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What Should America's Strategy Be in the Middle East?

What Should America's Strategy Be in the Middle East?

A look at the policies of 11 U.S. presidents since the creation of the new Middle East in 1948 provides useful clues to a sound and viable strategy in the region, writes UCLA political scientist Steven Spiegel.

The fact that every Republican president except Bush Sr. was a globalist and every Democratic one a localist has profound political implications, one of which is that political parties can be a very heavy predictor of U.S. strategy in the Middle East.

This op-ed, based on a Nov. 7, 2006, lecture sponsored by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies (podcast), was first published in UCLA Today. Spiegel is professor of political science and director of the Center for Middle East Development at the Burkle Center for International Relations.

By Steven Spiegel

UNTIL THE END of the cold war, American foreign policy in the Middle East was pulled between those who wanted to cast our lot with Arab nations and those who looked to Israel as our key partner in the region. That debate has been replaced since the early 1990s by one in which the question is not whether to support Israel, but how.

A look at the policies of 11 U.S. presidents since the creation of the new Middle East (with the birth of Israel) in 1948 provides useful clues to a sound and viable strategy in the region. Based on an analysis that I conducted along with a team of my student researchers, the U.S. foreign policy outlook toward the Middle East can be divided into three categories: warmth toward Israel, diplomatic activism and presidential approach toward the Middle East.

"Cold" administrations see Israel as a burden. "Cool" ones also regard it as a burden, but work with the Israelis. "Warm" administrations are friendly but reserved, and "hot" ones make a point of their close relations with Israel.

There have been two "cold" administrations (under Eisenhower and George Bush Sr.); two "cool" administrations (Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter); three "warm" ones (Truman, Kennedy and Nixon); and both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are "hot" presidents, preceded by Johnson and Reagan.

In addition, administrations can also be divided in terms of their activism or passivism toward the Arab-Israel dispute. So far, there have been seven passive and four active administrations. (In contrast to the current administration, which is passive, the administrations of Clinton and Bush Sr. were active.)

U.S. administrations have pursued three general strategies in the Middle East. The first is "globalist," a one-size-fits-all approach. Followed only by Republicans, of whom our current president may be the ultimate example, its aims include promoting democracy, waging a global war on terrorism and protecting the world economy by protecting oil supplies.

The opposite extreme is a "localist" policy. Followed by every Democratic president, it does not regard the Middle East as a monolithic region. Localists take a pragmatic and piecemeal approach to the region’s problems, relying on conflict management and mediation.

The third approach is "regionalist," and it has been tried by only one president, Bush Sr. It is an attempt to integrate the various piecemeal issues — Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, for example — through a multilateral process aimed at building the region. (Bush Sr. defended Kuwait against Iraq, for example, but balanced that with the historic 1991 Middle East peace conference in Madrid, the first initiative of its kind in 43 years.)

The fact that every Republican president except Bush Sr. was a globalist and every Democratic one a localist has profound political implications, one of which is that political parties can be a very heavy predictor of U.S. strategy in the Middle East.

The best policy in the Middle East would be one that’s never been tried by anyone. It comes closest to the strategy of Bush Sr., with one major change: It ought to combine a regional approach that is hot toward Israel and diplomatically active.

Center for Near Eastern Studies