Deconstructing Bush's Middle East Strategy
by Mitchell Bard
The media have often reported the rift between policymakers
in the Defense and State Departments during the administration of George
W. Bush. Given the stature of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and
Secretary of State Colin Powell, the president will seriously consider
the advice of each adviser, and it is unlikely that one adviser will
be so much more persuasive than the other to render Bush`s Middle East
policy entirely clear.
This raises the question: How does President Bush decide
policy when he receives contradictory recommendations from his top advisers?
Presidents commonly face this dilemma. In 1947-48, President Truman had
similar difficulties in choosing between the advice of his top advisers
with regard to the establishment and recognition of Israel. Truman`s
secretary of state, George Marshall, and defense secretary, James Forrestal,
were no less influential than Bush`s top aides, and were adamantly opposed
to U.S. support for Israel. On the other side, Clark Clifford and David
Niles, Truman`s top domestic advisers, lobbied Truman to support the UN recommendation to partition Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state. How did he decide what to do?
In my first book, The
Water`s Edge and Beyond: Defining the Limits to Domestic Influence on
United States Middle East Policy (Transaction, 1991), I argued
that presidents make decisions with regard to the Middle East based
on their ideology, and the adviser(s) whose argument is most consistent
with their world-view on any given issue will most likely win the day.
In Truman`s case, he was eager to help Jewish refugees because of his
humanitarian views, to fulfill past promises for the creation of a Jewish
homeland, and to bring peace to the region.
Now, how can we predict the decision- making of President
Bush? First, we need to determine his ideology. Once we know what it
is, we can analyze how the arguments made by his advisers fit into Bush`s
Rather than review George W. Bush`s life and philosophy
here, I have distilled his world- view to four key elements that I believe
can help predict how he will act on any given policy option related
to the Middle East (if not more broadly). I have labeled them Straight
Shooting, Triumphalism, Fraternity, and Faith.
George Bush has a Texan approach to people that we
associate with the straight- shooter. He is not interested in flimflam,
small talk, or deception. Bush wants information to be short, to the
point, and honest. In this, he resembles Harry Truman who was known
for his plainspokenness and his disdain for flash or indirection. A
key instance where this value affected Bush`s policy was in the Karine-A affair.
On January 3, 2002, Israel seized the Karine-A,
a ship laden with 50 tons of arms bound for the Palestinian
Authority (PA). Peace talks between Israel
and the Palestinians had already broken down, and the Palestinians
had launched a violent uprising following Yasir Arafat`s rejection
in 2000 of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud
Barak`s offer to withdraw
from all of the Gaza Strip and from 97 percent of the West
Bank, and to create a Palestinian state with a capital in East
Jerusalem. The failure of that peace initiative led to Barak`s defeat
in the 2001 Israeli election by Ariel Sharon, who determined
that Arafat would not make peace with Israel and was irrelevant.
The United States held out hope that Arafat could still
be induced to halt the terrorist attacks against Israel and to fulfill
the other obligations he had committed to in the Oslo
agreements. The seizure of the Karine-A appeared to be a
clear indication that Arafat not only was unwilling to end the violence,
he was importing arms to escalate the war against Israel.
When Bush learned of the ship`s seizure, he called
Arafat and asked him to explain the shipment. Arafat acted as though
he knew nothing about it. U.S. intelligence verified the Israeli account
that Arafat`s ``money man`` had paid for and arranged the arms shipment,
so Bush knew that Arafat was lying to him. From that point on, the United
States deemed Arafat ``compromised by terror,`` and the administration
began to push for his removal as leader of the PA.
Sharon has clearly understood the importance of being
straight with Bush. For example, he promised that Arafat would not be
harmed, and he has kept that promise throughout Israel`s military operations
in the territories.
Many people in the pro-Israel community feared the
election of George W. Bush, expecting him to act like his father who
was regarded as probably the most anti-Israel president in history.
As it turns out, the son`s views are completely different from those
of his father.
The elder Bush`s world-view was more pragmatic than
ideological. He was guided in this by his secretary of state, James
Baker, who viewed the Arab-Israeli conflict as a dispute that was no
different from one between General Motors and the United Auto Workers.
