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US Middle East Policy: A Primer

by Ben P Wed Sep 6th, 2006 at 01:22:22 AM EST

Considering the current situation in the world, I thought some here might appreciate a run down summarizing US Middle East policy as it has developed since 1945 (or thereabouts). In other words, a diary attempting to explain why we are where we are today and why I believe the Bush administration's current policies vis-a-vis the region to be inherently contradictory and doomed to failure - and why much of the Democratic strategic class is incapable of providing any kind of convincing alternative.


FDR and Saudi Arabia

To begin, we need to go back to the 1930s. It was in this era that the discoveries of the major oil fields in the Gulf region were made. Of course, people had been pumping oil in the area since at least several decades prior. However, it was at this later date (1938 to be exact) that the full extent of the size of the fields came to be known, particularly with regards to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, then only 6 years old (at least in its modern form).

During the backroom political wrangling constant throughout WWII, the United States essentially sealed an alliance that remains with us today, when FDR signed an agreement with then-king Abdul Aziz on February 14, 1945 when the US essentially guaranteed a healthy flow of military supplies and maintanance of the Saudia royal family's time in power in exchange for priveleged US and US company access to the bountiful Saudi oil fields. Of course, FDR and US policy makers new very well that the Saudi kingdom was an autocratic monarchy. But, as was so often said in what would become known as the Cold War, "better they're our bastards than their (ie the USSR's) bastards." Because, as many of you perhaps know, it was clear to US policy makers and strategic thinkers by 1945 that the Soviet Union would be the US's main strategic global competitor after WWII, with Japan and Germany defeated and destroyed, the UK and France weakened, their empires in retreat. So, maintaining a vital lifeline to a major source of power (if not the major source of power) in the modern industrial world was deemed vital, in recognition of the strategic threat the Soviets posed. This alliance was futher cemented in that the Saudis were conservatively disposed and pious, while, of course, communism was a militantly atheistic philolosphy. Also, it should be noted that this piety was seen as a great asset (logically so) in the minds of US policy makers at the time. Indeed, such a strategic decision, which was eminently sensible in the context of the Cold War, demonstrates the degree to which individuals are products of their own time and circumstances and cannot foresee "the trajectory of history."

Israel, the Second Pillar

Of course, simultaneous to what is still a largely unknown series of events (the creation of US-Saudi relations) World War II was raging, and with it, tragically, the Holocaust. In many ways a result of this perhaps-unprecedented crime against humanity, the world community moved to create a new state for world Jewry, of course, Israel. It should be noted - as many of you perhaps know - that the modern Zionist movement had already been underway for over half of century, instigated by Theodor Hetzl in the late 19th century as a response to continued and seemingly unending persecution of Jews in the context of European societies. In the meantime, in what is known as the "aaliyah," many Jews did in fact journey to Palestine. However, until the immediate aftermath of WWII, Jews - who had been, albeit in small numbers, a presence in Palestine for centuries - formed something approaching a majority in the area.

However, my goal here is not to go into the history of Israel. That has been done enough elsewhere. Rather, it is to provide a bit of background to what would become the second major pillar of the United States's post-World War II policy, which was support for Israel. Indeed, the US was one of the first nations to recognize the new state in 1948. Unlike the US's support for Saudi Arabia, however, which was fundamentally a relationship premised on REAL POLITIK, the US's support for Israel was primarily MORAL. Right here, perhaps, we begin to see some of the inherent contradicitons of US policy in the region as they would develop over time. Although some contend that US support for Israel is also a primarily REALPOLITIK relationship, I disagree. Although Israel's use as a sort of regional policeman would increase after the 1967 war, I fundamentally disagree with folks who proffer such an interpretation. I see US support for Israel as primarily motivated by moral considerations, although more recently (and more disturbingly) by ideological considerations (which I will discuss below).

