In Stable Condition

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


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.