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The U.S. and the Arabs: a woeful history.

587769 INO United States policy in the Middle East during the past half century has been the subject of conflicting interpretations. It has been described as a "non-policy", a policy without vision, a policy by increments, sorely lacking an over-arching principle, conceptual framework or long-range strategic planning.(1) It has also been described as a policy dictated by the U.S. pro-Israel lobby and by Israel itself, hence the impressive continuity which the policy has exhibited and continues to exhibit since the beginning of the Cold War.:

The question of whether rigorous strategic planning, guided by an overarching principle, or the pro-Israel lobby, constituted the real engine behind U.S. policy is not our major concern in this study. The dichotomy, in fact, is over-simplified and rather irrelevant, in as much as the perspectives and world views of the pro-Israel lobby and those of the U.S. strategic establishment have been congruent and complementary, hence the special and strategic relationship between the U.S. and Israel.(3) By contrast, certain Arab regimes share the same world view with the United States, but that has never qualified them as strategic allies. At best, they serve as facilitators, sub-contractors and local gendarmes in charge of public order. Today, after the fall of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, stability has remained a strategic goal for U.S. policy in the Middle East. It is now deemed as the primary guarantor of a hospitable environment for investment and trade.

There has been a wide-range of issues at stake - more than who and what dictates or influences U.S. policy in the region. There are large-scale, long-term economic interests that operate throughout the Middle East. These interests embody organized groups and socio-economic categories which influence various levels of policy-planning, including those which allocate resources and define goals. During the formative period of the Cold War, the organized groups with economic interest in the Middle East pursued policies largely conflictual with those advocated by the politically-organized constituencies associated with Israel. Today that gap no longer stands, in as much as the policy-making apparatus, which represented economic interests, presumably in conflict with Israel, has been phased out of Clinton's White House and Albright's State Department. The last of the so-called Arabists in that apparatus, under-Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, Robert Pelletreau, has just been replaced by Martin Indyk, the Australian immigrant who was sworn in as a U.S. citizen a few days before he changed jobs from executive director of a pro-Israel Washington think tank to the top Middle East advisor in Clinton's National Security Council.(4) Not only was Indyk the first pro-Israel lobbyist to occupy the key post for the Middle East in the NSC, but he was also the first lobbyist to serve as U.S. ambassador to Israel and now under-Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.

No longer can it be properly claimed that the economic and political dimensions of U.S. Middle East policy are separated on two different tracks. Post-cold war Israel is being groomed for the role of regional economic hegemon in the area. Arab resources, markets and labor would become available for Israeli investors equipped with superior technology, a sophisticated network of global business, and modern organizational techniques. The vision of Shimon Peres, a principal architect of the Oslo accords, is that of a Middle East in which the Arabs would be economically exploited, politically subservient and militarily inferior to Israel.(5) Israel's role in the region would be a microcosm of the U.S. role in the global South.

Prior to the era of Oslo and globalization, however, the U.S. policy process in the Middle East was informed by economic and political interests, which ultimately established the modalities and determined the time schedule that structured policy. United States policy in the Middle East has had and continues to have two important linkages: first, the economic/strategic, which comprises petroleum resources, banking and armaments. Policy makers in the U.S., whether Democrats or Republicans, hawks or doves, have almost always defined these corporate interests as matters of "national security." Secondly, the Israeli linkage, which stems from Israel's regional strategic role and powerful domestic pressure, leading to the largest subsidy program in the history of U.S. foreign policy. U.S. military-strategic planners continue to relate to Israel as a "political contraceptive" against oppositional groups and nationalist upheavals in the region.(6)

There is an interplay between the two linkages, which has eluded many an analyst who would assert that U.S. economic interests are tied to the Arabs and not to Israel, thereby casually concluding that U.S. policy should be pro-Arab and not pro-Israel. They would then recommend that the remedy for that seeming discrepancy would consist of providing the American people with accurate information, as if the people make or even influence policy. A case in point are the public opinion polls, which reveal U.S. public support for the idea of a Palestinian state but rejection of that same idea at the governmental level.(7)


The United States military intervention in the Gulf in the wake of the Cold War is a natural extension of the policy it has pursued for four decades. Since the end of the Second World War, the Middle East has been viewed by the U.S. establishment through the prism of the conflict with the Soviet Union. The U.S. strategic doctrine underlying the course of the Cold War has been based on a distorted assessment of Soviet intentions.

That policy was based on the proposition that there existed a legitimate world order, for which the U.S. assumed the major responsibility, and that the Soviet Union, together with disaffected Third World nations, including Arab nationalist forces, were intent on challenging that order. A succession of U.S. doctrines and strategies which expressed a resolve to contain that challenge included the Truman Doctrine (1948), the Eisenhower Doctrine (1957), Kennedy's flexible response, the corollaries of limited nuclear war, counterinsurgency, the Johnson Doctrine (1865), the Nixon-Kissinger Doctrine (1969), and finally the Carter Doctrine (1980) and Reagan's codicil (1981). These doctrines were predicated on the assumption that the United States had a title to the Arab World's petroleum resources, a privileged access to its markets and waterways, and an undisputed right to define, contain and rollback the region's enemies, be they internal dissidents (Eisenhower Doctrine and Reagan Codicil), ambitious regional leaders, such as Saddam Hussein (Bush Doctrine), or Arab states which would assume responsibility for strategic deterrence vis-avis Israel, such as Egypt in 1967 and Iraq in 1991. Syria, however, was able to prevent the knock-out blow delivered to Egypt and later to Iraq by restructuring its alignments.

