American Politics and the Middle East


My recent visit to Australia underlined the powerful similarities between Australian and American attitudes on which political Party best represents ordinary working people. In both countries, the Left-of-centre Party wins in this contest of public perception.

Unfortunately, in both the US and Australia, the presumption regarding who can best handle foreign affairs, particularly terrorism, falls to the Right-of-centre Parties.


Polls in the United States, for over 50 years, have shown a consistent pattern of belief that the Republicans are the best Party to handle foreign affairs, ‘keep America strong,’ and, more recently ‘fight terrorism.’

As the war in Iraq produces more and more casualties and as the prospect of a successful, stable democracy in Iraq becomes increasingly distant, if not impossible President George W Bush’s ratings in handling both the war and foreign policy have declined. However, it is important to note that not everyone who believes that Bush’s policies in Iraq have been wrong also believes that the Democrats would do better.

Indeed, while a few recent polls have shown a slight plurality of Americans believe that the Democrats in Congress would do a better job in Iraq than the Republicans, these numbers fall well below 50 per cent, and the Republicans continue to enjoy positive margins on the issue of ‘fighting terrorism.’

To readers assessing the impact of the Iraq War and the recent conflict in Lebanon on American politics, it is particularly important to note that the domestic criticisms of Bush’s foreign policy and the war in Iraq are often quite different from the criticisms launched against American foreign policy from abroad.

Whether it was Harry Truman’s decision to ‘resist Communist aggression in Korea,’ John F Kennedy’s ill-fated venture into ‘fighting the expansion of Communism in Vietnam,’ or Bush’s getting rid of Saddam, most Americans are generally inclined to accept initial leadership claims that a war is either necessary for American national security or is morally right.

Like others, Americans start having doubts when the body bags start coming home.

These doubts are dramatically reinforced when (1) they begin to believe they were lied to about the causes of the war (for example, the Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam, and the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq); or (2) when they conclude that the objectives of the war have become unobtainable (establishing a stable, effective government in South Vietnam in 1972-3, or in Iraq now).

However, the widely heard charges outside the US that these ventures were examples of American imperial designs although well circulated in academia and by what are regarded as fringe voices, such as Noam Chomsky’s are rarely, if ever, voiced by either major US Party because they don’t play well in mainstream America. Indeed, even at this stage of the Iraqi war with mounting American casualties, the continuing slaughter among Iraqis and no end in sight Americans are divided about what to do.

The historic wrestle between America’s wish to be left alone (and have the rest of the world disappear), on the one hand, and its messianic belief that the it must defend the world’s freedom, on the other, is in evidence in the ambiguity of American attitudes towards Iraq. Neither the ‘cut and run’ option nor the ‘stay the course however long it takes’ option commands a majority in most American public opinion polls.

As in Vietnam, Americans are looking for a formula to get out without feeling that they’d abandoned those folks who had stood with America in a fight for democracy even a losing one. There are still Americans who believe that America shamefully let down its allies and friends in Vietnam. Others believe America (read: Clinton) buried its head in the sand during the Rwandan genocide. This is an important part of the American psyche one that cannot be ignored in assessing the long-term domestic political impact of US policy in the Middle East.

President Richard Nixon was able to craft an effective domestic political formulation with his policy of ‘Vietnamization’ which implied the US could get out of the war without losing it by turning the fighting over to the South Vietnamese Army. That, of course, proved to be a pipe dream. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the US is heading toward a similar resolution in Iraq.

It is in this context that one must see the current war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

While the media coverage has tended to focus heavily on the destruction heaped on Lebanese civilians, as opposed to Israelis, there is an underlying strength of support for Israel in the US not found in other countries. Indeed, to fully understand the likely impact of the current Middle East conflict on American politics, one must first look at the powerful and enduring reasons for America’s substantial bi-partisan support for Israel.

It is often overlooked that the US has always felt a proprietary interest in the well-being and survival of Israel in a way that even its closest allies, such as the UK, may not. British arms in the hands of the Egyptian and Jordanian Armies as they invaded on the first day of Israel’s independence in 1948 is a sharply different legacy to President Truman’s aggressive support for Israel’s independence.

Americans identify Israel’s successful defence against five invading Arab armies in what Israel calls its ‘War of Independence’ with America’s own War of Independence. And while Israel undercut its underdog image by its dramatic victory over the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the Six Day War of 1967, the notion that this country of five million wants to dominate the world’s 950 million Muslims simply does not ring true with American audiences particularly in light of Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai, Gaza and, until the events of the past few weeks, southern Lebanon.

