Comps Notes: America and the Middle East

I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here.

America and the Middle East

Peter L. Hahn, Crisis and Crossfire: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945 (Washington, D.C.: Potamac Books, Inc., 2005).

Jeremy Salt, The Unmaking of the Middle East: A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

Michael B. Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to Present (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007).

Salim Yaqub, Containing Arab Nationalism: The Eisenhower Doctrine and the Middle East (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

In Crisis and Crossfire: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945, Peter L. Hahn, a professor of history at Ohio State University and the executive director of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, uses a number of historical documents and secondary literature to present a concise summery of American involvement in the Middle East since the end of World War II. Hahn, like the other historians in this section who are all writing in the 2000s, is aware that the topic of Middle Eastern and American relations is of particular interest in the contemporary political climate due to such events as the September 11th terrorist attacks and the onset of the Iraq War, which have reopened the debate between Middle Eastern critics and sympathizers. Crisis and Crossfire, Hahn states, is meant to provide a broad treatment of the basic themes that have characterized the American-Middle Eastern relationship over the past six decades. Hahn identifies four main themes that run through his book. Firstly, Hahn looks at the way in which American involvement in the Cold War and fear of communism shaped the actions that the United States took in the Middle East. Secondly, Hahn explores how Americans have tended to respond to Arab and Israeli nationalism. Thirdly, Hahn looks at how the United States has dealt with varying degrees of strife as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, Hahn emphasizes the steady increase of American involvement in the Middle East over the time period.

World War II, Hahn argues, caused the United States to take an active interest in the Middle East for the first time. Possible Nazi invasion of the region initially caught the United States’ eye, which, after the war, was followed up by a fear of Soviet expansionism into the region. Similarly to United States postwar involvement in such regions as Eastern Europe and Vietnam, American actions in the Middle East after World War II were driven by a strong anti-communist agenda driven by the conception of containment. Like Vietnam, the United States sought to strengthen the Middle East internally so that it could fend off possible and probable Soviet expansionist attempts. Hinting at the special relationship that John Dumbrell illustrates, Hahn claims that the United States, rather than fully rejecting continued British presence in the region, actually built a mutually beneficial partnership with Britain regarding the Middle East. These initial postwar efforts to stabilize the region, Hahn argues, resulted in the United States becoming completely intertwined with the affairs of the region. One of the most important entanglements was that which tied the United States to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The United States initially became involved in the conflict because it feared that it would destabilize the region and weaken it to Soviet influence. Any efforts to resolve the conflict proved fruitless however, because, Hahn argues, the region was simply not ready for peace and the Americans were not truly willing to provide the kind of assistance that the Arab and Israeli leaders needed to end the dispute, which eventually resulted in the escalation of the interstate fighting in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Any successful effort to end such skirmishes as the Six Day War in 1967 did not, however, enable the United States to prevent the next battle from erupting. The 1990s marked a time of peacemaking betwixt the Arabs and Israelis, only to have the state battles become local battles between the two populations.

The Arab-Israeli conflict and the threat of communism were not the only problems the United States faced in the postwar years, however. Providing more credence to Michael Hunt’s argument that Americans are inherently anti-revolutionists, Hahn shows that the United States also battled the perceived threat of revolutionary unrest in the Middle East. Revolutionary leaders, such as Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, who sought to free their constituency from the leftover pieces of European imperialism were seen by the United States as a threat to the stabilization of the region, and thus United States officials supported conservative leaders and counterrevolutionary activities. In the 1970s, these revolutionary governments, back by growing anti-American sentiment, began to cause disorder in the region. The Iran hostage crisis and the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets seemed to prove that the United States worst fears were coming true—the region was weakening and becoming susceptible to Soviet expansion. The Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988 brought the United States into the region militarily. Both President Carter and President Reagan, Hahn asserts, were unable to devise a cogent policy strategy for dealing with the Middle East. President George H.W. Bush opened the 1990s with the First Gulf War—the first of what Hahn calls the “messy little wars”—which involved the United States using force to quash the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Bush’s decision to leave Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, in power was a fateful decision, according to Hahn. Bush, Sr. and President Clinton attempted to deal with the Middle East situation through non-invasive tactics, such as no-fly zones and economic sanctions. However, after the events of September 11th, President George W. Bush, took the country into an entirely different direction; assuming that the terrorist attacks and the threat of Hussein were connected, Bush launched a preemptive invasion of Iraq in 2003, the results of which were still up in the air when Hahn was writing.