While the U.S. seemed to be operating from a position of relative weakness vis-a-vis the Soviet Union in Southeast Asia and in Angola during the early Seventies, it enjoyed a decisive edge over the U.S.S.R. in the Middle East. It presented the U.S.S.R. with several threats in the region forcing the erosion of Soviet influence and a corresponding ascendancy of American power. In his State of the World message in February 1970, President Nixon declared, "The U.S. would view any effort by the Soviet Union to seek predominance in the Middle East as a matter of grave concern."(8) Henry Kissinger called for and secured the expulsion of Soviet personnel from Egypt in 1972.

An important difference between Vietnam and the Middle East for U.S. foreign policy concerns the economic linkage between the U.S. and the Middle East. The status quo in the Gulf, which succeeding doctrines pledged to uphold, has provided the United States with an exceedingly favorable economic climate, one in which the levels of economic penetration are maintained and enhanced. Here, much more than in Vietnam and Central America, the economic stakes are very high, and the U.S. was bound to project its military power. Hence, when President Bush claimed in 1991 that his goal was to protect our jobs and our way of life, he really meant, first and foremost, corporate interest defined as a matter of national security. Such interests frequently condition military and political decisions.

Middle East trade had more than doubled its share of total U.S. trade between 1960 and 1980, almost tripled its share of Japanese trade, and increased by 50% its share of European Community (EC) trade. By 1980, Middle East oil provided 20% of U.S. supplies, 70% of EC supplies and over 75% of Japanese supplies. The region has the largest concentration of oil and natural gas reserves in the world. The countries of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, and Abu Dhabi each contain greater oil reserves than those found in the United States. In fact, Saudi Arabia alone has reserves six times greater than the U.S. possesses. Middle East oil is not only plentiful, but cheap as well. The cost of producing a barrel of oil in the Gulf has been estimated at $2, compared to between $15 and $18 in Alaska.

U.S. economic gains are further enhanced by the exceedingly high rate of return on investments in the oil industry. While Middle East oil accounts for less than 2% of U.S. investments, its share of total U.S. foreign earnings is about 33%. Moreover, U.S. and British financial institutions claim the lion's share of Middle East oil surplus, which they recycle as loans to impoverished Third World nations. Throughout the post-World War II period a lucrative arms trade has claimed a sizable portion of the Middle East market, by far the largest arms-importing region in the world, with the highest military expenditure on a percapita basis and in terms of the Gross National Product. Seven of the largest ten arms importers during the past decade were Middle Eastern countries, and the West, particularly the United States, is their largest supplier. Annual percapita military expenditure in the Gulf region ranges between $1,060 for Oman to $2,400 for Saudi Arabia. The military expenditure as a percentage of GDP for 1991 ranges between 16.4% for Oman, to 12.5% for Qatar, and 14% for Saudi Arabia.(9)

The post-World War 11 period has witnessed increases in arms sales to the region at astronomical levels: from $2.36 billion for the entire fifteen-year period between 1955-1969 to $3.2 billion per year between 1970 and 1975 to $8.9 billion per year between 1975 and 1979. The Middle East accounted for $40 billion of the world military spending of $500 billion in 1980, with Saudi Arabia leading at the level of $20.7 billion. In 1992, Saudi Arabia spent $17.88 billion, while tiny Bahrein spent $1.48 billion and Kuwait expended $2.49 billion.(10) Most of these purchases were made in the United States.

Given these interests, the oil companies, major financial institutions and the defense industry, together with the political and social forces which supported them, projected their power into the policy-making arena and shaped the perimeters of U.S. interventionist policies in the Middle East. During the 1950s the defense of these economic interests was predicated on a network of alliances pulling together conservative pro-Western regimes in the area and on the readiness of the U.S. to intervene directly.

The history of the U.S. involvement with this region reveals a great deal about George Bush's claim that the 1990-1991 military conflict in the Gulf was about moral principles and jobs. It also explains the sudden discovery of Saddam Hussein as the most dangerous man in the world, the latest incarnation of Hitler. The sudden transformation of Saddam Hussein's Iraq from a virtual U.S. proxy in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) and protector of the pro-American dynastic regimes, including the Houses of Saud, Sabah, Khalifa, Abu Sa'idi and Thani, to a radical perpetrator of instability and the most menacing threat to U.S. vital interest in the Third World since Korea and Vietnam, is connected to this history.

