by Curtis F. Jones
The author, a retired career diplomat with long experience in the Middle East, discusses three long-standing objectives of U. S. policy in the region. He sees American planners taking a new look at the Middle East and notes that many observers view U. S. polices as “deeply flawed.” —Ed.
The cornerstone of American policy for the Middle East is the understanding reached between President Franklin Roosevelt and King Ibn Sa’ud on the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal in February 1945. Although Prime Minister Churchill was unaware and would have been appalled at the idea, the Quincy meeting initiated the transfer of the region from the British to the American sphere of influence, an unruly and haphazard process which was to take three decades. Roosevelt’s implicit extension of a security guarantee to the Saudi monarchy, in return for preferred access to Saudi oil, was to be reaffirmed by every successive administration to the present day.
During the ensuing half century and more, American policy has crystallized around three basic objectives:
- To preserve Western hegemony during the Cold War over the region whose strategic importance to the defense of Europe had been recognized from the time of Napoleon.
- To ensure affordable access to Middle East oil.
- To ensure the security of state of Israel.
In recent days, U. S. policy has also taken on as a fundamental aim the suppression of anti-American terrorism.
Throughout the Cold War, the British-American alliance perceived the Soviet Union as the only serious external threat. The effort to mobilize states of the region in a pro-Western defense pact was frustrated by myriad intramural rivalries, notably the Arab-Israeli dispute. The Soviets, however, lacked the political and economic resources to take effective advantage of these complications. More stubborn opposition to Western influence came from the Middle Easterners themselves. As British and French colonial and League-mandated systems fell apart, a number of states struck out on the path of self-determination, an initiative that led the West into a concatenation of interventions, with generally calamitous results. In 1956, when Britain, France, and Israel colluded in an invasion variously intended to reverse Egyptian President Nasir’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, restore British control of the Canal Zone, and expand Israel’s frontiers, President Eisenhower scotched the conspiracy by deploying American financial power to convulse the pound sterling and expel Israel from Sinai and Gaza.
This was the last spark of common sense out of Washington. Having already financed an Iranian coup, which was to contribute to the Islamist takeover in 1979, the United States went on to a series of maladroit policy moves. These included a misfired coup attempt in Syria in 1957; a simultaneous operation to buy the Lebanese presidential election—which was followed up, under the Eisenhower Doctrine, by an intervention with Marines in 1958; a defense agreement with Turkey in 1959 (which has acquired strategic significance over the years); a clandestine campaign to undermine Nasir in the 1960’s; intelligence support for the Iraq’s war against Iran in the 1980’s; and a green light for the Israeli effort to set up a puppet regime in Lebanon in the 1980’s. Finally, I cite the arguably misguided reversal of Iraq’s occupation of the disputed state of Kuwait in 1991 (the Gulf War); the subsequent stationing of U. S. forces in Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to defend against attack from Iraq or Iran, but more pointedly to guard the corrupt and reactionary monarchy from insurrection; and since 1997 a campaign to overthrow the Saddam regime in Iraq by fair means or foul. America’s hegemonic design was formally articulated in the State of the Union address of January 23, 1980, as the Carter Doctrine (“Any attempt by any, outside force to gain control of the Gulf would be viewed as an attack on U. S. vital interests.”).
America faces two handicaps the UK never had to deal with during the latter’s long period of overriding influence in the region:
- The age of colonialism is over.
Denied the British convenience of local administrations backed by garrisons of British soldiers and airmen, the United States has had to stage many of its operations from naval units, which dominate four of the six seas that ring the Middle East. (The one major exception is the American air base at Incirlik in Turkey.)
- 2) In the era of global satellite television, it is much more difficult to put an altruistic spin on a self-serving policy.
The only visible external threat to American hegemony in the Middle East evaporated in 1991 when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Yet Washington is equally nervous about domestic opposition. In 1981 President Reagan declared that the United States would not allow Saudi Arabia to fall into the hands of any hostile force, external or internal. America seems determined to deny the Middle Easterners the right of self-determination it holds sacred at home.
