Thursday, July 26, 2007

Realism and Idealism in the Middle East

On Friday I wrote about Michael Oren's new book Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776-Present with respect to the role played by idealism and realism in US policy toward the Middle East. I wrote at the time, when I was about halfway through the book,
[Oren] hasn't said it yet - maybe he's saving it for his conclusion - but one thing I've noticed is interesting. When power - or the threat of power - was used appropriately in pursuit of both idealist and realist goals, the outcome was generally favorable.

[...] When power was used - or not used - strictly for narrow economic or political interests, the result did not fare so well.
Now that I've finished the book (and highly recommend it), I can say that that was essentially his argument, but with one clarification.
By responsibly wielding its strength and consistently upholding its principles, the United States might yet transform its vision of peaceful, fruitful relations with the Middle East from fantasy into reality.
That is, US policy toward the Middle East cannot be based solely on a cold, detached realpolitik, but must also include recognition of American "idealist" values. At the same time, however, power and focus on strategic interests is a necessary component, otherwise American policy becomes aimless and consists of seeking peace at all costs. Oren argues that this (mistaken) approach was followed by presidents like Kennedy, Carter and Clinton. Let me add now, that lest you think this is some partisan screed, Oren is equally as critical of Republican administrations and saves some of his harshest criticism for Nixon and Reagan, the latter of which he argues (and I would tend to agree) pursued the very realpolitik policies in the Middle East that he denounced in US policy toward the Soviet Union.

The greatest value of Oren's book is that it provides a full, detailed, comprehensive history of American dealings with the Middle East, from interactions at the government level all the way down to tourists and missionaries. For a region of which too much of our historical knowledge comes piecemeal from movies, fiction, and spotty and incomplete histories, this book is a great asset to American understanding of its past dealings with the Middle East, including what has worked and what hasn't. Historically, and particularly in the post-War period, the most coherent approaches to the region have combined the concepts of power and ideals, and some of the least coherent approaches have focused just on one or the other.

Truman recognized the imporance of combining American power and American ideals in pursuit of US interests, and generally enjoyed success when he did so. In 145, the French bombed Syria in order to put down a riot that broke out after France reneged on its promise to withdraw from Syria. Four hundred people were killed as a result. Truman sent a cable to de Gaulle warning of serious consequences from the Americans or British if he didn't withdraw his troops back to barracks, and de Gaulle readily complied. Another example, a perfect example in fact, was the Truman Doctrine, pledging financial aid for Greece and Turkey. The idea was to rebuild their economies to the point where democratic governments could take hold and serve as bulwarks against Soviet expansionism. This would later serve as the model for the Marshall Plan.

Despite his frequent recognition of the importance of American ideals in foreign policy, this wasn't always the case with Truman. Where he did solely pursue strategic interests with no inclusion of American values, he experienced some of his greatest foreign policy blunders and headaches. The best example came as a result of riots that had broken out in Egypt. Truman feared the Soviets would take advantage of the chaos and attempt to gain a political foothold in Egypt.

As a result, Truman told Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA officer and grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, to "identify an Egyptian nationalist figure, 'a Moslen Billy Graham,' who could restore order in the country and enroll it in a NATO-like Middle East Defense Organization." The nationalist figure Roosevelt found turned out to be Gamal Abdel Nasser, who would cause headaches for the US in the Middle East for years to come. In addition to focusing on a figure solely to restore order, Truman's biggest mistake was forgetting what it was that made NATO (and still makes it) so successful: the common ideals held by each of its members. This was also what the Middle East lacked, making any Middle Eastern NATO doomed from the beginning.

Truman's installation of Nasser in power in Egypt proved to cause trouble for Eisenhower as well. After Nasser nationalized the Suex Canal, France, Britain and Israel coordinated an attack on Egypt. Rather than support its traditional allies of France and Britain (we didn't really become close with Israel until after 1967), the US strongly opposed the attack, and backed Nasser, humiliating France and Britain. Nasser didn't return the favor. Soon after, he started to turn strongly against the US, denouncing it as the new imperialist power in the Middle East. It turns out, the administration had started to consider overthrowing Nasser even before the Suez crisis, but based mostly on a cold calculation of strategic interests, decided keeping Britain and France from gaining an advantage in the Suez was most important.

