Yesterday's games

Books When it comes to the Middle East, the United States has never grown out of its Cold War fixations. Chris Toensing reads two new books on the lamentable history of American strategy in the region.

Ground crew for the British Royal Air Force Harrier GR7 force play the
world domination board game of "Risk" during a break in their twelve
hour shift patten on their base in Kuwait, April 10, 2003.
REUTERS/Russell Boyce   PP04020020
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When it comes to the Middle East, the United States has never grown out of its Cold War fixations. Chris Toensing reads two new books on the lamentable history of American strategy in the region.
Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Hegemony in the Middle East Rashid Khalidi Beacon Dh92 A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East - from the Cold War to the War on Terror Patrick Tyler Farrar, Straus and Giroux Dh110
Every US president in memory has inherited a mess in the Middle East, but President-elect Barack Obama arguably inherits the biggest. In the name of the Bush administration's war on terror, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers are garrisoned in Iraq and Afghanistan, in conflicts that have generated far more terrorism than they have thwarted. In Israel-Palestine and, to a lesser degree, Lebanon, Bush administration policies have widened the existing rifts and helped to crack open new ones. The US-Iranian impasse in place since 1979 is on a path toward outright confrontation. Collapsed or collapsing states dot the rim of the Indian Ocean. Obama steps into the breach burdened with the outsize expectations of the world, at a time when the levers of Washington's power have been corroded by the engineers of the "new American century." Meanwhile, many who professed hopes of dramatic change are now poised for frustration in light of the plodding and conventional foreign policy team Obama has assembled.

Among the hopes invested in Barack Obama is that he will "restore America's standing in the world," so badly diminished by President George W Bush's scorn for international norms. The unspoken corollary is that Bush's predilection for naked coercion marked a break with the traditions of US foreign policy. For Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi, that postulate does not quite stand up to the historical record. As Khalidi writes in Sowing Crisis, a collection of lectures smoothed into a book, Bush's Middle East policies were less an aberration than "a logical - albeit extreme and violent - continuation" of the basic approach employed by successive American administrations over the past 60 years. These were policies formulated for the Cold War and left unaltered after the demise of the Soviet Union. The centrepiece of this approach was ever-greater military involvement in the region, first in the form of alliances and aid packages, and then, increasingly, bases and troop deployments.

Before 1991, Khalidi contends, Washington saw nearly every major development in the Middle East through a Cold War prism - including the brief premiership of Mossadeq in Iran, the rise of Nasser in Egypt, the 1958 overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy, the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, the Lebanese civil war and the Iranian-Iraqi bloodletting of the 1980s. This is not an original argument among scholars, but Khalidi makes it compelling for a popular audience. Importantly, he emphasises that Cold War competition in the Middle East was driven by classic great-power grand strategy, rather than any earnest desire to spread liberal capitalism or communism in the region. The US and the Soviet Union first developed a special interest in the Middle East during the Second World War, when both leviathans awakened to the crucial value of the region's petroleum riches. Protecting access to oil, or blocking rivals' access to it, became a central policy objective. Khalidi quotes the American air force commander in Europe, Gen Carl Spaatz, declaring in 1944 that the "primary strategic aim of the US Strategic Air Forces is now to deny oil to enemy air forces," a goal that carried over into the post-war era with the positioning of US airfields within bomber range of Soviet oil facilities. In turn, the Soviets encouraged Azeri and Kurdish separatism in Iran in 1946 to extend their sphere of influence southward - and to keep would-be US bombardiers at bay. That such Cold War thinking survived in Washington long after 1991 is well illustrated with a quotation Khalidi does not cite: Briefing the press in 2001, then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz spoke of the need for "area denial or anti-access strategies" vis-à-vis China and a possibly resurgent Russia.

Needless to say, the Middle East itself came to much more harm than good in this chess match between strategists in Washington and Moscow. The CIA's coup targeting Mossadeq and its later jihad in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan are two self-evident examples of superpower adventurism that bolstered indigenous forces of autocracy and obscurantism at the long-term expense of indigenous human potential. Khalidi would add that Cold War logic guided the Johnson and Nixon administrations in their decisions to ratchet up aid to Israel after the 1967 war and through the 1973 conflagration. Wary of looming defeat at the hands of supposed Soviet proxies in Vietnam, these two White Houses could not countenance simultaneous victory by Arab countries armed by the Eastern Bloc. The resulting US embrace of a "special relationship" with Israel, with all its deleterious consequences for the Palestinians and for the cause of peace, has "thrived over multiple administrations down to this day, even though its original Cold War pretext has long since faded away."

That "special relationship" holds pride of place in Patrick Tyler's A World of Trouble, a compendium of presidential blundering in the Middle East that covers much the same ground as Khalidi's volume in far greater detail, but with less analytical acuity. Tyler, a veteran New York Times reporter, mines newly available archives and interviews with key principals to tell numerous stories of US underhandedness in unprecedented detail.

