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Obama and the Middle East
The End of America's Moment?
By Fawaz A. Gerges
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Fawaz A. Gerges
All rights reserved.
AMERICA'S ENCOUNTER WITH THE MIDDLE EAST
A BITTER LEGACY
A LOVE AFFAIR GONE SOUR
Until the end of World War II the United States did not actively participate in Middle Eastern politics. It limited its engagement to educational and missionary activities and commercial investment in the region's oil sector. On the whole, American foreign policy had been isolationist from the birth of the Republic. Then, at the end of World War I, it supported limited self-determination for colonized people, including Arabs aspiring to self-governance and independence. In his Fourteen Points, detailed in a speech to a joint session of Congress in January 1918, President Woodrow Wilson expressed sympathy for Arab sovereignty: "The other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development."
To support this position, Wilson sent a delegation (after the peace conference had ended) headed by Dr. Henry King, president of Oberlin College, and Charles Crane, a Chicago businessman and Arabist, to the Middle East to survey Arab opinion. Ultimately, the King-Crane Commission had no impact — its report was not published until 1922 after the European mandates providing for direct colonial rule by Britain and France had already been in place. The commission's recommendations were unpopular with France and Britain, who felt their interests were being challenged, and they withdrew from participating in the commission; the report was also viewed with skepticism by the American public and politicians.
The commission stated in its report that the delegates had initially been very favorably disposed toward the Zionist cause. But having gauged the views of those living in Palestine and Syria, they noted that the overwhelming majority of inhabitants were opposed to a Zionist homeland that envisaged the displacement of the Arabs. Moreover, they noted the following:
With the best possible intentions, it may be doubted whether the Jews could possibly seem to either Christians or Moslems proper guardians of the holy places, or custodians of the Holy Land as a whole. The reason is this: The places which are most sacred to Christians — those having to do with Jesus — and which are also sacred to Moslems, are not only not sacred to Jews, but abhorrent to them. It is simply impossible, under those circumstances, for Moslems and Christians to feel satisfied to have these places in Jewish hands, or under the custody of Jews. There are still other places about which Moslems must have the same feeling. In fact, from this point of view, the Moslems, just because the sacred places of all three religions are sacred to them have made very naturally much more satisfactory custodians of the holy places than the Jews could be. It must be believed that the precise meaning, in this respect, of the complete Jewish occupation of Palestine has not been fully sensed by those who urge the extreme Zionist program. For it would intensify, with a certainty like fate, the anti-Jewish feeling both in Palestine and in all other portions of the world which look to Palestine as "the Holy Land." In view of all these considerations, and with a deep sense of sympathy for the Jewish cause, the Commissioners feel bound to recommend that only a greatly reduced Zionist program be attempted by the Peace Conference, and even that, only very gradually initiated. This would have to mean that Jewish immigration should be definitely limited, and that the project for making Palestine distinctly a Jewish commonwealth should be given up.
The King-Crane Commission's only stated goal was to outline the wishes of the Arab people, who clearly expressed their desire for autonomy from imperial domination (Turkish or otherwise). The commission did make some clear recommendations regarding their own (and Arab) preferences for an American mandate. However, this was in contradiction to America's official policy of nonintervention and overt reluctance to intrude in European spheres of influence. In fact, the US government was acutely aware that Britain and France were not satisfied with the goals of the commission, and so in recognition of the need to keep the Europeans on their side, the Americans concluded — contrary to the recommendations of the report — that Syria should be mandated to France and Mesopotamia to Britain owing to the "international need of preserving friendly relations between France and Great Britain." Moreover, Congress ruled in favor of a Zionist settlement, also dismissing the report's recommendations.
Nevertheless, Britain and France split up the territory of the defeated Ottoman Empire between themselves and arbitrarily determined the borders, as well as the political organization, of the modern Middle Eastern state system — the nationstate. Although the United States did not actively oppose its European allies' control of the former Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire, it refrained from direct rule over the region's inhabitants.
Through the King-Crane Commission America gained a moral leadership that was recognized in the region. Its physical distance, detached policy, and apparent lack of political designs endeared it to most Arabs and Muslims and set it apart, in their eyes, from its domineering European allies. On balance, America was seen as a neutral island in a sea of European colonial reach. The Middle Eastern encounter with America and its citizens was mostly cultural and apolitical, and its mainly positive character nourished a romantic feeling about the newly rising Western power. Arab immigration to America reinforced a nascent love for a promised land shaped by personal stories and tales of riches made and dreams come true.
