Tests of Arab opinion consistently show that the Middle East dislikes President Bush and that most people in the region want Kerry to win in November. Even Arab-Americans who have voted Republican all their lives now say they’ll abstain or vote for the Massachusetts Democrat.

The loathing reflects anger about the US’ illegitimate invasion of Iraq and President Bush’s failure to bring peace and justice to Palestine. But do the Democrats in general, and Kerry in particular, deserve the support of the Middle East?

Let us consider the record of the eight years of President Clinton. When the Democrats won the White House in 1992, they inherited the boldest and best attempt ever made to end the Arab-Israel conflict. Shrugging off congressional pressure to keep his hands off Israel, the first President Bush penalised the Israeli government for expanding settlements in the Occupied Territories and compelled former Irgun hit-man Yitzhak Shamir, then Israeli prime minister, to attend the Middle East peace conference in Madrid in October 1991.

Clinton’s errors

Promises made during the Kuwait crisis were fulfilled: if the Arab world supported the US against Iraq, the US would push for a full and final settlement in Palestine. Arab governments were delighted by the initiative. Israel looked cornered.

The Democrats seized on Bush’s policy and promised it would end. In the presidential poll a year later, Jewish Americans voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, helping to put him in the White House at just the wrong time for the Middle East.

The Madrid process was already foundering when Clinton came to power: his team ensured it would die. Practically every significant post dealing with the Middle East was given to pro-Israel partisans. In the first year under Clinton, there was a joke that no progress could be made in the Madrid process, not because of Israeli obstinacy but because the US administration was too pro-Israeli.

The logjam was eventually broken with the Oslo agreement of 1993. Hailed as a decisive breakthrough, the deal was a dead end. The key factor was the substitution of the multilateral Madrid approach by a bilateral strategy that allowed Israel to pick off its neighbours one by one.

Since the Palestinians without the consent of other Arab states were incapable of reaching an agreement with Israel, their negotiations dragged out inconclusively and ended amid mutual recriminations at the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000. Disillusioned with Clinton and desperate to recover lost Arab support, the Palestinians launched the second intifada and a bitter new era began. The Clinton team was mainly to blame.

In the Gulf, the Democrats inherited an unenviable position that they made worse with one of the barmiest strategies to emerge from the minds of apparently intelligent men. Instead of focusing their energies on Saddam Hussein and Israel, they declared a policy of dual containment designed to reform the behaviour of Iraq and Iran through sanctions. Signs for half a decade before that Iran wanted to reach an accommodation on fair terms with the US were ignored. This helped prepare the ground for the impasse between Washington and Tehran today.

Seeking to precipitate political change in Iraq through a blockade was crude and inhuman. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians died of starvation and disease while an ostensibly humane US government looked the other way. By the end of the Clinton era, senior US government officials were openly admitting that sanctions had made Saddam stronger not weaker. Only ordinary Iraqis suffered.

So it was hardly surprising that President Bush II decided to jettison Clinton’s failed approach to the Middle East. His initial caution was only reversed amid calls for revenge after the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001.