The Middle Man

The Middle Man

Over the century that followed the Napoleonic wars, the Ottoman Empire contracted and eventually disappeared from the map.


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.

To move from Truman to Eisenhower is to go from disengagement, muddling through and deference to British initiative to a new concerted grand strategy. For the first time, the Middle East was accorded the honor of a presidential doctrine in its own right. Ike and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, worked hard for a peace settlement, especially as the ousting of the King in Egypt in 1952 and violent clashes along the border with Israel raised the stakes. Suez killed off the chances for their ambitious “Alpha Plan” to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict but left American prestige at an all-time high in the Arab world once they forced the British and French, and later the Israelis (a much tougher proposition), to withdraw. Yet ultimately, their strategic approach proved no more successful than Truman’s muddling through. After Suez, Washington took over from Whitehall as regional hegemon, but far from rejecting the premises of British policy, the Eisenhower Doctrine simply transposed London’s imperial disdain for the nationalists into a new key.

What emerges clearly from the accounts of Hahn, Salim Yaqub and Douglas Little is how little Washington understood the consequences of foisting its cold war obsessions upon a region with other things on its mind. It was anticolonialism that fueled Arab anger at the Suez war, and the brief glimpse of an older anti-imperial America elicited an astonished gratitude. Yet almost immediately, Washington’s priorities reasserted themselves–patching up the all-important global alliance with the British, and focusing on the threat of Communism. As a result, the Eisenhower Doctrine, which tried to insist that America’s priorities should be those of the Middle East, too, was bound to fail, for reasons brilliantly analyzed by Yaqub in his sparkling monograph, Containing Arab Nationalism. By trying to reintegrate Britain into the Middle East, the Eisenhower Doctrine made it harder for Arab states to accept American hegemony; indeed, it was soon little more than an anti-Nasser front, turning Nasser into a symbol of Arab resistance to colonial domination. Nasser played his cards well, perhaps too well, for by increasing anxiety among conservative Arab leaders, he accelerated Hashemite and Saudi reliance on US aid. Soviet arms deals with Syria and Egypt made Washington see these two states as potentially destabilizing fifth columns; Jordan, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia became the linchpins of a new strategy premised on fragile monarchies, oil revenues and, in the Saudi case, Islamism. The feeble measure of Ike’s success was visible by 1958: the toppling of the monarchy in Iraq, creation of the United Arab Republic, jitters in Jordan and the fiasco–no other word will do–of the US invasion of Lebanon. The Eisenhower Doctrine certainly failed to assuage the passions in the region, but its failure went far deeper than that. It turned the United States into the successor of the old European colonial powers, and as a result the rift with the Arab states grew rapidly. Another rift emerged between the revolutionary and status quo regimes of the Middle East, depriving them of sufficient common purpose to allow adequate preparation for the coming showdown with Israel. It was the latter’s emphatic victory in 1967 that brought about a new stage in America’s Middle East empire–the transformation of Israel into its favored regional military satellite. In American Orientalism, Douglas Little shows how Vietnam turned the always pro-Israel LBJ decisively against the “war of national liberation” being waged by Palestinian guerrillas and led him to equate the “terrorist attackers” in Vietnam with leftist Arab militants. While Arabs felt they were engaged in a struggle against settler colonialism, LBJ and his successor Nixon admired Israel for being “pro-freedom and an effective opponent to Soviet expansion.” Definitions of what was at stake were thus diametrically opposed.

Taken together, these three books paint a depressing picture of missed opportunities and intractable enmities. Washington’s cold war tunnel vision meant it failed to seize the opportunity briefly offered after Suez for a more productive relationship with the Arab states. The mildly revisionist Hahn is most empathetic: He emphasizes the difficulties that faced US policy-makers as a result of infighting, devious lobby groups and Beltway shenanigans. If only, he implies, Dulles and Ike could have been left to themselves, it could all have been sorted out. Little wants none of this. In his entertainingly written series of essays, he suggests that American cultural arrogance (or “Orientalism”) was as much to blame as anything else. But Yaqub, the only one of these scholars to draw upon Arabic sources, shows that culture mattered much less than interests. The policies of Middle Eastern states were neither more nor less rational than those of anyone else, but the environment in which they operated was especially harsh. In the Balkans, post-Ottoman states were divided by the Iron Curtain and emerged into the bright light of the twenty-first century on the doorstep of the European Union. In the Middle East, by contrast, all the talk is of a new imperialism. Having put down the roots described in these works, America’s empire has grown into a far more powerful force in the region than any of its predecessors.

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