The virtual occupation of the Gulf by the U.S. is the logical product of the transfer of imperial control from Britain to the United States. That transfer was completed in the mid-1980s, when the U.S. Navy began its reflagging operation on behalf of Kuwaiti commercial shipping. The term "responsibility," transferred from Britain to the U.S., means safeguarding the region for U.S. corporations. The conservative rich dynasties which rule in the Gulf act as virtual partners of the United States entrusted with internal security. American policy has endeavored to contain and defeat the enemies of the status quo and so the containment policy, whose strategic doctrine was based on the assumption that there existed a legitimate world order for which the U.S. assumed major responsibility, was extended to the Middle East in the early days of the Cold War. The stated enemy was, of course, Soviet communism. But the unstated enemy of the 1950s and 1960s was Arab nationalism, which vowed to unify the Arab World, nationalize its wealth and resources, and declare itself non-aligned in the East-West conflict. Today's enemies are subsumed under the rubric of terrorism, be they bombers of U.S. military installations in the Arabian Peninsula, resisters of Israeli occupation in south Lebanon, suicide bombers in Palestine/Israel, or simply dissidents who oppose the so-called peace process, even though it has lost the confidence of its own sponsors.

America's global posture has been characterized by an impressive consistency in terms of policy objectives since George F. Kennan wrote his famous 1947 "X" article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," an official policy paper based on the assumption that the United States had the ability to contain the Soviet Union and thus produce the kind of changes in Soviet society that would make it acceptable to the U.S.(11) The pursuit of these objectives in the Middle East region revealed two general patterns which entailed alternating between direct intervention and reliance on surrogates or regional influentials: (1) containment through military alliances, followed by an interlude of attempted containment through nationalism, and (2) the politics of informal alliances and what Zbigniew Brzezinski called "regional influentials." The first phase, during the period 1948-1960, was dominated by vigorous and consistent attempts to build a network of military alliances that would link up NATO with SEATO, thus forming a wall of encirclement around the Sino-Soviet periphery. The potential members of the alliance were Arab and Islamic states, but not Israel. The interlude between 1960 and 1966 saw the U.S seek a rapprochement with radical Arab nationalism in an attempt to "contain" the Soviet Union. The latter phase, from 1967 to the end of the 1980s, had its principal emphasis on the promotion of an anti-communist constellation of forces including Arab and Islamic states as well as Israel. The de facto alliance of regimes which shared U.S. strategic perspectives was counted on to hold the region within the U.S. sphere of influence. Crisis in the projected alliance, however, contributed to zigzags in U.S. policy between a direct U.S. presence in the aftermath of the downfall of the Shah's regime in Iran to a reliance upon surrogates. Actually, the second phase of U.S. policy is divided into sub-phases showing these policy swings.

Regardless of the means employed to accomplish America's policy objectives, these objectives remained constant: to ensure, through the threat of force, either directly or via certain regional influentials, that the region remained unalterably and irrevocably under U.S. hegemony. That implied a fairly high level of U.S. strategic and economic penetration through control of the area's strategic waterways, its most precious resources, oil, derivative financial surpluses and vast markets, all of which were defined as a matter of national security. The status quo, which U.S. policy has attempted to uphold during the past four decades, was a region free of Soviet intrusion and free of nationalist forces committed to social transformation, Arab unity, and liberation from foreign domination and occupation.

The crisis in the Gulf was the first important indication of the way the United States was going to respond to the much touted "New World Order." Military intervention in that region was an ominous sign that the United States perceived its international role as unchanged from the Cold War period. As it did throughout the Cold War, the U.S. continued to invest extraordinary resources in support of its military power, and the Gulf response was yet another demonstration of a foreign policy oriented to the use of that power. This remained so even while America's relative economic status continued to decline and a domestic debate raged over whether the U.S. should divert substantial resources from the military "peace dividend" to rebuilding an economy plagued with massive debt, bank failures, and a crumbling infrastructure. What President Bush believed to be at stake in the Gulf was American hegemony within its sphere of influence, the preservation of which has been a primary goal of U.S. foreign policy since the Truman administration, as noted above.

In the "New World Order," containment has lost its original rationale as a response to the Soviet challenge. Regional interventions can no longer be explained in terms of Soviet "aggression" or Soviet sponsored insurrections. The idea of global containment as a tool for maintaining the geopolitical balance of power has lost its force and indeed its raison d'etre. The anti-communist rhetoric of containment, however, masked the identity of another real enemy of American hegemonic designs: Third World nationalism and social revolution. In the words of Samuel Huntington, the post-Cold War interventions would be propelled by a civilizational threat.(12) That replaces the largely non-existent communist threat of forty years and would fill the threat vacuum.


A tendency to identity United States security interests with a militarily strong Israel was beginning to take hold in Pentagon circles in the 1960s. A congressional sub-committee on Middle East peace concluded in April 1967 that the United Arab Republic (composed of Egypt and Syria) constituted the principal obstacle to peace, thus legitimizing the future offensive which came to be know as the Six Day War. Israel, which prior to 1967 was receiving the highest per capita aid from the U.S. of any country - a fact which remains true today - had indeed anticipated a proxy role for itself prior to the 1967 war and prior to the Nixon Doctrine. A spokesman for the Israeli foreign office expressed that readiness on 11 June 1966:

The United States has come to the conclusion that it can no longer respond to every incident around the world, that it must rely on local power, the deterrent of a friendly power as a first line to stave off America's direct involvement. Israel feels that it fits this definition. (13)

Indeed, Israel has emerged as the principal U.S. surrogate, entrusted with blunting the nationalist tide in the West's favor. The defeat of Egypt and Syria in June 1967 and the subsequent rise to prominence in inter-Arab affairs of such conservative Arab states as Saudi Arabia was cited as a vindication of this assumption. Although the offensive against Egypt and its brand of Arab socialism was not to involve the deployment of American troops, the 1967 War brought about consequences desirable not only to Israel, but to the U.S., as well, namely, the defeat of Nasserism as a potent force in Middle Eastern politics. This fact was emphasized by the former prime minister of Israel, Levi Eshkol, in 1968:

