Divergent worldviews

In a presidential campaign where foreign affairs feature prominently, observers of United States Middle East policy are eager to know whether or not substantive differences separate the candidates. Do differences exist? Yes and no. What accounts for the gaps? These can be ascribed to divergent worldviews. George Bush and John Kerry offer different paths for managing America’s place in the world, and what divides them on the Middle East largely flows from these broader differences.

Granted, there is a high probability US policy in the region will look different if Bush fails to win reelection on November 2. But radical or revolutionary change should not be expected since there is also some degree of commonality between the candidates–not to mention a good measure of continuity that still characterizes American policy through both Democratic and Republican administrations.

First, there is a significant difference in attitude toward alliances and multilateralism. John Kerry has repeatedly emphasized the need to maintain strong alliance relationships and support international institutions. This is part of a worldview developed over many years, but is also a key element of Kerry’s strategic thinking post-9/11–particularly the need for multilateral cooperation in breaking up terror networks and in post-conflict stability operations. "If we cannot convince Europe, Russia and other countries to keep nuclear weapons away from Iran, to fight terrorism, and to exert greater leverage on Arab countries," said Kerry adviser and former Congressman Mel Levine, "we will fail."

By contrast, George Bush has adopted a more flexible approach to multilateral cooperation, arguing that the US cannot afford to be overly constrained by international institutions and multilateral commitments. Ad-hoc alliance systems, according to Bush’s view, are often preferable to established ones.

Second, the candidates offer different views on the role of military force–both in terms of its utility and how it is applied when addressing threats to national security. The Bush doctrine of preemption–or, more accurately, preventive war– is not shared by Kerry, who advocates a more differentiated strategy that relies on both "hard" and "soft" power.

Third, Bush and Kerry differ on priorities. Both agree, for example, that nuclear proliferation is one of America’s most urgent policy concerns, but they differ on how best to pursue the non-proliferation agenda. While Bush points to Iraq and Libya, Kerry singles out Iran and the former Soviet Union. The war on terror is another area where the candidates identify different priorities.

Although the candidates present opposing views on the decision to go to war in spring 2003, they share a basic commitment to maintain deep American involvement on the ground until Iraq is stabilized. Bush has pledged to continue the current US approach, particularly the emphasis on holding elections in January. In contrast, Kerry has promised greater international cooperation, and pledged to accelerate the training of Iraqi security forces. Kerry’s views on alliances and multilateral cooperation hint that he would take concrete steps to quickly open up the process to other international actors–which would require conceding some aspects of America’s overriding influence on reconstruction spending, on-going military operations, and the political process. Neither candidate is likely to scale back America’s troop presence in the short-term.

It is hard to find daylight between Bush and Kerry’s rhetoric vis-a-vis Iran. Moreover, beyond the rhetoric there is considerable agreement on the need to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and the importance of ending Iran’s support for terrorism. Still, any consensus on objectives quickly gives way to divergent strategies. Bush favors continued isolation and negative inducements to compel Iran to alter its course. Although Kerry has not stated so publicly, his larger views on foreign policy suggest a willingness to try a mix of incentives and sanctions. Kerry may also be more open to dialogue with Iran, particularly on issues related to Iraq, and more inclined to coordinate Iran policy with other powers.

Both candidates share a similar commitment to maintaining a close, intimate relationship with Israel–a relationship that would remain privileged relative to other states in the region. Both Bush and Kerry also agree on the need to continue to support the larger fabric of the peace process, particularly America’s guarantee of the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli- Jordanian peace treaties. But their shared commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict masks a fundamental divergence over the degree to which the US should be engaged in trying to end the violence and revive negotiations.

While Bush elevates Palestinian reform above the political process, Kerry would likely focus as much on Palestinian institution building as he does on finding a path toward achieving a two-state settlement. Whether or not Kerry would endorse a final status proposal similar to the Clinton initiative (December 2000) remains uncertain.

Although Bush has made democracy promotion and reform in the Arab world a signature theme of stated US policy, few significant, concrete initiatives have surfaced. Rhetoric aside, the trade-off between stability and governance, a hallmark of US Middle East policy for years, appears to be alive and well. Despite strong words for the Saudis and a pledge to "name and shame" human rights violators, there are few indications that a Kerry administration would deal with the issue much differently.

None of this is to suggest that a second Bush term might not carry with it a revised approach to foreign policy, as has happened in the past (witness Ronald Reagan’s first and second term). Still, any adjustments, whether in terms of personnel or policy, would pale to those that are likely to take place should Kerry win the White House. But despite the differences, which are real, it would be wrong to expect a 180-degree turn. Not only are there similarities, as noted above, but established policies–not to mention minority status in the Congress–tend to constrain choices available to a president.