Bush makes ‘history’ on the hoof

The USA is playing fantasy foreign policy in the Middle East.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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President George W Bush’s latest big speech on the Middle East has been widely interpreted as a restatement of the USA’s traditional pro-Israel line. But it is better understood as an admission that America no longer has any coherent line at all on an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that it wishes would simply go away.

Bush’s address of 24 June 2002, which emphasised that Palestinians must find new leaders and end terrorism before they could be granted statehood, was hailed as ‘historic’ by supporters of Israel. Yet just weeks earlier, on 4 April, commentators attached the same ‘historic’ label to a speech in which Bush emphasised his support for ‘the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people for a Palestinian state’, and demanded that ‘the [Israeli] occupation must end’. ‘History’ seems to be passing very quickly in the White House these days.

In fact, the underlying content of these two speeches was much the same. The sharp differences were largely in tone and presentation – one leaning towards the Palestinians, the other sharply back towards Israel. Why? Because Bush delivered his April address against the backdrop of an international outcry over Israeli military aggression, culminating in the invasion of the West Bank refugee camp at Jenin, while his June speech came amid a wave of outrage against Palestinian violence, shortly after suicide bombers and gunmen had left 36 Israelis dead.

In other words, both speeches were shaped far more by emotional kneejerk responses to events than by any ‘historic’ vision for the Middle East. Thus a Bush aide admitted that the one new proposal in his June address – the suggestion that Yasser Arafat must go – was largely motivated by the president’s ‘gut feeling’ about the Palestinian leader.

The incoherent state of US policy was clear in the run-up to the latest ‘historic’ presidential speech. When he met Egyptian President Hosni Barak on 8 June, Bush said that the USA must start working immediately towards establishing a Palestinian state. Yet two days later, meeting with Israeli premier Ariel Sharon, Bush said there could be no progress before sweeping reform of the Palestinian Authority (1).

These confused signals were hardly surprising given that, as one Washington Middle East expert noted around the same time, the Bush administration had ‘still not really made a basic decision on what they’re going to do or even what the objective is’ (2). Bush’s long-anticipated speech was being rewritten until almost the moment before he delivered it. The ‘ditch Arafat’ line was apparently a final addition, presumably made after the president developed a late-night gut feeling.

Bush does not have command of his Middle East policy. But nor, as some have suggested, is he being led by the nose by Ariel Sharon; a state of six million citizens does not tell the USA what to do. Rather, the US administration is making up policy as it goes along (or if you prefer, making ‘history’ on the hoof) in reaction to an out-of-control cycle of events.

The result is an entirely un-implementable plan, more fantasy foreign policy than strategic thinking. Who do they imagine would replace Arafat – Hamas? What on Earth is a ‘transitional Palestinian state’ supposed to be? Not to mention all of the unanswered questions about where, when and how that many have raised in response to Bush’s speech.

Perhaps ‘transitional state’ better describes the position of US policy towards the Middle East. Washington is no longer bound by the geopolitical considerations of the Cold War, which demanded that it back Israel against Soviet-supported Arab nationalism. But neither has it developed an authoritative alternative approach. Instead, US policy appears in a state of transition – or maybe more accurately, in a state of limbo.

As we have argued before on spiked, in the post-Cold War world Israel is now more of an embarrassment and an encumbrance to Washington than it is a useful ally (see Why the West is turning on Israel, by Mick Hume). That is why we have seen a distinct shift in US policy over the past decade, with successive administrations pressing Israel to participate in the peace process, to allow the creation of the Palestinian Authority, and to rein in the Zionist settlers.

Shortly before Bush’s speech, his secretary of state Colin Powell appeared on Arab TV to announce for the first time American support for ‘a Palestinian state called Palestine’. In his speech, Bush too endorsed a ‘provisional State of Palestine’. These are unprecedented statements from American leaders. Officials in Washington also said that the proposal for an interim state was ‘intended to give hope to the Palestinians and to encourage them to end violence’ – a statement not far removed from the one for which Cherie Blair received so much flak earlier this month (3).

Despite the eventual anti-Arafat thrust of his 24 June speech, Bush repeated his commitment to establishing a Palestinian state and seeing Israel withdraw from the occupied territories, something no other US president has done. This does not mean, of course, that Washington is in any way ‘pro-Palestinian’ – the USA still sees the Palestinian people as, in Bush’s own unintentionally ironic words, ‘pawns in the Middle East conflict’. It does confirm, however, that Israeli sovereignty is negotiable in Washington nowadays.

The pro-Israel lobby may be dancing for joy (or should we say relief) this week, but it is only a month or two since they were publicly booing senior Bush officials in Washington. Their excited response to the president’s speech is more a reflection of how defensive the Israeli lobby has become, and how far its aspirations have been lowered. The underlying siege mentality in Israel is better captured by the current construction of a huge security fence along the state’s pre-1967 borders, from behind which Israeli forces launch punitive raids into the West Bank. As desperate Jewish settlers have protested, this move paves the way for an effective strategic retreat from the occupied territories.

Washington will no longer go to war for Israel, yet it fears the consequences of simply letting everything unravel. So we are left with this uncertain standoff, where policy appears to veer about with the president’s mood swings. Where it will all end remains to be seen. Certainly the Bush administration does not have a clue.

For now, all those peace activists and solidarity movements demanding more Western intervention in the Middle East have surely got what they asked for. They now rightly protest that the Palestinian people, not President Bush, must be allowed to choose their own leaders. Yet the anti-Israel campaigners are the ones who have called on the USA, the UN, the EU and every other outside body to sort out the Middle East. The result of the latest Western intervention will only be to destabilise and stir things up further, prompting another round of conflict. Bush may be playing fantasy foreign policy, but so long as the world looks to America and the West to solve the problems of the Middle East, his half-cocked initiatives will have dire consequences for the peoples of the region.

There is no instant recipe for peace in the Middle East. But the solution must come from within. The real lesson of history is surely that the last thing the region needs is any more plans, doctrines, peace processes or interventions announced on the White House lawn.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

The anti-imperialism of fools, by Mick Hume, New Statesman, 17 June 2002

(1) Bush urges immediate work on Palestinian state, New York Times, 9 June 2002; Bush sees Sharon and says times isn’t ripe for peace conference, New York Times, 11 June 2002

(2) ‘White House is working to nail down Mideast plan’, New York Times, 7 June 2002

(3) Sharon rejects proposals for interim Palestinian State, New York Times, 17 June 2002

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Topics Politics


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