The value of Israel to the West in this part of the world will, I predict, be out of all proportion to its size. We will be a real bridge between the three continents and the free world will be very thankful not only if we survive but if we continue to thrive in secure and guaranteed frontiers. (14)

The June 1967 war, in which the American "hose and water" were placed in the hands of Israeli "firemen," anticipated the Nixon-Kissinger Doctrine. The Nixon-Kissinger Doctrine was premised on the ability and willingness of certain countries in key regions of the world to play the role of local policeman under the direction of the United States. The doctrine was articulated in several presidential speeches and policy statements, beginning with the Guam speech of 3 November 1969, and the State of the Union message of 1970. The new guiding principle postulated that unilateral intervention was expensive at home and unpopular abroad. Thus Israel, guaranteed by the U.S. a "margin of technical superiority"(15) over its Arab neighbors, was thrust into a position of dominance, enabling it to bring about conditions suitable to United States' as well as Israeli interests. Nixon's State of the World message explained this concept of partnership thus: "Others now have the ability and responsibility to deal with local disputes which once may have required our intervention." The New York Times reported that the Nixon administration remained "firmly committed to Israel's security and to her military superiority in the Middle East, for only Israel's strength can deter attack and prevent a call for direct American intervention."(16) [Emphasis added]

The first test of this partnership concept came in 1970, when during the confrontation between the Palestinian nationalist movement and the Jordan army, the U.S. alerted airborne units from its Sixth Fleet, which began to steam toward the east Mediterranean, and Israel expressed readiness for intervention in the event of a Palestinian triumph over King Hussein.

The October 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the ensuing oil embargo enabled Secretary of State Kissinger to embark on a post-Vietnam strategy in the Middle East. Gradually, the Big Four talks on the Middle East, which began shortly after the 1967 war, had dwindled to talks between the two superpowers. By the end of the October 1973 war, the United States was beginning to act as if there was only one superpower in the Middle East. Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy as well as the American decision to ensure the failure of the Geneva Conference at the end of 1973 marked the start of a new era in Middle East diplomacy. The phrase "peace process" became synonymous with U.S. diplomatic efforts conducted in a solo fashion. One of the salient features of U.S. diplomacy was its consistent opposition to the internationalization of the Palestine question and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The U.S. was to emerge as chief arbiter despite a steadily growing special relationship with Israel, which compromised its credibility as mediator.

Kissinger's post-October 1973 mediation revealed three objectives. The first was to bring about a general eclipse of Soviet influence in the region. The second objective was to obtain a political settlement capable of creating a transformation of the very nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a settlement which would remove the conflict from its ideological context and transform it into an ordinary territorial conflict. Such an approach was inherently detrimental to the Palestinians and Arab nationalists, who, at that time, viewed the struggle as one against settler colonialism and imperialist penetration. Kissinger devised a settlement which would highlight the global concerns of American policymakers and address the economic and strategic imperatives of American foreign policy, i.e., the steady flow of oil to the West, the security of American investments and trade with the Arab World, the stability of the region, the security of pro-Western conservative regimes, and the maintenance of a strategic military presence. The third objective was to provide Egypt with such a vested interest in stability (through economic aid and territorial adjustments) as to insure its neutralization and effective removal from the Arab front against Israel. The overall aim was to give the United States the necessary leverage not only to neutralize Egypt but also to pressure Syria and the PLO into making significant concessions to Israel. The Sinai accord negotiated by Egypt and Israel under U.S. auspices in 1975 was calculated to achieve that end.

Furthermore, the United States committed itself then to continue refusing to recognize or negotiate with the PLO until the latter recognized Israel's right to exist and agreed to abide by U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. No such reciprocal demands recognizing Palestinian national rights were made on Israel. In fact these rights were non-existent in the Camp David formula negotiated later by President Carter, and for the first time, West BankGaza sovereignty was actually floated. Later, it would be classified by U.S. diplomats as a "final status issue," which effectively implied that the Palestinians would go to the negotiating table to discover whether they had rights rather than to assert their internationally recognized rights.

Under Reagan and Bush, the U.S. continued to press for a settlement based on two separate tracks (Arab and Palestinian) and two phases (transitional and permanent). The settlement, in full conformity with Israeli wishes, would not be predicated on Palestinian sovereignty, full Israeli withdrawal (later reclassified as 'redeployment'), any meaningful sharing of Jerusalem, or return of the Palestinian refugees.

A striking feature of United States policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict since the 1967 occupation was the insistence by the U.S. on playing the role of chief arbiter, if not sole peacemaker, when in fact it has been cobelligerent. The steady growth of the U.S.-Israeli special relationship, transformed into a full-fledged strategic alliance, during and after the Cold War, was paralleled by a corresponding ascendancy of the U.S. diplomatic role. That role has now dwarfed and eclipsed all the conventional methods of conflict resolution which have been attempted since 1967, including mediation, multilateral initiatives, regional endeavors and UN-sponsored peace-making.