The world changes, the paradigm hardens

The period from about 1968 to 1979 offer the last major paradigm shift in world history, albeit not on a scale similar to the paradigm shift of the 1939 to 1948 period (one can argue that we are currently going through a similar shift, which makes sense given that such shifts tend to happen every 30 or 40 years. Of course, we won't know until more time has passed). Basically, the world underwent a shift away from Keynesian capitalism and towards neoliberlism, and towards a more free-wheeling, expressive culture less shackled to traditional cutlural mores. Both of these processes have greatly undermined traditional social relations in both the developed and developing worlds and have led also to a fundamentalist backlash that has taken many forms, really in most of the world.

Also, the early 1970s saw the Bretton Woods agreement breakdown with the end of the gold standard and its tie to the dollar as the the fundamental means of regulating global capital flows. This agreement, set up at a conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire in 1944 established the dollar as the currency of 'last resort,' but with the dollar also tied - and thus always exchangeable - for gold. In 1971, Richard Nixon decided to take the United States dollar away from its gold peg, thus effectively ending the Bretton Woods framework. Without getting much into the economics of this, this decision was largely spurred by increased US inflation (primarily a product of Vietnam War spending, coupled with new Great Society programs and tax cuts as well as increased global competition, especially from the likes of Japan and West Germany, getting back on line after their midcentury disasters). It was also at this time that the US began to run trade deficits - keep in mind that the US had had significant trade surpluses for the whole post-war period up until this time.

What does all this have to do with the Middle East? Well, although after Bretton Woods there was technically no single reserve currency now that the dollar had been unpegged from a gold standard, the US dollar continued to function in this manner. How? Well, the US continued to be the world's preeminent economy and military power, despite some new weaknesses not seen before the late 1960s. But also important was the role of "petrodollars." Basically - and this is going to be a rather gross simplification for brevity's and simplicity's sake - security arrangements with the likes of Saudia Arabia, but also Kuwait, Qatar, and the other Gulf monarchies (not the United Arab Emirates until 1971) meant that these economies bought US hardware - and military hardware - and invested the dollars they earned from selling their oil in US banks. Why dollars? Well, despite the relative decline of the US's economic dominance from 1945 to the early 1970s, it still remained the world's dominant economy and largest consumer of petroleum - in both cases by a long distance. Furthermore, at the time, there was simply no other currency which could play the role the dollar could. There was no Euro. Britain was done as a world power. The Soviet Union had a rigid command economy not conducive or attractive to investors. So the dollar it would be. And with the various oil shocks of the 1970s, first seen in 1973, the world was awash in petrodollars. Thus the "win-win" situation/relation that had existed between the US and Saudi Arabia, and later, the other gulf kingdoms was reinforced, even if anger in the US amongst consumers at least began to grow.

Two Wars, Religious Fundamentalism, (and Israel)

So the following deals with the "First Pillar." But what about the "Second Pillar," or Israel? Well, the US continued to back Israel and largely for the same reasons it had since Israel's founding in 1948. But some new reasons were beginning to creep into the picture, set in motion largely by Israel's triumphs in the 1967, or "6 Days," War and the 1973, or "Yom Kippur," War. At the time, both wars were largely seen as the brave new Israeli state fighting heroically for its life against hostile, treachorous neighbors. And these were generally fair assessments as far it goes. In both cases, Israel fought a clutch of its Arab neighbors simultaneously. In the first case, 1967, Israel launched what is seen as a largely justifiable "pre-emptive strike" (yes, I know) against Egyptian forces massing at its border after the Egyptians had expelled a UN force from the Sinai Peninsuala. The second in 1973 began after Syria and Egypt launched a suprise attack on Israel during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur (hence the name!).