Where "ideals" did play a role in this decision-making, that the US should side with an independent Egypt rather than colonial Britain and France, it was a misconception of what American ideals consisted of, one that would be repeated many times in dealings with the Middle East. This misconception was that independence for former colonies was so important, that it didn't really matter who took control, so long as he was a native of the country. I'll touch more on this later, but while independence is indeed an American ideal, independence followed by dictatorship is not. I would argue that an independent dictatorship ruled by the whim of a tyrant is the worst possible outcome - worse even than being a colony of a constitutional democracy or monarchy. Nevertheless, it was unofficial American policy at least as far back as the Wilson administration.

Oren argues that Kennedy had the opposite problem: it was too idealistic, with little tendency to project power in the Middle East. Kennedy also had the romantic idea that an independent ruler of Middle Eastern countries was the same thing as a democratic ruler, that independence automatically meant democracy. Eager to repair relations with Nasser, who had turned on its original patron, the country that put him in power, Kennedy gushed effusively about how the founding of the United Arab Republic (the short-lived union between Egypt and Syria) came on George Washington's birthday, and how the Arab states were like a young American confederation, eager to form a union. Nasser responded by promoting the overthrow of a pro-American regime in Yemen. He also consistently violated cease-fire agreements the administration tried to broker between Israel and Egypt.

Oren has very little time for the Nixon/Kissinger policy toward the Middle East, arguing that it was one of the worst examples of pursuing strategic interests even at the cost of American ideals. The administration's policy toward Israel was especially awful. When Jordan tried to get the PLO out of its country, Syria threatened to back the PLO. Jordan turned to the US for help, but we declined, out of fear of drawing the Soviets into the conflict on the Syrian side. Instead, we turned to Israel to take military action to drive the PLO out of Jordan. Despite being asked to go to war based on the interests of the United States and an Arab state, with comparatively few of its own interests at stake, Israel nevertheless quickly agreed, even though war proved unnecessary in the end.

The response of the US to Israel was less than gracious. A year later, after the terrorist assassinations at Munich, the US failed to respond out of fear of Angering the Soviets during negotiations on Vietnam and nuclear stockpiles. When the Nixon administration tried to secure Egyptian-Israeli peace, it continually pushed for Israeli territorial concessions. Nasser, meanwhile, continued to break any cease-fire the parties were able to broker, in one case by moving Soviet-made missiles into the truce zone. When Israeli PM Golda Meir received intelligence that Egypt and other Arab states were planning an offensive in 1973, she thought about striking Egypt pre-emptively. Kissinger, however, talked her out of it, arguing that international opinion would be against Israel.

The war initially proved to be a disaster for Israel, but DoD warned against supplying Israel, because it would hurt the US war effort in Vietnam. Since it was known that the Soviets were supplying the Arab states, this argument seems pretty silly. What were we fighting for in Vietnam if not to contain the spread of Soviet political and military influence throughout the world - precisely what was happening in the Middle East. To not counte Soviet involvement in the war would betray the very reason we were fighting in Vietnam for in the first place. Oren sums up the dismal Middle East policy of the administration, arguing,
By concentrating almost exclusively on global strategic factors, the US failed to prevent a regional conflict and, by dallying on diplomatic efforts, may even have hastened its eruption...Could realism alone suffice to rectify this devastation and clear a path toward peace? The dispiriting answer was provided in Geneva.
Oren's analysis of the Ford administration, probably because of Kissinger's continued presence, was not much kinder than that of the Nixon administration. But let's focus on one particular incident. During a border dispute between Iran and Iraq, Kissinger urged th Iraqi Kurds to rebel against Iraqi rule. They did, but were quickly crushed by the Iraqi military. When the Kurds appealed to Kissinger for help, he ignored them, saying "Covert action should not be confused with missionary work." Seems to me a perfect way to lose allies and support.

Carter's policy toward the Middle East made many of the same mistakes as Kennedy's: failure to project force, rudderless idealism with no regard to strategic interests (except with the Carter Doctrine, which came far too late), willingness to assume independence from colonial rule was in itself an American "ideal," regardless of what type of regime took power and a willingness to assume dictators were the legitimate representatives of their people. In that case, Carter not only ignored power altogether, but it's idea of what the "faith" part consisted of was entirely misguided.