The diplomatic history of the Middle East during that period reveals that half-a-dozen U.S. administrations stood consistently in opposition to a settlement supported by an international consensus, one that would provide for an end to the Israeli occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state, existing side by side with Israel.

At the same time, Israel had managed to reject every U.S. initiative involving a territorial settlement, even when such initiatives excluded Palestinian sovereignty. Israel still adheres to the position that Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 did not obligate it to withdraw from all the occupied Arab territories. The Palestinians have thus been confronted with two protagonists intent on denying them a national existence and a sovereign order. This is not to imply that U.S. and Israeli policies have been consistently in tandem but despite occasional wrinkles, higher interests have always prevailed. The two interests coincided to the extent that succeeding U.S. administrations viewed the disaffected Palestinians as a volatile anti-establishment group whose irredentist goals precluded any stakes in the existing regional order; hence the convergence of U.S. strategic designs and Israeli expansionist ambitions.


The U.S. endeavor to impose its hegemony on the Middle East, which predates the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, has finally reached an advanced stage. The new additions to the Middle East diplomatic vocabulary - Madrid, Washington, Oslo, Cairo, and so on - symbolize harvest time. The four-decade long U.S. investment of military hardware, economic aid, and diplomatic capital has finally paid off. The signing ceremonies at the White House (13 September 1993) and at Wadi Araba (27 October 1994) sponsored and witnessed by President Clinton, underscore a proclaimed domination based on a U.S.-Israeli alliance which is beginning to generate deep concern among ordinary Arabs.

The outcome was clearly the result of a coherent and consistent policy, which aimed to realize a clearly-defined, though euphemisticaily proclaimed objective: a region in which advocates of a variety of ideas or programs, including Arab unity, self-sufficiency, independent foreign policy, democratic governance, Palestinian self-determination and Arab-Israeli parity and mutuality, would be removed to the sidelines or held at bay. Instead, the region is being recolonized in the age of decolonization, and its post-World War II status is being settled on the basis of pax-Americana, pax-Israelica.(17) And yet, the endeavor is widely known as the "peace process," as if peace has some other meaning.

These objectives have been pursued relentlessly by U.S. politicians representing the right, "left" and center. It did not matter that Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, who represented the liberal trend, had pursued policies similar to those of John Foster Dulles and Richard Nixon, the conservatives. Nor was it strange that Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan adhered to the same Middle East policy consensus, irrespective of the fact that the former's name is synonymous with human rights and international conciliation, while the latter was the advocate of rollback, who vowed to exorcise some of the demons of Vietnam which had haunted a whole generation of Americans. Now Clinton, whose mission is to expand and promote the new and strange concept of "market democracies" throughout the world, is collecting the "pay-off," which represents the fruit of the combined energies and resources mobilized by his liberal and conservative predecessors. This is a remarkable testimony to the ability of the U.S. politico-strategic establishment to forge a stable foreign policy consensus.

The tools of U.S. policy were constantly in place but they were not fully understood by those who were the object of that policy. Arabs and Palestinians in top-level positions have often misconstrued policy aberrations as policy changes, ignoring the permanence of U.S. long-term policy objectives. Short-term signals and seductions emanating from Washington, which invariably included widely-advertised threatened reassessments of U.S.-Israeli relations by disgruntled presidents, were mistakenly read as movements at last in the direction of fairness. Exceptional deviations, such as Gerald Ford's call for a reassessment, Carter's confrontation with Menachem Begin in 1977, Baker's ordeal with Yitzhak Shamir in 1990, the dialogue between the U.S. and the PLO, and the conflict over loan guarantees, among other episodes, were not seen by Palestinian and other Arab leaders as manifestations of normal disagreements in need of tactical adjustment, but as signs of a fundamental change. Such naivete or wishful thinking stems from a political culture in which policy changes derive from pronouncements or autocratic rulers decreed not by structural changes, but by short-term imperatives or the leaders' own preferences. Hence the simplistic comparisons between the policies of U.S. presidents, ignoring the role of permanent strategic considerations and objective factors, both domestic and international.

Thus, Arafat's appearance at the White House Rose Garden on 13 September 1993 was seen by him and by many around him as the crowning achievement of his career and the sure sign of a new American policy, when in fact Clinton, Rabin, and the informed public regarded it as a form of his surrender. Arafat's frivolous statement that the Palestinians have a new friend in the White House must have amused his Israeli and American listeners. Moreover, it would have made more sense had President Clinton been the one to thank Arafat three times on 13 September, rather than the other way around; Arafat, after all, had enabled Clinton to proclaim the realization of objectives detrimental to fundamental Palestinian rights, which U.S. policy-makers have been struggling to achieve since before Clinton reached the voting age. The Oslo accord was, therefore, not only the product of fundamental changes in the global and regional environments, but it was also a culmination of U.S. persistence and tenacity, coupled with a proclivity for ad hoc methods of decision-making by Arab leaders.


