IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2009


Panorama: The Mediterranean Year

Economy and Territory

Culture and Society


A Year of Transition: US Policy in the Middle East and Mediterranean, 2008

David Pollock

Senior Fellow
The Washington Institute, Washington, DC

The last year of President George W. Bush’s administration in Washington, DC marked the consolidation of several significant shifts away from its previous policies in the wider Mediterranean region. As a result, this year offered a relatively gentle transition to the administration of the newly elected US President –despite all the heated campaign debates about Iraq or Iran and the superficial media outpouring about radical change.

Six issues were most notable in this regard during 2008: the much greater diplomatic focus on the Palestinian issue and the Arab-Israeli peace process; the shift toward planning for a gradual US military withdrawal from Iraq, as the security situation there became more manageable and stable; the subtle move away from military confrontation and toward dialogue with Iran; the strengthening of US security, economic, and political ties with the North African states, including traditional friends like Morocco or Tunisia and new ones like Algeria, Mauritania, and Libya; the continued dilution of previous US efforts to promote the rapid democratization of Arab autocracies, around the south-eastern Mediterranean rim and beyond, particularly in Egypt or Lebanon; and the attempt, only partially successful, to repair relations with Turkey, the only major Muslim EU aspirant and NATO ally of the United States.

There was no indication that these new developments or initiatives produced any improvement in the US government’s dismal popularity ratings in the region, or indeed back home in the United States. But they did help prepare the ground for a smoother than expected transition to the next administration of President Obama from the rival Democratic Party, who defeated Republican Party candidate Senator John McCain in November 2008.

The Arab-Israeli Peace Process

The US shift toward a more activist approach to this longstanding impasse had crystallized in November 2007 with the convening of an international meeting to restart Palestinian-Israeli peace talks at Annapolis, Maryland. This broke the diplomatic deadlock for the first time since 2000, when the late Yasser Arafat aborted US President Bill Clinton’s Camp David summit and launched an armed uprising against Israelis instead. Resuming peace talks seven years later offered no guarantee of reaching any agreements –indeed, none were reached by the end of 2008– but at least it provided a framework to keep the peacemaking option open for the next American administration.

Soon after Annapolis, and throughout the following year, President Bush and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice engaged in a whole new series of high-level, high-profile meetings and trips to the region to urge the parties forward –quite unlike anything the Bush Administration had attempted all during its previous tenure in office. Nevertheless, they did not succeed in overcoming the daunting obstacles: many difficult and unresolved issues (borders, refugees, Jerusalem, etc.), weak leaders, fragile governments, and the ever-present distraction of other issues.

Most of all, there remained the problem that Hamas, which refused to have anything to do with peace talks, still controlled the Gaza half of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and deeply engaged in these peace talks, controlled only the West Bank. US support for these negotiations therefore had somehow to manoeuvre around this hard fact on the ground, knowing that it made any agreement even more difficult to achieve and well-nigh impossible to implement.    

Midway through 2008, in late May, President Bush returned to the region to attend Israel’s 60th anniversary ceremonies and then a World Economic Forum conference at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Both visits were largely symbolic, with the first focused on the continuing US commitment to Israel’s security. Underlying this commitment was a newly announced package of advanced arms sales, including long-range combat aircraft and anti-missile radars, largely paid for by a 10-year program of US military aid worth three billion dollars annually. Also symbolic, however, was the absence of a trilateral US-Israeli-Palestinian meeting, indicating lack of progress in the peace talks. The inability of the parties to produce a joint document or even a public statement indicated that serious obstacles remained.

Those obstacles multiplied in the second half of the year. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s legal troubles over old corruption charges gradually intensified, to the point where he was forced in September to announce his intent to withdraw from office whenever a new government could be formed. And in the last weeks of 2008, Hamas broke its informal cease-fire with Israel and accelerated the rain of rockets on cities and towns across the border, leading to an intensive but inconclusive Israeli assault on Gaza that lasted right up until the eve of President Obama’s inauguration on 20 January 2009. The new US President’s pledge to accelerate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks clearly confronted an impasse. Wisely, however, he held on to his predecessor’s belated decision to boycott Hamas until it renounced its policy of jihad to the death against Israel, which threatened to turn impasse into eternal conflict. 

