Posted on September 29, 2003 in Washington Watch

Since the end of the Vietnam War, just over 30 years ago, conflict in the Middle East has been a preoccupation of every U.S. president. During this time, the U.S. has sent more foreign and military aid, sent more troops and weapons, fought more wars, lost more lives and invested more political capital in the Middle East than in any other region of the world. And yet, despite the obvious importance of the region and the fact that our policy has failed to secure our interests, our allies, or peace, there has not been a substantive national debate about U.S.-Middle East policy.

For the most part, U.S. policy toward this region has been driven both by the strategic concerns of the Cold War and by domestic politics. As a result, the preoccupation has been to design a policy that would provide uncritical support for the State of Israel, while, at the same time, maintaining a sufficiently stable U.S.-Arab relationship to guarantee an uninterrupted flow of oil to provide for U.S. and world-wide consumption needs.

Even when repeated crises rocked the Middle East, producing tragic consequences for the peoples of the region and dangers for the American people as well, there was no call to reexamine U.S. foreign policy.

As a result, accepted formulations became hardened into rigid dogma, making change or debate even more difficult.

9/11 changed all of this, though not in a positive way. In response to the shock of the terrorist attacks, hard-line neo-conservatives called for, and, to a degree, implemented some revolutionary changes in U.S.-Middle East policy, focusing on:

  • The use of preemptive war against targets identified as threatening to our interests and security;

  • Direct U.S. involvement in promoting political reform throughout the Middle East; and

  • Closer identification of U.S. and Israeli political and military objectives and tactics in confronting what are now viewed as our “common enemies.”

It was this change in course that led the U.S. into war and occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it was this new vision of the Middle East that has:

  • Altered the ground rules for resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, requiring a weakened and beleaguered Palestinian Authority to make difficult political reforms as a prerequisite to negotiations, while making very few demands on Israel; and

  • Engaged the U.S. in an experiment in regime change and nation building in Iraq as a precursor to what is viewed as a democratic transformation that should be spread to the broader region.

Such sweeping changes have not gone unnoticed in the lead up to the 2004 presidential elections. To date, there are ten Democrats seeking their party’s nomination to challenge President Bush. Many of these candidates have in their public statements taken issue with aspects of this Administration’s Middle East policies. But a review of their positions establishes that the challenges posed by some of the candidates are less dramatic than their rhetoric might indicate.

Before the war, for example, there was a deep debate over Iraq policy, but the point of division was on the question of unilateral military preemption, and not over the fundamentals of U.S. policy toward the Middle East. With regard to how to approach the rest of the Arab World, it appears that the neo-conservatives have defined the discourse, with some of the ten Democrats displaying an even more negative view of some Arab countries.

Of the ten, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) poses the most dramatic and developed challenge to the tenets of the Bush Administration’s new Middle East policy. While his views have been mostly overlooked in political reporting on the 2004 campaign, he was the most forceful opponent to the war in Iraq, the most consistent defender of a new and more balanced approach to peace-making in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the only one of the Democrats to call for a more supportive and constructive U.S. engagement with the Arab countries of the Middle East.

On the other hand, the views of Senator Joseph Lieberman (Connecticut) on many of these same issues are sometimes more strident than those of the current Administration.

While the ten Democrats were sharply divided during the lead up to the war in Iraq, on other Middle East matters and on the conduct of the U.S. in post-war Iraq, many of their views appear to converge.

  • Most have criticized the Bush Administration for failing for two years to aggressively pursue the Arab-Israeli peace process;

  • They largely support the Administration’s “Roadmap,” including the call for two states, and its insistence on Palestinian reform;

  • While differing on the logic of the Administration’s war policy in Iraq, all of the Democrats now appear to agree on the need to internationalize the occupation and political process of transformation in Iraq. There is, therefore, a growing Democratic consensus on the need to reject unilateralism and to promote international cooperation and coalition building with regard to Iraq, the “war on terror,” and in other areas as well;

  • Similarly, most of the congressional Democrats (with the exception of Kucinich) and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean appear to accept the argument that political change in the Arab World is an essential component in the war on terror. A dangerous extension of this view is the effort by a number of these leading Democrats to connect U.S. oil consumption with support for terrorism. In this way they apparently seek to establish their environmental credentials as well as their ability to “stand up” to what some describe as the “Bush Administration’s coddling” of Arab governments. In some instances this has led to the worrisome use of language that “demonizes” and exploits negative stereotypes of Arabs, and can result in strained relations with some of the U.S.’s strongest Middle East allies.

In conclusion, the 2004 Presidential elections, and therefore the debate over policy, is still in its early stages. It remains a work in progress. What is clear is that both the traditional formulation of U.S. policy and the new direction of the neo-conservatives have led to failure. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is spiraling out of control, the venture into Iraq did not yield a quick victory and spillover of positive change, the U.S. position in the Middle East is more precarious, and U.S. allies in the region are more vulnerable to the forces of extremism. A new direction is needed.

What is needed is the articulation of a new post-cold war U.S.-Middle East policy that recognizes the weaknesses of past policy. These are the failure to understand the dynamics at work in the Arab world today, and the U.S.’s lack of a balanced approach to Middle East peace, which has resulted in a loss of legitimacy, and the alienation of many in the region from the U.S. A change in course in the direction of greater balance and understanding would enable the U.S. to develop broader Middle East policy initiatives that could constructively engage the countries in the region in a partnership effort toward needed economic and political reform.

If the U.S. is to lead the region toward a just and lasting peace, strengthen the coalition against terror, isolate extremists, and help create needed change, this is the direction we must take. The policy debate is underway. From the statements issued by the candidates thus far, there has been some movement, but there is still a way to go.

A good example of how difficult change has become was in evidence in mid-September’s mini-storm created by Howard Dean’s call for an “even-handed” Mideast policy. Lieberman and Kerry rebuked Dean charging that he was breaking a 50-year U.S. commitment to a “special relationship with Israel”. They were joined by major Jewish groups and some media commentators who demanded a clarification from Dean. The lesson in all of this was clear: any effort to modify the policy discourse will have to confront entrenched political forces that will seek to resist needed change.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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