- Five Inauguration Days:The US and the Middle East
As the new American President comes into office amid the pomp and circumstance of Inauguration Day, we look ahead to the challenges facing him from and within the Middle East. To recognize, however, the degree to which such predictions may be quickly overcome by events, we also look back at the preceding four American inauguration days and examine what we thought then, what actually happened, how significantly the region has changed, and what that means for the United States.
Saturday, January 20, 2001
The most contentious American Presidential election in 125 years had finally been settled by the US Supreme Court the month before. Now the outgoing President, William Jefferson Clinton rode up Pennsylvania Avenue in a mammoth new Cadillac, sitting next to the man he did not want to be his successor, the former Governor of Texas, George W. Bush. America stood in generally high regard in the Middle East on that day. In his eight years, Bill Clinton had used force sparingly in the region and had tried to promote peace negotiations. Indeed, Clinton had failed only weeks before in a final attempt to negotiate a peace agreement between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. He had come very close, but in the end Yasir ‘Arafat had walked away from the table. No one thought the new President would, any time soon, pick up where Clinton had left off with attempting to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It was not on his agenda.
The new American President had little personal foreign policy or national security expertise. That lack of familiarity with the issues, peoples, and leaders of the Middle East was, however, thought by the punditry of the time to be more than compensated by his choice of a national security team. As Secretary of State, he had chosen retired General Colin Powell, who had led the US military in the 1991 Gulf War. As Secretary of Defense, he had brought back Donald Rumsfeld, who had held the job years before (1975–77) and had traveled extensively in the region. Most importantly, he had selected as Vice President a man who had reluctantly led the Pentagon in the first Gulf War, Dick Cheney. These three were people who each had a reputation for knowing not only the Middle East, but also the limitations of employing American military power there.
Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell were more concerned with great power issues, namely China and Russia. America had been the single superpower for slightly over a decade and these three well respected national security leaders wanted to keep it that way. Although a US warship, the USS Cole, had almost been sunk and 17 sailors had been killed by a terrorist bombing in Yemen during the final weeks of the US [End Page 147] Presidential election, there had still been no US retaliation. Nor did the leaders of the new Bush Administration have one in mind. Indeed, they were not even curious about al-Qa‘ida, the group that had committed the attack.
To the extent that they were concerned at all with the Middle East, it was with the fraying of the post–Gulf War economic and military sanctions on Iraq. The international consensus on maintaining the restrictions was being strained, and Saddam Husayn, still the ruler in Baghdad, was testing the limits of the United Nations–imposed and American-enforced constraints on his weapons development. The three new top US national security officials were all very familiar with Saddam Husayn (in fact, Rumsfeld had personally met with him in the 1980s). As officials in the White House under George H. W. Bush, Cheney and Powell had advocated leaving Saddam in power in 1991, rather than risking the disintegration of Iraq they said would happen if the US toppled Saddam as part of the Gulf War. Ten years on, in January 2001, they thought it might be necessary to remind Saddam of US military power in order to get him to be compliant with the UN restrictions on his weapons development programs. Perhaps, the new, inexperienced President also thought he might have...