Salim Yaqub states that there are two main fields of thought related to the analysis of complicated and often adversarial American and Arab relations: those that blame the actions and attitudes of Middle Easterners and those that blame Americans. Jeremy Salt fits best into the second category. Salt, a professor in the department of political science at Bilkent University, uses his personal experiences in the Middle East as an impetus for studying the consequences of the decisions made by outside, namely western, world powers. The Unmaking of the Middle East: A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands, Salt writes, is meant to provide the general public with a more accurate account of Western and Arab relations than the watered-down explanation that mainstream is willing to provide. The story of western takeover of the Middle East, he writes, is almost exactly the same as any story of powerful distant governments battling for domination and control in less-powerful regions all over the world and throughout time. The techniques used for gaining this control fall on a wide spectrum between full-on invasion and discrete uses political treaties and gradual economic conquest. The powerful governments that have overrun the Middle East are only doing what powerful governments have always done, and the timidity of the Arab leaders has only made this process easier.

Most analysis of the Middle East, including Samuel Huntingdon’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, Salt argues, has been erroneous due to its west-centric nature. For instance, the term “Islam’s bloody wars” is a misnomer because it does not acknowledge that the West played a crucial role in the wars; each side at times played the aggressor and defender. However, since the nineteenth century, the imperial West has had the upper hand in the Middle East, creating and managing Middle Eastern borders often at the expense of Muslim lives. The imperialist audacity of the West, beginning with the western assault on the Ottoman Empire, is the basis for why the Middle East, as Salt puts it, hates us. Salt places particular emphasis on the British and French betrayal of Sharif Hussein of Mecca after the Arab Revolt of 1916 against the Ottoman Empire. Instead of giving territory to Sharif, Britain and France divided it amongst themselves, at which point the age of Arab Revolution began, according to Salt. Another key event in the early twentieth century was the founding of the nation of Iraq, which Salt argues was driven, not in the best interest of the people in the region, but rather by a desire to ensure Western access to oil. Gathering together such a hodgepodge of tribes, religions, and ethnicities whose only connection was that of oil was a surefire way to ensure strife in the region in later decades.

As Hahn also demonstrated, the Americans took over the role of western power in the Middle East from Britain and France after World War II and in the atmosphere of the Cold War and containment policy. One of their first dealings with the Middle East was their attempt to quell Nasser’s power in Egypt and his “Nasserism’s” arab revolutionist spirit, which was spreading quickly elsewhere in the region, particularly after the Suez War. Nasser was viewed as a threat to containment because of his arms deals with the Soviets and his recognition of the new, Chinese communist regime. Salt also demonstrates that in addition to Vietnam, Lyndon B. Johnson also had to keep an eye on the Middle East and the tensions between Israel and its Arab targets. As it did in the years leading up to involvement in World War I and II, the United States often attempted to aid in Middle Eastern Wars under the guise of supposed neutrality. In the Iran-Iraq War, the United States, ironically, aided Hussein and Iraq in order to insure that the country’s southern oil fields would remain open to the United States, a goal that also led the United States into Iraq in 2003, Salt argues. The First Gulf War, Salt points out, marked a change in modern warfare (although this change could arguably be placed during World War II or Vietnam). The enemy was no longer just an army, but an entire system, and thus the destruction of water sources, food, power, and other infrastructure was not an unfortunate consequence of war, but rather the main aim of the military. Salt also touches upon recent scholarship on the environmental fallout after Iraqi chemical and biological warfare plants were destroyed. Salt is particularly scathing towards George W. Bush and his invasion of Iraq, which he states, “was preceded by a propaganda campaign monumental in its deceit and dishonesty” (317) and the rise of a radical, neoconservative lobby. There is no sign, Salt concludes, that Bush will step back and try to listen and understand the point of view of the Middle Easterners that he seeks to control, a folly that has always characterized the West’s interaction with the Middle East.