Like I said before, Oren reserves a great deal of criticism for Reagan, but that doesn't mean he didn't have a great deal of respect for Reagan. In essense, Oren argues, his policies toward the Soviet Union were correct, but he failed to apply the same principles to his Middle East policy. Instead, he pursued the very course he rejected in his dealings with the Soviets. In fact, Reagan was almost given an impossible task having to deal both with the Soviet Union and the rise of terrorism and extremism in the Middle East. Oren argues that Reagan's policy of backing Arab secularists against Muslim extremists, and supporting Israel against Soviet proxies ultimately proved incompatible. His support for Israel came from its willingness to fight with the West against communism.

Nevertheless, "he regarded oil as America's paramount interest in the Middle East, and resisted any Israeli action liable to jeopardize it." This included supplying AWACS surveillance aircraft to the Saudis, despite knowing that thee Saudi regime funded anti-Western Wahabbist propaganda in order to bolster its own legitimacy. The administration also suspended a strategic cooperation agreement with Israel when Arab states protested its attempt to annex the Golan Heights. The US also failed to support the Israeli raid on the Osirak nuclear facility, and Reagan even sent Jeane Kirkpatrick to confer with the Iraqi ambassador to the UN, who was drafting a Security Council resolution condemning the raid.

The administration oversaw the withdrawal of the PLO from Beirut to Tunis, "only to boycott the organization thereafter and then, in the final volte-face, engaged in diplomatic dialogue with Arafat." Reagan also backed himself into a corner in his dealings with Arafat. When the first intifada broke out, Arafat was in Tunis and was just as surprised as the US. Furthermore, he found he had no control over the Palestinians. Needing to bolster his own position and "legitimacy," he "renounced terrorism" and agreed to recognize Israel. These had been the two conditions set upon Arafat for recognition by the West, and when he met them, the US had no choice except to accept the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians and to open contacts with Arafat.

The notion that he represented Palestinians was, of course, silly since he had absolutely no control over the intifada, but Reagan made the same mistake as past presidents in failing to note the difference between an indigenous leader who claims to represent the people, and a legitimate, democratic government. By setting only these preconditions, the Reagan administration allowed Arafat a fait accompli. Of course, he soon proved how little trustworthy he was, when he refused to condemn an Abu Abbas attack on an Israeli beach, and the US broke off contacts once again.

Another perfect example of how Reagan's Middle East contradictory policies got so tangled up in one another is his policy toward Iran and Iraq. After the administration tried to deter state sponsors of terrorism (Iran's support for Hizbollah attacks and kidnappings) proved ineffective, it got word that "moderate elements" in the Iranian regime (sound familiar?) would obtain the release of the hostages in return for antitank missiles needed for its war against Iraq. The administration agreed, and began funneling arms through Israel. Naturally, when it came time for Iran to make good on its end of the deal, it refused to rein in Hizbollah and launched missile boat attacks against Kuwaiti oil tankers. The Reagan adminstration therefore began arming Iran and Iraq at the same time, undermining the rationale for supporting Baghdad as a bulwark against Muslim extremists in Iran.

Despite his approach in dealing with the Soviet Union, Reagan nevertheless pursued in the Middle East the very policies he had sworn off as failures in dealing with communism. He made many of the same mistakes as past presidents, both assuming indegenous dictatorships were what American "ideals" consisted of, so long as they were under self-rule. Unlike past presidents, Reagan knew in his dealings with the Soviets that these were indeed mistaken assumptions, which makes his application of them in the Middle East that much more puzzling and tragic. Oren summed up the Reagan policy toward the Middle East with the following:
"Reagan proved incapable of coping with the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iran-Iraq War and tensions between secular and Islamic regimes." He suggests that the American people simply did not realize this because their attention was on Europe and the beginning of the fall of Communism, as well as myths perpetuated by Hollywood of the Middle East as a mystical place and terrorists as more bumbling and comical than dangerous and tyrannical.

