Bush team caught between interventionist temptations and isolationist urges

Gulf States Newsletter (GSN), issue 652 - 8 January 2001

When nominees for George W Bush’s new cabinet present themselves for confirmation on Capitol Hill, none is assured of an easier ride than General Colin Powell, the former Gulf War Chief-of-Staff who is to become Secretary of State in the new US administration. The Republican conservative ideologues picked for some sensitive domestic portfolios under the Bush II regime are likely to face tough questions from a Senate where Democrat gains in November’s election have brought the two parties to 50:50 parity (although the casting vote will lie with Bush’s deputy Dick Cheney). But for Powell, who is widely perceived as “an authentic American hero” and a symbol of black success in public life, the confirmation process is a foregone conclusion.

However, that is where the certainties end. It is far from clear how the new incumbent will reshape U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. Outgoing President Bill Clinton is struggling to his last day in the Oval office to tackle an Israeli/Palestinian conflict that last summer’s disastrous Camp David summit—intended to crown the “Clinton legacy”—did much to ignite. His successors’ records suggest they might listen more carefully to leaders such as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdallah, who have warned Washington of the Al Aqsa intifada’s potential to poison the politics of the entire region. In many respects, Al Gore was a stronger candidate than ‘Dubya’, but not when it comes to being more even-handed in the Middle East.

But this does not mean any major reverses in US/MidEast policy are expected—even with an Arab-American nominated as Energy Secretary. As GSN has pointed out, the Bush team—and notably National Security Adviser-designate Condoleezza Rice—favour the use of overwhelming force where necessary, but want to see the USA play a less significant role in Balkans peace-keeping and other conflicts (GSN 642/8). Nor are they likely to share the Clinton administration’s interest in poor countries. Oil and money will colour policy—potentially raising the Gulf monarchies’ profile in Washington. However, it would be wrong to see the Bush II Administration as being ‘pro-Arab’ whereas Clinton’s team was pro-Israel. The nomination of Donald Rumsfeld as Defence Secretary went down well with Israel, and more such appointments were expected, potentially as U.N. Ambassador or Central Intelligence Agency chief as GSN 652 went to press.

Core U.S. interests will be the dominant priorities in an approach that accords with Powell’s long-held views. The new Secretary of State was initially cautious about intervention against Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait and leery of involvement in Bosnia. Having experienced the risks of military engagement at first hand— in Vietnam—he believes the U.S.A. should hold back from intervening in most situations and only engage, if ever, with a decisively crushing weight of military force.

But a Middle East in ferment may prove an exception to this wider pattern. The Bush team’s thinking has been influenced to some extent by U.S. conservatives’ isolationist mood, but many key foreign policy players also held office in George Bush Sr.’s administration—and saw how he exploited his MidEast connections to persuade countries to join the Gulf War coalition.

Since his mid-December nomination, Powell has made plain his desire to “reinvigorate” sanctions against Baghdad. Having dismissed Clinton’s 1998 air strikes against Iraq as “Desert Pinpricks”, the Republicans will be looking for the chance to show Saddam Hussein that they can make air enforcement and retaliation hit really hard. This comes at a time when Saddam has been basking in the warm glow radiating from the erosion of sanctions and, especially, the fires burning in the Palestinian conflict. Republican leaders have also talked of confronting America’s adversaries and fighting “terrorism” with renewed vigour; more air strikes, whether against Iraq or the likes of Bin Laden, seem to be on the cards (GSN 651/3).

However, the Gulf has changed over the eight years that the Republicans have been out of office. The broad consensus for maintaining the present sanctions regime against Iraq has evaporated, with the U.K. now practically alone in supporting the US stance.

There has also been a marked shift in thinking among the Gulf monarchies, who so closely allied to Bush Sr. a decade ago. This was evident at the mid-November Islamic summit in Qatar, and in the final communiqué of the 30-31 December GCC Summit in Bahrain. There is deep and almost universal regional anger at the continued US support for Israel—which could reach a frenzy, difficult for rulers to control, should Ariel Sharon become Israeli premier in the coming weeks. Gulf leaders feel the USA is applying double standards in failing to support Palestinian rights while insisting on the need for tough action against Saddam.

The process of regional democratisation and increased media freedom—recognised in new press liberalisation measures in Saudi Arabia—are forcing governments to take greater account of public opinion. Their freedom to throw total support behind a tough U.S. stance on Iraq would be strictly limited, even if they wanted to do so; and the evidence suggests that they do not.

