John McCain

In Stable Condition

Why a new administration won't mean a new Middle East policy

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For months, we've been hearing the presidential candidates promise American voters "change." But as the U.S. primaries move beyond their half-way point, here is a prediction: Whoever becomes president in 2008 will pursue the same policies as the Bush administration in the Middle East, because there is little latitude to do otherwise.

Iraq is the rare regional issue about which one sees some sunshine between the candidates' positions. On the Republican side, John McCain's view is similar to that of the Bush administration. The war has to be won, and the military "surge", which McCain backed, has been a success. For the Republican frontrunner, "a greater military commitment now is necessary if we are to achieve long-term success … [and] give Iraqis the capabilities to govern and secure their own country." McCain prefers honesty to deadlines, and believes Americans need to be told that the war will be a long one, because "defeat … would lead to much more violence in Iraq, greatly embolden Iran, undermine U.S. allies such as Israel, likely lead to wider conflict, result in a terrorist safe haven in the heart of the Middle East, and gravely damage U.S. credibility throughout the world."

Mike Huckabee's chances of being nominated are so slender as to make a rundown of his Middle East policies unnecessary. But on the whole, his approach to Iraq is little different than that of the administration. He too supports the surge, opposes establishing a withdrawal schedule, and sees the war in Iraq as part of the war on terror.

The Democrats, in contrast, have focused their Iraq strategy on setting a withdrawal timetable. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton promise to begin an immediate pullout of troops after their election. Obama wants to do this at the rate of one or two brigades every month, to be completed by the end of 2009. Clinton is less specific, but promises to direct the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the defense secretary, and the National Security Council "to draw up a clear, viable plan to bring our troops home starting with the first 60 days" of her administration.

Both candidates leave themselves wiggle room in the event they win the presidency. As Clinton understands, drawing up a plan to remove troops is different than setting a deadline for finalizing a withdrawal. The senator also intends to stabilize Iraq as American soldiers head home. But that link between stability and withdrawal can cut both ways. If a pullout generates instability, this would undermine the logic of Clinton's plan, justifying a delay. Indeed, both she and Obama have waffled on whether they would go ahead with a withdrawal in such a case. When the Illinois senator was asked by 60 Minutes whether he would stick to his timetable even if there was sectarian violence, he replied: "No, I always reserve, as commander in chief, the right to assess the situation."

The candidates also differ over whether to engage Syria and Iran in assisting to normalize Iraq. Obama has often said he would talk to the two countries, while Clinton vows to "convene a regional stabilization group composed of key allies, other global powers, and all of the states bordering Iraq." McCain disagrees, refusing to enter into "unconditional dialogues with these two dictatorships from a position of weakness." He insists that "the international community [needs] to apply real pressure to Syria and Iran to change their behavior."

Much of this is bluster. For Obama, the rationale to talk to Syria has declined since Iraqi tribes began defeating Al-Qaeda in Anbar province. The Syrian card in Iraq is much weaker than it was when the senator first formulated the idea, making the political cost of opening up to Damascus—at a time when it is actively undermining Lebanese sovereignty and is isolated in the Arab world—significantly higher. Clinton's proposal, meanwhile, is mostly old hat. Iraq's neighbors already meet periodically to discuss the situation in the country, and the U.S. too has participated in these gatherings. As for McCain, his instincts are right, but he has no good reason to abandon the current dialogue taking place between Iran and the U.S. in Baghdad. The Iraqis back it and it might calm the situation on the ground.

In the shadow of Iran's growing power in the Gulf, there is no realistic withdrawal option in Iraq. The United States fought a war against Saddam Hussein's army in 1991 to deny Iraq hegemony over the oil-rich region after the invasion of Kuwait. That goal hasn't changed with respect to Iran. Washington is boosting arms sales to its Gulf allies, but knows that without a U.S. military presence such assistance only has a limited impact. The U.S. also continues to warn of Iran's nuclear ambitions, with even Russia openly questioning why Iran needs intercontinental ballistic missiles if it doesn't seek a nuclear military capacity.

There is also the matter of Israel. All the candidates loudly support the security of Israel, which regards Iran's nuclear capacity as a strategic threat. To cede ground to Iran in Iraq could harm Israeli interests, justifying the candidates' eventually backtracking on withdrawal.

