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Like Americans in general, our contributing authors differ sharply over Middle East issues and what the US role should be in the region. Here, we present two contrasting commentaries by respected authorities. Then we open the floor for debate in our Reader’s Forum by asking each author to critique the views of the other. Be sure to read both articles, then JOIN IN THE DEBATE by clicking on a yellow Reader’s Forum button!’     ~ Ed. [NOTE: The forum is no longer supported.]


by Curtis F. Jones

The progeny of the twentieth century were born into an age of revolution, both political and economic. The political aspect took shape in the late 1700’s in the United States and France; the economic in the 1800’s in England. Both combined to form the “modern” secular, computerized society whose avatar is the United States, whose leaders now presume to extend the benefits of that society to the world at large. They see themselves in the role of controlling humanity’s destiny, but the historical record suggests the opposite — that mankind is being swept along by elemental forces largely beyond human control.

For an illustrative example, consider the Middle East.

One hundred years ago, when thirty million Britons oversaw the affairs of 350 million alien subjects, the overlords assumed that the sun would not be setting on the empire for centuries to come. In fifty fleeting years, two world wars drained Britain of blood and treasure, it joined the ranks of the second-rate powers, and the imperial edifice collapsed. The former colonies and protectorates, now inoculated with the sera of revolution, graduated to self-rule.

So it was supposed to be for Britain’s extensive holdings in the Middle East, but it transpired that the region had been transferred to the stewardship of the new superpower, the United States.

America’s proprietary interest in the region derived from two unrelated events. The first was the prewar discovery of the world’s largest known petroleum reserves. Skeptical of the Middle Easterners’ ability and intent to guarantee easy foreign access to their oil and gas and the revenues therefrom, Washington made the unilateral decision to do the job for them. In 1945 President Roosevelt had private talks with King Ibn Sa’ud in the Suez Canal. As Daniel Yergin has noted in The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (1991), no one knows exactly what was said, but the sub-text was clear: Saudi Arabia would give the United States an inside track to its oil and the United States would guard Saudi Arabia from foreign interference (in 1945 the only threat was British). That understanding has been reaffirmed by subsequent presidents. It is a pillar of U.S. Middle East policy.

A second pillar was erected in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel. In the ensuing years, the American commitment to the survival of the Jewish state has become even stronger than that to Saudi Arabia. Saudi requests for U.S. favors, such as arms sales, are often granted; Israeli requests are almost always granted — sometimes before they have been made.

Standing on these two mismatched bases of policy, the United States has habitually intoned a mantra of orderly progress toward a peaceful, prosperous, democratic Middle East. This soothing formula conflicts sharply with several realities:

  1. The Americans are neither indigenous nor Muslim, unlike the Turks, who dominated the region for four centuries.
  2. Israel and Saudi Arabia are inborn rivals. The one is dedicated to the implantation of a Jewish sanctuary in the center of the Muslim world, the other to its role as champion of Islam and custodian of the holy places in Mecca, Medina — and Jerusalem. During the Gulf War of 1991 the United States exerted a major political effort insure against Israeli participation, which might well have shattered the allied coalition.
  3. Democracy is an elusive commodity. The United States has been practicing it for over 200 years and still hasn’t gotten it right, as demonstrated by Congress’ egregious failure to insulate the electoral process from the corrosive effects of special-interest money. The Middle East contains a congeries of tribal autocracies (Arabian Peninsula), military dictatorships (Egypt and the Fertile Crescent), a theocracy (Iran), a semi-republic (Turkey), and a Judocracy (Israel).
  4. Middle East frontiers are haphazard, the product of millennia of communal conflict and foreign invasion, further skewed in recent times by colonialist caprice.
    • Borders cut across vital rivers (Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Orontes, Jordan).
    • They contravene racial distribution. Kurds are dispersed among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria; greater Israel is split between five million Jews and three and a half million Arabs.
    • They disregard sectarian divisions. In Iraq, a Sunni minority rules a Shia majority; in Syria their roles are reversed; in Lebanon a stubborn civil war between Christians and Muslims was brought to an end only by Syrian military occupation.
    • They interrupt pipelines. Syria closed a line from Iraq; Arab-Israeli wars closed the tap line from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon; U.S. sanctions have cut the flow through an Iraqi line that transits Turkey.

Traumatized by Vietnam, the United States is determined to avoid open-ended conflict from now on — let alone the garrison strategy employed by the UK and France in the days of empire. Instead, Washington proposes to cap the Middle East volcano by judicious exercise of its economic and political power. Israel, Egypt, and Turkey receive the lion’s share of America’s world-wide economic and military subsidies. Ever since the United States called in all its markers to force partition of Palestine through the UN General Assembly in 1947, it has acted as Israel’s agent in the Security Council.

When dollars and diplomacy fail, the United States resorts to military assistance, ranging from secret military collaboration (with Iraq against Iran in the 1980’s) to emergency arms airlifts (Israel in 1967 and 1973) to long-term air cover (AWACS over the Arabian Peninsula, enforcement of no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq) to three cases of direct military intervention.

The obverse of the policy of aid to allies is a pattern of operations designed to block the activities of regimes perceived to be hostile to American interests. In 1953, the CIA financed a coup which ousted Iranian Prime Minister Mossadeq and reinstated the Shah. In 1956, in a brief fit of impartiality, the United States pulled the financial rug out from under the ill-advised effort of its own allies, Britain and France, to take back the Suez Canal Zone. In 1957, it used the lever of economic aid to force Israel out of Sinai and Gaza.

