Beyond America's Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle Eastby Stephen P. Cohen
AN INCISIVE "WHITE PAPER" ON THE UNITED STATES'S STRUGGLE TO FRAME A COHERENT MIDDLE EAST POLICY
In this book, the Middle East expert Stephen P. Cohen traces U.S. policy in the region back to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, when the Great Powers failed to take crucial steps to secure peace there. He sees in that early diplomatic/b>/b>/b>
AN INCISIVE "WHITE PAPER" ON THE UNITED STATES'S STRUGGLE TO FRAME A COHERENT MIDDLE EAST POLICY
In this book, the Middle East expert Stephen P. Cohen traces U.S. policy in the region back to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, when the Great Powers failed to take crucial steps to secure peace there. He sees in that early diplomatic failure a pattern shaping the conflicts since then—and America's role in them.
A century ago, there emerged two dominant views regarding the uses of America's newfound power. Woodrow Wilson urged America to promote national freedom and self-determination through the League of Nations—in stark contrast to his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt, who had advocated a vigorous foreign policy based on national self-interest.
Cohen argues that this running conflict has hobbled American dealings in the Middle East ever since. In concise, pointed chapters, he shows how different Middle East countries have struggled to define themselves in the face of America's stated idealism and its actual realpolitik. This conflict came to a head in the confused, clumsy Middle East policy of George W. Bush—but Cohen suggests the ways a greater awareness of our history in the region might enable our present leaders to act more sensibly.
“With his brilliant analysis of the bungled leadership, diplomatic miscalculations, and cultural blindness that have marked U.S. policy in the Middle East . . . Cohen untangles the roots of anti-Americanism in the Arab world. . . . This trenchant, hopeful book should be compulsory reading for President Obama and every member of Congress.” Letty Cottin Porgrebin, author of Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America
“In what should become required reading for those interested in the Middle East, Cohen, director of the Institute of Middle East Peace and Development, provides a richly detailed history of diplomacy in the region and its implications for current relations. The book begins with Woodrow Wilson's idealistic initiatives, which germinated into a 'confused legacy [that] continues to be at the heart of the problem between the United States and the Middle East.' Cohen takes a tour of major players and key events, including Egypt and its nationalist movement, Iran under British imperialism, the roots of a Saudi-U.S. alliance and the evolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Cohen provides broad suggestions for contemporary diplomacy, generally emphasizing the importance of avoiding a 'one-size-fits-all' policy. He discusses policies in the region of both Bush administrations, and remains timely in presaging the new administration's diplomatic message. When Cohen concludes, 'To overcome despair over these relationships, which is now so common, requires the elaboration in our imagination of a best-case scenario,' he sounds prescient, and the rigorously researched history he provides make his words ring true.” Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
“A big-picture overview of the long-teetering relationship between America and the Arab nations . . . Cohen makes a magnificent case for the ‘emotional impact' of Arab defeat in the face of Israeli force, while at the same time scolding those nations for persistence in ‘self-definition by negation of the other.' Both hectoring and wise, this historical blueprint makes a powerful argument for building mutual respect in the region.” Kirkus Reviews
“A brilliant social psychologist and political analyst who has devoted his entire life to counseling Middle Eastern leaders on how to promote peace, Cohen's Beyond America's Grasp is a model of alternative thinking, a gift of rare wisdom, the fruit of four decades of welding knowledge and experience.” Yaron Ezrahi, author of RUBBER BULLETS: Power and Conscience in Modern Israel
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Beyond America's Grasp
A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East
By Stephen P. Cohen
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2009 Stephen P. Cohen
All rights reserved.
WILSON SEARCHES FOR LEADERSHIP
What is the role of the United States in the Middle East? How is that role perceived around the world? The difficulty of these questions goes back to the very origins of the United States and to how the Founding Fathers understood the idea of a republic. Their concept of a republic was shaped in contradistinction to an empire, as a construct that had grown out of the struggle for independence from Britain. At the same time, a parallel, but no less pervasive, view was emerging in America. In this view, the United States was a potential world power on par with Britain, that would take her rightful place in civilizing the world. The continuing tension between these disparate national self-perceptions manifested itself in the sometimes confused role the United States played in the seminal period following World War I.