In the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, don't expect much new either. All the candidates support negotiations (who wouldn't?) and Israel's right to live in peace and security. Depending on who gets elected, the president might push a bit more or a bit less for a se ttlement. But the U.S. has limited scope to do very much, because, more than ever before, the dynamics of the process are much less Washington's to manipulate.

The Palestinian territories are physically and ideologically divided, with rival Hamas and Fatah governments ruling over Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas offers a menu of armed struggle, while the mainstream Fatah movement (the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) defends peace talks. But Israel, wracked by its own internal divisions, will not significantly bolster Fatah's fortunes by ceasing settlement building until the Palestinians put their house in order. Palestinian moderates respond that unless Israel makes serious concessions, they will lose all credibility. It's a Catch-22, and U.S. pressure to force a solution would only exacerbate internal contradictions in both societies.

Facing such obstacles, a new administration can, at best, actively pursue the negotiating process in the hope that some breakthrough will take place. But that's what the Bush administration is already doing today.

A new administration is also as unlikely as the present one to subordinate political interests to defending freedom and human rights. President George W. Bush is as good as it gets on that front. He may be responsible for what, until recently, was a full-blown fiasco in Iraq, but his actions did overthrow a tyrant, while in Lebanon the U.S. played a key role in forcing the Syrians out of the country. But Bush's rhetoric on liberty notwithstanding, the deterioration in Iraq and Iran's rise have prompted him to again rely on autocratic U.S. allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan as a counterweight. This situation will only persist in a polarized Middle East, and none of the presidential candidates has expressed particular displeasure with Bush's conduct on this front.

Things are more likely to change, however, on the specific issue of how to deal with terrorist suspects. None of the candidates care for the Bush administration's "extraordinary rendition" policy, or its ambiguous position on torture. This will have a marginal impact on human rights in general in the region, but discontinuing such practices will be sold by a new administration as a sign that America cares, even as Arab regimes resort to their old habits by brutalizing their foes.

On Lebanon, expect little transformation as well. The country is not high on the list of priorities of any of the candidates, which means that no one feels strongly about altering the current approach. To quote a former U.S. ambassador in Beirut, Washington for once has a Lebanon policy. It is mainly focused on consolidating the gains of the so-called Cedar Revolution of 2005. This means that the U.S. will continue to block escalating Syrian efforts to return to Lebanon; it will pursue efforts to contain Hezbollah and limit its military activity, particularly through the United Nations; and it will press forward with the Lebanese-international court now being set up in The Hague to try suspects in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Though continuity is likely, candidates will sell this as difference. For example, recently Obama issued a statement on the occasion of the third anniversary of the Hariri assassination. The senator praised the Cedar Revolution, condemned Syrian actions in Lebanon, and backed U.N. resolutions seeking to prevent Hezbollah from rearming. However, he framed his proposals as a stark contrast with those of the Bush administration. But what Obama prescribed was almost exactly what the administration has been doing for the past three years.

That's very much a paradigm for how all the candidates approach the Middle East: they differentiate themselves from Bush without acknowledging that even his administration has been compelled in the last three years to behave like its predecessors, once the supposed neoconservative interregnum ended. The region has always been adept at imposing its rhythms on others as a means of resisting change. Barring something dramatic, none of the candidates will disturb that stasis.

Contributing Editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.

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  1. This is neat, as I swear I was driving in the car today and thinking that I had not seen Michael Young in a while here, and thought “I wonder who he wants to invade now? Arkansas (look at those dangerous theocratic results for Huckabee)?”

  2. I’d support an invasion of Arkansas.

  3. I’d support an invasion of Arkansas.

    Because they lack a justice system, I recommend that Mississsippi go to the top of the list.

    Priorities, folks.

  4. Dear Reason,
    Pretty please, with sugar on top, find someone new to cover the Mid East. Someone without family in the region. Honestly, Jessica Simpson would be an improvement.

    Not cancel my subscription… yet
    Warren

  5. Because they lack a justice system, I recommend that Mississsippi go to the top of the list.

    Actually, Arkansas, Mississippi, and some other states were “invaded” by troops under federal command back in the civil rights days.

