With the exception of George W Bush in 2004, no one running for the US presidency has ever made the Middle East a major issue. Every president since 1945 has, nevertheless, been forced to expend energy and political capital on the region.
The pattern has been repeated in the 2008 presidential campaign. Neither John McCain nor Barack Obama had much to say about the region. Both promised to support Israel and contain Iran. Differences about US policy in Iraq have been diluted by developments on the ground.
This does not mean, however, that American policy will not change. For six decades, US actions in the Middle East have been mainly improvised responses to events. They have, nevertheless, affected the course of Middle East history as effectively as any considered strategy might have done.
So there is a warning from history for the victor in this week’s poll. If American presidents do not have a Middle East strategy, events will force one upon them.
President Bush was initially determined not to intervene in the region’s affairs and dismissed President Clinton’s peace process grandstanding. Bush’s presidency, nevertheless, will go down in history as having been dominated by the Middle East.
US presidents invariably take office with no coherent Middle East strategy. But they always have a position and personnel. The position is support for Israeli actions. The personnel are advisors sympathetic to the Israeli viewpoint. It is a dangerous combination.
The record of President Clinton illustrates the problem. In the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton’s position was to criticise the US government’s pressure on Israel about settlements in what were then the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. His advisors were supporters of Israel. Clinton’s Middle East policies failed and his term of office ended with the resumption of the Palestinian intifada.
A similar process is evident in the behaviour of Obama. In June, he adopted the position that Jerusalem should remain Israel’s undivided capital, although qualifications were subsequently made to reassure the world he was not pre-empting final settlement negotiations. Pro-Israel advisors are tipped for key posts in his administration. As if to celebrate their command over US Middle East policy, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held a national summit in Chicago, Obama’s political base, last month. Top Democrats, including Senator Hillary Clinton, delivered strong speeches of support.
Once again, the ground is being prepared for US Middle East policy to be driven by partisanship rather than national interest. AIPAC rhetoric is escalating about Iran. It appears to have already influenced Obama. Last September, he said he was willing to meet Iran’s President Ahmadinejad. This autumn, the emphasis is on economic sanctions with war as the alternative.
The possibility of an attack on the Islamic republic may, as a result, be higher under an Obama administration than it was under President Bush, constrained by the blow-back from the war in Iraq. Obama has been trapped into adopting a position rather than a policy and is surrounded by people of a single mind. He is, as a result, in danger of repeating the mistakes of his predecessors by making Middle East events the master of America’s Middle East policies.