The muddle the US Middle East policy is



A few outside certainties do exist. Insofar as the US is concerned, the whole region of Middle East is important in itself as the traditional crossroad of what the ancient world was thought to be, for control over it is vital if the only superpower has to secure the infrastructure of its global leadership role; it is a vital link in the claim of strategic areas, that taken together, would form a global strategy for the US. Middle East was historically the most important thoroughfare in terms of a Euro-centred worldview. It was in the centre of the then known world. And its strategic importance was obvious for at least a millennium, if not more. Late 19th and early 20th century immensely added to its importance with the discovery of oil first in Baku area in and around the Caspian Sea.

Earlier, it was Britain that was one of the two superpowers of the period and these two, Britain and France, held sway until, technically speaking, 1939. The French defeat in 1940 knocked France out of reckoning while Britain became so weak and dependant on the US for winning the Second World War that its imperial stuffing had been knocked out by the time the Second World War ended. No doubt some of its imperial dreams survived the imperial power and prestige for some years and the two former superpowers sought, and got, places at the top table in the UN and they thought they had qualified for it by developing their own nuclear deterrents. Nevertheless the post Second World War period was characterised by a period of great ideological wrangle between the two new superpowers — their superpowerhood stood out on the basis of their combined industrial and economic sinews as well as the military one; the rest of the world could not mistake the obvious supremacy of the US and Soviet Union while the earlier colonial powers had sunk into a largish pool of fairly successful economic powers but without the motivation or capability of sticking out with the claim for strategic pre-eminence. Quite early in the post-Second World War period the rising American power used some deft methods to deal with Britain which had residual pretensions as also France which did not have too many pretensions, though its nationalism was notably strong; British economic interests, although no longer substantial because of Britain’s economic weakness, had survived in form with an excellent infrastructure. The US in part brutally and in part tactfully forced Britain into a junior partnership with itself insofar as Middle East’s chief resource, oil, was concerned and gradually the Americans substituted their own power wherever it was needed. Oil reinforces the strategic importance of ME as a region and makes its control a key element in the game of global domination. 

Britain bequeathed America a fairly rich inheritance but one that also had a dangerous dispute that was to burst spectacularly in the post-Second World War period. And it did. It was the Arab-Israeli dispute. Insofar as the British were concerned, they had granted in 1917 a concession to the international Zionist Movement that they would allow Jews to migrate into Palestine in limited numbers and Palestine would be made the Jewish National Home — that was not to be a stick in the ordinary sense of the word. Its origin was a document, known as Belfour Declaration, though few refer to it now. It may be recalled that Britain and France were, until the end of the Second World War, the chief protectors and promoters of the Jewish cause. The US was generally sympathetic and the three major western powers – the US, the UK and France – pushed in the UN for the creation of a new Jewish state by partitioning Palestine. It came into being in May 1948. The Arabs were furious. They started military operations just when the west created military state was born; all the notable Arab armies raced into Palestine to throttle the new born state. But all the Arab armies put together were trounced by the Zionists and Jews group even before Israeli armies were born. Israelis occupied more areas than what the UN had granted it on the first day of its existence. The rest is well-known history of conquests being successively made by Israel in 1956, 1967 and even in 1973 and some of these territories were vacated under American diplomatic pressure.

The point to emerge from the progression of the Arab-Israeli dispute is that the US is now fully on the side of Israel, having taken over the mantle of the French and the British fully in the 1960s. The Americans had waited until 1960s before casting their lot with the Israelis. Earlier they had maintained a certain equidistance between the Arabs and the Israelis, being conscious of the weight of the Arabs in their own area and the oil being concentrated in their states. Later when the Israeli political skills flowered, backed as they were by a string of brilliant Israeli military victories, the Americans decided that Israel would be the best as the local hegemon on its behalf — a sort of farming out of leadership role within the region to a local proxy. The US and Israel got into a longer-term strategic alliance in which Israel which was to be the chief instrument of the American policy. The other part of this change was the US success in making the conservative Arab states totally dependent on its help; no local decision could be made in oil rich Sheikhdoms that the US disapproved. It was thus safe to relax and go with Israel. It is interesting to watch the reversal of roles in the Middle East. Way back in 1950s when Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian dictator, had nationalised Suez Canal, the reactions of France and Britain conformed to their age-old habit from imperial days. They got into an alliance with Israel and mounted military operations to take control of the Suez Canal. Meantime the cold war deterrence between the two superpowers came into operation because the Russians started supporting Nasser. The US, for reasons of continuity of its relative neutrality between the Arabs and the Israelis and the necessity of the cold war deterrence, stayed neutral and forced Britain, France and Israel to end the war dead in its track and forced Israel to vacate the Negev Desert (Sinai) which it had conquered. To which all three complied.

