Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2, 1985, Page 1
Riding the Whirlwind
By Robert G. Hazo
That the Middle East is still relatively accessible to the United States is certainly not due to the prescience of American foreign policy toward that region since World War II. For decades we have done our very best to commit geopolitical suicide in the Middle East and it has only been luck and Arab forbearance that have spared us from paying a high price for our mistakes. This has led to an American attitude towards the Arabs that is epitomized by Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware’s remark at the height of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon: "if the Arabs can take U.S. policy in Lebanon without action, they can take just about anything."
From the beginning of our serious involvement in the Middle East, the United States has taken the Arabs pretty much for granted and, accordingly, has shown little hesitation in imposing our own East-West priorities on them, in pursuing an overwhelmingly one-sided policy with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and in displaying indifference to Arab aspirations and Arab honor.
With regard to our primary foreign policy concern, the adversarial relationship with the Soviet Union, it should certainly have become obvious by now that most Arabs, in large part because of their deep religious beliefs, have shown a marked antipathy towards Soviet ideology. Some Arab countries have, of necessity, turned to Russia for the purchase of arms but to date only the tiny People's Republic of South Yemen has, thereby, mortgaged its hard-won independence.
The various attempts over the years to freeze the area into the cold war mold—John Foster Dulles' Northern Tier, Alexander Haig's Strategic Consensus, and the Reagan Administration's Strategic Cooperation Agreement with Israel—have not been made because of any imminent, overwhelming Soviet threat but, rather, in spite of the regional realities. Those regional realities, for the most part, continue to grow out of the principal regional problem—the Arab-Israeli conflict. The dislocations caused by this conflict have, in fact, created what opportunities there have been for the Soviets to use their influence in the area. Despite this penetration, there is not one country in the Middle East (including Israel) that looks upon either communist subversion or Soviet aggression as the primary danger. Nevertheless, for the most part, we have continued to deal with most of them as if they should regard the Red Menace as their principal preoccupation.
Errors and Illusions of U.S. Mideast Policy
The irony is that the best defense against Soviet penetration in the area is the maintenance of friendly U.S. and Western relations with all of the countries of a peaceful and prosperous Middle East. Defense treaties against Russia are not only superfluous but counterproductive with countries that have made it abundantly clear, again and again, that they have no intention of rendering their long struggle against European colonialism worthless by substituting Soviet imperialism for it.
With regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, America's overwhelming pro-Israeli tilt not only regarding the security of Israel's existence but also regarding de facto support for Israeli policies like colonizing the West Bank, which we in theory deplore, long ago should have left no one in doubt about how far America was willing to go in furthering Israeli ambitions at the expense of the Arabs and even of American interests themselves. Indeed, by any normal logic of reward and punishment, the consistent, massive and indiscriminate political, economic and military support for Israel, no matter what Israel did, should have deeply prejudiced American interests in the region by completely alienating the Arab world. That Arab retaliation over the years has been limited to a short-lived oil embargo, strident denunciations, and impotent U.N. resolutions has led some to argue that America can do whatever it wishes in the Middle East and still avoid Arab rejection.
The fact is, however, that despite overwhelming evidence from the beginning, the Arabs have come to accept only slowly and very painfully the American role in their calamity. They resisted the admission, excused American actions by making a distinction between the American government and the American people, or believed American actions would change because of their love affair with the United States. To the Arabs, the United States was the champion of the emerging nations, the shining model of a country that had thrown off the colonial yoke. They looked to America for leadership, for protection, and for justice. And when they got something very different, they continued to hope. Their love was, indeed, blind.
Diplomatic Brinksmanship—80s Style
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut changed all that abruptly. The Arabs watched impotently for months while thousands of their people were slaughtered with American weapons and—as many of them believe—tacit American consent. Eighty percent of the casualties were civilians. The subsequent conclusion of an American military alliance with their mortal enemy confirmed their worst suspicions and forced even a friend like King Hussein to observe publicly that America was making it impossible for Arab leaders to govern and retain a friendship with America that was discrediting them with their own people.
Since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, American interests in the Middle East have demonstrably suffered. Lebanon is the most obvious example. The country that has, most consistently, been friendly to the United States, and where literally hundreds of U.S. firms maintained Middle East offices, is the one in which an American now functions at greatest risk.
No one thinks anti-Americanism is restricted to Lebanon. The attacks on the Marines, the U.S. embassies and on a number of innocent Americans such as the president of the American University of Beirut, the kidnapping of the Forgotten Seven (now six or, possibly, five), the hijacking of the TWA jetliner and the Achille Lauro were not aberrations. They were the first obvious signs of something trying to happen in the Middle East as a whole, some kind of massive popular turning against America.
If the turning takes its most catastrophic form—a people's war against anything and everything American—it will more than likely associate itself with a desperate, almost involuntary movement towards what some there believe to be the only vehicle for redress left: religious fundamentalism.
