national debt, creating a political problem that was being exploited as a campaign issue. Finally, in a midterm effort to reach some accommodation with Congress, Bush had agreed to a compromise on the budget with Democrats and moderate Republicans that included a number of tax-increase provisions. This had broken his famous 1988 campaign pledge when he had promised “Read my lips-no new taxes”.

The 1992 election was a disaster for Bush. He faced a challenge from conservatives in the primary, an indication of the fact that his support base was eroding. This and the worsening economic situation opened the door to the independent candidacy of Ross Perot, who, by capturing 19% of the vote in the general election, spelled the end of the Bush presidency.

George W. Bush is determined to protect his domestic support base and not lose control in pushing his agenda through Congress. His situation is even more precarious than his father’s was. In 2000, he lost the popular vote, and won only after the intervention of the US Supreme Court. His party holds a slim lead in Congress and has recently lost control over the US Senate. The Republican party remains divided between a traditional moderate wing and a strong religious right wing, supported by an equally strong neo-conservative tendency. To pursue his domestic agenda, Bush can ill-afford to alienate any of these forces within his party’s ranks.

Bush, after all, has only been in office for six months. He passed through Congress part of his agenda, but significant challenges remain. It is still unclear how his budget will fare. Add to that the continuing pressure he faces from 2000 primary opponent John McCain, who is heading up a number of moderate challenges to Bush on issues ranging from campaign finance reform (which recently suffered a setback, but will resurface in the Fall), to health care reform and gun control. Then there are the always controversial social issues involving abortion, homosexual rights, and now the matter of “stem cell” research-all of which will pit the religious right against moderates and liberals.

Facing all of this, Bush advisors will most certainly counsel against a confrontation with hard-line Likud supporters within his own party. With Pat Robertson, a leader of the religious right, currently in Israel broadcasting back to the US support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s assassination policy and urging the Israeli leader to strike out against and destroy the Palestinian Authority, and with other hawks in Congress pressing Bush to cut aid to Egypt, Lebanon and Palestinians, Bush has his hands full.

Certainly the Administration can be faulted for misreading the Arab world’s mood toward critical issues the region is facing today. The matter of Iraqi sanctions was badly handled, as was Secretary Powell’s recent foray into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Even Israeli analysts criticized the latter performance as “confused” and a “sign of weakness”.

But, it appears that both misadventures, while prompted by a genuine interest in resolving crises, were ultimately doomed by the fear of an open confrontation with Israel and its supporters on the one hand and the equally compelling fear of being perceived as surrendering to Iraq on the other hand. Both, in other words, with an eye on their impact on domestic politics.

The core base of supporters Clinton sought to protect were liberal Jews who hoped for a “new Middle East”. A large component of Bush’s constituency has a different view-but is a constituency he appears to be unwilling to alienate at this early stage in his administration.

Upon assuming the presidency, Bush outlined an aggressive conservative domestic and foreign policy agenda, both radical departures from those of his predecessor. His approach to foreign policy was to be more limited and focused. Some have defined his priorities as remnant of the “Cold War”: the building of a missile-defense shield; a tougher approach to relations with Russia and China; protection of US interests and allies when threatened; and less reliance on multinational organizations and treaties.

In this scheme, resolution of regional conflicts were reduced to lesser priorities. Only if these threatened to become major crises or if they were ripe for solution would they be elevated in importance.

At this point there will, no doubt, be voices within the Administration who will urge caution. With the Secretary of State having ventured twice to the region, with the CIA Director having attempted a cease-fire, after two presidential meetings with Israel’s Prime Minister and the President meeting with a number of allied Arab heads of state, and with US initiatives on both Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict having failed-some of Bush’s advisors many very well argue “We gave it our best, now let’s let the situation play itself out”.

Arabs and Arab Americans who realize the dangers inherent in such a view now face a serious challenge. What is called for is not disillusionment or anger at unreal expectations that have been dashed. Regional pressure for an aggressive but balanced US approach must be forthcoming, but this will only bear fruit if matched by an equally aggressive domestic campaign to build a broad US-based alliance to which the new Administration can respond.

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