The victory of John Kerry in the Democratic Party primaries following Super Tuesday this week leads to an observation. To a remarkable degree, the urgent desire to deny George W. Bush a second term in the White House has papered over the schisms in the broad Democrat church, even enticing many members of renegade sects back into the fold.

A lesser tenet in the “anybody but Bush” catechism is that a Democrat, any Democrat, would perforce clean up the mess that Bush has made in the Middle East. At first, those candidates who are incumbent congressmen shied away from substantive criticism of the Bush administration’s Iraqi adventure or its imperial “forward strategy of freedom” for the Arab-Islamic world. Then, to blunt the appeal of Vermont Governor Howard Dean to party activists, Washington Democratic insiders gradually adopted his rhetoric.

To launch a war against Iraq without key European allies was to “blunder down the false road of empire,” intoned Kerry at the Council on Foreign Relations in December 2003. Democratization of the Middle East, Kerry continued, “must be rooted in the aspirations of the people who live there, not in Republican political ideology.” The Kerry campaign’s website echoes another standard Democratic line by accusing Bush of “ignoring or downplaying” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps such statements are just shots of vanilla syrup for the latte-sipping liberals who, in the era of Bush, have licensed themselves to think more deeply about America’s role in the world. But in 2004, maybe even more than in other recent presidential campaigns, that is not the point.

During the 1996 and 2000 campaigns, a sizable number of progressives, some under the banner of Ralph Nader and some not, preached that there was not “a dime’s worth of difference” between Republicans and Democrats on most major issues of the day. On Middle East policy, particularly as regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the case is not much harder to make than in the past. If many Americans believe that the Bush administration has drawn the US perilously close to the strategic vision of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for Israel-Palestine, the fact is that few in the Democratic establishment have objected.

As if to underscore the point, Brown University’s Students for Israel recently published a brief article by Kerry under the title “The Cause of Israel Is the Cause of America.” Of his own trip to Israel, the Massachusetts senator wrote: “I went as a friend by conviction; I returned a friend at the deepest personal level.”

Last week, Kerry defended Israel’s right to build its West Bank separation barrier after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed eight people in Jerusalem. “Israel’s security fence is a legitimate act of self-defense,” he said. This contrasted with an earlier statement he made to an Arab-American audience last fall, where he described it as a “barrier to peace.” At a meeting last Sunday with the leaders of 40 American Jewish organizations, Kerry expanded on the policies he would pursue in the Middle East. According to one participant, “he painted a picture that a Kerry presidency would be more engaged” on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Expressions of near filial attachment to Israel are common for big-league presidential candidates. Arguably, Kerry never went as far as Al Gore, who regaled the crowd at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy dinner in May 2000 with the story of a meeting between Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and US Ambassador Ogden Reid. When Reid arrived to find Ben-Gurion standing on his head practicing yoga, he quickly followed suit so that the men could begin their discussion. Gore extracted the following moral: ”Even if the world is turned upside down, the United States and Israel will see eye to eye.”

By themselves, pro-Israel electioneering and other generalities of the campaign trail do not reveal a candidate’s policy predilections. Such glorified talking points as the “plan for winning the peace in Iraq” on Kerry’s website are intended more to immunize the candidate from Republican criticism that he has no plan than to assert what he would actually do as president. After all, if Bush’s handlers have their way, by the end of the summer voters will believe that most of Kerry’s plans — “returning to the international community,” “transferring political power” and “rebuilding Iraqi security forces” — are missions accomplished.

It is more instructive to look at the foreign policy advisers whom the major candidates are consulting. Both Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who until Tuesday was Kerry’s sole remaining challenger, are allied with one-time policymakers from the two Clinton administrations. The most prominent one, in Kerry’s case, is former Defense Secretary William Perry and was, for Edwards, the former US ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke.

To be sure, there are differences between the Middle East outlooks of Clintonite neo-liberals and the neo-conservatives who infamously came to dominate foreign policy decision-making in the Bush White House. Distinctions are apparent in Kerry’s suggestion that he would dispatch Bill Clinton himself to broker a new accord between Israel and the Palestinians. The Bush approach of alternately sending low-level envoys or none at all has essentially allowed Sharon to drive events. Kerry’s Council on Foreign Relations speech also contained a pledge to pursue “a realistic, non-confrontational policy” toward Iran — a slap at the neo-conservatives’ belligerent “axis of evil” coinage. But could Kerry really go back to Clinton’s policies if he takes office in January 2005?

On the two central Middle East policy questions of the 1990s, both the subject of perennial vacillation on the part of Clinton, as Bush would say: “We acted.” Partly because the US refused to intervene positively, the Oslo “peace process” was destroyed. Even though Bush committed the US more explicitly than ever before to the creation of a Palestinian state, the two-state solution envisioned at Oslo now appears to be the least likely outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was overthrown and the US is the main occupying power.

Perhaps most crucially, the September 11, 2001 attacks awakened Americans to the possible consequences of 35 years of bipartisan winking at both “moderate” authoritarian Arab regimes and the Israeli occupation. The crisis management that characterized US Middle East policy under both Democrats and Republicans is a harder sell than it was before most Americans knew of the crisis. Meanwhile, the neo-conservatives, in perhaps unconscious homage to their Marxist intellectual roots, “sharpened the contradictions” in the structural crisis inherent in the Middle East in order to resolve it, but only succeeded in making things worse.

Should Kerry prevail at the polls, Middle East policy will remain a major political issue, but it will be difficult to spin him as an innocent stuck with Bush’s mess. Kerry (like Edwards) gave the White House carte blanche for its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Iraq he offers no convincing “exit strategy.” Nor has he shown any leadership in opposing the Bush administration’s coddling of Sharon. Recall that Kerry leapt eagerly at Dean’s throat when he prescribed an otherwise anodyne “evenhandedness” for US diplomacy toward Israel and the Palestinians.

A Democratic presidency would certainly clip the neo-conservatives’ wings, but it would hold no visible prospect for deep structural change in US Middle East policy. Regarding the region, perhaps the greatest hopes of a Democratic presidency are that the essential continuities between the parties will be exposed, and that Americans will finally demand politicians willing to address the multiple hearts of the matter.

How to cite this article:

Chris Toensing "If Kerry Wins, Little Will Change in US Middle East Policy," Middle East Report Online, March 01, 2004.

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