In both cases, Israel emerged victorious against what on the surface seemed like long odds. The result of these two short wars were very significant and were arguably the most important events to occur in the region until the recent US invasion of Iraq (and the subsequent state collapse) and this summer's Lebanon/Israel War. Why? I would argue for three major reasons, not all of which were clearly seen at the time. Indeed, if you were to ask an American in, say, 1975 what the most important result of the war was, they would have probably announced something about the emergence of the "Arab oil weapon." Some of you probably remember personally experiencing the oil shortages of the era, when people waited in line for gas after OPEC boycotted the US after it chose to materially assist Israel in the war. This was indeed an important outcome. But my focus here will be otherwise.

Firstly, these wars definetly established Israel as the region's military power. This has arguably had several important consequences. Firstly, it led to a sense of humiliation amongst the various Arab publics ("how could three or four of our armies lose to just one!!?"), which in turn fatally undermined the secular socialist states that had generally led nations in the region (and still, rather pathetically, do - see Egypt and Syria). In many cases, a return to religious piety, and then, religious political organization, was seen as the answer to the failure of westernization and modernization. Also, it discredited the idea that "conventional" Arab armies could defeat or successfully fight Israel. New tactics needed to be provided. So, arguably, this would fuel the rise of guerilla warfare/terrorism/4th gen warfare that characterizes groups like Hezbollah. Now of course, none of this was obvious at the time and it certainly wasn't obvious how it would effect US policy in the region.

Secondly, Israel's triumphs in these wars meant that Israel took control of some new lands - the Sinai Peninsuala, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Sinai was returned to Egypt when Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979. Israel still holds the other territories. Now, the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip are important in a regional sense, but they do not hold the importance of the West Bank, and particularly Israel's capture of all of Jerusalem. What the capture of Jerusalem did in particular was to provide Israel with a whole new set of "friends" in the United States, with rather different reasons for supporting it than the traditional moral case dating back to 1948. Basically, the capture of Jerusalem was seen as a vital step in fulfilling Biblical prophecy by a significant section of American Chrisitianity. It aroused a newfound interest in the state amongst a particular segment of American Christianity that the original founding of Israel did not, even though this event is also seen as part of a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Perhaps the power of the Israeli capture of Jerusalem should also be seen in the context of a 1970s America where - although religiousity amongst the population as a whole stayed constant or perhaps was even declining - the rise of those adhering to fundamentalist or evangelical traditions that heavily emphasized Biblbical prophecy and pre-millenial dispensationalism was occurring.

Thirdly, Israeli's military triumphs - in a Cold War realpolitik context - led US policy makers to reassess Israel's value as a military ally and not just a "moral commitment." Basically, a newish paradigm developed where an Israel backed by and allied with the United States would face off with a Syria and an Egypt (until 1979) backed by and allied with the Soviet Union. Of course, the Soviet Union had once been a backer of Israel, and the United States had once been a backer of Egypt (see the 1956 Suez Crisis). But the 1967 and 1973 wars changed this equation.

So, just as the collapse of the Bretton Woods framework and the rise of the "petrodollar" deepened the US's commitment to the "first pillar" of its mid-east strategy (support and alliance with the Saudis and the other Gulf kingdoms), so to did the '67 and '73 wars lead to a deepening commitment to the "second pillar" of its strategy, Israel.

9/11 and the Fatal Contradictions of the Middle East Paradigm

Now, forgive me, but I am going to fast-forward almost 30 years to the new millenium. While I hesitate to draw this connection, as there is no direct causation, I think that at least metaphorically speaking, the attacks of September 11, 2001 are evidence of the fatal contradictions of America's Middle East Policy paradigm. On the one hand, inreasingly backing Israel as it actions no matter what it does, while on the other hand continuing to embrace clientelist monarchies and dictatorships as a means of maintaining maximum leverage over the region through its relationship with, at the end of the day, politically submissive regimes. This includes, of course, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, but also Egypt and Jordan, which the US picked up as clients as a means of leveraging both states to sign peace agreements with Israel (Egypt in 1979, Jordan in 1994).

