New Dog, Old Trick: Democrat bark will be as fierce as Republican bite

The Times Online

November 22, 2006

Tony Blair’s hopes of a new drive for progress in the Middle East have been hit hard by the assassination of Pierre Gemayel in Lebanon.
But there was always a bigger obstacle: the deep reluctance of America to throw itself into a new “peace process”, never mind its coolness to the notion of talking to Syria and Iran.

The Democrat victory in Congress this month has done little to change that. Leading advisers caution that European politicians misunderstand the party if they think that its members are more inclined than Republicans to put pressure on Israel or to talk to Iran.

In a flurry of diplomacy, President Bush will meet Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, in Jordan next week (a much safer choice than Baghdad). That will come after a visit to Iran by Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi President, this weekend and a visit to Baghdad by Walid al-Moualem, the Syrian Foreign Minister, this week.

However, this does not fit the ambitious model that Blair seemed to have in mind after the US congressional elections two weeks ago. He was inevitably tarnished, as Bush’s greatest ally in Iraq, by the backlash against the war that the results represented. He tried to turn that to his advantage by calling for a new effort to revive talks between Israel and Palestinians.

The move, which reflects Blair’s longstanding belief in engagement, would have been adroit if it stood a chance of any response from Washington. But it didn’t. It will irritate Washington. If there is capital to be gained, it will be only a flicker in his last months in office The Bush Administration has responded only fitfully to Blair’s repeated calls over the past four years for engagement: putting senior officials on planes to the region, and then pausing.

However, Democrat strategists say that the Administration’s critics, particularly in Europe, risk severe disappointment if they think that the party’s new command of both houses of Congress will bring a change.

Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist party think-tank, said: “The Democrats don’t play the role in the Arab-Israeli relations that the centre Left does in Europe.”

He cautioned that European politicians should not expect Democrat members of Congress to want the US to put more pressure on Israel. “If anything, the party is more naturally pro-Israel” than Republicans, he said.

During the Israeli shelling of southern Lebanon “Democrats didn’t breathe a word”, he pointed out. “I thought it was something a true friend should have said to Israel — ‘Don’t overplay your hand’ — but there was nothing.” That sympathy for Israel turns easily, several Democratic officials in Congress suggested, into a dislike of the notion of talking to Iran. That is not very different from the Administration’s open dislike of the notion, urged on it by Britain and James Baker, the senior adviser to and co-chairman of an imminent cross-party group on the US predicament in Iraq.

Democrats tend to sound warmer than Republicans about some kind of low-level contact with Iran — of “putting someone on a plane”, as one adviser put it. But, in practice, many agree that it should not be the President.

This broad common ground between Democrats and Republicans on Middle East policy would probably persist if a Democrat won the White House in 2008, one senior strategist suggested. That is not to say that it doesn’t matter who is president; President Clinton immersed himself in the peace process, while the Bush Administration, to distance itself from him, stayed shy.

Yet Bush, although often portrayed as hostile to the Palestinian cause, was the first to call formally for a two-state solution. Those who hope that Bush is a “one-off” delude themselves about how different a Democrat might be.

“Europe would be right to conclude that this election began a real course correction,” a senior Democrat aide said. “But it would be wrong to think that even if it were reaffirmed in 2008 with a Democratic president or a moderate Republican, that the US will be asking for permission slips from other countries.”

Some of the American imperviousness to clamour from other governments is the result of the shock of September 11, 2001, he said. But some sprang from its stature as the sole superpower after the fall of the Soviet Union. Clinton’s charm merely delayed the onset of the world’s resentment, he argued.

“We’ll sound friendlier to the world than the Republicans,” one official said. “But we’ll still want Europe to do more to fight terrorism.”,,3-2467033,00.html