Edition 8 Volume 6 - February 21, 2024

The US presidential candidates and the Middle East: an interim assessment

Some hope for 2024 -   Akram Baker

Obama would neither carry the legacy of Bush nor the baggage of Clinton.

[PAL - ah - STIN -ians] -   Mark Perry

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has effectively paralyzed America's Middle East policy for 50 years.

Can you see the Mideast from the Midwest? -   Alon Pinkas

They are trying to avoid saying anything of substance on either the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Iran.

Does experience matter? -   Danielle Pletka

Who will be best in the White House should the American homeland come under attack as it did on 9/11?

Some hope for 2024
 Akram Baker

One of the more vexing questions these days is how each of the leading US presidential candidates would deal with the tumult in the Middle East. Would an Obama, Clinton or McCain (ignoring Huckabee) administration be able to tame the raging fires in Iraq and Palestine and prevent the one about to be ignited in Lebanon? Or would it all be more of the same regardless of who is the new tenant at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave? There is qualified good news and there is unqualified bad news. And as I have always believed in finishing first with the bad part, let's start with John McCain.

The 71-year-old senator from Arizona, if elected, would represent another four years of Bush, albeit with a bit more diplomacy and a little less waterboarding. Up until last week, I thought he might be an improvement on George W., however I just returned from the Brookings Institution's annual US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar and had the chance to speak at length with one of his senior advisors, Peter Rodman. A Brookings Senior Fellow who has occupied high-level foreign policy positions in every Republican administration since Nixon, Rodman represents the US's inability to admit to its mistakes. On the Israel-Palestine question, he was unable to get past the stale, old canard of blaming everything on the Palestinians including Israeli settlements and the illegal separation barrier. As for Iraq, we all know that McCain is willing to stay there for another 100 years just to prove a point. If this is the best that he can put forward, then we are all in for more trouble.

A just as scary proposition is a new Clinton administration led by a woman who has outdone herself pandering to Israel and the American Jewish right. She has consistently sided with everything Bush has done in the region (her objections to the Iraq war came only after things started going badly south) and so broadly receives top marks from Israeli newspapers and policymakers that we can only assume that she will follow AIPAC's lead no matter what.

But "Bill wasn't so bad," some argue. No, he wasn't as bad as the current president. But on top of her McCain-like statements concerning the Middle East (other than Iraq of late), the foreign policy advisors Hillary has retained from her husband's administration, like former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, epitomize the conservative wing of the Democratic party, are full of themselves and not much more. Outside of Arab bashing (as during the Dubai ports "non" deal), she is neither creative nor has she anything new to say. Most Arabs would at first be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt because she is a Democrat and she is not Bush. But I can only see that leading self-delusional Arabs to yet another massive letdown. Better to realize that if Hillary wins, so does Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu and the occupation. Peace and the Palestinians (and the Israeli people) will yet again lose out.

Unfortunately, all of the aforementioned is pretty standard stuff and you need not be a rocket scientist (thank God) to understand that Clinton and McCain are different sides of the same old coin. The million-dollar question is whether Senator Barack Obama is going to bring his oft-promised change to the Middle East or if he will become prisoner of his first name and the power of special interests.

If we go by his statements on this issue to date, Obama seems little different than 99.9 percent of all national US politicians: strong support for Israel, need for peace, two-state solution, etc. Unfortunately, this is to be expected, at least for now. However, he has made some subtle statements that hint at a different tone in discourse. By speaking openly of having an innate understand of Muslims due to his years as a child in a Muslim-majority country (Indonesia) and owing to the fact that his late father and maternal grandmother are Muslim, Obama would be coming from a very different perspective than the other candidates. He has not been afraid to say that if elected president, he will be forcefully engaged in the Middle East peace process from day one. He has addressed Muslims and Arabs directly and has shown that race and racism can be beaten and that he for one will not tolerate discrimination.

This is not a policy change, but it is a major change in attitude. If Obama can create a kind of positive, can-do atmosphere in his administration, something good just might emerge from the charred landscape of the region. One should not underestimate the power of creating a "safe haven" for creative thinking and putting the pessimists on notice that the US will no longer take a back seat with regard to implementing US policies in the Middle East, vis-a-vis both Arabs and Israelis. This, in and of itself, would be a solid foundation to start bringing a lasting peace and change we can all believe in.