Now again, let me refer back to a couple points I have made earlier. Or rather a point or concept I have a referred to in a couple places - that events that seem innocous or meaningless when they originally happen end up having long term significance. Indeed, in the 1970s or the 1980s, the idea that supporting strongly Saudi Arabia and Israel simultaneously was a fundamentally untenable proposition would not have necessarily made any sense. After all, Saudi Arabia has never fought Israel, even if the two nations have never signed a peace treaty. But the contradictions were always there, below the surface. Saudi Arabia, with all its money, was buying off its hardline Wahabbi religious establishment while not investing in a properly diversified economy or open society in any substantive way. It was and is in many ways a sick society still, 5 years after 9/11. But to restate the Cold War aphorism, "Its our sick society."

The proof is in the 9/11 pudding. Where did the high-jackers come from? 15 from Saudi Arabia, a US ally; 1 from Egypt, a US ally; 1 from Lebanon (a Lebanese Sunni man), a US ally; and 2 from the United Arab Emirates, a US ally. Notice a pattern? Lets leave out Ziad Jarrah from Lebanon. The other 18 come from US client states that are either dictatorships or monarchies.

What was the Bush administration's response to the attacks? For all Bush's talk about the need for "a new policy" towards the region and a need to "reject stability," the US's strategy has remained fundamentally the same. Pursue the fundamental pillars - support for Israel and an attempt to achieve regional hegemony - to a sort of logical extreme. All the while ignoring that the fundamental incompatibility of these goals is what created 9/11. To some how paper over the fundamental illogicality of this, Bush et al. advanced the idea that the problem was a lack of democracy, while willfully ignoring the fact that free elections will lead to the election of politicians fundamentally opposed to both the pre-existing goals which the Bush administration had only more forcefully pursued in the wake of 9/11. The contradiction became obvious in the 4 month period that included the very strong Muslim Brotherhood showing in Egypt's late 2005 Potemkin elections and Hamas's victory in early 2006. This fact was further driven home by the United States's failed diplomacy surrounding the Lebanon-Israel War this summer.

Basically, the current equation is thus: the US wants regional hegemony (call it "empire" if you want). But it needs friendly client states to do so. However, these friendly client states are undemocratic and in some cases deeply illiberal. There populations are opposed to US policy in the region and to the festering sore of the Israel conflict to boot. The US's strategy under Bush is to support Israel more, continue to attempt regional hegemony, and call for elections when it suits them and generally only in hostile regimes. Simply put, these pieces won't fit together anymore. Something has to give.

The Democrats?

But the problem is the Democrats have nothing substantive to offer as an alternative, except for occasional opportunistic sniping (usually deserved) at the edges and more cutting criticism of Bush's generally misbeggoten invasion of Iraq. Why? Its because like the GOP, the Democrats - at least the so-called Beltway revolving door types - are also wedded to the "two pillars" just as much as the GOP. The Democrats and this nation more generally are going to have to make a choice, whether sooner or later. Which pillar do they want to support? Israel or Regional Hegemony? The answer to this question shouldn't be too hard. (Yes, the right answer is Israel).

Yes, in the short run, it would mean surrendering the region to Islamists of various stripes. But the US is probably going to have to do so anyway eventually, with even greater consequences. You think things are bad now, but they could get worse. How about a revolution in Egypt. Or Saudi Arabia. Or Pakistan (admittedly out of the region, but relevant). The fact the US is not liked and its policy of hegemony is not liked cannot be finessed. It has nothing to do with a few "evil leaders" and everything to do with deep and widely held public opinion in the region. If its no Iraq or Iran or Syira, it will be someone else. There is no silver bullet to finesse the fact that the fundamental paradigm that has governed US Middle East policy since WWII is no longer tenable. We are not in good spot today, but it is not too late.

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Unlike the US's support for Saudi Arabia, however, which was fundamentally a relationship premised on REAL POLITIK, the US's support for Israel was primarily MORAL.

