Bush, America and the Middle East

President George W. Bush meets with his Cabinet in the Cabinet Room of the White House Thursday, Nov. 4, 2004. (White House Photo)

Had we awakened to a John Kerry victory, anyone seriously concerned about the conflicts in Palestine and Iraq would have faced the stark reality that Kerry offered nothing substantially different from President George W. Bush in either situation. Yet that provides little consolation for seeing Bush re-elected, as the desire to see him defeated had little to do with support for Kerry. What many wanted was accountability - to see the author of so many disastrous policies thrown out.

But a majority of American voters handed a new mandate to Bush despite the fact that he started an illegal war which may have cost the lives of 100,000 innocent Iraqis (according to the latest study published in The Lancet) and more than 1,000 Americans. This war has no end in sight. At home, Bush has presided over an ailing economy and an unprecedented budget deficit, while the number of Americans without any health insurance has increased to over 50 million.

Bush owes his victory in great part to the incoherence of his Democratic opponents, who supported the war from the beginning and could offer no principled opposition to it during the campaign. Kerry was the default choice and emotional harbor for anti-war voters even though he was reduced to carping about tactics while presenting no convincing alternatives to Bush’s failed policies. With such ineffectual opposition Vice President Dick Cheney brazenly called Iraq “a remarkable success story” in the last week of the campaign.

At the same time, Bush’s simple, defiant statements about “fighting terrorism” were highly reassuring to most Americans. The campaign contained little serious discussion of the fact that despite the public relations and the bureaucratic reshuffling and renaming, the United States is only marginally better protected against another massive attack by Osama bin Laden or anyone else. Kerry may have been reluctant to appear to be pointing to holes in U.S. security that could be construed as inviting attacks, but his silence worked to Bush’s advantage.

The election results also confirm some long-term trends with serious implications for the Middle East as well as the U.S. Across much of the country, Republicans seem to be on an inexorable rise. They offer Americans a simple message characterized by disdain for government combined with fundamentalist religious fervor, all wrapped in a simplistic and self-satisfied patriotism that presents the United States as simultaneously (and contradictorily) the greatest and strongest country on earth and a country beset by teeming enemies who present a mortal danger.

Evangelical Christians, who are a huge segment of Bush’s base, see U.S. support for Israel as central to the fulfillment of biblical prophecies which they hope will trigger Armageddon. As influential evangelical preacher and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson recently warned, any pressure on Israel from Bush to relinquish any part of Jerusalem would interfere with “God’s plan” and be grounds for breaking with him.

Against this background, Bush has shifted the goal posts of the Palestine-Israel debate such that Likudist thinking is now viewed as centrist. This was demonstrated by Kerry’s campaign which warmly endorsed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies. But the bankruptcy of the discourse was brought home in a most personally disappointing way.

Illinois swept Barack Obama, a rising star in the Democratic party, into the United States Senate with a stunning 70 percent of the vote - a rare Democratic gain. Obama, whom I’ve met many times, has served as my local state senator in the Illinois legislature. I found him to be an inspiring politician, not least because he appeared to understand Middle East issues and take progressive views supporting Palestinian rights and opposing militarism. He participated in many events in the Chicago-area Arab community including a 1998 fundraiser with Edward Said as the keynote speaker. I even made contributions to his campaigns.

But following Obama’s nationally-televised address at the Democratic National Convention everything seemed to change. In the campaign’s final weeks, Obama proclaimed his support for tough sanctions and military strikes against Iran if it refused U.S. demands to give up its nuclear programs. According to the Chicago Tribune, Obama now says that the onus of peace in the Middle East “is on the Palestinian leadership, which … must cease violence against Israelis and work ‘to end the incitement against Israel in the Arab world.” The unique fact about Obama’s campaign is that he did not need to parrot the pro-Israel lobby’s standard line to get elected. He ran effectively unopposed. Such a capable and ambitious man must have calculated that any hope of higher office requires that he not offend when it comes to Israel and its interests. This begs the question: If a man like Obama will not speak frankly when it comes to Israel, what hope is there for a change in U.S. policy coming from within the establishment?

A senior official close to French President Jacques Chirac told The New York Times on election night that “the most pressing foreign-policy issue for whoever is elected president must be the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.” The official further asked: “Will there be a decision by the American president to restart a dialogue? … This is what we expect from the new president. This is the cause of a lot of the anti-Western feeling in the world.”

But it is clear there will be no serious dialogue started by the United States. Already the Israeli government is exuding confidence it will come under no new American pressure. The next four years then will be a transition point for the conflict: We are likely to see the decisive defeat of the two-state concept by the reality Israel is creating on the ground, accompanied by sharp escalation.

If Europe is as concerned as it professes to be, it will have to develop its own strategy. It must be prepared to confront both the United States and Israel. This would require Europe to show more unity and political will than it ever has before. The extent to which this is likely will depend on whether the second Bush administration takes a more accommodating approach on a whole range of other vital European interests.

The rest of the world, which lived in hope that Bush would be just a brief interlude before a return to business as usual, must now fundamentally re-examine its approach to the United States. Bush may represent only a bare majority of Americans, but there is a lot of evidence that it is an ascendant one.

At the same time, the millions of Americans who oppose the war in Iraq and see that Bush’s policies bring more danger to their country have to confront the reality that electoral politics failed abjectly to provide a vehicle to advance their interests. The Democratic Party must now enter a long period of self-examination. It must emerge as a genuine alternative to the Republicans or face irrelevance. But the world cannot afford to wait for that. Bush’s victory presents the opportunity and urgent necessity for Americans to join people all over the world in building a powerful, grassroots peace movement to end the war in Iraq and prevent further “success stories.”

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada. This article first appeared in The Daily Star.