With the possible exception of Kuwait, Gulf monarchs are no more convinced of sanctions’ effectiveness than a sceptical France and Russia. And they are increasingly self-confident in expressing this view (although the new GCC defence alliance in no way marks a military divorce from American protection). The Saudis have signalled the new thinking, opening their border for local exporters to trade with Baghdad (GSN 649/4). These are the facts that Powell, Rice and Cheney have to confront as they seek to develop a muscular Bush II stance against Iraq.

Towards a “lift and indict” strategy

It is possible that, privately, the incoming administration has accepted this already—although they could not admit as much without undermining their hard-line pitch to U.S. public opinion. Washington may seek to chalk up some early, symbolic successes for its firm stand; these might then be presented as “victories”, providing political cover for a retreat to the new “lift and indict” strategy now increasingly touted in foreign policy circles. This would entail scrapping the trade sanctions which have impacted so hard on Iraqi civilians, while moving to indict Saddam and his close associates for human rights crimes.

An adventurous new administration would have the self-confidence to make such a move from the outset, but it would be politically difficult for Bush and Powell to do so, having nailed their colours so firmly to the sanctions mast. It would be equally awkward to apply Rice-style assertiveness to Iran, the other target of the old “dual containment” strategy, designed to isolate both Baghdad and Tehran. This is already no more than a unilateral U.S. stance, given that most of the rest of the world is now trading actively with Iran. Attracted by the prospect of project contracts, including a first independently financed power station, European governments have been proffering export credit (GSN 651/10; 650/12; 648/10; 642/10). Meanwhile, Tehran’s cross-Gulf ties get steadily stronger, despite contretemps such as the seemingly endless islands dispute with the UAE (more). Iran and Kuwait are about to build a submarine water supply pipeline.

Heavy-hitting U.S. oil companies have been lobbying hard for a return to Iran—with Cheney among the advocates (GSN 642/9). There will be strong arguments against a hard-line approach towards the Islamic Republic that would further strengthen the hand of conservative hard-liners in Tehran, further undermining President Mohammad Khatami’s already faltering reform movement. An opportunity to change policy could emerge later this year if, as expected, Khatami is successfully re-elected this May. In August, the US’ Iran Libya Sanctions Act—which fines foreign companies investing in these countries—expires.  ISA is unlikely to be renewed, which would provide the White House with a face-saving excuse to abandon curbs on US business involvement in the Islamic Republic.

Indeed, there is a case for arguing that the appointment of Powell will actually enhance the influence of diplomatic pragmatists at the State Department. The new Secretary of State has pursued a military career, understandably focused more on issues of U.S. security and strategic threats than on political and economic developments in foreign countries. Unless he proves an exceptionally rapid learner, in many policy areas, Powell will be heavily dependent on the advice of officials and regional specialists, in marked contrast to his predecessor Madeleine Albright, who arrived at State after a stint as US Ambassador to the UN, where she dealt with, other countries on a daily basis.

Rumsfeld and Abraham

Israel and big business welcomed George W Bush’s nomination of 68-year-old Donald Rumsfeld as his Defence Secretary—a post he last held under President Gerald Ford. As the Jerusalem Post pointed out on 2 January, two years ago, Rumsfeld headed a prominent U.S. commission on ballistic missile threats and sought input from Israel on threats from Iran, Iraq and Syria. “He’s a professional who has preserved his connection with the defence establishment,” said Israeli Ambassador to the USA David Ivry, who testified to the commission on ballistic threats. Another Israeli official in Washington, quoted by the Jerusalem Post, said Israel would benefit from Rumsfeld’s strong support for a national missile defence shield.

Less well-known is Bush’s nominee for Energy Secretary, Spencer Abraham, a one-term Republican Senator from Michigan and an Arab-American. Strangely for an Administration comprising so many oil men, Abraham has not made Congressional waves in the energy sector, even though his election campaign funds were boosted by substantial funds from the industry. Of the 16 bills he sponsored in the Senate that were signed into law, none were energy-related, according to details published on his web site.

But with the erosion of sanctions in mind, industry observers note that Abraham is an Arab-American who has supported efforts to de-link sanctions on the Iraqi people from military sanctions against Saddam Hussein. The Arab American Institute has observed his commitment to continue helping humanitarian organisations to obtain licences to export food and medicine to Iraq.

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