Just about all the elements are in place for the emergence of this fierce brand of populism: A long-standing and deep grievance with its legacy of cumulative rage; the example of Khomeini's successful revolution in Iran and his open contempt for America; a proximate enemy, Israel, that provides frequent and dramatic provocations; a religious base; an ancient history of martial accomplishments (following the banner of an armed prophet) that is second to none; and a people's honor at stake. As a result, we are facing the possibility of a convulsion in the Middle East the like of which none of us has seen: relentless, all-consuming and indifferent to human costs, the effects of which are bound to carry over into the rest of the Muslim world—nearly one-sixth of the human race.
A fundamentalist revolution, such as occurred in Iran, is not, however, the only or most likely form that basic change may take in the Middle East because many Arabs regard a fundamentalist society as unattractive and regressive. One major possibility is that current governments friendly to the U.S. may be forced, by growing domestic pressure, to change their policies towards America in the interest of their own survival as well as to blunt the fundamentalist threat. Such is the reservoir of discontent and disenchantment with American policy that such a change may not come at a regular, even pace giving us significant notice to try and reverse it. In the contrary, it is more likely to come quickly and dramatically when, for example, one more increment in quantitative change may be enough to break through a threshold and create qualitative change, as when a scale tips.
Scenarios for a Disaster
It would be foolish to predict when the turning point might occur. But it is anything but foolish to claim that it could occur at any time and, unless we reverse our own course, will occur at some time. The symptoms of pentup frustration and resentment slowly building to a release in violent action are pandemic in the Arab World, the disturbances in Egypt in the aftermath of the forcing down of an Egyptian jet by American planes being only the most recent. A foolish Congressional action recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, even though it would be resisted by the Reagan Administration, would be the kind of affront to the Arabs and to the entire Moslem world that could trigger a full-scale eruption. Another is the fate of the on-again, off-again peace initiative. President Mubarak, Chairman Arafat and especially King Hussein must know they are playing a high stakes game which will have the most serious repercussions if their effort results only in token concessions by a divided Israeli government.
A great deal is at stake, especially for America. It is commonplace to observe that the U.S. has vital interests in the Middle East. The increasing vulnerability of these interests only serves to highlight their importance.
Despite the current oil glut, an extended cutoff of Persian Gulf oil would severely impact a U.S. economy intertwined with the directly affected economies of Western Europe and Japan. It would also force heavily indebted Third World countries into bankruptcy and thus place intolerable demands on the international monetary system.
A more general economic boycott would take away some very lucrative markets. In a good year—1982, for example—over half a million U.S. jobs were generated by exports to Arab countries. During the last decade, Saudi Arabia alone has purchased $40 billion in American goods and services.
A generalized hostility towards the U.S. in the Middle East would also deny us geopolitical access to the only intercontinental land bridge where Europe, Asia and Africa intersect, as well as deny us access to key marine chokepoints—the Suez Canal, the Strait of Bab al Mandab (between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean) and, of course, the Strait of Hormuz—that control sealanes that are of immense strategic importance.
Traditionally, Arab societies have been guided from the top down. In the recent past that pattern has undergone basic change. Arab governments more and more have to accommodate pressure from the bottom up. It is hardly controversial to claim that this kind of "constituency pressure" has been growing into a very substantial force. Leaders, particularly religious leaders, of subgroups within Arab countries have become powers to be reckoned with. Given the rapidly growing resentment of American policy, sooner rather than later Arab governments are going to be forced to turn to the use of geopolitical or, more likely, economic pressure to gain political concessions from America to satisfy their people.
The problem is that when they do use their leverage, the pendulum is likely to swing far in the other direction. At that point our options will be both limited and dangerous. Military occupation of the Persian Gulf (presumably) in concert with Israeli forces—an option so freely discussed during the oil embargo of 1973—would be extremely risky business given predictable world reaction and unpredictable Soviet military response. The military option would also pose enormous and likely insurmountable problems in logistical supply and in countering domestic resistance during the occupation—to say nothing of political backlash in other areas of the world, particularly Asia and Africa. Given the precarious world power balance, a number of geopolitical situations could quite rapidly get out of control. Literally anything could happen.
When the prospect is potentially apocalyptic, prevention is obviously the order of the day. Some have argued forcefully that it is already too late. Rather the assumption should be made that the necessary is possible and that the impending resort to vindictive geopolitical and economic pressure by the Arabs can be avoided. A genuinely even-handed policy that realistically addresses regional problems and, no less importantly, respects Arab aspirations and Arab honor can turn the situation around.
It would be unfortunate if America adopted such a policy only after the Arabs used their considerable leverage on us in a dramatic way. To do that would not require 22 Arab nations acting in concert, but only several of the major countries joining together in unfriendly action. If that happens, America, having squandered innumerable opportunities over the years to avoid such a catastrophe, will have no one to blame but itself. ❑
Robert G. Hazois Chairman of the Middle East Policy Association and Senior Public Policy consultant of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.