US Strategy in the Middle East: Effects of the 2006 Congressional Elections and the Baker-Hamilton Report

By November 19, 2006

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 23

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The Bush Administration is under enormous pressure to dramatically alter US strategy in the Middle East during the remaining two years of the Bush presidency. This pressure stems from the repeated failures to achieve US goals in Iraq; the role that Iraq played in the Democratic victory in recent Congressional elections; the overwhelming public criticism and opposition to the war; the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Study Group on Iraq; and the party politics related to the 2008 Presidential and Congressional elections. However, a drastic shift in policy will be difficult. Such a reversal contradicts President Bush’s personal beliefs, ideology and concern for his place in history. In addition, policy change reveals an admission of guilt and a commitment to a misguided strategy for more than three years.

Bush anticipated the Baker-Hamilton recommendations and instructed the Pentagon and the National Security Council to conduct their own reviews of Iraq policy and develop independent recommendations. Ultimately, a revised strategic approach to Iraq is unavoidable and Bush will need to consider a phased withdrawal and more aggressive transfer of responsibilities and duties to the Iraqi government.

Iraq and the Elections

The war in Iraq dominated the 2006 midterm US Congressional elections and is likely to remain a major factor in American politics, especially as Republicans and Democrats begin their 2008 Presidential campaigns. The voter’s decisively expressed dissatisfaction with President Bush’s Iraq policy by electing a democratic congress, signaling their desire for change. With the increase of American and Iraqi casualties and the escalation of the war’s expenditures, the public felt that the US was not progressing in stabilizing and democratizing Iraq.

Additionally, public opinion expressed displeasure with the administration’s failure to develop a reasonable exit strategy from Iraq and to virtually subscribe to an indefinite military presence and intervention in the region. The implicit message to Bush was: end US involvement in Iraq and bring the troops home as soon as possible. The election results that transferred control of the House and Senate from the Republicans to the Democrats were primarily a protest vote, meaning the public voted against a policy, party, or politician, and not necessarily for the political party they elected. The public voted the Democrats into power despite the inconsistent policy they adopted toward the war. In 2003, many Democrat Congressmen voted for the war, and in the 2006 campaign, except for criticizing the administration, they did not offer any new credible alternative policy for dealing with the situation in Iraq.

The Democratic victory will likely increase the pressure for a strategic change already apparent in earlier public opinion polls and in actions taken by the Republican-led Congress. In many 2006 opinion polls, the public felt not only that Bush’s policy was not working, but also that it was a mistake to wage war in Iraq. That same year, Bush’s popularity and approval rating slipped below 35% and was relatively low even among Republicans. During the election campaign, Bush vehemently and repeatedly argued that the Democrats were the weaker party in fighting global Islamic terrorism and except for advocating withdrawal from Iraq did not offer a strategic alternative plan. However, the public did not heed this warning and for the first time in many years felt that the Democrats would do a better job than the Republicans in fighting terrorism. In this context, the election results only confirmed a growing trend of public dissatisfaction with the Bush strategy.

Not only Democratic leaders and representatives criticized Bush; a few Republican politicians held similar reservations. In March 2006, the Republican controlled Congress formed a committee to investigate Iraq, The Bipartisan Iraq Study Group, under the leadership of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Indiana Congressman Lee H. Hamilton. Other prominent committee members included former Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, former CIA Director Robert Gates and former Defense Secretary William Perry. Bush welcomed the formation of the group. The selection of Baker, Gates and Eagleburger, former senior officials in the administration of George H.W. Bush and opponents of the US military intervention in Iraq, indicated a desire to change the American strategy. Bush swiftly reacted to the Democratic victory in a way that singled both partial recognition of failure (accepting the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld), and willingness to change policy (appointing Robert Gates, a member of the Baker-Hamilton Group to the job).

New Options

During his final two years in the White House, Bush will likely face opposing forces of pressure: his fundamental beliefs, ideology and concern for his place in history will collide with public opinion and political calculations of Republican candidates for the presidency and the Democratic-led Congress. Typically, the last two years of an American presidents’ second term are assumed to be dull and uneventful. The president is considered a “lame duck,” a politician without political clout, who is interested only in preserving his record in history books. Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, demonstrated the inaccuracy of this assumption. During the final months of his second term, he attempted to broker comprehensive peace agreements between Israel, the Palestinians and Syria.

