The New Bush Administration and Middle East Realities

By Hajjar, Sami G. | Contemporary Review, January 2001 | Go to article overview
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The New Bush Administration and Middle East Realities


Hajjar, Sami G., Contemporary Review


IN a nutshell, 'support for Israel' constituted the Middle East foreign policy prescription of presidential candidates Gore and Bush. Now that the elections are over, the incoming administration has an opportunity to re-evaluate U.S. Middle East policy in light of the Palestinian intifadah or uprising that began in September 2000. This new intifadah disrupted the peace process and damaged U.S. standing in the Gulf and the rest of the region. The attack on the USS Cole was but the latest expression of opposition to U.S. engagement in the region. Regardless of the ultimate direction of U.S. Middle East policy, the new administration will have to account for the following regional realities and perspectives that have become manifest during the two Clinton administrations if it is to conduct a successful foreign policy.

There are three overarching realities about the region that help explain current events and sentiments in the area. The first is that the peoples of the region have a very long history characterized by the succession of many different civilizations, languages, and traditions, that cannot be ignored as the region deals with the shaping challenges that are gradually ushering it into the contemporary requirements of political and economic life. This reality means that most peoples in the region wish their transitions to politically more democratic and free societies, and to an economically more prosperous and egalitarian future to be done on their own terms and timetables. It also means that American and Western political and economic paradigms are not necessarily the optimal approaches for the region's transformation. And yet, as globalization takes hold, the peoples of the region and those in America and the West are becoming increasingly interdependent mandating mutual critical understanding of their interre lationships.

The second reality pertains to the geo-strategic character of the Middle East as a diverse area made up of regional subsystems. Some subsystems have a greater potential for integration and cooperation such as the various Arab states who share many common cultural and historical traits that ideologically they could be referred to as an 'Arab nation'. Others - such as Israel, Iran, and Turkey - are obviously not Arab, although the majority of Iranians and Turks, like the majority of Arabs, are Islamic peoples. The distinction between Arab and nonArab, and distinctions among the Arab states such as moderate and radical, rich and poor, traditional and progressive, republics and monarchies, Maghribi, Khaliji, and Levantine, and so on, suggest subsystems that are more conducive to exclusion, competition, and conflict. Unfortunately, the latter types of subsystems are more prevalent in the region. This second reality should be a sobering reminder that a region-wide NATO-type security regime is not a possibility any time in the near future.

The third reality is a direct consequence of the end of the cold war that in turn terminated superpower rivalry conducted through regional clients. The absence of a superpower patron points to an increasing trend whereby the nature of conflict in the region is moving away from interstate type of conflict such as the familiar Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973, to a new form of conflict where non-state actors as parties to violence are becoming more common. Obvious examples include Hizbollah's irregular war with Israel in south Lebanon, the irregular activities of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the terrorist attacks by radical Islamic groups in Algeria, incidents by various terrorist groups across the region, and the recent intifadah with its implications for the peace process, as well as for Israeli and American relations with the Islamic world. This new reality means that the region's political leadership and militaries now face a challenge of irregular forms of civil violence and conflict.

The new American administration has to try to formulate a policy capable of exploring security approaches better suited to manipulate the 'postmodern' form of regional conflict.

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