This is in sharp contrast with what happened later. By the time of 1967 Six Day War the American-Israel alliance had become a firm and well-recognised reality. Partly, the Soviets could do little because the Israeli victory was so swift and the Arab political disarray was so phenomenal. The Soviets had to ignore the whole episode apart from a bit of fuming because there was no scope for them to do anything. Nor did they have much motivation as a result of the memories of 1962 crisis over missiles in Cuba. The 1973 war did enable President Brezhnev of Russia to express solidarity and support with the Egyptians. But again the superpower deterrence intervened and the Soviets had little opportunity to intervene beyond what they had already done by way of supplying the Arab armies with modern equipment. The point of all this is to underline the nature of US-Israel strategic cooperation — more firm than a traditional entente cordiale used to be, also because the Israelis’ use of equipment was superb while the Arabs were at sea with modern technology. This is a significant fact that has to be remembered and gradually juxtaposed with the other facts of the situation.

Among other facts that are certain is the one that for the Americans the ME is also a first rate strategic jumping ground for the rest of the Asian continent, as the recent events have proved. It is something like a strategic base area. One has had occasion in this space to delineate the trajectory of American power that took off from the Persian Gulf and ME area. The second certain fact about the ME has already been noted that its inherent importance comprises two elements: one is the purely strategic nature of the area and control over it enables a power, in this case, the US to project itself as the last superpower and its position in this region enables it to act like one in other regions. Indeed this is what has happened since September 11. The second element is also important. It is the existence of oil, as noted. One of the world’s largest oil lakes is to be found under the sands of the Arabian deserts that still have a great role and potential for the future. Any power that controls this oil is able to coerce all other developed countries being able to interdict their oil supplies. Why does America maintain huge fleets in all the major oceans and seas? It is, narrowly speaking, to protect the oil lanes and to see that the oil trade remains peaceful and works according to the rules and ways that suit the US. But American leadership over Europe and Japan is also based, among other factors, on the oil weapon in the hands of the US Navy. Any power or group of powers that becomes defiant could conceivably face a threat to its interests; it can expect difficulties in its oil supplies from the Gulf. Japan can be brought to its knees in a matter of a week or so if the Gulf oil is denied to it.

All these facts are certainties that are obvious. The point is that the American conduct in the ME does not quite fit into any pattern that would seem to be based on these known facts. Both aspects of the Middle East are important: the inherent strategic one and because of oil. The latter should make the US take more precautions in not alienating the Arabs. For, Arabs are an overwhelming majority in the ME while Israel for all their martial and scientific accomplishments, are a tiny little state. Whatever concrete importance is attached to Israel, it cannot but remain largely marginal from a longer-range viewpoint. The Arabs sit on almost all the oil there is in the region and it has world’s second biggest potential. The Arabs also control most of the area. Therefore, it would seem that the US, as a prudent superpower with global interests, would want ME to remain more or less stable and at peace within itself, unless of course US wishes to promote Israeli expansionism unendingly – until it comes to occupy and control all oil bearing regions. The US ought not to be so closely identified with Israel as it has become for the sake of its strategic interests. That also seems to be the demand of commonsense and self-interest of the US.

Everybody knows the Israelis are an accomplished people. There are five or six million Jews living in the US, all of whom identify themselves with Israel and support it massively. The Jewish lobby in America is said to be one of the more accomplished and most powerful. It is said that a lot of decision-making in America is influenced directly by the pro-Israel lobbies. This can be exaggerated of course and sometimes is. And the Americans are no fools. They have their own reasons to prefer Israel over the Arabs. Outsiders will do well to try and understand how it is that Americans are always so ready to do whatever the Israelis want, usually at the expense of the Arabs. There must be good reasons for that. But these are not obvious, though. Strive as we may, it is not easy to be sure as to what drives the Americans so close to Israel unless we make a few assumptions, supported as they are by experience. The Arabs are in no position to take an independent line, much less an anti-US line. The US keeps them under its own tight control; their basic decision-making is always by the leave of the US. Their rulers depend for their survival against their own people on the US. All their incomes is in dollars and all their savings have been invested in the US treasury paper. They are totally dependent on the US. The Americans have shown what they can do if and when they become angry with a Middle Eastern power. The American people’s blue-eyed boy, the Shah, was overthrown. All the Iranian funds in America were immediately sequestered. This showed what can happen. It was an unspoken lecture read to all the Arab potentates and they are duly submissive.