Any claim Washington may have had to "honest broker" status between Israel and its Arab neighbours in 1973 was of course given the lie by the massive October 13 airlift of tanks and armaments to Tel Aviv, the first of several. This move was justified by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a response to "Russian treachery," though Soviet supply of the Arab combatants was considerably more modest, in keeping with Kissinger's plea to Moscow when the fighting began that both superpowers "restrain" their clients. For President Richard Nixon, the Cold War imperative was clear: "We can't allow a Soviet-supported operation to succeed against an American-supported operation." But when Israeli forces crossed the Suez Canal, Nixon worried that the Egyptian government would fall, and listened with new ears to the ceasefire overtures that had been emanating from Moscow since October 10. At this point, Kissinger flouted the will of the president, refusing to deliver a message from Nixon to the Kremlin proposing a joint ceasefire effort. On October 22, the day the UN Security Council passed Resolution 338 mandating the end of hostilities, Kissinger flew to Israel. There he told his counterparts that implementation of 338 was "in your domestic jurisdiction" and that "you won't get violent protests from Washington if something happens during the night, while I'm flying." Israel pressed on, leading the Soviets to contemplate direct intervention and bringing the superpowers closer to a nuclear exchange than perhaps any time since the Cuban missile crisis. Tyler concludes that Kissinger's motivation was to appear tougher on the Soviets and warmer to Israel than Nixon was, all to please the vocal pro-Israel hawks in Congress.

Yet Kissinger had tipped his hand in remarks the preceding summer to the Iranian ambassador in Washington, Ardeshir Zahedi. Of Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian insistence upon a land-for-peace formula, he complained, "It is also senseless for a country which lost a war to demand [its territory back] as a precondition." This fundamental disrespect for the Arab negotiating position, and indeed the principles of the UN Charter, found an echo in ex-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's comment at a Pentagon "town meeting" in 2002. "My feelings about the so-called occupied territories are that there was a war, Israel urged neighbouring countries not to get involved in it, they all jumped in, and they lost a lot of real estate to Israel because Israel prevailed in that conflict." In other words: Might makes right.

Such cynicism certainly underpinned President Ronald Reagan's dispatch of Rumsfeld to Baghdad, where he notoriously gripped and grinned with Saddam Hussein. The fact of the Reagan administration's "tilt" toward Iraq during its eight-year war with Iran is well known - and now, thanks to Tyler, so is the extent. For the first time in print, Tyler spells out the details of Operations Elephant Grass and Druid Leader, whereby a 60-man Defense Intelligence Agency team prepared "beautiful maps" of Iran's military supply infrastructure for personal delivery to Saddam's generals in 1987. With the aid of these maps, and DIA bomb damage assessments, Iraqi warplanes wreaked havoc on the Iranian rear. Reeling as well from the ruthless Iraqi chemical offensive on the southern front (of which, as Tyler shows, the DIA was intimately aware), Ayatollah Khomeini accepted stalemate the next year. Both Tyler and Khalidi, incidentally, perpetuate the notion that Iran also used illicit chemical weapons late in the war. The premier historian of the matter, Joost Hiltermann, has found no evidence for this claim, save for the self-serving assertions of US officials promoting the "tilt" toward Baghdad.

A World of Trouble is immensely valuable for its breadth of primary-source research and its discomfiting tales of presidential foibles. Lyndon Johnson, who professed to hear Jewishness in the voices of broadcasters he considered favourable to Israel, loudly protested his pro-Jewish bonafides to an Israeli diplomat: "I have three Cohens in my Cabinet!" Nixon was likely drunk at the height of the 1973 crisis. George W Bush, seeking to suborn torture of detainees after the September 11 attacks, is said to have bellowed, "Stick something up their ass!"

Yet overall Tyler's narrative is somewhat disjointed, a flaw stemming from his thesis that "it remains nearly impossible to discern any overarching approach to the region such as the one that guided US policy through the Cold War? What stands out is the absence of consistency from one president to the next, as if the hallmark of American diplomacy was discontinuity." One suspects that Tyler's failure to see patterns in US engagement in the Middle East comes from his wish to find "a course of action that could bring peace and stability" to the area. Might it not be, as per Khalidi's argument, that Washington's course of action consistently aimed to serve US interests against adversaries conceived in Cold War terms - and that peace and stability were secondary?

Vestiges of such a Cold War approach lurk even in the terminology of America's recent policies in the region. During the Clinton years, the US, fearing the spectre of radical Islamism, propped up anti-democratic Arab regimes and pursued "dual containment" of Iran and Iraq - the precursor to the "rollback" of those "regional hegemons" sought under Bush. In the summer of 2006, and again in the winter of 2007-2008, the Bush administration winked at Israel's bloody assaults on Lebanon and Gaza as blows by its chief "moderate" proxy against provinces of the "extremism" centred in Tehran and Damascus.

Khalidi finishes his lapidary overview by labelling the Middle East "the epicentre" of the "new galaxy of disorder" left by the Bush administration's disregard for international law and institutions. One hopes against reason that Barack Obama will "restore America's standing" by pursuing those interests Americans and Middle Easterners have in common, and not merely by demonstrating greater tact and discretion than Bush in chasing the same old strategic quarries that have led so many of his predecessors to disgrace.

Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report.