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George W. Bush Administration: 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 world-view.

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.

Straight Shooting

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 Bush.


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 house.

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? Not likely.

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 with Israel.

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 test.

Sources: This article appears in the inaugural (Fall 2003) issue of Brown University’s Perspectives: An Israel Review journal, pp. 47-53.