The first hundred years of American foreign policy focused on staying disentangled from the internecine battles of the Great Powers of Europe and their competition for empire. A major reason for America's remaining out of the race to colonize was its desire to ensure that its economic development would not be impeded by the policies of other governments. Because much of America's early economic development was linked to Britain, the maintenance of proper credit and trade relations with the motherland was essential for American growth and prosperity. It was not in the best interest of the fledgling American economy to clash with Britain over imperial aspirations. And so it was that the British model of international relations was the model that America both emulated and rejected. For example, it was the British model of naval power that set the American course for its own military expansion after the devastation of the Civil War; but it was the British model of empire, rejected by most in the United States, that was seen by President Woodrow Wilson as a reason to maintain a healthy distance from Britain and its goals in World War I.
These conflicting attitudes toward Britain as role model emerged as the sharp distinction between the two American presidents who led the United States into its modern international role at the beginning of the twentieth century: Theodore Roosevelt was the first American imperial president; Woodrow Wilson the first American anti-imperial president.
Roosevelt bestrode the world as a great hunter, a man on safari. He wanted the United States to itself be a Great Power and to reinforce the role of Britain in the world by playing an equivalent role in new areas of special interest, such as the Western Hemisphere and in East Asia. He saw these regions as the keys to the economic future of the United States as a Pacific economic powerhouse. This led to America's leading role in the construction of the Panama Canal and its dominance of the Canal for a hundred years. Wilson, on the other hand, traveled to Europe as a peacemaker, struggling to manage the transition from theoretician to practical negotiator. The differences between the two men led to very different views on how the United States should see World War I and the peace negotiations that followed it. Even from his deathbed in a New York hospital, "Theodore Roosevelt issued a statement repudiating the Wilson Fourteen Points, and calling upon Britain, as a victor in war, to claim whatever spoils it felt entitled to," while at the same moment Wilson was attempting to convince Britain of the virtues of a "peace without victory."
The Roosevelt-Wilson contrast is the context in which America's involvement in the world has to be understood. Wilson wanted open agreements arrived at only to replace the Great Power competition, including its politics of secret alliances and compacts. Not unlike Roosevelt, Wilson also saw a unique role for the United States, but for him its uniqueness needed to be expressed in nonimperial forms and in ways that enhanced the United States as a Great Power seeking peace and cooperation rather than military advantage or projection of power. The tension between these different approaches to America's role in the world has never been resolved; they both continue to find expression in the debate on U.S. foreign policy, and especially foreign policy toward the Middle East.
AMERICAN PREPARATIONS FOR THE END OF WORLD WAR I
Wilson was unprepared to be a wartime president. He had been elected on domestic issues and was well prepared with his internal agenda, but had never really focused on the broader world. As that world descended into the Great War in 1914, Wilson began to focus his imagination on America's entering the scene of world politics after its long quiescence spent consolidating its nationhood and building its economic strength. Wilson did not see America as a new player who would tip the European balance of power. Rather, he envisioned the United States as a transforming phenomenon, a new and nobler kind of Great Power: a nation that was strong and wealthy and yet, for all that, did not pursue control of the world system. His dream was of a United States as the power that would use its influence to bring an end to this Great War and then to all wars, to resolve the conflicts started by others, and to bring about a world economy based on a truly global free trade system. Most of all, Wilson's United States would launch a new world order guided by an international organization that would abolish the system of secret covenants covertly negotiated that had led to antagonistic alliances of world powers, and had deluded them into believing they could successfully wage war against other powers without suffering unacceptable losses.
In this lofty but grandiose self-image of the United States, Wilson was initiating a pattern that would play itself out again and again over the next century. He drew on the best ideals flowing from America's democratic and constitutional origins and created a distinctly American image of what was right and what was best, and then projected that image onto the world, all the while justifying the use of force to spread those ideals and to muscle others into adopting and complying with them. The result for Wilson and his successors has been deep disappointment at not having been able to realize this idealized image so admired by still-colonized peoples. Instead, America has engendered disillusion, mistrust, and even intense resentment in other nations. The best intentions have curdled into sour expectations. America's attempts at making the world mirror American ideals and aspirations have been received by the world as invitations to lie upon a very well appointed Procrustean bed.