  6. I love how everyone on Hit and Run, none of whom have so much as set foot in the region all run down Michael Young, someone who has lived and worked there for God knows how long.

    Dear Reason,

    Could you pretty please with sugar on top make sure that Warren never has to listen to anything he doesn’t want to hear no matter how true? It makes him really uncomfortable and creates the danger that a rational thought might float through his mind.

    Thanks and still not subscribing

    John

  7. Can you believe a word they say?
    Yes in the case of Iraq, no on anything else

    And does it matter?
    Yes in the case of Iraq, no on anything else.

    In the shadow of Iran’s growing power in the Gulf, there is no realistic withdrawal option in Iraq. The United States fought a war against Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991 to deny Iraq hegemony over the oil-rich region after the invasion of Kuwait. That goal hasn’t changed with respect to Iran.

    I’m sure glad we haven’t allowed Iran to establish hegemony over the middle east in this past decade. Otherwise oil prices might have doubled or tripled. Oh wait.

    Seriously, this talk of Iran hegemony is way overblown. Are they our friends? No. Do they act contrary to US interests? Yes. Do they bear watching? Yes.

    But, does the state of their economy help or hinder their ability to increase their geopolitical power? Oil helps, but with other structural problems, my answer overall would be ‘hinder’

    The Saudi’s Kuwaiti’s and other gulf states would unite to form a counterbalance to any perceived outsized growth in Iranian power. Iran has few natural allies in the region: (portions) of Iraq, (portions) of Palestine/Lebanon and (very small) portions of Pakistan. I believe more agressively aiding these portions to leverage and consolidate power will *increase* the intesity of conflicts in these areas – which would actually *decrease* the power of Iran.

    I mean, what’s the worse case scenario now: an open civil war in Iraq, right? And so Iran gets openly involved on the side of its allies in the east. Which motivates its enemies, who remeber the Iraq/Iran war the same way 1938 Germans would remeber Versailles. So yeah, Iran may get a hold of a little more oil, but they also get a hold of a whole lot of clusterfuck. Much like someone else I know.

  8. I think that history shows rather clearly that real-world conditions and institutional imperatives override any philosophical leanings Presidents might have had before they entered office. As a result, US foreign policy does not vary significantly with the change of Presidents.

    Johnson strongly opposed Kennedy’s intervention in Indochina yet found himself fighting the war he personally opposed. Reagan’s military buildup actually began in the last year of Carter’s administration, Bush’s pre-9/11 counter terrorism policy did not differ significantly from Clinton’s.

    We often emotionally invest in Presidents far more power and discretion than the office and conditions actually allow.

  9. “The Saudi’s Kuwaiti’s and other gulf states would unite to form a counterbalance to any perceived outsized growth in Iranian power. Iran has few natural allies in the region: (portions) of Iraq, (portions) of Palestine/Lebanon and (very small) portions of Pakistan. I believe more agressively aiding these portions to leverage and consolidate power will *increase* the intesity of conflicts in these areas – which would actually *decrease* the power of Iran.”

    If Iran has nukes, they can unite all they want and it won’t do them a bit of good. As long as Iran stays conventionally armed, you are right. But if they get nukes and put them on ballistic missiles, all bets are off. At that point they can pretty much play local bad boy about all they want. They can just stop screwing around and execute any of their population that doesn’t agree with them, what the hell is the rest of the world going to do about it? Start a nuclear war? Stop buying their oil? Not likely. They can also terrorize any of their enemies in the region with impunity and fun any terror group they like with no worries of retaliation. Right now if an Iranian sponsored terror group hit the US or Europe hard, we could do another Kosovo like campaign and bomb them into submission or at least hurt them very bad. If Iran had nukes, would anyone risk a nuclear war with them by attacking them no matter how provocative their actions? Again, not likely. Nuclear weapons are the Mullahs get out of jail free card. They have everything to gain by getting them and nothing to lose by trying.

  10. That is very true Shannan Love. A President Obama or Clinton or McCain is not getting out of Iraq. If anything Iraq is a bigger problem for Clinton and Obama because once President they will face a revolt from the get the US out of North America wing of their party if they don’t get out of IRaq quick, something neither one of them will be able to do.

