More of the Same Is Bad News in Middle East

JERUSALEM – Most reactions in the Middle East to the reelection of U.S. President George W. Bush have ranged from the caustic to the cautious. Rejoicing has been rare.

Only Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Iraq’s U.S. appointed interim prime minister Iyad Allawi wholeheartedly welcomed the election of their firm ally in the White House.

Bush also received dubious welcome from several fundamentalist groups in the Middle East. They say Bush’s continued presidency will make it easier to find recruits to fight Americans.

The so-called moderate, or pro-Western, Arab regimes have extended the usual formal congratulations but not much more. Ailing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was said by aides to have expressed worry.

Nowhere is the impact of Bush’s foreign policy felt more directly than in the Middle East and the Arab world. This is the region that brought forth the 9/11 perpetrators. In Iraq, U.S. forces are involved in a bitter, bloody, and seemingly interminable conflict.

Bush has not turned out at all the way many Arabs had hoped four years ago. He was seen then as the political heir of his father, who was a coalition-builder, who put pressure on Israel, and who showed restraint by not marching on Baghdad after Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait.

This Bush has proved himself a unilateralist guided by ideological impulses who seems to value his ties with Israel above anything else. Arabs see him as a leader who disdains the very notion of restraint when it comes to seeing through objectives he says he believes in..

In the Arab and Muslim world, many nowadays exhibit a visceral hatred of Bush. But this might have been the fate of almost any U.S. president who would have had to react to an unprecedented attack on American soil emanating from the Middle East.

Even though it is now hypothetical, John Kerry may have changed the tone of his approach to the Middle East, but few had expected him to change the substance of U.S. policies. Both candidates had expressed strong support for Israel.

With an increased majority and for the first time a firm mandate from the American people, many in the Middle East expect more of the same from Bush as in the first four years; if anything, only more so.

The American people have not punished him for a debilitating war in Iraq, nor for presiding over the deadlock in the Middle East peace process. Bush has given his personal guarantees to Israel over the retention of some settlement blocks, acquiesced in the construction of the separation barrier on the West Bank, and tolerated Israel’s military action against the Palestinians, invoking time and again Israel’s "legitimate right to self-defense."

This is a president who is not given to admitting mistakes or changing his mind. His personal loyalty to those he deals with is by now legendary, so there is little chance he will seriously alter his policies toward Israel.

Nevertheless, there are several points where change is still possible. Israel’s own ministry of foreign affairs concluded in an internal memo on the eve of the U.S. election that either candidate was likely to put pressure on the country over the dismantling of the so-called unauthorized outposts, small hilltop settlements set up without the formal approval of the government.

Bush may indeed pressure Israel on this point, as it goes back to commitments that Ariel Sharon has given him. And if one thing has become clear over the past four years, it is that Bush cannot stand being made a fool of.

Then there is the future of Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian leader has become something of a personal obstacle to peace in the eyes of Bush. And Bush has taken his cue from Sharon in declaring that the United States can do no business with Arafat.

In the case of Sharon this may be purely ideological, a way of getting out of having to negotiate with the Palestinians. In the case of Bush, the obstacle may disappear when the person disappears.

He may even be keen to do business with a new Palestinian leadership – what better way than an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal to be remembered for, always a consideration in a second term.

But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a mess he inherited, Iraq is a mess he got his country into. The future of that country will likely determine the success of the foreign affairs part of his presidency.

Much will depend on whether Bush chooses to concentrate more on domestic or foreign affairs the next four years.

Despite all the rhetoric of the war on terrorism, he may well not seek to make his mark in foreign policy. With the increase in Republican strength in the U.S. Congress, he has a unique opportunity to push through conservative measures that may have a much more lasting impact on the lives of Americans than his foreign involvements.

For the United States under Bush to admit outright defeat in Iraq is unlikely, but an eventual redeployment that will reduce the number of U.S. casualties in the field is not unthinkable if Bush decides he has nothing to gain by staying.

His wider Greater Middle East Initiative meant to bring democracy to the region seems to have died a quiet death. Bush is nothing if not practical, and while the initiative may have had propaganda value, his administration has very little patience with nation-building.

The anti-American mood in the Middle East is by now a given; it would be a mistake to say it is a recent phenomenon that started after 9/11 or to blame it all on Bush. But much of it now is personally directed at the man who will be president for another four years, and there seems to be little chance this will change as long as he is there.