It is also noteworthy to look at who is advising the senator from Illinois on foreign policy issues. Tony Lake, Susan Rice and Rob Malley are probably the most formidable and serious group to approach such issues soberly and, if Obama is elected president, would be more than capable of implementing his vision. It is relatively safe to assume that Obama would benefit from a wave of sympathy and support from the four corners of the world (at least for the first six to nine months) and would be able to bring wide coalitions on board to back the US. This is not naivete; most people want to help the US and want to believe again in the American dream (which has been so shattered of late and not only by Bush). Obama would neither carry the legacy of Bush nor the baggage of Clinton. And while the fear of disappointment is real and should not be ignored, neither should the power of hope and a fresh pair of eyes.

Can he do it? Yes we can.- Published 21/2/2008 bitterlemons-international.org

Akram Baker is an independent Palestinian political analyst. He is co-president of the Arab Western Summit of Skills, a platform for Arab professionals dedicated to reform and development in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

[PAL - ah - STIN -ians]
 Mark Perry

While it may be difficult to remember, George W. Bush was once considered a debater who could match wits with the likes of Al Gore and John Kerry. This judgment was the result, at least in part, of Bush's uncanny ability to transform claims that he was stupid into support for America's position in the world.

"It's not important that I know the names of world leaders," he said during his first campaign for the presidency. "It's only important they know mine." Bush supporters trumpeted this sleight-of-hand as proof of their candidate's "muscular vision for America". His detractors thought otherwise: not only did Bush not know the names of important world leaders, he didn't think he needed to. So it was that Bush's most recent UN speech was filled with helpful hints, placed in brackets (no less) by his aides--"sar-KO-zee" for the president of France and "moo-GAH-bee" for the leader of Zimbabwe. At Annapolis, Bush stumbled over the names of Mahmoud Abbas (a kind of fish, "a BASS") and Ehud Olmert, which became "Oh Murt".

Some of this is forgivable: George Bush is the first to note that he regularly mangles the language ("Syria Leone") but there is a lurking suspicion that Bush's fumbling masks a deeper sense of American entitlement. Told that the Egyptian government hoped he would visit Hosni Mubarak during his recent Middle East tour, the White House suggested to Mubarak's aides that perhaps Egypt's leader fly to Riyadh for the meeting--as that's where Bush would be. That this suggestion might be insulting apparently never occurred to the Bush White House: we don't go to other people, they come to us. Thankfully, the Bush team caught the gaffe (albeit, after it was made) and quickly scheduled Bush for a stopover to chat with the Egyptian leader. But the point was made: once you've decided that other people's names aren't important, you're well on the way to deciding they're not important.

None of this is lost on Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John McCain, who have staffed their campaign teams with foreign policy heavyweights who make Condi Rice, Steve Hadley, Elliott Abrams and David Welch look like rank amateurs--which is what they are. Clinton's advisors include a large number of near-greats from her husband's administration (Richard Holbrooke, Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger and Wes Clark), while Obama's list is peppered with experienced officials (former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, Africa expert Susan Rice and former NSC chiefs Zbigniew Brzezinski and Tony Lake) and some surprises (former Clinton envoy Dennis Ross and Reagan Defense Department stalwart Noel Koch). John McCain's administration-in-waiting, however, is by far the most interesting--and imposing: Richard Armitage, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell and Lawrence Eagleburger.

None of the candidates has said a word about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would ruffle any feathers ("we're not even going to talk about the issue during the campaign," a senior campaign official told me) and all have expressed their uncompromising support for Israel, their unyielding condemnation of terror and their disdain for the irrational shortsightedness of Israel's enemies. It is nearly axiomatic: no one ever lost any votes by criticizing Palestinians. Which is not to say that a few headliners have not caused concern either in Israel or among its most adamant American friends. For example: Clinton advisor Wes Clark has been widely derided for calling Israel's war against Hizballah a "serious mistake" (no, really, it was a great idea), Zbigniew Brzezinski has been called "an Israel hater" (his friendship with Menachem Begin must have been a charade), while John McCain has been taken to task for once suggesting that peace between Israel and the Palestinians would require "concessions and sacrifices by both sides" (now there's an idiotic concept).

These breathless rantings aside, it is clear that Clinton, Obama and McCain will break with the policies of George Bush. The reason has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but with America's disaster in Iraq. Bush's claim that the road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad is so thoroughly discredited that it has now been turned on its head: peace between Israelis and Palestinians is now quietly accepted by each of the candidates as a prerequisite for regional stability--and not the other way around.