Bush is torn between two powerful forces: on the one hand, he still believes that he has a divine mission to destroy the “axis of evil” which includes, as he stated during the elections, to “stay the course” in Iraq. He believes that premature withdrawal will mean a victory for the Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East and will cause serious global ramifications. Bush feels that only tough and uncompromising policy, including UN sanctions and the threat of force, can prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. On the other hand, impatient public opinion, the Democratic victory, the main recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Group and the appointment of Gates, will all push US policy toward a new, softer and more compromising orientation. The President is still the strongest politician in Washington, but the Democratic Congress has the power to challenge and undermine his policies and programs, and Republican candidates are now likely to apply pressure on Bush to act in a way that would relegate Iraq to a minor issue in the 2008 elections.

Any American strategy in the Middle East must not only deal with the situation in Iraq but also with Iran’s quest for Islamic hegemony through (1) the acquisition of nuclear weapons, (2) gaining control or influence over Iraq, (3) replacing the pro-Western government in Lebanon with Hezbollah and turning Lebanon into an Islamic Shiite state, and (4) preventing any Israeli-Palestinian accommodation through direct and indirect support for the Palestinian Islamic terrorist organizations including Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. One other stated strategic goal is to eliminate Israel from the map. Although Syria is a secular Sunni state, it supports and actively assists Iran to achieve many of these goals. US policy towards the Middle East must address these issues as well as deal with Palestinian-Israeli violence.

The main recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Group and writings by strategic and political experts revealed several cardinal assumptions about the US situation in Iraq and the Middle East. Prominent experts felt that the present policy of fighting in Iraq and isolating and pressuring Iran and Syria are not working and should be altered. The Israeli failure to win a decisive victory in Lebanon further supported the argument that liberal democracies cannot win low intensity warfare against terrorist organizations, which as a matter of strategy use civilian areas to attack and exploit their own citizens as human shields against defensive reprisals. The conclusion was that the US cannot win the war in Iraq and is losing the dominant position it has enjoyed in the Middle East since the early 1970s.

This was not the only assessment of the Baker-Hamilton Group. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a similar recommendation to appoint an international conference to outline acceptable conditions of an orderly withdrawal from Iraq. In his confirmation hearings, Robert Gates said that the US was not winning the war. Baker believes that the only effective way to deal with Iraq, Iran and other conflicts in the region is through negotiations and the formation of political coalitions. Richard Haass, a former senior foreign policy official and currently President of the Council on Foreign Relations, presented similar views.

Based on these sources it is possible to construct several possible options for a strategic change in US policy. These include a phased American withdrawal from Iraq accompanied by attempts to negotiate understandings with Iran and Syria to assure the survival of the Iraqi government after this withdrawal. The proponents of this approach argue that inclusion of Iraq’s neighbors, rather than their exclusion will save Iraq and will enable the US to withdraw within the next 2-3 years. Negotiations with Iran will be designed to: (1) obtain Iranian support for the stabilization of Iraq, (2) resolve the confrontation on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and (3) limit Iranian Anti-American activities in the Middle East and around the world. Negotiations with Syria will be designed to: (1) obtain Syrian support for the stabilization of Iraq, (2) stop Syrian assistance to terrorist organizations including Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the West Bank, and (3) obtain support for the existing pro-Western Lebanese government and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

An alternative approach would confront both the situation in Iraq and the Iranian threat. It favors the establishment a moderate regional Sunni coalition against the political and military ambitions of Iran and Islamic fundamentalists. This coalition could include states such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and those Persian Gulf states concerned with an aggressive nuclear Iran. Politicians and analysts believe that building this coalition requires a new and greater American effort to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Israeli-Syrian conflict. They cite moderate Arab leaders who unofficially say that they cannot openly collaborate with the US as long as the Arab street views the US as the closest ally of Israel, permitting Israeli leaders to use whatever force they want against the Palestinians.

