Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy: Making Sense of America's Role in the Middle East Peace Process

By Lieber, Robert J. | World Affairs, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy: Making Sense of America's Role in the Middle East Peace Process


Lieber, Robert J., World Affairs


Those unhappy with the Middle East policies of the United States often insist that those policies are a product of domestic politics rather than the result of sober calculation concerning the country's national interests. Despite the criticisms, however, and beyond the rhetoric about specific policies, there remains remarkable continuity in America's approach to the region. While domestic politics do play a part (as they do in many foreign policy matters), the regional role of the United States has in fact been shaped by geopolitics and vital American national interests.

Despite the end of the cold war, the United States continues to play by far the most important role of any external power in the contemporary Middle East. To some degree , this has been the case for more than four decades, but the American presence has become even more pronounced with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Iraq in the Gulf War. Those events have minimized the Russian role in the region, which had been of major importance during the cold war, while lessening the impact of rejectionist states. Moreover, since at least 1967, and despite the passage of time and profound changes at both global and regional levels, the United States has followed relatively consistent policies toward the Middle East. In general, it has sought to sustain the moderate Arab oil-producing countries of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, contain threats from revisionist powers (as in the case of dual containment of Iran and Iraq), support the security of Israel with diplomatic, military, and economic assistance, and promote the Arab-Israeli peace process.

The relative prominence and durability of the American Middle East role poses conceptual questions at least as significant as those surrounding the post-cold war European role of the United States in sustaining and widening the Atlantic Alliance rather than withdrawing from it. A lessening of America's Middle East regional involvement might have been anticipated, but has not occurred. Explanations for the sustained American role abound, with widely varied rationales and subject matter. Some observers have found current (and past) policy to spring primarily from domestic politics and thus anticipate no policy changes in the absence of shifts within the United States itself. Other explanations have tended to emphasize the importance of the cold war and the effort to counterbalance the Soviets during that time, and thus anticipate a reduction in the U.S. commitment to the region. However, the American role has been maintained and fundamental changes in post-cold war American policies in the Middle East have not taken place.

In an effort to provide a more robust understanding, in this article I emphasize neither present events and controversies nor diplomatic history. Instead, I concentrate on broader structural and strategic causes that have shaped American policy and then consider the interplay of those factors with the American domestic context. While domestic politics play a significant role (as they do in most foreign policy matters), the sustained involvement and policies of the United States are a consequence of systemic factors and of American vital national interests in the region. Protection of those interests as well as regional stability depends in substantial measure on a continued U.S. role, both in the Arab-Israeli relationship and in the Gulf. It is not surprising, therefore, that there has been continuity in American policy.

THE STRATEGIC ENVIRONMENT

In the post-cold war world, far from pulling back after the ending of the Soviet threat, the United States has not only maintained its Middle East role, but has expanded and intensified it. This was evident in the leadership of the Bush administration in organizing Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm after Saddam Hussein's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, as well as in convening Israeli and Arab leaders at the Madrid Conference in October 1991. …

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