Deciphering George W Bush's Middle East Policy

By Norton, Andre | The Middle East, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Deciphering George W Bush's Middle East Policy


Norton, Andre, The Middle East


After winning the American presidential election almost six weeks late, George W Bush was understandably anxious not to delay in making his key foreign and defence policy appointments.

As expected, Colin Powell, the joint chiefs of staff' chairman during the 1991 Gulf War became secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice, a Russian expert, took the national security advisor post.

More of a surprise was the appointment of Donald Rumsfeld as defence secretary, his second time in the office. He first served as the Pentagon chief under President Gerald Ford between 1975 and 1977 and ever since has worked in the private sector, although he did chair an investigation into ballistic missile threats to the US in 1998.

Coupled with the presence of the former Gulf War Defence Secretary, Dick Cheney, as Vice President, American commentators saw the appointments as Bush's answer to those much-voiced concerns about his foreign policy expertise.

Working out what these four people and President Bush himself plan for the Middle East is much harder. Apart from the ritual statements of support for Israel during the campaign, the Bush foreign and defence policy team has been giving few clues.

As it prepared to take power in late-January, the Bush administration was particularly keen not to comment on President Clinton's last-ditch efforts to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal -- although it was receiving regular briefings on the discussions. Some Middle East analysts have speculated as to whether President Bush will as committed to the issue as his predecessor. In the run-up to his inauguration, a Bush spokesmen refused to comment, saying only that the United States must `speak with one voice'.

With so little to go on, Middle East experts have been forced to pore over the backgrounds of the key officials and to speculate as to what exactly the word `re-energise' means. That was the one tiny policy-pointer thrown out by Secretary of State Colin Powell on the day of his appointment. Asked about Iraq, he appeared to be preparing the ground for a harder line when he said: "We will work with our allies to re-energise the sanctions regime."

Powell had not clarified the comment any further by the time The Middle East went to press, but the reality on the ground is that the UN embargo on Iraq is crumbling by the day. An attempt to tighten the sanctions now -- or perhaps to impose new ones -- could be like trying to plug a leaking dam.

More than 100 foreign aircraft have flown to Baghdad since the middle of 2000, undermining the spirit of the sanctions, if not the letter, and making it clear that many governments both inside and outside the Middle East want to see them lifted.

Iraq, of course, has tried to encourage flights and other contacts as much as possible, hoping to divide the rest of the world against the US and Britain -- still the chief supporters of the embargo, now in its 11th year.

Even London can no longer be counted on to take a hard line on every aspect of Iraq policy. There have been indications that the Blair government is seeking an alternative approach to sanctions, perhaps focusing on just a few military-related areas. It is also reported to be considering ending British participation in patrols of the no-fly zone over southern Iraq, imposed in 1992.

A British government official subsequently dismissed these reports, but it is highly likely that the idea has been discussed. As some have pointed out, changes in British foreign and defence policy often follow this pattern: the idea is first floated, then denied, and then introduced in a slightly different form several months later.

How much weight the Bush White House will give to Britain's view as it formulates its policy on Iraq remains to be seen. But it will be very conscious of what an embarrassment Iraq became for President Clinton.

In 1996, there was the collapse of the CIA's anti-Baghdad operations in northern Iraq. …

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