There is, then, this emerging consensus: that while America will guard its friendship with Israel (which reached its apogee under George Bush), it will not do so by sacrificing its larger interests in the region. The commodity at stake here is not oil, but blood--and after Iraq we have none to spare. Such a consensus does not mean a reshaping of the American-Israeli strategic alliance (the removal of even a large number of settlers--who hate us anyway--would never put that in jeopardy), but rather a focused, serious, detailed, day-and-night effort by a senior mediator (with a presidential mandate) to resolve the conflict in as short a period of time as possible.

Of course, it might well be that President Clinton, President Obama or President McCain will decide that the search for peace is far too painful and the chance for failure too politically fatal to make the effort. But I wouldn't count on it. For while we might glibly claim that "the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity," it is also true that an increasing number of influential policymakers of both parties are convinced that an almost unbelievably miniscule portion of the world's population (there are only 10 million Palestinians) can not only not be bought off by airy promises of a "contiguous, economically viable state"--but cannot be defeated. And that, even worse, while that small population of "PAL-ah-STIN-ians" might "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity" they have effectively paralyzed America's Middle East policy for 50 years.

Not bad.- Published 21/2/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mark Perry is the author of "Partners in Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace". His most recent book is "Talking To Terrorists" (Basic Books, 2024).

Can you see the Mideast from the Midwest?
 Alon Pinkas

Israeli observers of the US presidential primaries and nomination processes can be roughly divided into two distinct groups.

On one side, there are those who believe that every four years Americans are privileged to cast a vote on the omnipresent question of "who will be the best president for Israel." This group actually believes that 305 million Americans are cureless political junkies who insatiably consume news and political analyses and are thus aware that the Middle East is a focal point of crises, turmoil and violence and should be dealt with vigorously and rigorously by the next president.

"America cannot afford another president who neglects the Middle East as Bush did for seven long years," goes their argument. For them, the Middle East is everything that is of interest to Israel or, put bluntly, every issue that Israel cannot or will not deal with alone, without the active chaperoning presence of the United States. That naturally includes Iran's nuclear program, Syria's mentorship of terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or what's left of it.

This group is made up of two components. A vocal right wing wants an American president who is a "true friend", i.e., one that profoundly dislikes and distrusts Arabs, who will look the other way when Israel deceives and cheats on dismantling illegal outposts and who will forever support "the only democracy in the Middle East" even when that democracy fails to uphold it's own law in the West Bank. That's the definition of a true friend.

Then there is an equally vocal left wing that thinks that America "should save Israel from itself" by exerting pressure, demanding the removal of settlements and forcing a peace process that is designed by that very left wing down Israel's throat, irrespective and in denial of the fact that Gaza and the West Bank are inhabited not by friendly Swedes but by terrorist organizations operating within a totally failed civil society. They are sensitive to America's interests in the Arab world and to the anti-Americanism that is prevalent in the Arab sphere--so much so that they buy into the fallacy that Saudis or Syrians dislike America because it abandoned the Palestinian brothers.

On the other side there are the cynics (composed of a majority of Israelis who are neither right nor left wing) who naively think that Americans actually vote for the next president of the United States. For them the Middle East is not only a non-issue, but they find it difficult to understand why a presidential candidate in his or her right mind should expend energy and political capital in talking and pledging about, let alone pursuing, the elusive Israeli-Palestinian deal.

This group defines the Middle East in broader geo-political contours: It stretches from Pakistan down to the Gulf, through the Levant and into North Africa. The US has far greater interests than wasting time in another exercise in futility called a "peace process".

Both groups expect the presidential candidates to signal what they intend to do in the region. Will the next president be a Clinton or a Bush? Or will he/she triangulate and devise a new policy based on both former presidents' experiences? Yet the candidates are reluctant. And they are right, though this approach is valid only for the duration of the campaign.

One of the truisms of contemporary world politics is that the Middle East has a nasty tendency to impose itself on an agenda that has purposely precluded it. An American benign non-intervention policy is bound to fail when a crisis occurs (or even ominously looms), leaving the US exposed, ill-prepared and in hopeless search of instant policies. This truism is known to at least two candidates: Senator John McCain and Senator Hillary Clinton. The third viable candidate, Senator Barack Obama, may be inexperienced in foreign policy issues, but is well aware of the magnitude of the array of foreign challenges and crises awaiting him in the Oval Office or the White House situation room.

