Better than Bush, barely
If elected president, John Kerry will moderate American foreign policy in the Middle East but will not correct long-standing biases, reports Paul Wulfsberg
After his sweeping victory on "Super Tuesday", Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is virtually assured of securing the Democratic Party's nomination for the US presidential elections. Barring any unforeseen events, Kerry will square off against Republican incumbent George W Bush in November.
Economic performance is once again a major campaign issue along with other domestic topics, but US foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, promises to draw much attention in the country's first post-11 September presidential elections. While Kerry is hoping to win votes by questioning the wisdom of Bush's foreign policy, upon closer examination Kerry's own stance differs only with regards to unilateralism versus multilateralism.
Although he is attacking the Bush administration's negligence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a broad re-orientation of White House policy is unlikely if Kerry should win in November. "There has been very little difference in the president's commitment to Israel over the last several administrations. John Kerry would continue that support without question," Ron Messier, professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Kerry asserts that, "history and our own best interests demand that the United States maintain a steady policy of friendship and support for Israel." In December, he lambasted former front- runner Vermont Governor Howard Dean for proposing that the US adopt an "even-handed" approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tellingly, Kerry said that, "Every candidate who aspires to be president should know that Israel is a democracy and our closest ally in the region."
For Kerry, the burden of renewing stalled peace talks does not rest on Ariel Sharon, who "is willing to make peace" but does not "see a committed partner in peace on the Palestinian side". He believes, instead, that the violence is triggered by "militant Palestinian groups bent on destroying the peace process," rather than by Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza.
With this understanding of a cycle of Arab aggression and Israeli self-defence, it is only natural that Kerry insists that "Palestinians must stop the violence -- this is the fundamental building block of the peace process." After this step, Israel should "alleviate hardships on the Palestinian people", a move which evidently does not involve dismantling the separation wall or the vast majority of settlements.
Walid Kazziha, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, is guardedly optimistic about Kerry's will to control Israel. "Likud has never had it better than what they've had with Bush, and they are worried that Kerry or any Democrat might pick up the tradition of Carter and Clinton."
On the subject of the controversial separation wall cutting across the West Bank, Kerry rebuked Israel before an audience of Arab- American leaders for its "provocative and counter-productive measure", but has been decidedly more sympathetic to Tel Aviv in other settings. He told the Jerusalem Post that "Israel's security fence is a legitimate act of self-defence ... No nation can stand by while its children are blown up in pizza parlours and on buses."
The New York Times reported that on Sunday, in a private meeting with dozens of Jewish leaders, Kerry reassured his listeners that he would continue the Bush administration's policy of vetoing any UN Security Council resolutions deemed to be biased against Israel.
Although he voted for the Senate resolution authorising Bush to use force, Kerry has criticised Bush's handling of Iraq based on the president's failure to rally sufficient international military and monetary support. His own faith in multilateralism has been consistent throughout his political career -- Kerry was on the losing side of a 52-47 vote in the run up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, arguing that George Bush Sr's coalition was too weak.
While riding the wave of Democratic anger at the war in Iraq by condemning Bush's unilateralism and untruthfulness, the senator has also distanced himself from the anti-war liberals who "threaten to take us down a road of confusion and retreat". He has said that, in Bush's place and given reliable intelligence reports, he would not have ruled out a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq if international support was forthcoming.
In practical terms, Kerry's strategy in Iraq means the swift transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis while mending ties with the international community as a means to secure legitimacy, peace- keeping troops and funding. To win back the trust of the US's erstwhile allies, he has vowed to end discrimination against companies from non- Coalition countries in bidding for reconstruction contracts, while placing the transfer of power process under UN authority.
"Under Kerry, we would see more UN participation in Iraq and less US visibility," reasons Kazziha.
Further anticipating conservative accusations that a liberal would be unable to make the tough decisions required for national security, Kerry has announced that he will seek to add 40,000 more troops to the US Army to wage the "war on terror". His emphasis on multilateralism, meanwhile, is coupled with a nationalistic reassurance that he will not "permit a veto over when America can or cannot act", in reference to Dean's proposition that the US never use force without UN approval.
While rejecting Bush's attempt to forcibly and unilaterally transform the Middle East, Kerry's interpretation of the region's problems does borrow heavily from neo-conservative philosophy. Whereas many other liberals emphasise the necessity of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to improve Arab-American relations, Kerry demotes it to merely a "lightning rod for anti-Americanism".
For the roots of the Middle East's present state, he blames "harsh political repression, economic stagnation, lack of education and opportunity, and rapid population growth" as well as "a culture of self-pity". Accordingly, Kerry wants the US to take a more active role in spreading democracy, even if this undermines allies in the region that refuse to reform their autocratic ways.
Not only democratisation, liberalisation is central to Kerry's cure for Arab countries, which "suffer from too little globalisation". Following the Jordanian model, Kerry has proposed offering bilateral free trade agreements to Middle Eastern countries "who agree to join the WTO, stop boycotting Israel and supporting Palestinian violence against Israel, and open up their economies".
Borrowing another page from the neo- conservatives' playbook, Kerry touts energy independence, blaming reliance on Saudi oil for allowing the financing of terrorist organisations and the propagation of anti-American and anti- Israeli sentiment.
Even if Kerry offers only limited change from current policy in the Middle East, by virtue of his repudiation of the "belligerent and myopic unilateralism of the Bush administration", he is the preferred candidate in most of Europe and the Middle East. "If Kerry were elected in 2004 rather than Bush, I think this would ease tension and apprehension around the Arab world," said Messier.
However, a Pew Research Centre poll in January showed that a mere 30 per cent of Americans believe that Bush pays too little attention to his allies, and Europeans and Middle Easterners will not be voting come 2 November.