Bush’s Middle East Policy: Look to his Advisers

<“It’s… important to keep a strong ties in the Middle East, with credible ties, because of the energy crisis we’re now in… I—I hope to get a sense of, should I be fortunate enough to be president, how my administration will react to the Middle East.”
—George W. Bush

Since the Truman administration, the U.S. has pursued three basic objectives in its Middle East policy: security for the state of Israel, a reliable flow of oil, and the stability of the regional balance of power. Republican and Democratic administrations have differed on the degree and type of intervention necessary to achieve these objectives but not on the objectives themselves.

For Bill Clinton, four policies emanated from those core U.S. interests: support for Israel in negotiations with the Palestinians and in the current conflagration, the “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran, a heavy military presence in the Persian Gulf and Turkey to enforce the U.S. will, and the advocacy of neoliberal economic reforms. These policies, not religious or cultural hostility, engender the anti-American sentiment that is so commonly noted in media treatments of the Middle East. There is no evidence that George W. Bush—or rather his team of foreign policy advisers—will abandon any of these policies. Consequently, U.S. hegemony in the Middle East will probably continue to generate popular resentment in the region and to irritate relations with “moderate” Middle Eastern regimes.

Bush has not communicated his Middle East policy vision, because he has none. However, during the campaign, he did compete with Al Gore to express the stronger support for Ehud Barak’s repression of the Palestinian uprising and to assume the more hawkish position on Iraq. To divine what Bush might do once campaign pressures are lifted, one needs to examine the records of the advisers handpicked for him by his father. In foreign policy matters, Bush will certainly rely on his advisers more than his immediate predecessors did, and probably more than Ronald Reagan did as well.

The foreign policy team, headed by Soviet specialist Condoleezza Rice, divides evenly between hard-right cold warriors from the Reagan administration and more genteel corporate Republicans from Bush Senior’s administration. Regarding the Middle East, the Bush Senior camp is best known for the work of former Secretary of State James Baker. In 1991, the Bush Senior/Baker team opted against the continued pursuit of Saddam Hussein’s forces, and in 1992 it clashed with the pro-Israel lobby over loan guarantees for Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud government. This side of the Republican Party, which is closely tied to oil companies, has tended to favor multilateralism and diplomatic engagement over simple military confrontation. It sees markets where the Reaganites see only menaces, and it considers alliances with the Gulf states to be just as important as the “special relationship” with Israel.

Joining Rice in this more moderate and market-oriented camp are Colin Powell (nominee for secretary of state) and Edward Djerejian, (the rumored nominee for undersecretary of state for Near East affairs). Rice, the choice for national security adviser, has little experience regarding the Middle East, but she is assiduously cultivating relationships and recently took a trip to Israel. When former Prime Minister Netanyahu was in the U.S. several weeks ago, he and Rice held a long phone conversation about the latest Palestinian uprising. Powell’s outlook on the Middle East is no easier to discern. Overall he takes a hard line that U.S. foreign involvement must be strictly tied to “vital national interests.” During the Gulf War, Powell opposed the use of overwhelming military force, contending that economic sanctions would bring Saddam around. Djerejian is a former ambassador to both Syria and Lebanon and currently directs the James Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston. Without going so far as to admit that the U.S. monopoly on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has only made matters worse, Djerejian has called for more international involvement. Djerejian has spoken of the U.S. tendency to micromanage relations, and he also criticized Clinton for having “pushed too far, too fast” at Camp David.

Buttressing Bush on the far right are two preeminent hard-liners from the Reagan camp. Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle draw from significant Middle East experience and may exert a determining influence on Bush’s policies in the region. The Reaganite side of the Republican Party is militaristic and aggressively pro-Israel. It looks skeptically at Iran’s reform movement, and it is itching to send U.S. troops into Iraq.

Wolfowitz, currently dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, has blasted the Clinton administration for failing to arm Iraqi opposition groups, as specified by the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. He told The New Republic in December, “It will take American forces to create a protected area in which opposition forces can organize and to which units from Saddam’s army can defect.” Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, called such an approach “a Bay of Goats” scenario. As former assistant secretary of defense under Reagan, Perle opened the Pentagon doors to a number of right-wingers who dramatically increased weapons sales to Israel. In 1996, he advised Binyamin Netanyahu to cancel the Oslo accords concluded with the Palestinians, and during July 2000’s Camp David negotiations, Perle drew a harsh rebuke from the White House when he publicly suggested that Barak withdraw, lest he be pressured into undue concessions by Gore’s presidential ambitions. The Bush campaign quickly disavowed Perle’s remarks, claiming that he had been “speaking for himself.”

Vice President-elect Dick Cheney falls somewhere between the two camps. The oilman in him covets the vast reserves in the Caspian Sea, so he endorses lifting trade sanctions against Iran. But Cheney is also a firm believer in U.S. imperial power, and he was one of the few insiders in Bush Senior’s cabinet to advocate a ground invasion of Iraq.

There is little in the above record to suggest a major departure in Middle East policy when Bush takes office in January. Bush will inherit a potentially explosive situation in the Middle East: a mounting death toll in Palestine, deepening anger in the Arab world at U.S. complicity in Israel’s excessive force, the collapse of the international consensus for sanctions against Iraq, and crucial elections in Israel and Iran, to name just a few flash points. Bush’s advisers have yet to agree on the script for his response. But early signs are not at all encouraging.