All three candidates (Republican McCain and Democrats Clinton and Obama are the only viable contenders) published lengthy and comprehensive essays in Foreign Affairs, a prestigious industry quarterly. Naturally some issues featured prominently: Russia, China, North Korea, the environment, Africa, Latin America, relations with Europe, multilateralism as a sharp departure from the Bush's "with or without you" gung-ho foreign policy, the free world, balances of power, balances of democracy and so on. All three articles were meticulously crafted to say everything and commit to absolutely nothing, as you would expect from a candidate who must be careful and is under no obligation to offer policy.

All three alluded to the Middle East in passing only. The three candidates have written and spoken extensively about Iraq, and all three have warned that a nuclear Iran is an intolerable menace that should be prevented from ever acquiring weapons-grade fissile material. But it is clear they are trying to avoid saying anything of substance on either the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (where they predictably retreat to platitudes and pandering) or Iran, where they are justifiably careful not to upset the American electorate that turned against the Iraq war two years ago, as was evident in the 2024 congressional elections.

McCain is the only candidate who went somewhat farther when he stated that the only thing worse than a military strike against Iran would be a nuclear Iran. Yet he, expectedly, fell short of prescribing a policy to prevent that from happening. Hillary Clinton, with several years experience on the Senate Armed Services Committee, remained committed to confront Iran, and mentioned the military option as one that "should not be removed from the table". The intriguing odd man out is Senator Obama, who essentially adopted the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report of 2024 and offers to talk to Iran and Syria and then shape a policy. That has already earned him the dubious depiction by some as "bad for Israel", an utterly silly characterization. According to that logic, when prime ministers Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak spoke to Syria, they were "bad for Israel".

The key issue, though, remains the next president's policy on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Until now all candidates have stated the obvious. They will be helped by Bush's commitment to the two-state solution as a policy tenet that cannot be ignored. At the same time, the political timetable in Israel and the continued disintegration of the Palestinian Authority do not escape the candidates' radars. They realize that before late 2024 or even early 2024 they will not be able to foster a real process. Once this is clear it becomes a non-issue, so why should they say anything during the campaign? - Published 21/2/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Alon Pinkas is president of the US-Israel Institute at the Rabin Center and former consul-general of Israel in New York.

Does experience matter?
 Danielle Pletka

Of the many tired shibboleths of Washington foreign policy, the tiredest is the assertion that back in the day--an entirely mythical day--partisanship stopped at the waters edge. If anyone still nurtured this saccharine illusion, the Iraq war and the subsequent battle to draw down troops effectively dispelled the notion. And certainly the race to take the White House in 2024 has had the predictable effect of deepening partisan divisions.

Ironically, however, as the chasm between true believers in the electorate has deepened, the distinctions among the top candidates have paled. When it comes to the Middle East and the challenges of the war on terror, all support Israel, believe in a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine and are tough on Iran, and all endorse an increase in the size of the military. Only on the question of Iraq do the differences remain stark and uncompromising.

These are the broad brushstrokes of policy that paint a picture for voters, yet they form only the outlines of a foreign policy. After one of these candidates takes the oath of office in 2024, nuance will prove critical; principles will underpin decisions; experience will tell. Day-to-day decisions about dialogue with the likes of Ahmadinezhad, conferences with Bashar al-Assad and trade with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps matter when it comes to actually governing. And on these issues there will be significant differences.

As of February 2024 there are four candidates left standing, though Republican candidate Mike Huckabee has been mathematically eliminated from the race. (Indeed, it is tempting to include Huckabee in any review, as his comments on foreign policy have run the gamut from hilarious to loopy, but because he has no shot at the White House, comparisons are invidious.)

Of the remaining players, senators Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama, McCain is clearly the most experienced and consistent hand, a veteran of 22 years in the Senate and a respected voice on national security. He is best known as the most steadfast advocate of the "surge" in Iraq, the success of which has tracked evenly with his own resurgence as a presidential candidate.

Neither Clinton nor Obama supported the surge, though Clinton has been less relentlessly critical. Both suggest that upon election they will immediately move to withdraw troops from Iraq. Hillary Clinton, however, has conceded that under her leadership there could be troops on the ground for many years to come. As to the question of what will happen to Iraq once US troops are drawn down, both Democratic candidates are persuaded that Iraq's neighbors, high-level working groups, the United Nations and (presumably) more sincere efforts at reconciliation among Iraq's warring parties will do the trick.