Oren gives Bush 41 higher marks on this issue, though his reaction is mixed. While the administration wasn't necessarily right from the start, it knew enough to change course rather than stick to a strict pursuit of material stategic interests, but then only to change back again. After Iraq began massing troops on the border with Kuwait, the US actually had two strategic interests at stake: Kuwaiti oil or Iraqi oil. As a result, it attempted to remain neutral on the issue. A 1990 National Security Directive states "Normal relations between the United States and Iraq...promote stability in both the Gulf and the Middle East." Oren argues, "The White House continued to value Iraq for exercising a crucial constraint on Iran, and even exerting a moderating influence on the Palestinians." This is all to explain the famous April Glaspie quote that the US had "no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts" that probably gave Saddam the final incentive to cross into Kuwait.

Oren argues, however, "America in the past had tried to stay out of the Middle East disputes...only to be violently dragged into them, and the conflict in the Gulf was unexceptional." In the end, the Bush adminsitration recognized the right decision, but after the war, the strategic calculation framework fell quickly back into place. After encouraging the Shia and Kurds to rebel against Saddam, the Bush administration decided against going to Baghdad and ousting the regime, leaving the Shia and Kurds to get crushed by the Iraqi army, with unintentional help from the US. Colin Powell, meanwhile, spoke for the administration when he said that he "saw a chastened, but still militarily viable Iraq as an American asset" in countering Iran.

With the Clinton administration, Oren sees a lot of similarities with Kennedy and Carter. But Oren is actually somewhat sympathetic towards Clinton. Despite his continued willingness to negotiate with Arafat, despite the tyrant's inability to rein in terrorists, Oren argues that Clinton had no love for the dictator. When Arafat, after another failed round of negotiating at Camp David in 1999, told Clinton he was a great man, Clinton replied, "I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one." The Clinton administration's desire for peace not linked to any real strategic interests was best illustrated by the scene that took place in Paris at the US Embassy. After another failed round of negotiations, when Arafat was trying to make his getaway to avoid having to go through further discussions, Madeleine Albright chased him down the embassy driveway in her heels yelling for the Marine guards to "Close the gate! Close the gate!" Oren sums up Clinton's Middle East policy with the following:
In general, Clinton rfrained from resorting to force as a means of securing America's interests in the Middle East. There seemed little need.

[...] He had refrained whenever possible from projecting American military strength against Islamic extremists, but then discovered that the extremists were determined to bring the battle to the US
Once again, seeking peace for its own sake was not enough, and once again left American policy in the region rudderless.

Oren also argues that the American people share some of the blame for the misdirection in America's Middle East policy.
The American people should also have grasped the danger. Terrorist assaults, ending with the Cole and going back to hijackings and assassinations of the early 1970s, had become a reality of American life.

[...] Yet, confident in their military, Americans still had difficulty conceiving how a group of untrained men from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon could penetrate their country and attack its most prominent city and capital.

[...] Reluctant to confront the danger at its sourcees, overconfident in its military, and still deluded by Middle Eastern myths, Americans were ill prepared for the ultimate jihadist aggression.
Oren speculates some, "influenced by the theories of [Edward] Said and [Noam] Chomsky, believed that Arabs and Iranians had far more to fear from Americans than vice versa." He also places some of the blame on the "fantasy" aspect of his title, arguing that movies and fiction gave a romanticized notion of the Middle East, to the extent that "Many...might have wondered why the inhabitants of so mystical a land, flying airliners rather than carpets, would strike at the United States, a nation that had never harmed them."

There seem to me to be two additional lessons to learn from Oren's history, that he doesn't get into, beyond the appropriate balance between power and ideals. The first, which I've already touched on, is that many of the headaches America experienced in the region came not from a failure to apply "ideals" to foreign policy, but a mistaken notion of what those ideals were. This goes back at least as far as Wilson, who argued for self determination and an end to colonialism, but failed to take into account the nature of the regimes that would replace the colonial administration. As I've mentioned, independence is a necessary ideal, but not sufficient on its own. It must also be accompanied by some sort of legitimate rule whereby the needs and desires of the people are appropriately addressed by the government. From Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy in Egypt, through to Carter throughout the Middle East, Reagan in the Palestinian Territories and Bush 41 in Kuwait after the Gulf War, American policy has addressed "ideals," but has done so incorrectly. As a result, the outcome is often worse, both for the people of the country and for US strategic interests, than what came before.

