PAUL ROGERS, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University and author of the Oxford Research Group's International Security Report 2006 Into the Long War, published this week by Pluto Press, discusses whether the US mid-term election results will influence America's role in the Middle East.

Two weeks ago President Bush and his administration suffered a serious defeat in the American mid-term elections to Congress.

Previously, his Republican Party controlled both parts of Congress, the House and the Senate, and quite a few analysts thought that the House would fall to the Democrats in the elections. What came as a surprise was the loss of the Senate, even if the Democrats only took control by 51 to 49 seats.

The change in Congress means that Mr Bush will be far less able to run his administration as he wants, a real problem for his administration with the next Presidential Election in November 2008 already starting to cast its shadow over the American political scene.

What made the elections unusual was that the dominant issue became the American involvement in the war in Iraq, unusual in US politics where domestic issues usually dominate election campaigns. With nearly 3,000 service personnel killed and around 20,000 seriously wounded in Iraq, though, the mood in the United States has changed dramatically in the past 18 months, with more and more people calling for a military withdrawal.

In the light of the elections are we now seeing the prospect of a major change in US policy in the Middle East or is the reality that nothing much will change? It is certainly the case that President Bush stuck to the existing policies in the run-up to the election. He put a great deal of effort into trying to connect the war in Iraq with the devastating attacks in New York and Washington over five years ago and began to talk in terms of a much longer conflict than many people had expected.

What had formerly been termed the war on terror was now being called the "Long War against Islamofascism", with that term meaning any Islamic group that appeared to be opposed to US policies, whether or not it was directly confronting the American military. It therefore included insurgents in Iraq, the Taliban and their allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, as well as the wider al Qaida movement.

Using this kind of phrase certainly didn't make it sound as though the United States was suddenly going to change its policies, but plenty of commentators have suggested that the recent election results could still make a difference. The new 2006 International Security Report from one of Britain's think tanks, Oxford Research Group, comes to a very different conclusion. While it believes that there really is a need for a fundamental change in policy, it also thinks this unlikely in the short term because both of the main parties to the conflict in this "Long War", are likely to be in contention for many years to come.

The al Qaida movement, for example, has a number of aims, including the eviction of foreign forces from the Middle East and the termination of what it sees as pro-western elitist regimes in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan. Any of these could take two decades or more to achieve and, beyond that, al Qaida is determined to establish an Islamic Caliphate across much of the Middle East.

Most analysts believe that such aims may never be achieved but the point is that the al Qaida movement is in it for the long term, and certainly sees a conflict stretching over half a century or more.

For the Americans and their allies, one obvious answer might be to withdraw from a troublesome region and leave the local regimes to fight it out with al Qaida and other radical groups. In reality, there is no immediate prospect of the United States pulling out, for two substantial reasons. One is the long-term and very close relationship that the United States has with Israel. This has developed over nearly 50 years and is now very deep-rooted.

In some ways the second factor is even more fundamental - the crucial geo-political importance of the oil reserves of the Persian Gulf. It is not just that the Gulf region has so much oil, nearly two-thirds of all the world's remaining oil reserves and 20 times as much oil as the North Sea at its peak in the 1980s. What is much more significant is that the United States is becoming steadily more dependent on imported oil and is increasingly in competition with China for the world's remaining supplies.

The Pentagon has had a close interest in the Gulf oil reserves for more than 30 years and takes the view that it is absolutely essential for the United States to have military dominance. This is why an entire fleet, the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, patrols the Gulf and has its main base in Bahrain, and it is why large air force and army bases are maintained in places such as Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Djibouti and of course Iraq.

In many ways, though, it is Iraq that is crucial. It alone has four times the oil reserves of the entire United States including Alaska. From the Pentagon's perspective a complete US withdrawal could leave a failed state right in between the "rogue" state of Iran and the potentially unstable kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

From their quite different perspectives, the United States and the al Qaida movement are therefore likely to remain locked in conflict for some years to come, with the recent American elections making very little difference. The human costs could be immense - more than 100,000 civilians have already been killed in Iraq and the extent of the economic damage is massive. It doesn't have to be that way, but for there to be any substantial change, the US would have to start moving away from its addiction to oil and its increasing dependence on the Persian Gulf.

A major move like that could be very good in other respects, not least in getting to grips with perhaps the biggest problem of all, the global impact of climate change.

For the moment, though, that is not a major issue in the United States and it may be two or three years yet before there is a real change in thinking in Washington. The recent elections might help start that process but, by themselves, they will not be a powerful enough shock to really change ideas, however urgent that might be.