Like his compatriots on both sides of the aisle, McCain supports sanctions against Iran for its nuclear weapons program, doesn't rule out the use of military force in the event Tehran chooses not to relinquish that program and otherwise supports a tough line on the Islamic republic. Unlike his two rivals, he has not suggested that he will launch his first term as president by initiating immediate direct dialogue with Tehran or by renewing diplomatic ties. Indeed, McCain is the only candidate of four who does not advocate restoring relations while Iran is developing nuclear weapons and sponsoring terrorism.

Barack Obama is the most forward leaning of the group, strongly opposed to any military action (though he won't "rule it out"), a proponent of diplomatic engagement without preconditions and an earnest believer in dangling carrots for better Iranian performance. He opposed the Kyl-Lieberman amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill, which stated that it should be the policy of the United States to "roll back the violent activities and destabilizing influence inside Iraq of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, its foreign facilitators such as Lebanese Hizballah, and its indigenous proxies," and "that the United States should designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organization...." Hillary Clinton, whose antipathy toward the IRGC appears greater than her antipathy toward George Bush, supported the amendment.

On questions relating to Israel and to the peace process, all three candidates have spoken enthusiastically about Israel's defense and about the need to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. None has been particularly identified with the issue and only McCain has been consistently pro-Israel. Before her political career, Mrs. Clinton's most famous non-statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict consisted of an ill-chosen peck on Suha Arafat's cheek in the wake of Arafat's suggestion that Israel used poison gas on Palestinian civilians. Since then, she has carefully embraced a pro-Israel line that has deviated little from that of well known peace processors and friends of Israel such as Dennis Ross. Both she and McCain support the separation wall.

Obama is much more of an unknown; some suggest that he was no friend to Israel before the gleam of the presidency shone in his eye. They point to an unconfirmed but oft-repeated comment to the effect that he would be more "up front" about his pro-Palestinian sympathies once political constraints were off. Publicly, however, Obama has been virtually indistinguishable from his opponents. True, he has friends who are well known for their anti-Israel views and advisors who have suggested that the Iraq war was, at least in part, motivated by the "special interests" of Jews. Yet he has other advisors who are thoughtful supporters of the Jewish state.

Finally, there's the question of terrorism. On this matter, each candidate is open to charges of inconsistency. McCain asserts that the United States military should not enter Pakistan, which most experts and intelligence analysts agree is now the heartland of al-Qaeda. Clinton argues that the United States should increase aid to Pakistan. And Obama has suggested the US might invade.

How to resolve these mixed messages? Obama believes an invasion of Iran is not appropriate, but one of Pakistan is? Clinton is irate about the Iranian regime, but not Pakistan's, which has turned a blind eye to terrorism? McCain supports isolating Iran, a continued US presence in Iraq and a hard line on other terror groups, but believes President Musharaf is an ally? These positions are hard, nay impossible to reconcile. More dissonant still, Barack Obama believes he, as US president, should sit and jaw with Syrian and Iranian dictators, but should bomb Peshawar?

Because American elections do not (for the most part) reward risk taking, parsing between the candidates is a continuous challenge. As a result, political soothsayers analyze the candidates' foreign policy advisors: Obama mainstay Zbigniew Brzezinski and Clinton money-man Hassan Nemazee met with Bashar al-Assad only days after the assassination of master terrorist Imad Mughniyeh. McCain advisor Richard Armitage once referred to Iran as a democracy.

Does it matter? The coming decade in the Middle East promises serious threats and uncertain transitions. New leaders will take power in Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Iran will likely have nuclear weapons. Hizballah will grow as Lebanon falters.

Does experience matter in steeling America to national security challenges? Some suggest that it is difficult for any American president to do harm or to radically change the course of American foreign policy, enmeshed as he or she is in a permanent bureaucracy and constrained by the Congress and the mores of the foreign policy establishment. Others argue that only a fresh and conciliatory approach to friend and enemy alike can ensure America's safety. And conservatives, as is their wont, will argue that only a strong America, true to its principles and cognizant of its enemies can protect the nation.

Perhaps a better way to ask the question is to ponder this: Who will be best in the White House should the American homeland come under attack as it did on 9/11, as it assuredly will again? From Beirut, Riyadh or Jerusalem, the answer may be different. From Washington, it seems quite clear.- Published 21/2/2008 bitterlemons-international.org

Danielle Pletka is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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