History, psychology, religion, geography — all key components
of the conflict in the Middle East — were largely ignored by Bush
and Baker. They believed the parties could be forced into a room together
and pressured to come to an agreement. To their credit, they succeeded
in bringing an unprecedented group of Arab leaders together with Israeli
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in Madrid in 1991, but that
conference ultimately accomplished nothing substantive and their efforts
were superseded by the Oslo agreements, which were negotiated without
U.S. involvement and in reaction to the failures of the first Bush administration.
The younger Bush is much less like his father than
like Ronald Reagan.
He is an ideologue who sees the world in black and white, or, more accurately,
as good and evil, and, because of his Christian beliefs, he trusts in
the ultimate victory of the good. Like Reagan, who labeled the Soviet
Union an “Evil Empire,`` Bush has described an ``Axis of Evil``
comprising North Korea, Iran,
and Iraq, and routinely refers
to terrorists as ``evildoers.``
The State Department typically pushes the president
to use diplomacy to fight evil. Thus, for example, the argument is made
that the way to end Palestinian terrorism is to pressure Israel to make
political concessions. By contrast, Pentagon officials believe in using
military force to stop terror and oppose compromises they believe will
only stimulate more violence. Bush has generally gone along with the
Pentagon view and therefore placed the onus on the Palestinians to stop
the terrorism before requiring Israel to take any action.
Reagan had a gut-level, emotional attachment to Israel.
He viewed it as a nation with similar Judeo-Christian values, and as
an opponent of Communism. His successor had no such feelings toward
Israel. If anything, he saw U.S. ties with Israel as complicating American
strategic and economic interests in the Arab world. George W. Bush,
however, shares more of Reagan`s religious and emotional attachment
to Israel and clearly sees Israel as one of the ``good guys`` that is
fighting the battle with America against the evildoers.
Reagan`s critics accused him of being simple minded,
deriding his Manichaean view of the world, and Bush`s detractors have
attacked him in the same way. Whatever one may think of this worldview,
it is important to understand it to appreciate the policies of President
President Bush has also been ridiculed because of his
reputation as a beer guzzling, lightweight, fraternity brat who partied
his way through Yale. Regardless of whether one accepts this characterization,
it is relevant in the sense that it reflects Bush`s easygoing personal
style and the way in which he relates to people.
To get a sense of whether Bush is likely to get along
with another world leader, picture that foreign official having a beer
with Bush at the frat house. Sounds silly, perhaps, but consider Bush`s
relationship with Tony Blair. Bill Clinton seemed to be Blair`s soul
mate because they were similar in age, experience, and world view. Bush
could not be more different from Clinton and yet he enjoys nearly as
good a relationship with Blair. How can this be explained? In part,
because you can see Bush and Blair hoisting a pint together at the frat
Another example is Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Here`s a former KGB official of the ``Evil Empire`` and yet Bush seems
to get along famously with the old Commie. Why? You can picture him
downing shots of vodka with George.
Now relate this fraternity factor to the Middle East.
Can you picture Bush having a drink with any of the Arab leaders? Forget
the fact that as Muslims they`re not supposed to drink alcohol (and
that Bush no longer drinks). Perhaps the only one is King
Abdullah of Jordan and,
not coincidentally, Bush gets along very well with the young monarch.
On the other hand, can you imagine Bush having drinks with Yasir Arafat?
What about Ariel Sharon? Well, it might be hard to
picture him as a drinking buddy, but despite his gruff public image,
the private Sharon is well-liked even by his political opponents. In
fact, Sharon and Bush had a bonding experience when Bush made his only
visit to Israel prior to running for president and was given a helicopter
tour of the West Bank by none other than Sharon. At the time, neither
imagined they would one day meet again as leaders of their respective
nations, but they got along well from that first encounter.
Most U.S. presidents have felt a certain kinship with
the Jewish people because of their own Christian beliefs and values.
Many cite their reading of the Bible for their feelings toward Israel.
Addressing a Jewish audience Lyndon
Johnson said, for example, ``Most if not all of you have very deep
ties with the land and with the people of Israel, as I do, for my Christian
faith sprang from yours....the Bible stories are woven into my childhood
memories as the gallant struggle of modern Jews to be free of persecution
is also woven into our souls.``
President Bush is a man of great faith, who has made
no secret of his belief in the power of prayer and his commitment to
Christian values. Recognizing the centrality of religion in President
Bush`s life is critical to understanding his world view and policymaking.