  11. I think that history shows rather clearly that real-world conditions and institutional imperatives override any philosophical leanings Presidents might have had before they entered office.

    In the street vernacular, I’d like to say “Booya”. I don’t know what prompted the two minutes hate on Michael Young, his article was merely a lengthy observation on how a new administration will treat the Middle East, not a treatise on how Mr. Young thinks it should be done.

    But maybe articles with big words confuse.

  12. Outside of the Iraq issue, for which “clusterfuck” is an appropriate description, I don’t think it really matters what steps any of the candidates advocate. The Middle East was a treacherous snakepit when the Roman legions were tromping around the region, it remains so today, and it will be so long after everyone reading this is gone. Our foreign policy should emphasize not getting involved in every regional pissing match. Oil, on the other hand, is important to us for the foreseeable future, and there’s nothing wrong with protecting that interest.

    Personally, I couldn’t give a shit whether the Judean People’s Front or the People’s Front of Judea has the final say over the “Holy Land.” It’s highest and best use would probably be as a giant parking lot.

  13. John-
    Nukes are a problem (so is ICBM technology). I do not wish Iran to get either of them at this point.

    But Young’s thesis in that part of his article was

    “The US cannot pull out of Iraq because it needs to stay there to counteract and prevent Iran hegenomy”

    So if Nukes are the only way Iran can get hegenomy, the question is does the US staying in Iraq help, hurt, or make no difference in Iran obtaining Nukes?

    I do not see a solid case for our presence in Iraq interdicting the ability for Iran to get nukes – and it defintely does not deter them from trying

  14. “So if Nukes are the only way Iran can get hegenomy, the question is does the US staying in Iraq help, hurt, or make no difference in Iran obtaining Nukes?”

    I think the US staying in Iraq doesn’t make a difference in that regard. Long term it does because Iraq is the other natural power of the region. Short term, no. We could stay or go from Iraq and we still face the same problems with Iran.

  15. I love how everyone on Hit and Run, none of whom have so much as set foot in the region all run down Michael Young, someone who has lived and worked there for God knows how long.

    and you know this how?

  16. I lived there. For, like, 22 years!

  17. I skimmed through the whole thing and was wondering, what a waste of time that was reading it. Did anyone see anything new?

  18. Actually, Arkansas, Mississippi, and some other states were “invaded” by troops under federal command back in the civil rights days.

    Given your hyperbole of “invasion” during the civil rights day, I take it you think forcing the rednecks to obey the law was a bad thing.

    Am I right?

  19. The region has always been adept at imposing its rhythms on others as a means of resisting change.

    That’s what locals always try to do vis a vis “hegemonic” or centralizing powers. The middle east is in no way unique as far as this is concerned.

  20. Calidore-

    Plus, it is the leaders (and their backers) who do not want change. The people? You bet!

  21. Ali,

    I suspect that some of “the people” want “change” that many might find problematic. Change via the fashion of Peter the Great or via the masses has never been a wholely satisfactory endeavor (and it has often been quite unsavory).

  22. Plus, it is the leaders (and their backers) who do not want change. The people? You bet!

    Ali, are “the people” what the mainstream media tediously refer to as “Arab Street”?

    What change, pray tell, does “Arab Street” want? I’ve been following Middle East politics for decades and frankly, I can’t tell.

  23. John,

    Ah yes now I see. All that inconvenient truth has made me irrational. And here I was thinking everything about the Mid East made me equally uncomfortable.

    Now I see how Micheal Young living and working in the region for “God knows how long” gives him credibility, and couldn’t possibly prejudice his reporting.

    Thanks for setting me straight. From now on, nothing but rational thoughts for me!

    Warren

  24. What change, pray tell, does “Arab Street” want? I’ve been following Middle East politics for decades and frankly, I can’t tell.

    The “Arab street” is not a monolithic group. Different people want different things just like the rest of the world. You have your typical socialists, religious zealots, corporatist, well-fair queens, nationalists, etc, etc,.

