The world is watching the US election race, but none more keenly than those in the Middle East, where American foreign policy - or the lack of it - has massive repercussions. Bahrain-based weekly business magazine The Gulf looks beyond the rhetoric in its latest issue.
MOST American voters think that Iran is an Arab country. A significant minority believe that Barack Obama, the senator for Illinois and Democratic Party candidate for the presidency, is a closet fundamentalist Muslim.
These poll results would normally be fodder for a cartoon or political sketch. But this is election season and what the US electorate think about the Middle East does matter - seriously - for the rest of us.
Rarely has foreign policy played such an important role in an American election. Obama and his Republican opponent John McCain trade insults over their respective Iranian or Iraqi policies on a daily basis.
This despite such pressing issues as the deepening economic recession in the US. Even domestic concerns - from the soaring cost of oil to the rescue of mortgage lenders by sovereign wealth funds - have a habit of turning back to a discussion of foreign policy and the Middle East.
Viewed from the other end of the telescope, the US election debate is unnerving to political leaders in the Gulf.
Ostensibly, a great deal hangs in the balance - from whether US troops prolong their occupation of Iraq indefinitely to whether Washington opens up a new front with Iran. When Obama arrives in Jordan this week, as part of a regional meet 'n' greet tour, governments will hang on his words.
As McCain discovered last year, even when your Beach Boys rendition of "bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" is intended for Middle America, it is heard in the Middle East.
But will the public rhetoric of the presidential campaign have any effect on future US foreign policy?
And for that matter, when it comes to a situation as complex as the stand-off with Iran, what exactly is America's foreign policy? How is it formed?
When the successful candidate steps into the Oval Office in 2009, how much can they really change?
One thing they will inherit, for certain, is a mess. The Bush administration leaves the legacy of a ruinous and unnecessary war in Iraq, a fitful and unfocused campaign against terrorism and an abiding sense of ill-will between the Islamic
and Western worlds.
American stock abroad could hardly be lower. As his former opponent John Kerry once remarked, President Bush squandered the goodwill shown towards the US after the 9/11 attacks.
"You'd have to try really, really hard to create a worse impression than these guys," says one Washington-based political analyst.
"But it will be hard to shake off their smell of gun-smoke."
What is worse, the neo-conservative movement appears keen to go out with a bang. Late last month, the right-leaning Washington Institute for Near East Policy issued a report that barely stops short of advocating combined US-Israeli "preventive military action" against Iran.
The report coincided with an Israeli airforce exercise over the Mediterranean that Tel Aviv indicated was a dress rehearsal for a possible attack on nuclear sites in the Islamic Republic.
"Yes, there's a lot of rhetoric floating around, but why else would they produce it if they didn't feel there was a pressing need for it," says Alan Keiswetter, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Middle East affairs.
Until recently he, like many analysts, thought military action against Iran highly unlikely.
"You're never quite sure what Dick Cheney and his crowd can convince the president to do. Some people in Washington are convinced that in the last days of the administration the hardliners will do something drastic," he said.
Those looking to a new administration to bring clarity on Iran may be disappointed. Because one thing the 44th president of the United States will discover is that there is enough space between the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and Congress to drive several tanks through.
Recent revelations about intelligence operations in Iran are a case in point.
Were Democrat nominee Obama to clinch the presidency, he would advocate "direct presidential diplomacy" with Iran, despite the fact that Democratic Party leaders - who control the House of Representatives - signed off a $400 million covert military programme late last year.
From the outside, this looks like the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. The sort of situation where the US could stumble into a war.
But one senior State Department official puts a charitable gloss on the confusion.
"It is advantageous to be ambiguous, as it leaves room for creativity in negotiations," he says.
"If we get to the negotiation stage."
This is a moot point. "The real question is, who do you talk to and how? (Former secretary of state Colin) Powell's team got close to arranging face-to-face meetings with the Iranians, only for the supreme leader to veto them a few days beforehand," says Keiswetter.
"And that's just the Iranian end. I don't think the administration has ever had an Iran policy that it was comfortable with. It has always been a patchwork."
On Iran, then, there is no obvious path out of the woods. On the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, similarly, neither candidate shows any urgency about re-engaging either party in constructive dialogue.
Both owe a debt to the powerful Jewish political lobby in the US. On Afghanistan, however, there is a glimmer of hope.
"As long as we stick to a policy that all decisions have to go through Islamabad, then we are never going to see a solution," says former Washington Post correspondent Thomas Lippman, now adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.
It would seem from past statements that Obama agrees with him (see box).
On Iraq, too, while Mr McCain has resolved to stay the course, his opponent favours rapid and unconditional troop withdrawal. Or he did. Conditions seem to be creeping in and the timetable for withdrawal lengthening as Obama "continues to refine" his Iraq policy.
And this is the nub of the issue. Most treatment of foreign policy by both candidates has been shallow at best, argues Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
"So far, all candidates have largely dodged the issue of how to shape an overall strategy for war fighting, have taken even more polarised positions on Iran than they have on the Iraq war and have treated the Afghan-Pakistan war largely through slogans and neglect."
His advice is not to pay too close attention to the rhetoric of either candidate.
"It may not be polite to say so, but the US, the world, and the next presidency will be far better off if none of the presidential candidates take what they are saying now about Iraq and Iran, or are failing to say about Afghanistan, all that seriously."
Not only will the new president be straightjacketed by protocol - it will take months to appoint senior officials, plan and execute any comprehensive new strategy - but he will also inherit the last administration's budget, Cordesman points out.
More importantly, events in the Middle East have a habit of outrunning US foreign policy.
"I don't remember a time when there have been so many moving parts, or so many uncertainties," says Lippman.
"Whether you're talking about Israel and Turkey, or who will be the next king of Saudi Arabia, or what's going to happen in Iran, or what the price of oil will be next week - so much may have changed by January 2009."