Wilson did not adequately assess the intensity of opposition in his own country to putting American power and wealth to such an altruistic use. The idea of collective security implicitly entailed the threat that the United States would be drawn into wars not of its own choosing and generated by others. Wilson was thinking of a smaller and more homogeneous world than that in which the United States finds itself in the twenty-first century. He did not imagine an America that would choose to enter precisely the conflicts involving control of non-European countries that he saw as the legacy of empires and colonies, a legacy he abhorred. He certainly did not envision the United States deeply engaged in conflicts involving the states that emerged out of the Ottoman Empire after the end of World War I.
However, Wilson did venture boldly into that colonial world with his strong rhetorical support for the concept of national self-determination for subjected peoples that would eventually come to undermine the stability of the imperial order that prevailed in his time. In doing so, he accelerated the launch of an international concept that heightened expectation of change in the world system, particularly among colonized and imperially controlled peoples, who believed their time of independence was approaching and passionately expected their impending freedom to be championed by the United States.
Wilson knew very little of the details of life and governance in those new post-Ottoman Middle Eastern countries. Even his advisers were not especially knowledgeable about those lands or the challenges they faced as they emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
For three long, bloody years Wilson kept America out of World War I, despite persistent pressure from Britain and France and from pro-British elements within the United States. America's active merchant marine and banking support were essential to keeping the Triple Entente afloat during those difficult years. Wilson's efforts to stay out of the war were grounded in his view that the conflict was essentially about the old politics of European power struggles and thus did not merit the involvement of the United States. He believed his role would emerge at the end of the war, in the form of his serving as a mediator and peacemaker. As early as 1916, Wilson was corresponding with the leaders of Great Britain and France to offer himself in that capacity. He hoped to fashion a peace settlement that would represent a major departure from the status quo in world affairs and prevent future massive wars. "At a time when militarism was becoming the prevailing mood, [Wilson] had spoken in the noblest tradition of Western Liberalism," calling for a just peace for all parties. By the time the Americans were drawn into the war by the Germans, Wilson had long been preparing for the peace.
Wilson's formulation of the postwar world entailed three major initiatives. The first was his policy of "a peace without victory." Throughout 1917–18, almost everywhere Wilson spoke he enunciated his ideas about a proper peace settlement at the end of the war. He was convinced that if the Germans were humiliated by the conclusion of the war and its postwar settlement, Germany would, before long, engage in yet another war with Britain and France, and the cycle would not be broken. His ideas further involved support for self-determination to meet the national aspirations of the subjugated peoples of the nonvictorious empires. In a speech delivered on July 4, 1918, Wilson set out his vision of the peace settlement with particular anti-imperial eloquence:
The settlement of every question, whether of territory, of sovereignty, of economic arrangement, or of political relationship, [should be] upon the basis of the free acceptance of that settlement by the people immediately concerned, and not upon the basis of the material interest or advantage of any other nation or people which may desire a different settlement for the sake of its own exterior influence or mastery.
Wilson's idea of the way peace should be approached was a departure from the historical course of conquest and annexation. He tried to establish from the beginning that the United States was going to the Paris Peace Conference as an arbiter, not to seek territorial aggrandizement. He hoped to convince the other Great Powers to engage in the conference on the same premise, but their human and economic losses were too great to allow such farsightedness. As I discuss later, Wilson's expectations were continually frustrated by the Allied Powers' attempts to undermine his vision of a just peace.
In order to reach his stated ends of a peace without victory, Wilson had drafted what have become known as his Fourteen Points. The Fourteen Points were delivered on January 8, 1918, to a joint session of Congress, and they included such ideas as open covenants, openly arrived at; adjustment of colonial claims based on the interests of the local populations; and autonomous development for the peoples of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. But for Wilson, the most crucial section of his speech was the last, in which he called for the creation of a general association of nations. This association, to be called the League of Nations, was intended to be an international body that would be responsible for the application of the peace settlement and the maintenance of a new world order. Wilson saw the League as the most promising means of forestalling another international war, and so he became entirely focused on it. Throughout the Peace Conference in Paris, Wilson pushed tirelessly for the creation of the League, and in an almost single-minded way became determined to implement it.