Faulty Premises

These approaches suffer from strategic and logical flaws. Iran views the US and the West as a religious and cultural enemy, wants to convert Iraq into an Islamic Shiite republic and is determined to acquire nuclear weapons. The proponents of negotiations with Iran rule out any use of force to eliminate the Iranian nuclear infrastructure, even if all other means of diplomacy and sanctions fail. In light of American perceived weaknesses, they need to explain why the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be a constructive partner in a process that is designed to salvage an American achievement in Iraq and prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear bombs. At best, Iran may be persuaded to help the US withdrawal through temporary suspension of hostile activities in Iraq only in return for American acceptance of its nuclear program. Iran has called for direct negotiations with the US to resolve the confrontation over the nuclear ambition. Bush said that he would be willing to conduct such talks only if Iran suspended uranium enrichment. Iran has consistently rejected this condition, and in the absence of credible UN sanctions or American determination to use force, this approach is likely to persist.

The proponents of negotiations with Syria must explain why Damascus would collaborate with a plan that requires the preservation of an independent pro-Western Lebanon, even if the payoff is acquiring the Golan Heights from Israel. For Syria, control of Lebanon is much more important than control of the Golan Heights.

Linking Arab-Israeli peace to the building of an anti-Iranian Sunni coalition ignores the failures of the Oslo accords, the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, and the Palestinian vote that elected a Hamas-led government committed to Israel’s destruction. Unfortunately, Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, has failed to provide effective leadership and is weaker today then ever before. Hamas is willing to negotiate a Palestinian national unity government because this is the only way they can access critical suspended aid from the EU and the US as well as frozen funds in Israel. Under the protection of a national unity government, Hamas plans to expand its military infrastructure in Gaza and create a similar system in the West Bank, both designed for a Hezbollah-type massive attack on Israeli cities and towns.

The linking of substantial progress in Arab-Israeli relations to the salvage of Iraq also suffers from incompatibility of political clocks. On several occasions, the US developed plans for Arab-Israeli peace that were based on American political and electoral timetables and not on critical conditions in the Middle East. In 1991, Baker rushed to the Madrid Peace Conference in order to improve the election prospects for George H.W. Bush. In 2000, Clinton rushed to summit conferences designed to achieve peace between Israel, the Palestinians and Syria because he wanted to erase the negative impact of the Monica Lewinsky affair on his legacy. In 2003, Bush introduced an unrealistic timetable for the implementation of his Road Map for Israeli-Palestinian peace, because he wanted to improve his prospects in the 2004 Presidential elections and obtain European support for the war in Iraq. Progress in Arab-Israeli relations depends first and foremost on conditions in the region and not on illusionary and na?ve expectations in Washington.

A better approach would focus on pressuring the Iraqi government to act more swiftly and decisively on political and security issues. So far, the Iraqi government has believed that the US will stay in Iraq almost indefinitely, and that it has ample time to build national institutions and effective military infrastructure. This is no longer the case. Iraqi leaders must realize the new political conditions in Washington. Bush should secretly tell the government of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki that time is running out and for the government to survive, they must take immediate action to prevent a horrible civil war or an Iranian take-over. The Iraqi government needs to declare a state of emergency, overcome all internal political disputes and accelerate the training and expansion of the Iraqi military and security forces. If these measures prove to be insufficient in allowing a sizeable US withdrawal from Iraq by the end of the Bush term, a deployment of an Arab peacekeeping force may partially compensate for the decrease in American forces. Secret negotiations over the creation of such a force should begin now.


Bush is reassessing his strategy in Iraq and the Middle East and will seriously consider recommendations of his new Secretary of Defense and the Baker-Hamilton study group. The entanglement in Iraq, Iran’s extremism and intransigence, and the results of the Israeli-Hezbollah war all prove obstacles for US foreign policy towards the Middle East. The Democratic victory further limits the range of policy options. All of the proposed options have more shortcomings than advantages and each entails enormous risks. A substantial American withdrawal by the end of the Bush term is a forgone conclusion. A Vietnam-like withdrawal, however, will have disastrous consequences because it will probably boost Islamic radicalism and terrorism around the world. Bush’s decisions will be determined by the balance of power that is likely to emerge between the aforementioned constraints and his personal, ideological and political beliefs. He will be under enormous pressure to accept most recommendations of the bi-partisan Baker-Hamilton study group. In the short run, such an action may be very popular. In the long run, however, it could prove disastrous for US interests in the region.

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Prof. Eytan Gilboa
Prof. Eytan Gilboa

Prof. Eytan Gilboa is Director of the School of Communication and Director of the Center for International Communication, both at Bar-Ilan University, and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.