North Africa

In its last year in office, the Bush Administration consolidated a little-known but quite significant set of initiatives to strengthen US political, economic, and security relations with the Arab countries of the Maghreb, or North Africa. These policies were the more notable for encompassing every single one of those countries, across thousands of kilometres of southern Mediterranean coastline, almost regardless of their vastly different systems of government, levels of development, or previous history of either friendship with or hostility to Washington.

Morocco, which had signed a free trade agreement with the US, was now made eligible for major aid disbursements from the reform-oriented Millennium Challenge Account, potentially reaching nearly 700 million dollars over a relatively brief period. Algeria quietly became one of the leading trade partners for the US in the entire region, with bilateral exchanges jumping into the double-digit billion-dollar column, almost a tenfold increase over a decade earlier. Full diplomatic relations were restored with Libya, culminating the gradual process of rapprochement begun in 2003 when Muammar Gaddafi renounced weapons of mass destruction and agreed to pay compensation for terrorist victims. Secretary Rice even made an official visit to Tripoli, the first such stop since Gaddafi took power four decades before, opening the doors for normalized commercial, diplomatic, and even selected security ties. Tunisia became the new hub for American military and technical support as part of a new Trans-Sahel Security Assistance Partnership for host governments acting against al-Qaeda, its local offshoots, and related threats. Even distant, impoverished, and thinly populated Mauritania was included in substantial fashion in this latter program.

Above and beyond the intrinsic importance of this new sub-regional focus, its relative success belied the sweeping generalizations about “growing US-Arab estrangement” during the latter part of the Bush Administration. And as such, the reality of closer US links with the Maghreb, even as problems persisted with Iraq, Iran, and Arab-Israeli affairs, suggests that all these regional issues are really not inextricably intertwined, as conventional wisdom would have it. Instead, a more discriminating focus on specific sub-regional dynamics, at different arcs around the vast Mediterranean coast, offers a better vantage point for both analysis and policy prescription.     

Iran’s Nuclear Challenge

The last year of the Bush Administration marked a decision to refrain from exercising any American military option against Iran’s nuclear program. As important, according to plausible American press reports, the US President also decided to discourage Israel from choosing that option either, by denying it certain “bunker-buster” bombs, aerial refuelling technology, or air transit rights over Iraq. At mid-year, the State Department’s point-man for this issue signalled that Bush was effectively deferring its resolution to his successor: “At a minimum, it seems to me, it is important to create in this Administration as strong an international diplomatic mechanism as we possibly can to constrain Iranian behaviour, on which the next Administration can build.”[1]

In this vein, the US moved ever closer to the multilateral model of dealing with Iran diplomatically, in close coordination with the EU and especially the E-3 (United Kingdom, Germany, and France), as part of the dialogue with Tehran conducted by the Permanent Five (members of the UN Security Council) Plus One. Accordingly, the US, which had previously insisted that Iran restore its freeze on uranium enrichment before Washington would join this dialogue directly, agreed in 2008 to send a senior representative, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, to a formal meeting of this dialogue in Geneva, even though Iran continued to reject that precondition.

In July 2008, Burns testified to Congress about the “sometimes frustratingly slow but nonetheless tangible” progress in “sharpening the downsides for Iran of its continued refusal to heed the Security Council or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).” He laid special stress on US cooperation with the EU on both sticks and carrots for Iran. On the former, “renewed willingness by EU states to tighten pressure on Iran is especially welcome. Two weeks ago, the EU adopted new sanctions against 38 individuals and entities, including an assets freeze on Iran’s largest bank, Bank Melli. Last week, the EU began formal consideration of additional measures.” As for carrots, Burns asserted that “Javier Solana’s recent visit to Tehran helped highlight the opportunities before Iran if it cooperates with the international community. Solana carried a package of incentives, including an offer of assistance on state-of-the-art light water reactor technology, along with a letter signed by the P-5+1 foreign ministers, including Secretary Rice.”[2]

But as the year wound down, it became ever more apparent that Iran was not about to budge on its nuclear program. It would be up to President Obama, who had said during the electoral campaign that he would negotiate directly with Iran but also that it should not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons, to address this issue early in his first term.


The last year of the Bush Administration witnessed a further retreat from one of its signal earlier initiatives, viz., active intervention on behalf of immediate democratic political reform in the broader southern Mediterranean and Middle East region. By midyear, President Bush himself was speaking publicly about a 60-year horizon for the achievement of this visionary objective. Secretary Rice candidly conceded the gap between rhetoric and reality in an article she published during the summer of 2008, which included several remarkable passages worth quoting at some length (Rice, 2008).