Ironically, the criticism of Israel flowing from the EU countries, particularly France, tend to help not hurt Israel among ordinary Americans who still have a sneaking suspicion that, left to their own devices, the supposedly sophisticated Europeans would now be speaking either German or Russian.

Thanks to Bob Rogers

Conversely, Americans tend to view Australians (even more so than Canadians) as ‘folks just like us’ that is, regular blokes who from time to time have to interrupt their peaceful, democratic and fun-loving ways to take on the world’s thugs and bad guys. Thus, among those (admittedly limited number of) Americans who followed those events, Australia’s actions in East Timor were widely supported by people of all political persuasions.

Besides the pro-Israel views regularly voiced by American political leaders, a strong pro-Israel stance is presented to millions of Americans who listen daily to talk radio (and some talk TV). Talk radio is dominated by conservative, largely pro-Israel commentators who make points about the Middle East conflict which are largely absent from the Australian coverage I witnessed recently. These points include such things as:

  • Israel accepted a two-State outcome as far back as 1948, but the Arab world was intent on destroying Israel, which led to the Arab invasion of 1948-9;
  • The two sides’ policy objectives are totally different: many non-Israeli governments, from Egypt’s Nasser to today’s Iranian government, to many of the popular movements like HAMAS and Hezbollah, have been consistent in simply wanting to eliminate Israel. Israel, it is argued, merely wants to exist;
  • Other Ar
    ab countries not Israel denied the Palestinians an independent homeland. The West Bank, Gaza and the entire Old City of Jerusalem were occupied for nearly 20 years (1949-1967) not by Israel, but by Jordan and Egypt who could have created an independent Palestinian State at any time;
  • And, perhaps most important from a public relations standpoint, the horrid refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon were not set up by Israel, but by the Arabs themselves and there are no refugee camps in Israel proper where one million Arab citizens live and vote, while being the only Arabs in the Middle East who, for over five decades, have been able to criticise their government and live to talk about it.

All these points are, of course, subject to serious debate. But, while they may not be universally agreed to by Americans, these pro-Israel arguments and themes are regularly presented and echoed throughout America in a manner and frequency that does not occur elsewhere in the world.

Arab-American groups legitimately complain that their views do not get a fair hearing in the American media, particularly on talk radio. However, in light of the attacks on the USS Cole, the bombing of the US Embassies in East Africa, to say nothing of the 3000 people killed on 9/11, there is little likelihood that this will change in the near future.

In recent years, this pro-Israel positioning has been greatly magnified by the huge group of fundamental Christians in America (now numbering in the tens of millions) who have almost universally adopted Israel as a special cause. While many supporters of Israel remain nervous about the warm embrace of this highly conservative group whose views are often seen as antithetical to the largely progressive, pro-Democratic, pro-choice, Jewish community Christian conservatives have not been put off in the least, and have become perhaps the most powerful pro-Israel force in American politics.

What does all this mean for the upcoming congressional (2006) and presidential (2008) elections?

The largely pro-Democratic Jewish community finds itself being assiduously courted by the Bush Republicans. One can expect the Republicans to gain a slightly higher percentage of the Jewish vote than they normally do, but Jewish small ‘l’ liberalism and its historic ties to the Democratic Party will trump everything else current polls indicate that the Jewish vote will still surpass 70 per cent for the Democrats.

Arab Americans face a tougher decision. Historically also a pro-Democratic group, they have in recent years tried to develop a ‘balancing’ strategy pitching to both Parties. However, despite finding little succour among the Democrats, it would be difficult in light of the staunchly pro-Israel policies of the Bush Administration as well as the war in Iraq, to support the Republicans in the upcoming elections.

There is little evidence of any other significant movement in electoral choice among other voting groups in America stemming from the recent events in Lebanon.

At the same time, while we have already noted that the huge Republican advantage on the Iraq issue has been lost, there is little evidence that the electorate, particularly swinging voters, has developed any new faith in the Democrats’ ability to solve Iraq or any other major foreign policy problem. Indeed, the traditional Republican advantage on foreign policy may well re-emerge once the Democrats have a living, breathing presidential candidate who will be forced to choose between politically unpalatable choices in Iraq.

Short-term externalities (like Dien Bien Phu, Tet, Bali, the London bombings, 9/11) may well set the context of the upcoming elections (both in the US and Australia). It is possible that the Democrats will be able to neutralise or even score a few points on Iraq, but historical experience suggests that the probability of Democratic gains based on foreign policy issues is not very high.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.