George Kennan has suggested that the central goal of American foreign policy is to preserve America’s disproportionate consumption of world resources. Oil would be the prime example. With five percent of the world’s population, America consumes a fourth of the world’s oil production. The Pentagon has traditionally based its defense planning on the assumption of special access to Saudi oil. President George W. Bush has embraced the thesis that national security depends on energy security. An Islamist takeover of Saudi Arabia would, it is often thought, have potentially devastating consequences for the world economy.
The defense of Israel is rarely cited as justification for American interventionist policies in the Middle East, but it is clearly a crucial motive. Roosevelt raised it with Ibn Sa’ud three years before Israel became a state; he reportedly promised in writing that America would take no action in Palestine contrary to Arab interests. But President Truman, citing the influence of the Jewish community in America, swept any such assurances aside and rammed the 1947 Palestine Partition Resolution through the UN General Assembly.
Over the following half-century American support for Israel has constantly gained momentum; the pose of American neutrality in the Arab-Israeli conflict has become threadbare. The pattern of American-Israeli military alliance was successively formalized, in 1970 by a military exchange agreement, in 1981 by an agreement on strategic cooperation against any threat to Middle East peace and security from the Soviet Union or its allies, and in 1983 by Reagan’s identification of strategic cooperation with Israel as a national priority.
Israel is the leading recipient of American financial aid worldwide. There is a close correlation between American aid programs to other regimes in the region (Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, the Palestine Authority) and the degree to which they have moved toward detente with Israel.
In five of the six Arab-Israeli wars (the Suez adventure of 1956 excepted), Israel has received crucial American political, financial, and logistical support. The Camp David Agreement of 1978 was a diplomatic success for Egypt (recovery of Sinai) and a strategic triumph for Israel, which won a free hand in the Occupied Territories. In the inevitable Palestinian insurrections of 1987-93 and 2000 to the present, the United States has generally favored the Israeli side of the argument.
In the American political universe, Israeli security is so crucial that it uniformly receives the personal attention of the President. His motivations in any particular policy initiative must be left to the conjectures of the historians, but some of them — notably President Clinton’s “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran—would appear to serve no perceived vital interest in the region except the security of Israel. At the UN, the United States has often voted with Israel against the vast majority of the membership.
In the 1990’s, terrorism, a phenomenon seen frequently in the Middle East since the 1940’s, came at the United States from an unexpected quarter — a Sunni Islamist (fundamentalist) organization that fought beside the Afghan Mujahideen and directed by Saudi zealot Usamah bin Ladin. Al Qa’idah has been held responsible for costly attacks on American installations in Saudi Arabia (military quarters), Africa (embassies), Aden (USS Cole), and the United States (New York’s Twin Towers in 1993), but its operations were politically sustainable until the razing of the Twin Towers and the assault on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
The cost in damage, trauma, and lives on that date was of a magnitude that demanded an immediate, overwhelming, and magisterial response. In a perfect world, it might have been confined to submitting the case to an international tribunal, followed by quiet examination of the policies that have engendered anti-Americanism in so virulent a form. In the real world, dominated by a superpower whose culture is inherently combative, and a President whose self-image is inseparable from the nation’s fate, President Bush’s reaction seems to have been automatic: a declaration of “war on terrorism’ and a call for the head of Usamah bin Ladin. These decisions have plunged America into a semiwar in the forbidding fastnesses of Afghanistan, which is not even in the Middle East.
The battle against the shadowy forces of Islamist terrorism is less than a war, but more than a police action. When before in history did an invader drop ordnance and relief supplies simultaneously?
The President is wrestling with a Portian paradox — how to extract the pound of flesh (destroy al Qa’idah) without spilling the blood of Afghan civilians to the point of losing world support and jeopardizing the Musharraf regime in Pakistan. If he succeeds, the international community is likely to judge that justice has been served. If he fails, he will have to disengage—hopefully with more grace than our leaders mustered in the disengagement from Vietnam—and he may regret that he did not take the route of international diplomacy.
The carnage of September 11 converted anti-American terrorism from a major concern to an overriding national priority. The President has already made some abrupt policy changes in the interest of building an antiterrorist coalition. Should he also consider modifying policies that may have instigated the terrorism? In my view, counter terrorism has three basic components: defense against future attacks, punishment of the malefactors, and reassessment of the policies that may have provoked the terrorism.