  25. Can you believe a word Michael Young writes? And does it matter?

  26. Calidore- Some of the things the people may want are indeed going to be problematic. But we can’t say that all of what the people want is going to be problematic. It is like killing the bear with the bee (or whatever the two animals in that story were).

    Paul- They want many things. It could be things that any person anywhere in the where wants: jobs, better economy, freedoms (including religious), etc. Some of what they want may be problematic, but see my comment to Calidore. Also, have you heard of the “kifaya” movement? It is one example of what the Arab street wants. It is easy to believe that all what the Arab street wants are throwing Israel into the ocean and defeat the “devil”. That is only part of what some of the people want. Neither do all people want that, nor these are the only things some want.

  27. As an example, the Arab street does not want this. It only takes reading the Arabic version to find out how badly many Arabs do want freedom.

  28. Just two observations. First, Mr Young has acquired a justified reputation for being, well, wrong. And since many of the regulars here were right when it came to Iraq, a certain degree of skepticism is only proper. In this particular case – and this should in no way be construed as an endorsement of any other articles by Mr Young, past or present – I’m inclined to think that he has an excellent point. The Middle East has been a ratfuck for three millenia at least, so why should we expect that to change in the next four years?

    Second, although my personal tally cannot compare to Ali’s, I lived in Egypt for four years, and have travelled in Israel, Jordan, Syria, the UAE, Bahrain, Turkey and Cyprus. So I’m thinking that at some point I must have set foot in the region, not so?

  29. I avoid all articles by Reason contributors with the surname “Young”. This rule has served me well over the years.

  30. You have your typical socialists, religious zealots, corporatist, well-fair queens, nationalists, etc, etc,.

    Anon, so we’re no closer to gleaning the “change” the “the people” want than we were 10 minutes ago, five years ago, 500 years ago. Cool, now I know it wasn’t just me.

  31. I love how everyone on Hit and Run, none of whom have so much as set foot in the region all run down Michael Young, someone who has lived and worked there for God knows how long.

    That’s absolutely FUCKING right. Where were you guys when I was standing on a street corner in Abu Dhabi during a sandstorm in 1982 handing out pro-democracy fliers, huh? And I couldn’t even check out the chicks walking by on the street for fun, cause they’re all wearing burqas!

    And whose tent do you think the Saudi Liberty Caucus got started in? Me again! And you call yourselves libertarians?!

  32. Very well done, crimethink, very well done indeed! Al-Dandarawi (kinda close) is actually a famous family name in Egypt, fwiw.

  33. The Middle East has been a ratfuck for three millenia at least…

    I would just observe that at times the middle east has been a fine place to live. For example, in many ways Parthia (at its height) wasn’t a bad place to be born in.

  34. Lousy place to be a Republican Roman soldier in, however. The Imps did a bit better. (And sure, that was a generalisation – but the region has had its share of troubles. I’m not sure Mesopotamia ever really recovered from the Mongols passing through, and the coastal strip from Antioch to Gaza has been worked over by just about significant power in the history of the eastern Med. Poor chaps.)

  35. Just to point out:
    1. Division among Palestinians as justification for inaction to get Israel comply with the rule of law is a red herring. The schism between Fatah and Hamas was engineered and nutured by the US at Israel’s behest.
    2. Presidential elections in the US are nothing more than a charade for selection of a potential puppet in possession of a bonding agent for glueing presidential lips to Israel’s backside. Wake up, America.
    3. When the US Federal Bank is back in public ownership and DC has been decontaminated from the neocons, there will be change for the better; until then it doesn’t matter who occupies the Oval Office, even a monkey can order compliance with Israel’s whims!

  36. Why is Michael young a correspondent for Reason Magazine? His writings seem sober, fair, and well-informed, and his conclusion (that not much would change in American policy toward the Middle East no matter who becomes president) is well-supported. This is the sort of analysis one would expect to find in Foreign Affairs. But if Ron Paul and his supporters are any indication, the tendency of Reasonoids and Libertarians generally is to see Iraq as a Tri-lateral plot and the Neo-Conservatives and Realists (both of whom often draw Young’s approval) as statist proto-Faschists. One can see Young working in a McCain (or a Clinton) administration. One can hardly see most of the Reason editorial board working for anyone other than Ron Paul.

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