Among the tools of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East were the Arab regimes themselves. The Jordanian military onslaught against the Palestinian movement in September 1970 had inflicted structural damage, the effect of which continued to retard the Palestinian struggle for years to come. Not only had King Hussein terminated the Palestinian-enforced de facto dual authority in Jordan between 1967 and 1970, but he also helped accomplish policy objectives for the U.S. and Israel. Similarly, when Palestinian fighters regrouped in Lebanon after the "Black September" debacle of 1970 and began to threaten the delicate balance inside Lebanon and in the region, Syria was tacitly accepted by the U.S. and Israel as the logical candidate for policing Lebanon in 1976. The Palestinian national movement once again had to be reduced to manageable proportions; this time, however, not by a conservative pro-western monarchy, but by a "revolutionary" Arab nationalist regime. The modus operandi, in which Israel and Syria came to share suzerainty over Lebanon, with differential U.S. blessings until this day, was the product of that mission. Egypt was subsequently drafted to deliver the coup de grace, peacefully this time, against the Palestinians. The 1978 Camp David agreement inflicted more damage on Palestinian nationalism by non-military means than the two previous armed onslaughts combined. Thus, the first Arab state to assume responsibility for strategic balance vis-a-vis Israel, from the mid-1950s until 1970, was transformed in the late 1970s to an enforcer of U.S. policy and a facilitator for Israel. Not only had Camp David secured the removal of Egypt from the Arab strategic arena, but it had also allowed Israel to dodge its legal responsibilities to the Palestinian people, and to shrug off its obligation to withdraw from Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese territories, under Security Council resolutions.

Even Iraq, the third and most recent contender for strategic balance visa-vis Israel (after Egypt and Syria), had allowed itself to become an instrument of U.S. foreign policy during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. U.S. policy makers were gratified to see Iraq inflict damage on the Islamic Republic of Iran without cost to the U.S., and also to weaken itself in the process, while pretending to play the role of pace-setter in the Gulf. Moreover, Iraq's war against America's enemy in the Gulf had refocused Arab attention away from the Israeli threat and toward an imaginary new "Shiite Iranian threat." The Palestinian cause, already battered by Camp David, was further bruised by the new priorities of Saddam Hussein. And when the latter began to exaggerate his own importance to U.S. strategy in the Gulf, he was reduced to size, not only with the acquiescence of Arab regimes, but also with the active participation of many of them.


With the destruction of Iraq, followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a settlement based on U.S. designs suddenly became possible and operational; Madrid was the venue. Although James Baker III was the architect of the Madrid Conference in 1991, much of the construction work on the road to Madrid had already begun under Baker's predecessors. In fact, the Madrid framework represents a synthesis of previous U.S. diplomatic initiatives. The two-track approach, the self-rule concept, and transitional arrangements are derived from the Camp David accords negotiated under Carter's auspices in 1978. The Jordanian dimension of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement is grounded in the Reagan Plan of 1 September 1982.(18) The linguistic bait designed to attract the Palestinians was largely inherited from the Shultz plan of 1988, which itself incorporated the salient features of Camp David and the Reagan Plan.(19)

Two characteristics are shared in common by all of these initiatives. First, they were all occasioned by structural changes in either the regional or the global environment. The de-Nasserization of Egypt, and the subsequent collapse of Soviet influence there in 1972, created a strategic imperative for U.S. diplomatic action, and the outcome was the meeting at Camp David. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 had so weakened the Palestinian national movement that President Reagan declared the outcome an "opportunity" for peace, which effectively removed Palestinian national rights from the active global agenda.

Having just embarked on a new cold war with the Soviet Union and on revolutionary nationalism, Reagan welcomed the opportunity to rearrange the strategic landscape of the Middle East. His plan, however, was thwarted by a junior ally with strategic designs of its own. The prompt and categorical rejection of the Reagan Plan by the Israeli cabinet, only a few hours after it was announced on prime television time, had simply sealed its fate. The plan's denial of sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza to both Israel and the Palestinians in favor of Jordan guaranteed Israel's quick rejection. The stillborn plan was thus shelved, but aspects of it were resurrected six years later in the Shultz Plan, which deferred the issue of sovereignty to final status negotiations. The Shultz Plan itself, also failed to impress Israel, whose Prime Minister Shamir declared it "unwelcome" in 1988, causing it to be shelved until the following year, when Baker began to revive it.

Baker's "opportunity" in 1991, however, proved to be more auspicious than Reagan's opportunity in 1982. The U.S. defeat of Iraq in 1991 was more decisive than the Israeli storming of Lebanon in 1982, and more damaging to the Palestinians, hence Baker's "opportunity," which produced Madrid. Although the Madrid formula was based on the principle of the exchange of territory for peace, in accordance with a speech by President Bush to the U.S. Congress on 6 March 1991, it was not made clear whether that exchange included the West Bank and Gaza or only the Golan Heights of Syria. In fact, the Madrid formula, through the separate negotiating tracks for Israel and the Arab states, as well as the interim arrangements for the West Bank and Gaza, had effectively enabled Israel to defer West Bank and Gaza sovereignty while it derived Arab state recognition and obtained a measure of normalization with the Arab world. In that sense, it was utilized by Israel as a cosmetic ploy to do no more than reorganize its occupation.