The second lesson one could draw from Oren's history is that when American policymakers have pursued strategic interests with little regard to American values, they mistakenly assumed that the dictators had the same interests as the United States, and that they would act in good faith. Time and again this proved to be false, as Nasser turned against the US after we had sided with him against our traditional allies; as continued attempts to negotiate with Arafat proved fruitless as he continued to support terrorism, whether covertly or overtly; as Iran failed to uphold its end of the bargain it reached with the Reagan administration to secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon; and as Saudi Arabia continued to fund anti-Western Wahabbist propaganda that would eventually inspire terrorist attacks that killed thousands of Americans.

Whenever we trusted dictators and tyrants enough to try to deal with them, they usually left us disappointed. They received a great number of benefits from American backing, including international legitimacy and material concessions from the US, but had no concept of good faith and therefore left us worse off then we were initially. This, obviously, should give caution to those who say, were we to negotiate formally with Iran or Syria, that the worst that can happen is that nothing comes of the talks and we prove their intransigence. History has shown that these talks can actually be a negative for the United States, giving up much even if nothing is agreed upon, and getting nothing in return.

Oren does not have much to say about the Bush 43 administration, mostly because the verdict is still out. He is quite critical of the way in which the war was carried out, but he does make this claim, which will prove to be as controversial as it probably is true.
More than any other post-war President, Bush mapped the course of America's meandering relations with the Middle East.

He was the sum of many of America's diverse experiences in the region, a warrior-diplomat...and a warrior evangelist...In the manner of Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, Bush expressed few qualms about projecting force...Yet in the fashion of Theodore's fifth cousin, Franklin, Bush was deeply appreciative of the value of oil and reluctant to alienate its suppliers, especially in Saudi Arabia. He shared Andrew Jackson's solicitude for American trade with the Middle East...

[...] Bush gravitated towards the...popular and politically influential evangelical churches. This made him the spiritual heir and not merely the genetic descendant of Professor George Bush who in the 1840s advocated the creation of a Jewish state, and of the colonial theologians who warned of the dangers of militant Islam...Along with this religious zeal, however, the president also espoused the secular fervor of the neoconservatives...who preached the Middle East's redemption through democracy. The merging of sacred and civic missions in Bush's mind placed him firmly in the Wilsonian tradition. But the same faith that deflected Wilson from entering hostilities in the Middle East spurred Bush to decide in favor of war.
Oren is not wearing blinders with regards to Iraq. He knows everything that has gone wrong, and he details the mishandling of the aftermath of the war. He also knows the failings in US policy towards the Middle East in a broader, historical sense. But, as he puts it:
The history of the US-Middle East relations, I reminded myself, was not one of unqualified kindness and altruism. American oil companies pumped billions of barrels of Arabian oil not for the betterment of the indigenous population but for their own enrichment. Successive administrations had backed the oppressive regimes that advanced America's interests and conspired to overthrow popular leaders. Yet for all its demerits, the record of American interaction with the Middle East is rife with acts of decency and graced with good intentions. The United States was unrivaled in introducing modern education and health care to the area, in extending emerrgency relief and building infrastructure, in obtaining freedom of colonized nations, and in attempting to achieve security and peace. On balance, Americans historically brought far more beneficence than avarice to the Middle East and caused significantly less harm than good.
He is optimistic about the US's venture in the region, so long as it is accomplished by "prudent demonstrations of America's powerand firm, but tolerant applications of its faith (meaning democracy, not Christianity --ed.)


Blogger Jeff Dexter said...

Interesting blog you have here, Alenda. This post in particular is very insightful, in fact, it has convinced to pick up Oren's book. Why is that you are absent every other month outside of July/August?

4:12 PM  
Blogger Alenda Lux said...

Thanks for the comments Jeff. I highly recommend Oren's book. I am not very good at blogging consistently. It had a few entries last summer, and then remembered about it last month. That they were both in July/August is just coincidence. Because of work and other time constraints I don't always have much time - but I plan a post soon on the different candidate's foreign affairs articles and whatever else I get around to.

8:27 PM  

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