The third part of Wilson's preparations for the peace conference took the form of an advisory council. In order to prepare himself for his time in Paris, he drew upon his career in academia. He had his closest adviser, Colonel Edward House, create the "Inquiry," an agglomeration of scholars brought together to study and prepare reports on various areas of the world. "The Inquiry provided the earliest precedent of use by the United States government of numerous scholars whose special talents were directed toward the shaping of American Foreign Policy." The scholars were arranged by area, studying Africa, Austria-Hungary, the Balkans, the Far East, Italy, Latin America, the Pacific Islands, Russia, Western Asia, Western Europe, economics, diplomatic history, and cartography. The members of the Inquiry worked for months before the peace conference, and many accompanied Wilson to serve as his advisers in Paris.
All of Wilson's preparation combined to establish a new framework for peacemaking and diplomacy that he saw as a beacon of light for oppressed peoples around the world. His ideas of self-determination and independence "kindle[d] the fire of extreme nationalism in the newly created states of Eastern Europe" as well as throughout the fallen Ottoman Empire. Minorities in all corners of the globe heard in Wilson's words the promise of an end to imperialism and an opportunity for independence. They anticipated an imminent change in the tide of Great Power politics.
What is striking is that it appears that when he was drafting his Fourteen Points, Wilson did not know much about the Ottoman Empire, nor did he ever truly realize what an impact his ideas had on the people of that region. At this time very few, if any, Americans studied the modern Middle East, and so the "expert" who was to be Wilson's guide, William Westermann, actually knew very little about the region or its people. His specialty was the Middle East of the Byzantine period.
Ironically, it was to the people of the Ottoman Empire that President Wilson became a hero. Even though it was not the primary focus of Wilson's commitment to self-determination, it was in the Ottoman Empire that an idealistic image of the United States and its perceived goals in international relations was to have its biggest impact by its stark contrast with the imperial goals of Europe. While the Great Powers were seen as the contrivers of confidentially negotiated agreements arrived at over the heads of the people to be governed, Wilson was seen as the advocate for independence for Ottoman Arab lands and peoples and for governance emerging primarily from their own desires and aspirations, not from those of colonialist powers.
But by the end of the Paris Peace Conference, the hopes of the Ottoman peoples were crushed. When Wilson left the conference in June of 1919, owing both to mounting domestic pressure to return to America after a full six months abroad and to concerns about his health, the future of the Ottoman Empire had barely been discussed, and had certainly not been decided. It had become clear that Wilson was an unwelcome interloper in the domains of British, French, and Italian statesmen, and a threat to their secret treaties. His British and French colleagues in Paris were determined that the Middle East question be delayed so that it would be addressed only after Wilson, with his curiously ingenuous anti-imperial fixation, had decamped. The failure to resolve the future of the peoples and lands of the Ottoman Empire during Wilson's six months in Paris left Great Britain and France free subsequently to divide the spoils between them. Disinclined ever to adopt Wilson's ideas, the British and French denied the peoples of the Ottoman Empire the self-determination and independence they thought within their grasp. This changed the face of the Middle East forever, with disastrous ramifications for the region and for world peace.
WILSON IN PARIS
When considering Wilson, most historians focus on the rejection of the League of Nations by the U.S. Congress. Doubtless, this had dramatic effects on international relations and even domestic politics, but it is not the only event of his career with persistent aftershocks. Wilson's complete disappearance from the negotiations surrounding the Ottoman Empire meant that the decisions taken at the Paris Peace Conference would be subject to the old diplomacy of the European powers, and despite the influence Wilson had on the leaders' thinking, the people of the Ottoman Empire would ultimately be denied the benefits of Wilson's innovative ideas.
Excerpted from Beyond America's Grasp by Stephen P. Cohen. Copyright © 2009 Stephen P. Cohen. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
STEPHEN P. COHEN, the president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, has lectured at Yale and elsewhere. For over forty years, he has made 150 trips to the region, and attended the Madrid peace conference and other high-stakes meetings. He lives in New Jersey.
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