I don't think this is really true. It's a nice thing that we tell ourselves, but I don't think there's any doubt the cold warriors saw in Israel primarily an almost certain democratic ally against the Communists in what, as you say, was always going to be a contested region. There was plenty of realism and self-interest involved, probably far more than moral considerations, as this essay suggests:

the May 12 [1948] oval office meeting is described in great detail in Clark Cliffford's autobiography, Counsel to the President. In it Clark Clifford, indeed, presented a compelling case for recognition and it had nothing to do with votes. Indeed, I find the short shrift given to his main arguments most surprising as they proved so prescient and the arguments of his opponents so unfounded. . . .

Clifford pointed out that the fighting had already begun . . . In other words, the realities on the ground should be acknowledged. I believe this to be a rather realistic argument.

His second argument is just as realistic:

Trusteeship, which State supports, presupposes a single Palestine. That is also unrealistic. Partition into Jewish and Arab sectors has already happened. Jews and Arabs are already fighting each other from territory each side presently controls.

The third argument had to do with Cold War realities. American vacillation as compared to Soviet steadfastness was a public relations disaster handed to Truman courtesy of Marshall's State department . . . The Soviets were sure to recognize Israel and by doing so first, the US could regain some of the high ground. . . .

Fourth, Clifford said that the Yishuv was about to create a state "which complied with the provision for democratic government outlined in the U.N. resolution of November 29" . . .

Fifth, Clifford noted that Jews have been waiting for 30 years for the fulfillment of the Balfour Declaration and Trusteeship will postpone that promise indefinitely. , , ,

Sixth, Clifford argued that the US had "a moral obligation to oppose discrimination as that inflicted on the Jewish people. . . .

Clifford's final argument is the most impressive:

I fully understand and agree that vital national interests are involved. In an area as unstable as the Middle East, where there is not now and never has been any tradition of democratic government, it is important for the long range security of our country, and indeed the world, that a nation committed to the democratic system be established there, one on which we can rely. The new Jewish state can be such a place. We should strengthen it in its infancy by prompt recognition.

So 2 of 7 arguments for recognizing Israel are "realistic" accommodations to "facts on the ground," 2 (including the "most impressive") are clear cold war national interest arguments, and 2 could be considered "moral" justifications. I doubt without the other 4 that the 2 could have carried the day.

by TGeraghty on Wed Sep 6th, 2006 at 11:20:51 AM EST
Hmmm . . . 2+2+2=7? Gotta fix my math here . . .

So 1 & 2 are the "realistic" arguments . . .

5 & 6 are the moral ones . . .

3 & 7 are the cold war arguments . . .

. . . that leaves 4, which goes with 7 but I guess could be considered a moral argument as well.

So 2, 2 1/2, 2 1/2.

Besides, I thought that the people who were making foreign policy back then did not really think of it primarily in moral terms, like Acheson for example:

In 1964 Dean Acheson in a famous speech at Amherst College stated clearly the declared goals of American foreign policy since World War II: "The end sought by our foreign policy, the purpose for which we carry on relations with foreign states, is to preserve and foster an environment in which free societies may exist and flourish." . . . Acheson's main emphasis was to criticize people who think of foreign policy in terms of morality.
by TGeraghty on Wed Sep 6th, 2006 at 11:37:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's a nice thing that we tell ourselves, but I don't think there's any doubt the cold warriors saw in Israel primarily an almost certain democratic ally against the Communists in what, as you say, was always going to be a contested region.

I would say that there are aspects of morality in the fact that you and your allies have the same outlook on how a political system ought to be and of course the Holocaust tragedy is certainly a very important moral aspect indeed.  That said I have to agree that there are of course plenty of realism and self-interest involved, but when the two coincide it is of course much more likely to be a strong and lasting alliance between the two or more parties.  

Bitsofnews.com Giving you the latest bits.

by Gjermund E Jansen (gjans1@hotmail.com) on Wed Sep 6th, 2006 at 01:09:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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