Over the next forty years, the United States has drifted toward the status of full-time partisan in Middle Eastern disputes. Iran has been ostracized since the Ayatollah Khomeini took power in 1979. Saddam lost the American imprimateur when he misread the signs and invaded Kuwait in 1990. Syria is also on the blacklist, but by signing up with the coalition in 1991 it avoided being marked for “containment,” the imponderable fate to which Iran and Iraq are currently condemned.

To safeguard the two interests it perceives to be vital — oil and Israel — America has upgraded the old gunboat diplomacy into a sort of imperialism by remote control. Its instruments are the Sixth Fleet, based at Naples, the Fifth Fleet, based at Bahrain, long-range aircraft from the United States and the British Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia, carrier aircraft and missiles, and short-range aircraft flying from whatever ground facilities local governments are prepared to accord in any given set of circumstances.

Compared to the extent and cost of this multifarious armada, the results have been pathetic. The United States is still paying a price in Iranian resentment of the “successful ” interference of 1953. The Marine landing in Lebanon in 1958 was an irrelevancy. The “ victorious ” action against Iraq ran directly counter to the American objective of Middle East prosperity by subjecting the Iraqi infrastructure to apocalyptic destruction. (If Saddam possessed Hafiz al Asad’s lighter touch, he might have managed to acquire the same influence in Kuwait that Asad now enjoys in Lebanon.)

As for the Marine landing in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion of 1982-83, that was an unqualified disaster. By appearing to give the invasion its tacit endorsement and then allowing its ground and naval forces to be drawn into the conflict on the Israeli side, the United States incurred indirect responsibility for the heavy casualties inflicted by the Israelis and their Phalangist allies. America suffered the loss of 241 Marines in a truck-bombing and had to order an ignominious withdrawal.

If we step back and take a wider view, we see little evidence that America’s Middle East policy is achieving its basic objectives.Access to oil?

    • For the privilege of buying some ten billion dollars worth of Middle East oil each year, the United States is spending perhaps fifty billion dollars a year to maintain a military structure that failed to avert pipeline closures, two closures of the Suez Canal, the 1973 oil embargo against the United States, and wholesale destruction in Kuwait in 1991. To top it all off, we find an embargo on Iraqi and Iranian oil which the United States has cleverly imposed upon itself. Meanwhile, Europe and Japan are not only buying Middle East oil without any military expenditures worth mentioning, they are picking up lucrative contracts that are denied to American companies by that same clever policy.

Middle East peace?

    • Since America assumed its supervisory role fifty years ago, the region has endured fifteen major wars. Ritual condemnations of violence collide with the sad reality that nearly every state in the world, including our own, was founded on conquest. Expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait with huge Iraqi casualties and minimal American casualties was a military

tour de force,

    • but it did nothing to alter the reality that sooner or later that tiny emirate is bound to be absorbed by one of its stronger neighbors, with or without Washington’s endorsement.

Middle East democracy?

    • Although the United States was conceived in revolution, it has undertaken to shore up autocracy, lately in Latin America and southeast Asia, currently in the Middle East. Kuwait’s royal family, which took refuge in Saudi Arabia during the Iraqi occupation, has been reinstated. The Saudi royal family, a closed corporation of several thousand princes on generous stipends from their own government, continue to resist foreign abominations such as women drivers. If we take credit for clipping the wings of the tyrannical Saddam, we automatically incur responsibility for ravaging a country that was the most progressive in the Arab world. If we were to eliminate Saddam, as advocated by some of our more fervid pundits, we would probably precipitate the disintegration of Iraq, another Middle East war, and the acceleration of that revolutionary process we seem bent on suppressing.

Like the sorcerer’s inept apprentice, America waves its superpower wand against the onslaught of tumultuous change, but it is calling on the wrong kind of magic. Exerted from a base 7,000 miles away, military supremacy has immense power to preclude but little power to control. If we assume for the sake of argument that the policy makers are aware of this paradox, we are required by logic to ask what contingency they hope to avert. For many Middle East watchers, Washington is motivated above all else by concern for the survival of Israel, and its Middle East policy has been designed to forestall the emergence of any entity that could threaten that survival. It is only in this specific context that “ dual containment ” of Israel’s potential adversaries, Iraq and Iran, makes any sense..

If the United States has adopted such a policy, it has vitiated the strongest magic in its possession — the enduring force of the democratic system. The military and political messages are incompatible. If our interest in Middle East progress is genuine, we should reduce the atavistic military presence and give the region’s inhabitants free rein to lurch toward free speech, free enterprise, and free choice in the same disorderly way that other societies have done before them. Only when they stumble on common economic and political denominators will they achieve stability.

Revision of U.S. policy would be agonizing because it would automatically compel equivalent revision of the policy of our alter ego, Israel. The Arab-Israeli conflict will not be solved by military supremacy, which Israel has long enjoyed, nor by alliance with non-Arab neighbors. The new military understanding with Turkey is reminiscent of the balance-of-power policy that dragged Europe into two world wars.

The dynamics of America’s special-interest democracy stand squarely in the way of any explicit liberalization of America’s Middle East policy, but in the Middle East there are more elemental forces at work. The New York Times of March 1, 1998, reported that an Israeli court was agonizing over the application of an Israeli Arab for housing in one of the many communities closed to non-Jews under the founding principles of the Israeli state. In the United States, the discriminatory institution of slavery and its consequences are being painfully reduced by a succession of executive, legislative, and judicial actions that began 150 years ago. The elimination of the discriminatory aspects of Zionism may take as long, but the time to start is now.

Read Adam Garfinkle, “The Next Middle Eastern War”

[Author Curtis F. Jones]Curt Jones, a retired senior U.S. Foreign Service officer and member of this journal ’s editorial advisory board, had a thirty-year career as a diplomat, most of it stationed in the Middle East or concerned with Middle Eastern affairs in Washington.

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