JERUSALEM - Most reactions in the Middle East to the reelection of U.S. President
George W. Bush have ranged from the caustic to the cautious. Rejoicing has been
Only Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Iraq's U.S. appointed interim
prime minister Iyad Allawi wholeheartedly welcomed the election of their firm
ally in the White House.
Bush also received dubious welcome from several fundamentalist groups in the
Middle East. They say Bush's continued presidency will make it easier to find
recruits to fight Americans.
The so-called moderate, or pro-Western, Arab regimes have extended the usual
formal congratulations but not much more. Ailing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
was said by aides to have expressed worry.
Nowhere is the impact of Bush's foreign policy felt more directly than in the
Middle East and the Arab world. This is the region that brought forth the 9/11
perpetrators. In Iraq, U.S. forces are involved in a bitter, bloody, and seemingly
Bush has not turned out at all the way many Arabs had hoped four years ago.
He was seen then as the political heir of his father, who was a coalition-builder,
who put pressure on Israel, and who showed restraint by not marching on Baghdad
after Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait.
This Bush has proved himself a unilateralist guided by ideological impulses
who seems to value his ties with Israel above anything else. Arabs see him as
a leader who disdains the very notion of restraint when it comes to seeing through
objectives he says he believes in..
In the Arab and Muslim world, many nowadays exhibit a visceral hatred of Bush.
But this might have been the fate of almost any U.S. president who would have
had to react to an unprecedented attack on American soil emanating from the
Even though it is now hypothetical, John Kerry may have changed the tone of
his approach to the Middle East, but few had expected him to change the substance
of U.S. policies. Both candidates had expressed strong support for Israel.
With an increased majority and for the first time a firm mandate from the American
people, many in the Middle East expect more of the same from Bush as in the
first four years; if anything, only more so.
The American people have not punished him for a debilitating war in Iraq, nor
for presiding over the deadlock in the Middle East peace process. Bush has given
his personal guarantees to Israel over the retention of some settlement blocks,
acquiesced in the construction of the separation barrier on the West Bank, and
tolerated Israel's military action against the Palestinians, invoking time and
again Israel's "legitimate right to self-defense."
This is a president who is not given to admitting mistakes or changing his
mind. His personal loyalty to those he deals with is by now legendary, so there
is little chance he will seriously alter his policies toward Israel.
Nevertheless, there are several points where change is still possible. Israel's
own ministry of foreign affairs concluded in an internal memo on the eve of
the U.S. election that either candidate was likely to put pressure on the country
over the dismantling of the so-called unauthorized outposts, small hilltop settlements
set up without the formal approval of the government.
Bush may indeed pressure Israel on this point, as it goes back to commitments
that Ariel Sharon has given him. And if one thing has become clear over the
past four years, it is that Bush cannot stand being made a fool of.
Then there is the future of Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian leader has become
something of a personal obstacle to peace in the eyes of Bush. And Bush has
taken his cue from Sharon in declaring that the United States can do no business
In the case of Sharon this may be purely ideological, a way of getting out
of having to negotiate with the Palestinians. In the case of Bush, the obstacle
may disappear when the person disappears.
He may even be keen to do business with a new Palestinian leadership
what better way than an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal to be remembered for,
always a consideration in a second term.
But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a mess he inherited, Iraq is a mess
he got his country into. The future of that country will likely determine the
success of the foreign affairs part of his presidency.
Much will depend on whether Bush chooses to concentrate more on domestic or
foreign affairs the next four years.
Despite all the rhetoric of the war on terrorism, he may well not seek to make
his mark in foreign policy. With the increase in Republican strength in the
U.S. Congress, he has a unique opportunity to push through conservative measures
that may have a much more lasting impact on the lives of Americans than his
For the United States under Bush to admit outright defeat in Iraq is unlikely,
but an eventual redeployment that will reduce the number of U.S. casualties
in the field is not unthinkable if Bush decides he has nothing to gain by staying.
His wider Greater Middle East Initiative meant to bring democracy to the region
seems to have died a quiet death. Bush is nothing if not practical, and while
the initiative may have had propaganda value, his administration has very little
patience with nation-building.
The anti-American mood in the Middle East is by now a given; it would be a
mistake to say it is a recent phenomenon that started after 9/11 or to blame
it all on Bush. But much of it now is personally directed at the man who will
be president for another four years, and there seems to be little chance this
will change as long as he is there.