The second important common denominator of the four U.S. plans is that the roles of the protagonists in the "peace process" were always overshadowed by the strategic dimension of that process. Interest on the part of these protagonists has often lagged far behind that of the United States, thus creating a corresponding disparity between the pursuit of comprehensive peace and the search for comprehensive security. The parties to the conflict did not share Washington's diagnosis that the circumstances were propitious for peaceful relations. And while Israel said "no" to the Reagan and the Shultz Plans, and later renounced its own election plans in 1989 in order to avoid a territorial settlement, most of the Arab parties opted for negotiations, despite the adverse conditions, in order not to displease Washington.

Given all of that, it was not a coincidence that most of the previous U.S. proposals for peace had ended in failure. Camp David may have terminated the belligerency on the Israeli-Egyptian front, but it has fallen short of establishing genuine peaceful relations between the two countries, let alone the comprehensive regional peace it promised to build. In fact, civil society in Egypt is the most vigorous of all in the Arab World in its opposition to normalizing relations with Israel on the basis of Oslo.

The U.S., however, pursued its objectives relentlessly, despite its rather isolated position in the world community, hedging its bets on favorable global or regional circumstances in the not-too-distant future. Help was extended by the unintended acts of two tragic figures: Mikhail Gorbachev and Saddam Hussein. The former had initiated the process which led to the demise of the Soviet Union. The fateful decision of Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait gave George Bush the green light to reshape the strategic landscape of the Middle East, terminate the existing Arab political order, and resolve the impasse in favor of Washington's Palestinian and Arab agenda.(20) It was a windfall for the U.S., a superpower then facing relative economic decline and sagging credibility, yet anxious to remain "number one."

The Gulf War had meant the destruction of Iraqi society, while it also spelled disaster for the Palestinian people, whose leadership decided in 1993 to acquiesce in the U.S. and Israeli agendas, which constituted a reformulation of old plans that excluded Palestinian self-determination and circumvented their national rights upheld by the international community. These rights are enshrined in numerous international declarations and UN resolutions. Even the "full autonomy" promised by Camp David is effectively excluded from the active peace agenda. The Palestinian people are now at a crossroad with limited options: either they insist on total Israeli withdrawal as the only path to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with an arrangement for sharing sovereignty in Jerusalem; or they accept a neo-apartheid system with Palestinian "autonomous zones," i.e., reservations and enclaves within a greater Israel. The first option is now unacceptable to Israel and to the United States, which, however, would not exclude a Jordanian alternative in which King Hussein rather than Arafat would be charged with the administrative chores while Israel enjoys sovereignty. Either way, a Jordan option or neo-apartheid, the Palestinians would be faced with having to surrender the basic rights recognized by the United Nations: the right of the refugees to return to their homes and property, the right of self determination, the right to struggle against the occupation, and their rights as civilians under occupation in accordance with the 1949 Geneva Convention. That Convention implies the nullification of all the unilateral and illegal measures undertaken by Israel in the course of the occupation, and continuing under the so-called autonomous rule of the Palestinian Authority.

The honorable alternative to all this is a binational state, which is more consonant with the territorial consequences of Oslo now prevailing on the ground. That, however is unacceptable to Israel and therefore to the U.S.

While these denials constitute the real Israeli agenda, under the Clinton Administration they have become effectively the U.S. agenda. The Clinton Administration has recently vetoed resolutions of the Security Council calling on Israel to refrain from grabbing Arab land, building settlements, and violating the rights of civilians under occupation. When these resolutions were sent to the General Assembly, the U.S. shared the "no" vote with only two member states: Israel and the tiny island of Micronesia. Under Clinton and Gore, Israel sets the content, the pace, and takes the lead. The U.S. simply follows.


Although containment lost its rationale with the disappearance of the Soviet State, the strategic dimensions of that policy have remained intact in order to assure U.S. hegemony. Also intact is Israel's role in that strategy. What we are seeing now, in fact, is the re-emergence of Israel as a super-regional policeman with a much broadened territory and a much expanded role.

Washington is currently promoting a new Baghdad pact-type military alliance in which Israel, which was deliberately kept out of the earlier Baghdad Pact (1955) to appease the Arabs, now occupies center stage with Turkey in second place, followed by Jordan and perhaps other Arab states in the future. Such an alliance would reinforce the current U.S. policy of dual containment against Iran and Iraq, and would also attempt to intimidate Syria and any others who dare oppose U.S. hegemony and normalization of U.S.-Arab relations outside the context of Security Council Resolution 242.

Israel's sphere of operations would be expanded even beyond that claimed by Ariel Sharon when he was defense minister in 1981. The Sharon Doctrine then claimed a sphere of influence that reached the Islamic republics of the former Soviet Union in the North, the Horn of Africa to the South, Iran and possibly Pakistan (because of the revelations about an "Islamic bomb") to the East, and all of North Africa in the West. Now, Israel's strategic role would have an added economic dimension, the one that lies under Shimon Peres' vision for a "new Middle East." Stability, defined as the absense of war, a Pax Americana (not to be confused with a just peace) would provide a suitable environment to push America's globalization scheme.

