Many in the Arab world are under the impression that, since 11 September 2001, the US has come to treat Arabs and Muslims differently from other people. This is not true. Washington does not base its policies on ethnic, cultural, or religious grounds, but on its interests and global vision.
Few would argue the point that the United States has two main interests in the Middle East. One is the Zionist project related to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine; the other is oil. The interest of the United States in the Zionist project and its support for Israel dates back to the Balfour Declaration. As for oil, US companies were scrambling to obtain exploration and production franchises in the region long before World War II underlined the strategic importance of oil. US interest in controlling world oil supplies has never ebbed. So following the end of World War II, when the US threw itself headlong into superpower rivalry, it had two key interests in the region, Israel and oil.
Which poses an obvious dilemma: How can the US guarantee its oil interests, which are in mainly Arab hands, while embracing the Zionist project to the letter? Somehow the US developed a pragmatic foreign policy that contained this dilemma with a fair degree of success.
Until the mid-1960s the US saw the Soviet Union as the main threat to its interests in the world and the Middle East. By stressing this threat it managed to rally the support of conservative and Islamic-based regimes. Meanwhile the US maintained ties with the pan-Arab movement, led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Although Arab nationalists had close ties with the Soviet Union they mostly shied away from Marxist ideas, which was good news for the US.
When the pan-Arab movement gained sufficient momentum that it posed a clear threat to US interests in the region, and as it became more deeply involved with the Soviets, the US began to rely increasingly on conservative and Islamic forces in the region, giving them the green light to resist the mostly secular nationalist movement. Not so publicly the US also gave Israel a green light to attack Abdel-Nasser, the result was the 1967 war.
When the Islamic revolution occurred in Iran, the US did not hesitate to use the nationalist movement, or part thereof, to wage a counter-attack. Saddam Hussein, in his eagerness to fill the vacuum created by Abdel-Nasser’s death in 1970 and Egypt’s disappearance from the military conflict with Israel in 1978, was the right man for the job. However, when Saddam went beyond what was expected of him and invaded Kuwait, the US exploited his mistake.
The Arab world was aware of the schemes hatched against it, but it kept fulminating, and thus helped to tighten the noose the US had wrapped around its neck. Arab attitudes towards the US were as paradoxical as they were ineffective. The Arabs failed to address the world in one voice, or as a cohesive regional group with common interests to defend. The US, through its bilateral ties with individual Arab countries, became acutely aware of the contradictions in the Arab world; the disparity between words and deeds, the rivalry among individual leaders, and the distrust between rich and poor, radicals and conservatives and nationalists and Islamists, to mention just a few.
Relations between the US and individual Arab states were dominated by bilateral, not pan-Arab concerns. Of course, pan-Arab concerns were an integral part of the domestic agenda of most individual Arab states. But, being a superpower, the US was in a position to ignore such concerns.
Every now and then the US would find itself in a position where it had to take sides, for tactical reasons, with the Arabs. This happened twice. The first time was during the 1956 Suez war when Egypt, under Abdel- Nasser, was the spearhead of a vital and promising nationalist movement. The second time was in 1973, when close cooperation between Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia produced extraordinary military and economic results. In both cases the Arab system was able to force the US into making temporary concessions. Yet, the inability of the Arab system to maintain its cohesion, through collective or single-state leadership, gave the US the opportunity to regain the initiative and turn matters to its own advantage in the long run. Even in a bipolar international system the US was able to give Israel a green light to attack Abdel-Nasser’s Egypt in 1967 and thus deal a powerful blow to the nationalist movement. And since 1973 Washington has been intent on separating oil from the Arab-Israeli conflict and early made contingency plans to occupy oil fields if necessary.
A sea change occurred in US policy towards the Arab world as a result of two developments. First, the most conservative wing of the Republican Party came to power in 2000. Second, the attacks of 11 September 2001 took place.
The extreme right-wing came to power in Washington, after eight years of the Clinton administration, fully convinced that the strategy followed by President Reagan succeeded in bringing down the Soviet bloc. The neo-conservatives were incensed that the Clinton administration had wasted a golden opportunity to reformulate the world order according to their vision, and were determined not to let the opportunity slip away. In their new vision of the world the neo- conservatives did not feel the need to have Arab friends of any persuasion. The Arab nationalist project had been defeated, and the Soviet Union, which lent support to this project, was no more.
The neo-conservatives have a vision for world domination, and this vision entails Israeli domination of the Arab region. This is why it made sense for the US administration to blame the Palestinian Authority for the failure of US efforts to reach a regional political settlement, and to give Israel the go-ahead to stamp out the Intifada. As part of this new regional approach the US prioritised the destruction of the Iraqi regime, finishing the job left undone during the liberation of Kuwait.
The September 2001 events gave the neo- conservatives an extraordinary opportunity to formulate a cohesive ideological vision through which to redraw the map of the Middle East. The new US administration saw the terror that hit their shores in September 2001 as the outcome of the conflict between corrupt Arab leaders and the disgruntled Arab masses. This conflict, once it struck the heart of the US, became an American issue. The US began blaming Arab regimes, to varying degrees, for what the terrorists had done, the argument being that Arab regimes tolerate political views that malign America, Israel, and the West. It soon became common practice for US pundits to opine that Arab youths, having been deprived freedom in their despotic countries, take out their anger against the US. According to the US administration there is a massive cultural problem in the Arab world, one that cannot be radically addressed except through a major modernisation process imposed by the outside world.
It was in this context that the neo-conservatives began propagating the idea that an attack on Iraq would pave the way for a much-needed modernisation of the Arab world and for reconstituting the region’s political, economic, social, and cultural parameters in a manner that would accelerate the pace of transformation. Iraq is a major Arab country with every potential for economic revival, and its ethnic plurality makes it a candidate for the kind of democratic transformation that would be hard to achieve in any other Arab country of comparable stature, went the argument. Once the US had overthrown Saddam’s despotic regime and employed Iraq’s immense resources to create a pluralistic system, the neo- conservatives claimed, the wheels of change would start turning in the Arab world, and the bandwagon would race to its final destination, ridding the region of hotbeds of corruption, tyranny, and terror.
The main thrust of the above analysis is that the US addresses the Arab world through the prism of its own interests and global ambitions. For the past half century the US has acted in a pragmatic manner, realising that the Arab world is full of contradictions and that these contradictions, if well used, could facilitate US oil interests without harming its policy towards Israel. Not all Arabs are the same, the Americans discovered. The US administration has always maintained Arab friends, particularly among the ruling elites, and provided them with due protection. The US has for long played its cards cautiously. It had to, for the world was bipolar and the Arab nationalist movement had a few fine moments.
Caution is no longer necessary. The Socialist Bloc has fallen apart, as has the Arab collective system, first when Egypt bailed out from the military conflict with Israel and then when Iraq came under occupation. As it is, the US no longer needs to protect any Arab regime, or even listen to it, regardless of its stature or willingness to cooperate. The US expects everyone in this region to change, to learn how to take orders. It is also convinced that there are enough Arabs ready to offer their services with a smile. And it is not far off the mark. In time, however, Washington will discover that its regional vision is short-sighted, based on mistaken assumptions, and formulated by people who are more faithful to Israeli interests than US ones. The neo- conservative approach is not in America’s long-term interest.
The writer is head of the Political Science Department at Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science.