In 1924, Princeton historian Philip Hitti, an Arabist, wrote in Al-Hilal of his conception of America:
You will feel as though you arrived in a country whose inhabitants are giants among men. ... You will then realize that you are not among a people like others, but rather among a people superior in their qualities, distinguished in their vitality, and unique in their abundance of energy. The matchless skyscrapers, the quick pace of life, the ability to focus on one's own work, are none other than manifestations of the dynamism of a nation that is full of youth and pulsating with tremendous energy.
A generation later, before the dust settled after World War II, US diplomats in the field urged their superiors in Washington to listen closely to Arab aspirations, particularly their quest for independence and unity, and to avoid viewing the region in a merely instrumentalist light. In a 1945 conference between US ministers to the Middle East and a new president, Harry Truman, George Wadsworth, the minister to Syria and Lebanon, conveyed Arab sentiments toward the United States based on his experience and residency in the area:
[T]he United States can play a leading role. Our moral leadership is recognized today. The governments to which we are accredited want most of all to know whether we are going to implement that leadership, whether we are going to follow through after our victory or leave the field, as we did at the end of the war, to others.
Wadsworth, speaking on behalf of US ministers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Palestine, warned the new president, who lacked experience in foreign affairs, that if the United States failed to recognize vital Arab interests, these countries would align themselves with Communist Russia and would "be lost to our civilization."
The warnings of Wadsworth and other diplomats were ignored. Washington's globalist lens reflected the field's regionalist perspective. The Truman administration, and later Eisenhower's, sacrificed indigenous aspirations for independence and urgently needed social and political development and reconstruction on the altar of a narrow, shortsighted outlook meant to deter the Soviet Union and safeguard access to Saudi and Iraqi petroleum. Ironically, by neglecting the local context and viewing the region in this way, Truman and Eisenhower gradually sowed doubt and suspicion about American intentions among leaders and people in the region. Rather than persuading the Arab governments to join with the West, the United States motivated many of them to turn to the Soviet camp for assistance. Middle Easterners' love for America quickly turned sour as leaders in the region saw the inconsistency between American rhetoric and American policy. The region's infatuation with America — which lasted from the beginning of the twentieth century until the end of World War II — had raised unrealistic expectations and set the stage for subsequent mistrust, disillusionment, and rejection because it was based more on nostalgia and opposition to colonial Britain and France than on an understanding of US foreign policy.
There was no single event or specific policy that transformed America's relationship with the Middle East from potential friend to bitter foe. The deterioration into mistrust and antipathy was incremental, a product of an accumulation over a half century of both camps' policies, encounters, and miscalculations. The most egregious of these policy mishaps, in the eyes of people in the region, were US support for the establishment of the State of Israel, the 1953 coup against the popularly elected Mohammad Mossaddegh in Iran, the shift to strong support for Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967, the oil embargo of 1973, the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the subsequent hostage crisis, and America's military intervention in the Gulf in 1991 that resulted in the permanent stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam.
The eminent Oxford historian Albert Hourani perceptively noted the crux: "Nevertheless the attitude which the Arabs will take up towards the West is not entirely a matter for the Arabs themselves; it depends very largely upon the attitude which the West takes up towards them."
THE PALESTINE TRAGEDY
The events that defeated Palestine and culminated in the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 were the beginning of the end of the Middle East's love affair with America. To the dismay of Arabs and Muslims, Truman actively lobbied the United Nations to vote for the partition of historic Palestine into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab. Despite serious reservations on the part of the State Department, the military, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) about supporting Jewish statehood in Palestine, Truman insisted on exercising control of American policy toward Palestine and ordered the US delegation at the United Nations to support the partition. What Truman did not foresee was the human suffering and Palestinian disenfranchisement that resulted from the partition.
Ever since, the Palestine tragedy has haunted America's relationship with the Arabs and with many Muslims. For them, the division of historic Palestine was a "pivot" away from the positive century-and-a-half-long relationship between the United States and the Arab world. Palestinian scholar Ussama Makdisi put it bluntly: "At a moment when the rest of the world was entering the age of decolonization, the Palestinians were made stateless. More than any other single factor, the presence of Israel has altered the course of U.S.-Arab relations."