While Bush`s faith is most often referenced with regard
to domestic issues such as abortion, it is especially relevant to his
attitude toward Israel. As the birthplace of Christianity and the site
of so many Christian shrines, the Holy Land is of particular interest
to the president.
The fact that Israel is a Jewish state is also important
because it is not just another political entity. It is a nation based
on faith. Unlike the Islamic states, which are also based on religion,
however, Israel also shares Judeo-Christian and Western values with
the United States. Bush is, therefore, naturally drawn to sympathize
In an address to the National Commemoration of the
Days of Remembrance on April 19, 2001, Bush observed: ``Through centuries
of struggle, Jews across the world have been witnesses not only against
the crimes of men, but for faith in God, and God alone. Theirs is a
story of defiance in oppression and patience in tribulation, reaching
back to the exodus and their exile into the diaspora. That story continued
in the founding of the State of Israel. The story continues in the defense
of the State of Israel.``
The religious connection to Israel does not always
work in Israel`s favor with this president. In fact, this factor first
became evident when Bush publicly criticized Israel.
In March-April 2002, Israel was engaged in what it
called ``Operation Defensive
Shield`` to root out terrorists from the West Bank. Israeli troops moved into various towns in the West
Bank and took measures to arrest or kill terrorists and to dismantle
their infrastructure. The United States did not criticize the operation
for the first week. It was not until April 8 that Bush publicly demanded
that Israel withdraw without delay from the towns the military had entered.
Israel did not comply and, for several days, virtually every news report
began with a statement to the effect that Israel was defying the president.
Israel ultimately withdrew its troops and declared the operation over
on April 25.
In July 2002, Israel sent troops back into the territories
for ``Operation Determined Path,`` and has conducted even more extensive
military activities than in the previous operation, which continue today.
The interesting question to ask is: Why hasn`t President Bush demanded
that Israel withdraw its troops from the territories in the last year?
There is nothing different about what the Israeli military is doing
today than from what it was doing in April 2002 when he did make that
demand, and yet he has not criticized Israel`s policy.
The answer is that there is one critical difference
between what Israel has done for the last year and what was happening
in April 2002. That difference is the siege of the Church of the Nativity.
On April 2, a number of Palestinian
terrorists broke into the Church. The militants thought Israel would
not risk damaging the Church and provoking an international incident
by storming the building to get them out. They were correct in this
assessment, and Israeli forces instead surrounded the Church and vowed
to keep it under siege until the terrorists came out. Some gunfire was
exchanged between the terrorists and the troops, and fighting continued
in the vicinity of the holy site. It was at this point that Bush made
his demand that Israel withdraw.
I believe the reason is that the president, as a devout
Christian, could not tolerate seeing Jesus` s birthplace under siege.
He understood that the situation arose because of the acts of Palestinian
terrorists, but he still could not watch soldiers surrounding that holy
site and hear that through both deliberate and inadvertent actions of
both Israelis and Palestinians, the Church was being damaged. No such
threat to Christian holy places has occurred during the last year of
military operations and, consequently, Bush has had no reason to criticize
Israel`s anti-terror campaign. This is a vivid example of how important
it is to recognize the role of Bush`s faith in his decision making.
Predicting and interpreting policy decisions is not
easy or scientific. The record of prior administrations shows, however,
that understanding a president`s ideology is critical to any effort
to anticipate and explain U.S. Middle East policy. Far less attention
has been paid to this element of policymaking than to domestic political
considerations, but it is far more important because other variables,
such as interest group behavior, are restricted primarily to influencing
legislative branch actions and have much less impact on executive branch
decisions, which ultimately determine foreign policy.
President Bush is bound to focus more attention on
the Arab-Israeli conflict at some future point, so it will be interesting
to see what he will do, and how the factors I have outlined will affect
his decisions. Given the very different views of his advisers, and especially
the institutions they represent, it is likely the president will continue
to have to choose between conflicting proposals. The recommendations
that are most consistent with his views about honesty, people, good
and evil, and his Christian faith are more likely to be adopted.
You now have the information to put my theory to the
Sources: This article appears in the inaugural (Fall 2003) issue of Brown University’s Perspectives: An Israel Review journal, pp. 47-53.