After first noting that the quest for Mid-East democratization marked her government’s “most vivid departure from prior policy” in the region, Ms. Rice next emphasized that the very extended time frame required for this quest had been underestimated. “The President’s second inaugural address and my speech at the American University in Cairo in June 2005,” she allowed, “have been held up as rhetorical declarations that have faded in the face of hard realities. No one will argue that the goal of democratization and modernization in the broader Middle East lacks ambition, and we who support it fully acknowledge that it will be a difficult, generational task. No one event, and certainly not a speech, will bring it into being.”

Even more remarkable for its candour was the next paragraph, which explained Washington’s dilemma in this regard. “The goal is made more complicated by the fact that the future of the Middle East is bound up in many of our other vital interests: energy security, non-proliferation, the defence of friends and allies, the resolution of old conflicts, and, most of all, the need for near-term partners in the struggle against violent Islamic extremism…. Admittedly, our interests and our ideals do come into tension at times in the short term. America is not an NGO and must balance myriad factors in our relations with all countries.”

Then, a few paragraphs later, the US Secretary of State offered the most concrete, comprehensive, and compelling qualification yet of American efforts to democratize the Middle East: “Admittedly, our interests in both democratic development and fighting terrorism and extremism lead to some hard choices, because we do need capable friends in the broader Middle East who can root out terrorists now. These states are often not democratic, so we must balance the tensions between our short-term and our long-term goals. We cannot deny non-democratic states the security assistance to fight terrorism or defend themselves.”

In practice, this judgment was rendered most dramatically in the case of Egypt. In March 2008, Secretary Rice herself, on a visit to that country, announced a “national security waiver” for military assistance to that country –even as the Egyptian government continued to crack down hard on the democratic opposition that the US had earlier vociferously encouraged.

Syria and Lebanon

A particular case in point of US retrenchment from activist promotion of democracy in the region was its unwillingness to offer more than token support to the beleaguered Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in the face of a renewed violent challenge from Hezbollah in May 2008. To be fair, the Lebanese Armed Forces supported by Washington showed no appetite for combat against Hezbollah; and, as President Bush commented at the time, “it’s hard to help people have courage.”

Nor was democratization a major theme of US policy toward Lebanon’s dictatorial and overbearing neighbour, Syria. Yet throughout 2008, as in the previous three years since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution that compelled Syria to withdraw its troops from that country, the Bush Administration showed little interest in any enhanced diplomatic engagement with Damascus. On the contrary, the US kept to its policy of maintaining strict sanctions, refusing any high-level consultations and leaving the US embassy in the Syrian capital without an ambassador. This continuing attempt to isolate and pressure Syria went so far as to lead Washington, according to Israeli reports, to warn Israel against proceeding too far in the new, indirect peace talks with Syria mediated by Turkey throughout the year.

As the year ended, the newly elected Obama government hinted strongly that this was one Mid-East policy it was determined to change with all deliberate speed. What remained unclear, however, were the terms on which the US would now shift toward overtures to Syria, and the effects this would have on American policy and American interests, not only in Lebanon, but also as far afield as Syria’s ally Iran and beyond. Also unclear was the extent to which the Obama team would try to coordinate their new approach to Syria with European partners, who had already moved to a much deeper engagement with President Assad’s regime in Damascus. The one clear point was that any action, or even serious talk, on behalf of democratization of that regime would not be on the agenda.    


In early 2008, the US took an important step to restore good relations with Ankara by quietly giving the green light –and the precise intelligence– for Turkey’s armed forces to take action against Kurdish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels ensconced in the bordering mountains of northern Iraq. This shift was intended to repair some of the damage of previous years, aptly described by two expert observers at the time: “Turks deeply resent the effect that the war in Iraq has had on their own Kurdish separatism problem … In that sense, the US invasion of Iraq and the ensuing disorder in the country threaten 50 years of US-Turkish strategic partnership” (Gordon and Taspinar, 2008).

