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Kerry and the Middle East


As Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry formulates his Middle East policy, he would do well to learn from the mistakes of both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Former President Bill Clinton began his tenure after the demise of the Soviet Union, and thus he was the first president to enter office following the establishment of U.S. hegemony around the globe. Accordingly, maintaining the status quo became the cornerstone of his foreign policy, which meant that U.S. interests would best be served so long as the Middle East remained stable. Recently, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk pointed out that the Clinton administration promoted the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians not for its own sake, but rather as a means to uphold stability. Thus, stability was the goal and peace became merely the instrument to achieve it.

After 9/11, Clinton’s Middle East policy was radically transformed. Instead of stability, the Bush administration wanted change. The existing American hegemony was deemed insufficient by Bush’s advisors, who sought to expand and strengthen U.S. control over the region’s oil and natural gas resources. Bush accordingly decided to change the configuration of a few Middle Eastern countries so as to advance these objectives, camouflaging his actions with noble terms like “democratization” and “freedom.”

If for Clinton the peace process became an instrument to promote stability, Bush has employed war as a means to bring about change. Whereas Clinton was content with the hierarchical power relations created following the end of the Cold War, Bush set out on a crusade to extend U.S. control. The wars waged in Afghanistan and Iraq are the most evident manifestations of this policy transformation.

Despite apparent differences distinguishing the two administrations, Clinton’s and Bush’s Middle East policies share a few common denominators, which are ultimately inimical to vital long-term U.S. interests. Rhetoric aside, the two administrations have mistakenly conceived authentic democratization of the Middle East as a threat to U.S. hegemony, both in the domestic and international spheres.

This, more or less, is why both administrations have opposed grassroots democracy. A democratic Saudi Arabia, for example, might ask the U.S. to dismantle all American military bases operating on its soil, or may even curtail the business of U.S. oil corporations stationed in the country. Such actions would, according to the prevailing logic, endanger U.S. control over the world’s resources and therefore should not be tolerated. The solution, therefore, has been to support authoritarian regimes, simply because they appear to be more predictable and easier to handle.

Along the same lines, both administrations have been against the democratization of the international realm, excluding such bodies as the United Nations and the European Union from playing a meaningful role in the Middle East. Again, the rationale is that the international democratization of power would threaten U.S. hegemony.

The anti-democratic strain informing U.S. foreign policy is, however, shortsighted for it does not take into account what Cornell University political scientist Susan Buck-Morss has called the “dialectic of power.” In her book, Thinking Past Terror Buck-Morss shows how power actually produces its own vulnerability. The ongoing occupation and control of Middle East countries, alongside U.S.’s unflinching support for brutal military dictators, oppressive feudal kings, and the occupation of Palestine, will eventually engender violent forces that will end-up attacking the U.S. Think of Osama Bin Laden, who was initially trained by the U.S. to attack Soviet troops. Isn’t he a clear manifestation of the idea that power creates its own vulnerability?

The U.S.’s long-term goal should not be to violently control the Middle East, but to help it go through a process of democratization, which will ultimately lead to the promulgation of egalitarian values, human rights, and freedom.

Democracy, though, must come from below and not from above, if only because at the root of all definitions of democracy lies the idea of popular power, a situation in which power, and perhaps authority too, rests with the people. So if, for example, the Turkish citizenry oppose taking part in the war against Iraq, it is a critical mistake to bribe and pressure their government until it acts against its own constituency’s will. In due course this constituency will wind up directing its anger against the U.S.

Finally, the democratization of power in the international sphere may seem at first to limit the U.S., but from a long-term perspective this is surely not the case. Consider President Bush’s unsuccessful attempt to enlist countries to help the U.S. find a way out of the Iraqi debacle. One can now appreciate the shortcomings of his soloist approach.

Thus, to make a meaningful difference in the Middle East, John Kerry would have to reduce the gap between words and deeds, and actually pursue democracy. Such a policy might limit U.S. hegemony in the short term, but in the long run will make the world a better and safer place and in this way strengthen the U.S. itself.

NEVE GORDON teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Human Rights Center and Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His book From the Margins of Globalization: Critical Perspectives on Human Rights is scheduled to appear next month (Rowman and Littlefield). He can be reached at


Neve Gordon is the co-author (with Nicola Perugini) of the newly released The Human Right to Dominate.

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