In Power, Faith, Fantasy: American in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, Michael B. Oren, an American-born Israeli historian and current Israeli Ambassador to the United States, takes a more sympathetic stance towards American relations with the East than Salt. As the title suggests, American interaction with the Middle East has been driven by three cultural factors: power, faith, and fantasy. The age of western imperialism in the Middle East began in 1882 with the British occupation of Egypt. The British and French takeover of the Middle East, as Salt also noted, was only a small part of an era of global-wide imperialist takeover on the part of the two countries. British and French imperialism in the Middle East did elicit some negative and positive reactions from Americans, but for the most part at the end of the nineteenth century, most Americans remained ambivalent to the region and the imperialism going on in it. However, those Americans that did take an interest in the Middle East did so due to their strong religious convictions and the national power that resulted from religious piety. The influx of imperialism in the Middle East paralleled the peak of Protestantism in the United States. Between 1885 and 1895, American missionary presence in the region increased tenfold. Many pro-imperialist leaders used religion to justify their policies, championing imperialism as a way to spread redemption, similarly to the way in which Americans justified their attempts at assimilating the Native American population at home. In addition to the power-faith paradigm, Americans also connected to the Middle East by way of imagination. Culturally, the Middle East represented a kind of fantasyland. Similar to how Frederick Hoxie demonstrated Native American stereotype popularity in A Final Promise, Oren also uses an example of a late nineteenth century fair exhibit, this one at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1893, to demonstrate the country’s love affair with Middle Eastern stereotypes, which would later be recast in films, art, and literature that are still popular to this day.

During World War I and in the years after it, Oren argues that the main reason for American military intervention in the Middle East was humanitarian. Oren supports George Kennan’s stress on moralism in American foreign policy. For instance, Oren discusses how the Wilson almost led the United States into battle in World War I specifically against Turkey as a response to the Armenian genocide, only to decide that the risk to American philanthropic forces on the ground in the region if was waged would be too high. In fact, Oren points to Wilson’s dreamer obsession with moralism and legalism and the cause of later strife in the Middle East. At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Wilson, who despised imperialism, promised self-determination and economic independence to the Middle East and other newly independent nations. When this promise fell through, and the region continued to languish under British and French imperialist rule, Middle Easterners became very bitter. Oren also demonstrates how the rise of Zionism in the United States and the power of the Jewish constituency played a key role in America’s decision to support the founding of Israel and its subsequent interests.

As the twentieth century matured, Oren argues, American obsession with faith and fantasy in the Middle East began to give way to machinations based solely on gaining power. After World War II, the United States replaced Britain as the major power in the region. In order to maintain access to Middle Eastern Oil, on which American was becoming increasingly dependent, and in an effort to rebuke the French and British, Oren contends that the United States sought, similarly to Vietnam, to expand and improve the agricultural and industrial infrastructures of the region. Oren points to Harry Truman’s policy towards Israel as a major turning point in Middle Eastern relations. “By the end of the 1940s,” Oren writes, “a substantially changed Middle East—resurgent, irrepressible, thrashing between modernity and tradition—would interact with a much altered, vastly empowered United States.” (502) Despite having assisted the Middle East in its development, many in the region resented Americans and viewed them as an imperial replacement for the British and French. Yet, despite the power that the United States gained from involvement in the Middle East, Oren argues, that in the postwar years Americans were still committed to a balanced, moralist approach in the region. The atmosphere of the Cold War and the rise of Arab nationalism, which was often anti-American, would work to change this emphasis during the last forty years of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, despite recent events that suggest otherwise, Oren argues that the United States is still committed to improving the Middle East. Changing situations in the region have just made it more difficult to stick to this moralist agenda.