Despite this US attempt to make amends, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the ruling party in Ankara, catering to its Islamist constituency, evinced only limited interest in a tighter embrace with the US. The Turkish government also showed less enthusiasm than previously for EU membership; and several EU countries, notably France, returned the sentiment –this time with only pro forma protests from Washington. The sense of mutual distance was symbolized, and reinforced, by the lavish Turkish official reception of the virulently anti-Western Iranian President Ahmadinejad in August 2008. As one astute Turkish observer remarked at the time, it was unfortunately and increasingly plausible that “years from now, Ahmadinejad’s visit to Istanbul will be remembered as the tipping point at which the West lost Turkey, and Turkey lost its soul” (Cagaptay, 2008). The newly elected US President Obama reportedly planned to visit Turkey early in the next year in an effort to reverse this tide, but given the deep cultural divergence of recent years, success in this venture is far from assured.

Iraq: Saving the Best for Last

The year 2008 marked a tipping point of a more positive sort in the equally important case of Iraq, where internal political violence declined so sharply that the US was able to announce the “return on success” of some thousands of the additional troops that had surged to that country during the previous year. The improvement was succinctly analyzed by its leading architect, US General David Petraeus: “It wasn’t just “the surge.” It wasn’t just extra forces. It was the kind of conceptual guidance that was put out at the same time … starting with a focus on securing the population, which can only be done by living among them… We have to identify and separate the irreconcilables from the reconcilables, but that you’re not going to kill your way out of an insurgency; you got to reconcile with as many as you can…. That leads to, at the local level, political reconciliation and Awakenings, and then … as the security situation allows, people start focusing on laws and budgets and all the rest of that”.

Even as the situation on the ground improved, US policy in Iraq became a major focus of the presidential electoral campaign, with Democratic Senator Barack Obama arguing for withdrawal sooner, and Republican Senator John McCain demurring. At the very end of the Bush Administration, the US and Iraq reached a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) promising a US troop withdrawal by the end of 2011. After he won the November 2008 election and assumed office, President Obama decided on a very similar withdrawal schedule. The ultimate test of this new policy would be how Iraq fared as US troops actually withdrew, but it seemed clear that 2008 was the last year of such a vast American military commitment to that country. 

Epilogue: The Rise of Economic Issues as Economies Decline

As the year 2008 began, President Bush gave voice in Abu Dhabi to the US assessment of policies aimed at promoting Mid-East economic growth and reform. “In the last few years,” he declared, “the nations of this region have made some great progress. The World Bank reports that economic growth is strong and it is rising. Saudi Arabia has joined the World Trade Organization. Jordan, Oman, Bahrain and Morocco have signed free trade agreements with the United States…. The nations of the Middle East are now investing in their people, and building infrastructure, and opening the door to foreign trade and investment.”[3]

At the same time, President Bush dutifully observed that “oil accounts for much of the economic growth here.” Indeed, during the first half of the year, oil prices went on a wild climb, roughly doubling to nearly 150 dollars per barrel –only to fall back precipitously to under 50 dollars per barrel by the year’s end, as the global economy sank into a severe slump. As a result, US entreaties to Saudi Arabia to moderate oil prices in early 2008 were soon replaced by acute economic concerns much closer to home: the sub-prime mortgage crisis and consequent wider financial meltdown, the drastic fall in housing and stock market prices, the rise in unemployment, and the overall spectre of a major worldwide recession.

In the last quarter of 2008 leading up to the November election, this US domestic economic crisis eclipsed foreign policy as a presidential campaign issue. Moreover, as the new year dawned and President Obama took over, the continued economic slump maintained its dominance of both high-level and public attention. The policy adjustments toward the end of the Bush Administration had made it less urgent for his successor, despite the slogan of change, to shift course drastically in the wider Mediterranean and Middle East, whether in Iraq, in the Arab-Israeli arena, or elsewhere. And the acute economic troubles faced by the new US government made it still less likely to risk bold and necessarily risky policy departures in the region –leaving the initiative for the time being as much in the hands of local powers as in the distant superpower in Washington.


[1] Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns. Opening Statement before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 9th July 2008.

[2] Ibid.

[3] President George W. Bush, “Address on the Importance of Freedom in the Middle East.” Abu Dhabi, 13 January 2008.


Cagaptay, Soner. “Turkey Bows to the Dark Side.” Los Angeles Times, 19 August 2008.

Gordon, Philip H. and Taspinar, Omer. “Turkey on the Brink.” The Washington Quarterly, 28 August 2008.

Rice, Condoleezza. “Rethinking the National Interest: American Realism for a New World.” Foreign Affairs (New York), July/August 2008.