The Israelis, on the other hand, have demonstrated that they can do anything they like in the military sphere: they can fight all the Arabs simultaneously and defeat them in next to no time. They can do whatever they want to vis-a-vis the Palestinians with total impunity. No Arab state, claiming to be sympathetic to Palestinians, is likely to move its little finger – for two reasons: one, most Arab rulers fear and detest Palestinians, the second, reason is that they are mortally afraid of both the US displeasure and the military prowess of Israel. An intriguing question arises. Why are they so afraid of the Palestinians? The reason is that the Palestinians are politically more aware than the other Arab masses over whom these kings, Sheikhs and dictators sit as kindly tyrants. The basis of the fear is that the radicalised Palestinians’ example can give ideas to their own populace. That will make their own lives more difficult. They cannot cope with their own populace becoming politically aware, who would start demanding their rights and who would want to control budgets. Therefore, no Arab, King, dictator Sheikh is interested in accepting the Palestinian refugees in his own country, unless they are forced as they were in 1948 and after the later wars some refugees did find some protection in a few countries, particularly Jordan, Lebanon and some in UAE. It is remarkable that the Palestinians are not welcome in any Arab state, although the rulers wax eloquent over the plight of the Palestinians at international conferences. The Americans know all this. They see no contradiction in the long-term interest of keeping the oil producers firmly under their thumb and their relationship with Israel. This last does not, in American view, impact on Arab rulers. Indeed the Arab rulers are said to be anxious to recognise Israel but they are afraid of the general public opinion among the Arabs as a whole. And in this the Palestinians have played a leading role. In all the anti-Israel and anti-west militant rhetoric the leadership role was performed by Palestinians. The Americans themselves dislike the Palestinians far more because of their radicalism and tendency towards militancy.

Thus, insofar as American policy towards the Middle East is concerned, the US leadership is not conscious of any contradiction. The Arab displeasure is a mirage. It does not exist for practical purposes. One’s assessment, one this is that no matter how close the American-Israeli relationship becomes, the Arabs cannot meaningfully react. In other words, they can do nothing to make the Americans or even Israelis sit up, much less cause actual injury. They have taken the measure of the Arabs and are satisfied that indulging the far right Israeli opinion can rebound. Probably among other interests of the Americans the one that is not sufficiently mentioned is one that Israel itself needs to be politically strengthened. While Israel managed to project the image of a nation with nerves of steel and virtually no conscience, the fact is that they are mortally afraid of their own future. If the Palestinians continue their spree of suicide bombings and actual security cannot be provided to common Israelis, the latter will start migrating away. In Israel the national morale is brittle. It is a very real fear which seems to make men like Arial Sharon and Netanyahu go over the top in oppressing and suppressing the Palestinians. Therefore, the Israeli hardliners have formulated what they wanted long ago. Successive governments have actually been approximating towards those goals. The hardline aim which probably inspires all rightwing in Israel is the total eviction of the Palestinian no matter how. They want to keep large areas of ME to themselves and invite other Jews from the rest of the world to come and settle in. This is also being suggested by the trend of events. It does look as if the latest agreement that has been arrived at between Arial Sharon and George Bush, the details of which are not public, probably makes America a complicit — either in so many words or by implication –to this goal. The Israelis express it as Erstze Israel or Greater Israel. The only difficulty in this is that the Israelis themselves cannot define precisely which areas would constitute the Greater Israel. But it certainly would take in the whole of West Bank and the Gaza areas and large chunks from Jordan, Syria and Lebanon would surely be in it, without definite frontiers. It is a cruel colonial dream sanctified by what can only be called Jewish mythology. It would be too daring an intellectual exercise on the part of the Americans to be identified with such maximal Israeli demands. There can be more than one source of backlash.

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