Truman repeatedly expressed annoyance at efforts by career diplomats to encroach on the presidential powers: "I wanted to make it plain that the President of the United States, and not the second or third echelon in the State Department, is responsible for making foreign policy, and, furthermore, that no one in any department can sabotage the President's policy."
Initially, Truman was merely interested in relieving the misery and plight of displaced Jews by urging their admission to British-controlled Palestine, and he rejected "a political structure imposed on the Near East that would result in conflict," i.e., partitioning Palestine into two states. He was aware that antagonizing the Arabs would tilt them toward the Soviet Union and open the gates of the region to Communist penetration. Yet Truman ultimately changed his mind, disregarded the warnings of most of his advisers, and was among the first to recognize the establishment of Israel in 1948.
According to officials who observed the decision-making process of that era, domestic politics — along with the discovery of extermination camps in Germany, and relentless pressure by Zionist groups — was the driver behind Truman's change of heart. Whatever the motives for Truman's decision, that act — viewed by Arab opinion makers as an example of America's duplicity and manipulation — marked the end of America's innocence in their eyes; the "shining city on a hill" was merely another new colonial power, willing to trample their rights to advance the electoral interests of its leaders at home.
Palestine represented a rupture between America and Muslims, particularly Arabs, who could not reconcile US leaders' early rhetorical support for Arab unity and independence and their betrayal of the colonized and indigenous Palestinian population. While liberal Arabs admired Western rationalism and science, they saw in Western support for Zionism a "bigotry" for which they could not account.
In the late 1940s, Sayyid Qutb, then a mainstream public intellectual who subsequently became the master ideologue of revolutionary Islam, published an article, "The American Conscience and the Palestine Question," in Al-Risala magazine. In it he railed against America's "treachery" and "duplicity":
We finally discovered the U.S. conscience that had captured the hearts of many people in the East, who considered it to be different from the British conscience and the French conscience and those of the rest of Europe. ... Many had been deceived by the American conscience because they had less contact with America than with Britain, France, and Holland. But America's role in Palestine exposed the deceptiveness of the American conscience that gambles away the future of other people and their human rights to purchase a token of votes in the presidential elections. ... This is America exposed for all to see. This is Truman revealing the truth about the American conscience, which is the same as every Western conscience — unscrupulous, and only fools trust it.
Qutb bemoaned Muslims' love affair with America, which was, in his opinion, based more on ignorance and infatuation than on a moral bond. He called on fellow Muslims to lift the veil and take a hard look at the real America that had pierced their hearts, and challenged them to prepare for the coming struggle in Palestine:
If you want to be saved from the jaws of the Western beast, there exists only one way out ... : begin the jihad and ignore any traitor who tries to trick you into trusting the Western conscience. All Arabs, all Muslims, need to stand up to defend Palestine. It is the struggle between the rising East and barbaric West — between God's laws and the laws of the jungle.
Qutb was not alone in turning against the new Western superpower. Truman's support for the partition of Palestine had a transformative impact on the Arab elite and public opinion alike and poisoned their attitudes toward the United States. More than any other issue, the loss of Palestine, coupled with the tragedy of Palestinian refugees, radicalized large segments of Muslim opinion and left a "deep-seated chagrin" at America's support of Israel and caused "almost everyone [to be] suspicious of our professed intentions," according to a senior US diplomat stationed in Syria who spoke to opinion makers. On this score there exist no differences between nationalists and religiously based activists (Islamists), secularists, and leftists; all blame America — which they had initially admired for its anti-colonial stance — for tipping the balance in favor of the Jewish state. For Qutb and his liberal-leaning generation, the old progressive America was dead, replaced by a menacing, immoral superpower. Before and after the partition in 1948, US diplomats in the region cautioned their superiors in Washington that Israel would become an aggravating, independent factor in relations between the United States and Arab peoples and societies: the Arabs' "universal resentment against an Israel" would produce a "corollary resentment against [the] US as [the] power primarily responsible for Israel's existence."
Excerpted from Obama and the Middle East by Fawaz A. Gerges. Copyright © 2012 Fawaz A. Gerges. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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