The cultural assertions that Oren makes in Power, Faith, and Fantasy are inconsequential when one looks at American foreign policy initiatives during the Cold War era, Salim Yaqub, a professor of United States foreign policy history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues in Containing Arab Nationalism: The Eisenhower Doctrine and the Middle East. Cultural assessments can reveal much about the cultural and psychological environments in which policies were created, but one should not necessarily take these conclusions and assume that they had any direct effect on the nature of policy. Yaqub rejects the “clash of civilizations” thesis; those attributes assigned to the Middle East and the United States are not unique to these regions but similar to the attributes of any weaker and greater powers, Yaqub argues. The battle between the United States and the Nasserists during the years of the Eisenhower Doctrine was not a result of inevitably clashing values, but rather the result of clashing applications of shared values, he contends. It was a moral battle on a shared moral framework, he concludes. Yaqub is also critical of Edward Said’s Orientalism theory, which emphasizes negative, stereotype-driven attitudes on the part of westerners towards Middle Easterners. Despite the definite existence of anti-Arab sentiment at the time of the Eisenhower Doctrine, there is no evidence that this sentiment shaped the policy. At that point in time, officials put aside their personal animosity or favoritism toward a certain group in order to maintain propriety and to ensure that the American international image was not tarnished by discriminatory behavior. However, Yaqub points out that this tendency towards propriety has been largely thrown out the window since the 1980s.

Analyses of the Eisenhower Doctrine have tended to be either in passing or part of a larger synthesis. In Containing Arab NationalismYaqub seeks to provide the first detailed, comprehensive account of the policy and its implementation, in which he focuses on the political undercurrents that shaped the doctrine. The Eisenhower Doctrine refers to a speech that President Dwight D. Eisenhower made on January 5, 1957 in which he pledged increased economic and military aid and direct protection to any nation that was willing to acknowledge that communism was a threat. Although not typically, specifically tied to the Middle East, Yaqub demonstrates that the doctrine was directed directly at the region, which Eisenhower, convinced by the events of the Suez War, genuinely believed was under danger of falling under Soviet control. Yaqub argues that the doctrine marked the emergence of the United States as a dominant world power after Britain lost its international footing. Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles believed that Britain’s removal from the region left a power vacuum that the United States would have to fill in order to ensure that the Middle East remained relatively stable. They viewed the post-Suez War Middle East as a landmark opportunity for the United States to flex its international muscles. However, as Hahn pointed out, the Eisenhower Doctrine did not represent a total negation of British aims in the area, in fact they supported continued, though subordinate British involvement. Yaqub argues that the Eisenhower Doctrine had two main aims. The first aim, and that aim which was officially acknowledged, was based on the concept of containment. The United States needed to step into the region in order to protect it from Soviet expansionism. The second aim, again supporting Hunt’s assertion that the United States is inherently anti-revolutionary, was to contain a growing Arab nationalist movement, to stop its leader, Egypt’s Nasser, and to discredit Nasser’s policy of positive neutrality, which encouraged Arab nations to deal with both Cold War blocs in a manner that was most profitable to the Middle East. Despite being emotionally involved in the Cold War themselves, the United States could not stomach the emotional rhetoric and stubborn actions of the Arab nationalists. Instead of cooperating with Nasser, the Eisenhower Doctrine sought to bolster the strength of conservative Arab regimes like Iraq and Saudi Arabia, in the hopes that aid to these countries would cause them to announce allegiance to the West, slowly isolating Nasser and the Egyptians, until the movement was starved into oblivion. The Eisenhower Administration pursued this tactic for only a short while; by 1958, they had realized that Nasser was more powerful than they had anticipated and decided to pursue a policy of accommodation instead. “Essentially,” Yaqub states, “what occurred in 1957 and 1958 was a political struggle between the United States and the Nasserist movement over the acceptable limits of Arabism, that is, over what is mainstream and what is marginal and extreme.” The success of the Eisenhower Doctrine must be looked at from two viewpoints, Yaqub contends—the policy’s objective and the policy’s strategy. The objective, which was to prevent the fall of the Middle East behind the Iron Curtain, can be viewed as a success. However, the strategy of discrediting revolutionary Arab leaders, by supporting conservative ones was an outright failure.

Feature Photo:  Arabah Valley, camel trip. Party at El Habis oasis. LC-DIG-ppmsca-18429-00006 (digital file from original on page 3, no. 5) from “Bedouins in Jordan and Other Locations” Collection, Library of Congress.

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