Washington says it has conclusive evidence of al Qa’idah’s responsibility for September 11. Although its motivations are murky, they seem to have been most explicitly articulated in bin Ladin’s 1998 fatwa, which denounced America’s military presence in Saudi Arabia, its operations against Iraq, and its support for Israel.
Until September 11, Washington was able to make a plausible case that the Middle East was making slow but steady progress toward peace and democracy under humane American stewardship. Pro-Western regimes seemed firmly ensconced. The two strongest states, Israel and Turkey, were securely in the American camp. Recalcitrant Iraq and Iran were floundering. The continuing consolidation of Israel’s grip on occupied Palestine was camouflaged by the histrionics of the “peace process”. Israel seemed to have learned to live with Palestinian terrorism. The undercurrent of violence was successively blamed on misguided ideologues like Egypt’s Nasir, Iran’s Khomeini, Iraq’s Saddam, and Palestinian zealots. Washington was satisfied with the payoff from its three basic policies; All-out support for Israel; rewards for other regimes that went along; penalties for those that didn’t. Members of this last category were blacklisted—first as “outlaw states”, later as “rogue states”, most recently as “terrorist states” or “states of concern”.
Black September Eleventh forced American planners to take a new look at their blueprint for the Middle East. In the eyes of many. it is deeply flawed:
- The regimes on which America has pinned its hopes are corrupt, repressive, and increasingly unpopular. None of them can claim to be representative. Even Israel has failed to find a way to accord its non-Jewish citizens equal status.
- Middle Eastern frontiers, mostly determined as much as a century ago by colonial powers, are artificial and impermanent. South Yemen has disappeared, Lebanon may rejoin Syria, and the Gulf states are relics of tribalism and colonialism.
- While Washington is an avowed participant in efforts to reconcile traditional enemies (Israel and the Arabs, Iraq and Iran, et al), it has not resisted the temptation to sell arms to both sides.
- America has been seduced by its superpower status into practicing a double standard. An example is its recourse to military action against Iraq for allegedly attempting to develop nuclear weapons, in contrast with its tolerance of—and possible collusion in—Israel’s nuclear weapons program. (Note also the sudden lifting of sanctions against Pakistan.) At a more fundamental level, with respect to Middle East routes and resources, Washington demands a degree of access it would never tolerate at home. American policy often gives the impression of devaluing non-American lives. Asked about the effect of sanctions on Iraq’s infant mortality rates, a Secretary of State allegedly said: “We think it’s worth the price.”
- One of America’s “vital interests”, the security of Israel, is basically antithetic to the other three. Because a Jewish state is inherently incompatible with a non-Jewish environment, absolute security for one equals the absolute insecurity of the other. In a curious way, American policy gives tacit recognition to this reality: When America is at war (with Iraq in 1991, with al Qa’idah and the Afghan Taliban in 2001) it makes a special effort to keep Israel out When Israel is at war, America tries to stay out. Failure to do so in Lebanon in 1983 ended in disaster.
A panel of international lawyers, convened at Duke University in October 2001 took the position that the attacks of September 11 were a crime and should be dealt with as such, without reference to considerations of foreign policy. The President seems to have implicitly rejected this kind of legalistic approach. Post Twin Towers policy changes include easing up on condemnation of Russian repression of Chechnya, termination of sanctions on Pakistan, and unexpected public endorsement of the “idea” of a Palestinian state. He has not suggested a thoroughgoing policy reassessment, however. The allusion to Palestinian statehood was not a big step forward from previous official ruminations on the issue.
If the continental United States becomes a repeated target of Middle Eastern action, Washington will have to weigh the costs of obduracy against the costs of compromise. Hopefully, America will learn to terror-proof its vast, multi-ethnic, continental system without sacrificing the technical agility and political vitality that have made it great. Disposing of bin Ladin would not dispose of terrorism, the elemental weapon of the weak against the strong. To pacify the Middle East in all likelihood will require some significant reduction of the inconsistencies in American policy.
Curtis F. Jones was a U. S. Foreign Service officer from 1946 until his retirement in 1975. A fluent speaker of Arabic, he served most of those years in the Middle East or in positions in Washington concerned with Middle Eastern affairs. Mr. Jones is a graduate of Bowdoin College and the U. S. Naval War College. He is a member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers and a frequent commentator on foreign policy issues.