Foreign policy may have played a lesser role in the November 1996 U.S. presidential election than at any time in the past sixty years. No more than 4% of voters nationwide indicated in public opinion polls that foreign policy mattered most in deciding how they voted, and in the all-important state of California the number citing foreign policy was less than 1%. Thus, it would seem a considerable exaggeration to suggest that comprehensive thinking about Middle East policy for the second term has preoccupied the White House in the context of the election.
More broadly, with the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union five years ago, a sense that there exists a real and serious foreign threat–and thus that foreign policy is very important–has sharply diminished in American public life. The United States remains inescapably engaged in foreign affairs, but the priority of the subject has diminished–as is evident not only in opinion polls but in reduced news coverage, a sharp drop in congressional travel abroad, and a 50% reduction in foreign affairs budgets over the past decade. Domestic politics and budget constraints tend to dominate the presidential agenda and to overshadow foreign policy concerns.
While this reduced concern about the post-Cold War world has made more difficult the elaboration and sustaining of coherent foreign policies, the Middle East remains a significant exception. A fundamental reason can be found in the Department of Defense posture statement for the Middle East issued in 1995. This sets out three criteria for determining whether a foreign danger affects vital U.S. interests:
1) if it threatens the survival of the United States or its key allies;
2) if it threatens critical U.S. economic interests;
3) if it poses the danger of a future nuclear threat.
‘Nowhere,’ the report observes, ‘are these criteria met more clearly than in the Middle East.’ [Source: Department of Defense, Office of International Security Affairs, ‘United States Security Strategy for the Middle East,’ Washington, DC, May 1995, p. 5.]
Moreover, when domestic and foreign priorities correspond, the result can be strong public and congressional support for administration policy. This is evident in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, where domestic public and interest group sympathies have been broadly congruent with American national interests. In addition, President Clinton’s new foreign policy team is likely to provide a great deal of continuity. Madeleine Albright as the new Secretary of State, and Sandy Berger as National Security Advisor, are both experienced and closely identified with the administration’s Middle East policies during the past four years, and neither is likely to pursue a dramatically different agenda toward the region during the next four years.
While American vital interests, continuity among White House and foreign policy decisionmakers, and domestic politics point toward continuity in U.S. policy toward both the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Gulf, recent developments in both Middle East arenas are likely to create a greater sense of urgency and quite possibly a greater degree of activism by the United States.
In the case of the Arab-Israeli peace process–and beyond the saga of day-to-day negotiations and dangers–there is a growing, ominous sense that the Oslo process may be more vulnerable than assumed in recent years. For both Arabs and Israelis the process had seemed, in Fouad Ajami’s perceptive phrase, unloved but irreversible. However, events of the past year have reopened the possibility that the ‘old’ Middle East and its perils can still intrude.
There exist several basic reasons for this re-awakened concern. First, there has been the impact of terror, including the murderous bomb attacks against Israeli civilians by Hamas, the Rabin assassination and ongoing violence. Ironically, increases in terror have occurred both when the peace process has developed momentum and when relations between the parties have deteriorated. Despite widespread concern not to allow terror to obstruct further movement toward peace, the violence has taken its toll, not only in the Israeli election outcome, but also in more general concerns about the difficulty of achieving peace with security.
Next, there are problems of leadership. Yasir Arafat is no Anwar Sadat, and he has been less than reassuring to the Israeli public; for example, in inflammatory statements preceding the September 1996 rioting and Palestinian attacks on Israeli security forces after the opening of the tunnel near the Temple Mount, as well as in his penchant for saying radically different things to Arab and Israeli audiences.
Finally, on the Israeli side, Prime Minister Netanyahu got off to a very shaky start, and relations have deteriorated not only with the Palestinians but with other Arab states, the Labor opposition, and even within his own coalition. The difficulties of his Likud government also reflect political polarization within Israel.
Together, all these elements make it more difficult to conclude Israeli-Palestinian agreements not only on final status matters but even on interim arrangements, and recent events give rise to concern about deterioration of the Oslo peace process itself.
Added to these serious existing difficulties, the expansion of cnstruction within settlements threatens not only to exacerbate an already tense situation, but–in the view of some observers–to preclude a peaceful solution to the conflict altogether.
At the same time, Egypt has been undercutting those in the Arab world who have been willing to normalize relations with Israel, thus creating not merely political but also personal risks for those who have embraced the possibility of a New Middle East. Syria, for its part, manifestly failed to respond to the courtship of Warren Christopher despite the latter’s all too frequent trips to Damascus and the (premature) reward to Asad of two meetings with President Clinton. Indeed, notwithstanding assurances that the Syrian leader had made a fundamental choice for a ‘peace of the brave’, the harsh fact remains that when offered (in essence) land for peace by the Israelis, Asad failed to respond.
