Bush’s Middle East Vision

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

March 1, 2003

Many Europeans are frustrated with, if not baffled by, the Bush administration?s approach to the Middle East. They see a U.S. administration obsessed with Iraq, yet passive on an Arab-Israeli conflict that the Europeans believe poses a greater threat to regional security and requires far more attention than it is getting. In the more extreme view, Bush is seen as in the pocket of the hawkish, pro-Israeli lobby in the United States, and is more interested in winning votes and avenging his father?s failure to oust Saddam Hussein than in bringing peace, justice and stability to the Middle East.

In fact, however, the Bush administration does have something of a Middle East vision based on more than domestic political considerations. At the heart of the plan is the determination to use America?s unprecedented power to reshape the Middle East supporting America?s friends in the region, opposing its enemies and seeking to promote democracy and freedom. This means using force to overthrow the dictatorship in Iraq, promoting gradual political reform among the moderate Arab regimes and standing by Israel until the Palestinians understand that they will get nowhere with violence, but instead can live in a secure, recognised state if they rein in terror and compromise with Israel?s existence. Not all members of the administration fully share this vision—the result of a particularly American optimism about being able to reshape the world through the application of American power and ideals—but the President himself seems to be sold on it. And whether or not one thinks that it makes any sense—and there are plenty of reasons to believe that Bush?s assumptions are misguided and that the approach will fail—it is important to understand and take seriously the new thinking in Washington.

The Assumptions Behind the Vision

There are at least four main assumptions behind Bush?s strategy for the Middle East, the first and most basic of which is that the status quo has become unacceptable. For decades prior to 11 September 2001, the United States basically had a deal with repressive governments throughout the Arab world: they could run their countries more or less however they wanted, as long as they were willing to sell oil at reasonable prices to the West, act as strategic allies of the United States and not threaten the Middle Eastern regional order. With the 11 September terrorist attacks, however, this deal has come into serious question. It was long questioned on moral grounds by liberal idealists on the left and neo-conservatives on the right, but those views now have much more support, as the costs of the old policy have become more apparent.