What can the Arabs do in the face of this 30-year long record of U.S. uncritical support of Israeli lebensraum and complicity in a determined effort to deny basic human rights to the Palestinians and other Arab people? Is the situation so hopeless as to make their choices limited to accepting either U.S. or Israeli domination and Arab regime authoritarianism? The answer is clearly no. There are practical and honorable options, but they must be placed in the context of the structure of costs and benefits. The prevailing structure, which is heavy on benefits and short on costs would have to be altered, otherwise the "free ride" would continue. A policy will not change as long as the policy-maker is not made to pay a price for it. Washington's policy on settlements has gone from considering them "illegal" (under Carter) to an "obstacle to peace" under Reagan and Bush, to a mere "complicating factor" in the peace process under Clinton. In practical terms, Israel now has a green - not even a yellow light from Clinton's White House to build colonial settlements on Arab land, in defiance of almost unanimous disapproval by the world community. And yet, the Arab regimes have not only failed to raise the price for such complicity and defiance, but have also continued to pursue the process of normalizing relations with Israel, in full accordance with U.S. and Israeli dictates.

Clinton's U. N. ambassador, Madeleine Albright, who now heads the State Department, has decreed all U.N. resolutions on Palestine "contentions, irrelevant and obsolete" in 1994. And yet, the cost-benefit formula has been allowed by the Arabs to remain intact. Moreover, more than 20 million Iraqi citizens have been subjected to one of the most ruthless punishments ever delivered by the U.N. at the behest of Madame Albright. Together with 20 million Sudanese and 4 million Libyans, they are subjected to virtual country-arrest, a form of incarceration which constitutes collective punishment and denial of adequate food and medicine. In the face of this onslought, most Arab regimes have stood by as onlookers, while some of them are cheerleaders.

Altering the structure of costs and benefits means that Washington should not be allowed to continue its prejudicial and inhuman policies by default. It means that the Arab World needs to restructure its own policies in accordance with the dictates of self-respect, of national interests and reciprocal relations.

* This sections relies heavily on Chapters 1 and 2 in my The Obstucton of Peace (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995)


1. See Cheryl Rubenburg. Israel and the American National Interest. A Critical Examination (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986).

2. See Donald Neff, Fallen Pillars, (Washington: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1995); Stephen Green. Taking Sides: America's Secret Relations With A Militant Israel (New York: Morrow, 1984); Paul Findley. They Dare To Speak Out (Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill & Co., 1985).

3. See Noam Chomsky, Powers and Prospects. (Boston: South End Press, 1996); Chomsky. The Fateful Triangle (South End, 1993); Naseer Aruri. The Obstruction of Peace (Monro, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995); Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality In The Israel-Palestine Conflict (Verso, 1995).

4. For a discussion of Clinton's Middle East Policy, see my The Obstruction of Peace, especially chapters 8, 11, 13; see also Avinoam BarYosef. "The Jews Who Run Clinton's Court," Maariv, 2 September 1994. For a discussion of Martin Indyk's own views on the Middle East, see his article in Foreign Affairs, December 1991.

5. See Shimon Peres. The New Middle East (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1995)

6. James Petras "U.S. Policy Towards The Middle East". Paper presented at the XIII Annual Convention of the AAUG. November 1980.

7. See, for example, Los Angeles Times, 3 June 1987; Mark Penn and Douglas E. Schoen. "American Attitudes Towards the Middle East." Public Opinion. May/June 1988, p.46; Gallup Organization. "A Gallup Survey Regarding the West Bank and Gaza Conflict Between Israel and the Palestinians." Princeton, NJ, 11 March 1988.

8. For Excerpts from Nixon's State of the World Message, see The New York Times, 4 November 1969.

9. Human Development Report 1944. Published for UNDP by Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 170.

10. Ibid.

11. Foreign Affairs, July 1947.

12. See the article by Samuel Huntington. "The Clash of Civilizations," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 3 (Summer, 1993), pp. 22-49.

13. New York Times, 12 June 1966.

14. Newsweek, 17 February 1968.

15. Nixon's phrase during the presidential campaign. See the New York Times. 24 December 1969.

16. Ibid.

17. See my "The Recolonization of the Arab World." Arab Studies Quarterly, vol. XI, nos. 2 & 3 (Spring/Summer 1989), pp. 273-286.

18. For an analysis of the Reagan Plan, see Naseer Aruri and Fouad Moughrabi. "The Reagan Middle East Initiative." Journal of Palestine Studies. Vol. XII, no. 2 (Winter 1983), pp. 10-30.

19. See State Department Bureau of Public Affairs, "U.S. Policy In the Middle East," no. 27 (June 1988).

20. See the following articles on the regional and global significance of the Gulf War: Tom Naylor, "American Arms In The Persian Gulf." Canadian Dimensions (March 1991), pp. 34-37; James Petras, "The Meaning of The New World Order: A Critique." America (11 May 1991), pp. 512-514; Noam Chomsky, "U.S. Gulf Policy" Open Magazine (18 January 1991) pp. 117; Noam Chomsky, "What We Say Goes: The Middle East In The New World Order." Z Magazine (May 1991) pp. 50-64; Naseer Aruri, "Human Rights and the Gulf Crisis: The Verbal Strategy of George Bush," in M. Mouchabeck and Phyllis Benes, Beyond the Storm. Brooklyn, New York. Interlink Publishers, 1991.

Naseer Aruri is Chancellor Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. He is also a former president of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates. Active in Amnesty International USA and Human Rights Watch/Middle East, Dr. Aruri has served on both organizations' Boards of Directors.
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Title Annotation:US Middle East policy
Author:Aruri, Naseer
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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