Finally Jordan, the country that had moved most unambiguously to embrace peace with Israel and initially given the benefit of the doubt to the Netanyahu government, has been showing signs of deep concern, and a senior Jordanian official has described the Israeli settlement policy as a ‘great danger…the greatest ever…to the peace process.’
U.S. policy toward the Gulf and the strategy of dual containment also face a serious challenge. It is almost six years since the American-led effort ousted Iraq from Kuwait, isolated and seemed to cripple the Iraqi leader, and appeared to break the back of rejectionist forces in the Middle East. However, Saddam has nonetheless managed to survive. Though much diminished and still restrained by the UN embargo, arms inspections and the U.S.- led enforcement of no-fly zones, he has reasserted control over much of his territory, crushed organized efforts to resist or end his brutal reign, and fatally divided the Kurdish opposition. The resumption of limited oil sales, though tightly constricted by UN conditions, represents yet another step in his recovery.
Faced with the prospect of a slowly recovering Saddam and — more importantly–inevitably aware that they live permanently next door to a ruthless regime while the powerful but often- distracted United States dwells half-a-world away, Iraq’s neighbors are beginning to hedge their bets.
At the same time, despite its internal problems, Iran has yet to show signs of abating its long-standing foreign policy behavior. While less fundamentalist elements in its leadership may indeed seek improved relationships with the West and access to its trade, technology and markets, there remains little sign that even they are willing to break with a pattern of conduct that includes support for terrorism, attacks on the Arab-Israeli peace process, and efforts to undermine moderate Middle Eastern regimes.
The problem of Iran is further aggravated by friction between the United States and the Europeans, as the latter increasingly urgepolicies of ‘critical dialogue’ or outright accommodation. The Europeans find themselves pressed by global competition and high domestic unemployment. The temptation of trade and investment with Iran is evident.
On the other hand, the issue is not likely to create a serious breach between Europe and the United States–not least because the Germans have been sobered by the ongoing ‘Mykonos’ trial, named after the Berlin restaurant in which four Iranian Kurdish opposition figures were assassinated in 1992. The Iranian defendants charged with the crime appear to have clear links to the regime in Teheran, and Iran’s Minister of Intelligence (who once visited Bonn as an unofficial guest) has been the subject of an arrest warrant issued by Germany’s highest criminal court. The trial thus weighs on even those German officials who had favored a greater opening to Iran.
Against this background, there are reasons to anticipate a more active U.S. role in the Middle East. In the Gulf, the United States will have to redouble its efforts to sustain the containment of both the Iraqi and Iranian regimes. Though this is containment on a minor scale compared to the 43 years in which America confronted the far more powerful and important USSR, patient and sustained pressure will remain necessary until such time that major change takes place within both countries.
On the Palestinian-Israeli dimension, there may be more intense involvement in sustaining the Oslo process, driven more by serious concern over what may happen if it collapses than by a blueprint for a particular set of arrangements. There could also be a more explicit effort to convey these sentiments to the Egyptians who, despite their dependence on American aid, have exhibited limited sensitivity to U.S. concerns.
Activism in dealing with both Arafat and Netanyahu was also clear, even before Clinton’s second inauguration on January 20, 1997, in gaining agreement over Hebron and other interim issues. Where activism shades into pressure, however, may be in the eye of the beholder. In addition, over the long term, aid levels are going to come under increased pressure, though the timing of any reductions (or of threats to do so) remains unpredictable.
The Clinton administration, in its first four years, has been more sympathetic to Israel than any previous American government. Yet this solidarity will not extend to support for settlement activity that is seen to threaten the peace process. While the administration’s attention was focused elsewhere, not least by the transitions at the State Department and National Security Council, it is noteworthy that the State Department spokesman, Nicholas Burns, set out a carefully worded but unmistakable caution, characterizing plans for expansion of settlements as ‘unhelpful,’ ‘clearly complicate[ing] the peace process,’ and as ‘seen to preempt the outcome of a negotiation.’ U.S. actions are likely to be very limited initially, but senior administration officials are already signaling their view that Israel has violated the spirit of the 1995 agreement signed with the PLO in Washington. (Quotations from WASHINGTON POST, December 15, 1996.)
The unambiguously critical December 16th statement by President Clinton made clear the administration’s view of settlement activity as an obstacle to peace. These words are not likely to foreshadow the kind of breach that developed between the Bush/Baker team and government of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, not least because there is recognition on the American side that Arafat, the PLO, and others also bear responsibility for the ailing Oslo peace process.
For the immediate future, however, (and certainly short of any serious regional crisis) it is the broader U.S. domestic budget situation, with competing pressures to balance the budget (President Clinton’s announced first priority), address pressing domestic policy issues (particularly Medicare and Medicaid) and reduce both spending and taxes, that could have a greater effect than policy differences themselves.
Robert J. Lieber is Professor of Government at Georgetown University. He is editor and contributing author of the newly published book, Eagle Adrift: American Foreign Policy at the End of the Century (Longman, Inc., 1997).