Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East
Khalidi’s central argument is that the Bush administration’s interventionist posture toward the Middle East is no mere post-9/11 aberration, but represents an especially bellicose expression of a longstanding campaign. Today’s enemy is terrorism; yesterday’s was Communism. And just as the threat of Communism was wildly exaggerated 50 years ago, so, these days, “the global war on terror is in practice an American war in the Middle East against a largely imaginary set of enemies.” Khalidi’s point is not that American policy toward the Middle East has been consistently hysterical; rather, he says, it has been consistently cynical, exploiting an apocalyptic sense of threat in order to achieve the kind of dominance to which great powers, whatever their rhetoric, aspire.
Khalidi looks to interests rather than principles. From this point of view, he can be placed under Neo-Marxist camp. His story of America’s active role in the Middle East begins in 1933, when the consortium known as Aramco signed an exclusive oil deal with Ibn Saud, the king of Saudi Arabia. Khalidi reminds us of familiar if squalid acts of American intervention, like the role of the CIA in the 1953 overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, the prime minister of Iran, who had championed the nationalization of his country’s oil industry. Khalidi also describes lesser-known ones, including the delivery of “briefcases full of cash” to Lebanon’s pro-Western president Camille Chamoun in order to help Chamoun rig the 1957 parliamentary election.
In the book’s preface he clearly accuses the Unites States of behaving as if the Cold War had never ended. He writes:
“This was true even before the recent recrudescence of American Russian tensions in and around the middle east, as starting in the 1990s the United States built more bases and poured more troops and equipment into the region than at any time since World War II.”
In the post-Cold War era, arrived American forces in the Middle East were not directed against “international communism” and its proxies, as was the case from the mid-1940s through the early 1970s, but rather against local Middle Eastern actors.
He then maintains that following the fall of the USSR, the US acted in its Middle East policy with more confidence. The extraordinarily confident assertions of its single super power status include its leadership of a grand coalition against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in the Gulf War of 1991, and in convening the 1991 Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid, which led to the 1993 Oslo Accords, signed on the White House lawn.
Khalidi draws readers’ attention to the fact that not as had happened in Europe immediately after World War I, expansion of America’s global reach meant that the arrival of US troops during conflicts was not followed after the end of conflict by their return to home. He argues that some of the post–Cold War American actions were unilateral in essence, even if they may have been superficially multilateral in form,"
The author argues that the Saudi Arabia was important fort he US. Besides its strategic position and its possession of vast reservoirs of oil and gas beneath its soil: it was one of only two fully independent states in this crucial Middle Eastern region that had never been occupied by the troops of European colonial powers, and it had no foreign bases on its soil.
Khalidi sees the birth of Israel as a milestone in the US – Saudi relations. When the Saudi king found out that the land is going to be given to Jews due to persecution they suffered in Europe, the Saudi king asked the American president: “What injury have Arabs done to the Jews of Europe?” In response to this expression of the king’s position, in April 1945, just before Roosevelt died, the president sent a letter to Ibn Sa‘ud confirming what he told him in response to the concerns over Palestine that the king had expressed during their meeting: that the United States would consult with both Arabs and Jews before acting in Palestine, where it would never act against the interests of the Arabs.
Another disappointment for the Saudis, for Khalidi, is that following the death of envoys of Roosevelt told the new US president the deal made with the Saudi kingdom. But Nixon’s answer was not in favor of Saudis: “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the suc- cess of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.
Especially before the World War II, oil produced by ARAMCO was crucial to the postwar recovery of Europe, to keeping oil prices extremely low for several decades after World War II, and to increasing the profits of the big American oil companies that dominated the world oil market.
When the US was holding talks in order to acquire a military base in the Saudi land, instead of using the Word “airbase” Americans preferred to call that facility an “airfield,” in deference to Saudi sensitivity.
The late 1950s and early 1960s placed the US in an unfavorable position where Saudi Arabia brought the powerful ideological weapon of Islam. This was something the Saudis were uniquely positioned to do, given the centuries-old alliance between the royal family and the rigidly orthodox Wahhabi religious establishment, and given the kingdom’s special place as the location of two of the three most holy places in Islam, Mecca and Medina. Saudi Arabia’s employment of Islam as an ideological tool thus proved useful to the United States and its allies among the conservative forces in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
In order to strengthen its position in the Islamic World, Saudi Arabia gave refuge to Islamist political activists persecuted by secular Arab nationalist regimes in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. These included notably members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, some of whom had already been spotted by Western intelligence agencies as potentially useful proxies in the Cold War struggle with the radical Arab protégés of the Soviet Union.
The United States laid little or no stress on the promotion of democracy, constitutionalism, or human rights in the Middle East. Indeed, the United States had previ- ously helped to subvert Middle Eastern democracies by actions such as supporting the Husni Zaim coup against the constitutionally elected president Shukri al-Quwatli in Syria in 1949, organizing with Britain the overthrow of Iran’s democratically chosen prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 and imposing an autocratic regime under Mohammad Reza Shah, and providing Lebanese president Camille Chamoun with the funds to bribe his way to achieving a parliamentary majority in the 1957 elections.
Khalidi shows that the US supported groups turn out to be the greatest enemies of in the coming years. Some of those groups the US supported, like al-Qa‘ida, are lineal descendants of ones the United States was allied with for decades, often until the administration of George W. Bush’s father.
The Suez Crisis of 1956 and the US attitude are analyzed differently in the book. For the author, the subtext of American displeasure was that Britain and France did not know their place in the new world of the Cold War, where there were only two super powers , and all important decisions on the western side of the East-West divide were made in Washington.
Nixon and Kissinger’s objective was to expel the Soviets from Egypt and to win that country over to the side of the United States. Their goal incidentally fitted in perfectly with the aims of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who was eager, together with his military high command, to get out from under the Soviet thumb and receive the American support he eventually did win.
Khalidi argues that Iran –Iraq war of 1980s was a clear reflection of Cold War rivalry in the Middle East. While the US openly supported Iraq, the Soviets, meanwhile, were no less callous and self-serving, remaining the main arms suppliers of the Iraqi armed forces while also selling armored vehicles and missiles to the Iranians.
In conclusion of this chapter in which Khalidi examines the Cold War rivalry and its impact in the Middle East, he argues that the power of the Soviet Union in the Middle East and elsewhere was often exaggerated in the contemporary American view. One indication of the imbalance between the two is the fact that the Middle East, like most of the other major arenas of Cold War rivalry, was immediately adjacent to the USSR. There were no such Cold War battlefields in the immediate vicinity of the United States, with the exception of Cuba and, for a brief period in the 1980s, parts of Central America. Thus, from soon after 1945, it was the United States that was containing the Soviet Union and stationing forces and strategic weapons all around its frontiers and those of its satellites, and not vice versa. United States was taking the initiative by stationing lethal strategic weapons in the backyard of the USSR, not vice versa.