Over the century that followed the Napoleonic wars, the Ottoman Empire contracted and eventually disappeared from the map. In the Balkans, its place was taken by Christian nation-states, whose successful struggle for independence owed a great deal to the backing of Europe’s great powers. Once formed, the newcomers quickly demonstrated their independence of their original sponsors, playing off one side against the other in the struggle for mastery in Europe that preoccupied Britain, France, Germany and Russia in the decades before 1914. But in the empire’s Arab provinces, the struggle for national liberation came later and in a very different geopolitical context. Independence arrived suddenly and unexpectedly as a result of the First World War, shaped by boundaries drawn up during secret discussions between British and French diplomats. London and Paris emerged from Versailles with overseas empires larger than ever before, and the new states of the Middle East became the focus of this expansion. Nominally mandatories of the League of Nations, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine were in reality no more independent of their European masters than Egypt or Cyprus. In the Middle East, therefore, the creation of post-Ottoman states did not spell the end of colonial or quasi-colonial rule but rather its intensification and Europeanization. And with the rapid consolidation of a Jewish settler society in Palestine, this new form of imperialism threatened the very principle of national self-determination that the war had supposedly been waged to support.
None of this had very much to do with the United States. For a long time, the country was primarily associated in the Arab world with the American Protestant missionaries who had been active there through the nineteenth century. Woodrow Wilson had not known about the Anglo-French wartime carve-up of the region, and when he learned about it he was ready to respect its terms (in contrast to the harder line he took in Europe itself), dropping his insistence on applying the principle of national self-determination. He ignored pleas from Arab politicians at Versailles and accepted the extension of French and British influence. Washington’s willingness to allow its European partners to take the lead did not vanish during or even after the Second World War. The French were forced to disgorge Lebanon and Syria, and had their hands full in Algeria. But Britain’s moment in the Middle East lasted until the ill-fated Suez crisis of 1956, when British, French and Israeli forces attacked Egypt before being forced to withdraw at Eisenhower’s insistence. This makes the period from 1945 to 1970 of extraordinary importance for anyone seeking to understand the roots of US Middle East policy, for it was in these years that the region moved gradually from being of secondary importance for Washington policy-makers to one of their central preoccupations.
After Hitler’s defeat, President Truman scrambled to educate himself and the American people in the new global responsibilities forced upon them by the cold war. Preoccupied by the looming confrontation with the Soviet Union, anxious not to let Europe fall apart, Truman paid only sporadic attention to the Middle East. Palestine provided the most urgent dilemma, since the British were clearly intent on bailing out. Partition had already provided an exit strategy in India, and the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine was certainly not alone in thinking it was the only viable solution in Palestine, too, a view backed by the General Assembly at the end of 1947. American Jewish life had been transformed by the rise of pro-Zionist lobbyists, who were pushing this line and exerting none too subtle pressure on the White House. Truman may not have realized the impact his immediate recognition of the Jewish state would have on Arab public opinion. But henceforth, the United States–despite the relatively modest scale of its support for Israel–was on the back foot where the Arab states were concerned.
For the Americans, Israel was a distraction from the real issue–oil–vital not so much to the American economy itself as to any chance of recovery in Western Europe, the main front against Communism. Regional stability was essential to keeping the oil flowing, and any threat to this–whether Israeli saber-rattling or Communist subversion–needed to be checked. Hence the Pentagon opposed arms sales to Israel on the grounds that it already had offensive superiority over its neighbors, and supported British efforts to build up Arab armed forces, especially since these could be used for internal policing as well as externally. Anxious to avert further fighting between Israel and its neighbors, Washington felt like a bewildered honest broker on a rapid learning curve. This, at least, is the picture sketched out by Peter Hahn in Caught in the Middle East–an emergent power learning the limits of its influence, riven internally by conflicts between pro-Arab State and Defense departments, on the one hand, and a White House often vulnerable to concerted Zionist lobbying campaigns, on the other. It must be said, however, that although US policy was more evenhanded than it would later become, it was hardly as passive or disinterested as Hahn’s depiction might suggest. It was America’s strategic interests and political realities that drove its policies, in all their inconsistency, and not merely a high-minded desire to act the impartial arbiter in someone else’s fight.