East and West in the Middle East
by Daniel Pipes
[Paper presented at the "Conference on U.S.-Turkish views of the Middle East" in October 1984, co-sponsored by The Heritage Foundation and the Foreign Policy Institute (Ankara).]
Most analyses of United States foreign policy by academics tend to share a negative, superior tone, seeming to imply that the writer, if only he were in power, would achieve far more than the bumblers who do happen to be making decisions. In case I too take on some of that tone, it is important that I begin this survey of United States policy in the Middle East with a statement of appreciation: While noting that the policies of recent years could be improved, I am struck by their overall achievement. More than this: the United States has been more successful in the Middle East than any other outside power. Or, in a different context: American diplomatic efforts in the Arab-Israel conflict since 1973 are arguably the most outstanding in the two-century history of this century.
With this understood as my starting point, the following remarks are offered in a constructive manner, in the spirit of further improving, and not of demolishing, a successful record.
Schizophrenia is the greatest obstacle to an effective American policy in the Middle East. Symptoms of this affliction are apparent in the way the United States government deals with the Middle East. It approaches countries such as Turkey and Afghanistan concerned only with the Soviet threat; there, local issues disappear from the American vision. In others, including the Arab countries, Israel, and Iran, it sees only local issues; there, East-West affairs fade into the background. I shall argue that this double imbalance lies behind many of the shortcomings present in the American Middle East policy.
Where the East-West Conflict Predominates
Seeing Turkey and Afghanistan exclusively through the prism of relations with the Soviet Union blinds Americans to the many other developments in these countries, including a number directly affecting their interests.
Turkey. In the Departments of State, Defense, and Treasury in the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, Turkish affairs are handled not, as an outsider would imagine, by bureaus covering the Middle East. Rather, Turkey comes under the purview of the bureaus responsible for the Soviet Union, Europe, and Canada. More than any other factor, this institutional arrangement has the effect of making Turkey visible primarily in reference to the Soviet Union.
The reason for taking Turkey out of the Middle East and making it part of Europe is clear enough; in the American viewpoint, Turkish membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) entirely overshadows its other activities. This transfer has the virtue of taking Turkey out of the confusion that characterizes American policy in the core of the Middle East (about which, more later), bringing it to the main arena of American foreign policy. But this advantage is purchased at a price: viewing Turkey as part of Europe means isolating it from the affairs of its true region, the Middle East. A toehold in the Balkans, membership in NATO, and participation in the Council of Europe notwithstanding, Turkey is not fruitfully understood as part of Europe. Culturally, religiously, politically, economically, it shares infinitely more with the countries of the Middle East.
Preoccupation with Turkey's role in the East-West conflict causes Americans to neglect the increasing importance of the Middle East in Turkish politics during recent years. There are many reasons behind this re-orientation: a reaction against the Westernizing policies of the republic's first decades, alienation from European politics, the emergence of fundamentalist Islam in Turkish life, the greater wealth and power of some Middle Eastern states, booming trade with the oil exporting countries, and the massive employment of Turkish migrant labor there.
The greater role of the Middle East creates new issues for Turkey. Syrian claims to the Hatay province of Turkey, which have troubled Turkish-Syrian relations for 45 years, acquire enhanced importance, as does the oil pipeline crossing Turkey from Iraq to the Mediterranean because of the Iraq-Iran war. Related to the latter, Turkish troops twice engaged in hot pursuit of Kurdish rebels into Iraq territory. Turkish relations with Israel degenerate as Ankara places less emphasis on the concerns of the West and more on those of its Middle East neighbors.
Turkey's increasing involvement in Middle East politics creates the potential for American and Turkish co-operation in the Middle East: this appears most fruitful with reference to the Arab-Israel and Iraq-Iran conflicts. In both these cases, Turkey's good relations with the two sides of the dispute serve it well diplomatically.
Turkey has a unique position with regard to the Arab-Israel dispute. Israelis remember that for three decades Turkey was the only Middle East state to maintain full diplomatic relations with it; Arab leaders see in it a fellow-Muslim state that has led the way toward modernization while at the same time staying aloof from regional quarrels. Were Turkish leaders to offer their offices for Arab-Israel diplomacy (as Romania and Morocco have done so successfully in the past), they could perform a signal service. These efforts might be done in conjunction with the United States for maximum impact.
Ankara has a potentially even more useful role to play in the Iraq-Iran war, for it is constantly improving relations with the belligerents; by now its relations may be better than those of any other government. As an indication, note that Iraq and Iran together took a mere 4% of Turkish exports in 1980, 16% in 1981, and almost 25% in 1982. This made Iran Turkey's biggest export customer as well as Turkey's greatest supplier. An April 1983 protocol between Turkey and Iran foresaw further increases in trade. As for Iraq, all of its oil exports go through the Turkish pipeline that runs through Turkey; while the volume of Turkey's trade with Iraq is second only to that with Germany. Given Iraq and Iran's uneasy ties with the United States, and the not much better ones with most of Western Europe, Turkey can take important steps, again, most profitably in consultation with its allies, toward a solution of the conflict.
Afghanistan. Since Soviet forces invaded in December 1979, Afghanistan has hosted a vicious guerrilla battle between the Soviet-sponsored government in Kabul and the rebels, who get arms from various sources around the world, including the United States. This struggle has two dimensions: a Soviet and an Afghan. Unfortunately, Americans pay almost exclusive attention to the former, hardly noting the politics of Afghans, not even those of the mujahideen movements.
But this may be a costly mistake. Some groups fighting the Soviet troops are led by fundamentalist Muslims, others have more Western-oriented leaders. Differences between these groups have great importance: not only do the fundamentalists have a tendency to fight the other groups - rather than the Soviet troops - thus weakening all resistance forces, but they have their own plans for the future of the country. Were the fundamentalists, who hate the United States as much or more than the Soviet Union, to prevail, the future Afghan government would pursue policies comparable to Khomeini's in Iran. To the contrary, were the non-fundamentalists to prevail, they would establish a government friendly to the United States. Should the mujahideen one day repulse the Soviet attackers, these differences will become critical to American interests in the area.
Where Local Issues Predominate
The core of the Middle East has a unique place in American foreign policy. The issue that drives policy in that region - the Arab-Israel dispute - is virtually unrelated to the global concern of American foreign policy since the Second World War - how to deal with the Soviet Union. Coping with Moscow decides American policy almost everywhere in the world except in the core of the Middle East. There, in the East-West conflict submerged, the result is an undirected United States policy.
The Arab-Israel Conflict. The U.S. seeks full peace between the Arabs and Israel - but it will settle for stability, of course, as it does elsewhere in the world. The Koreans are not at peace, nor are India and Pakistan, but these states do enjoy relatively stable relations. Stabilization of Arab-Israel tensions represents a realistic goal for U.S. diplomacy. Without losing sight of the ultimate goal of peace, Washington should adjust its sights to stability.
Any U.S. administration hoping to make improvements in Arab-Israel relations must avoid two great temptations: that of coercing negotiations on the local parties or overemphasizing the importance of the West Bank and Gaza. Every one of the many American diplomatic successes of the past decade occurred when the United States assisted efforts begun by an Arab party and Israel. When differences between the Arab states and Israel are irreconcilable, they will refuse to negotiate and mediation efforts by the United States are virtually pointless. No outside actor can force a solution; peace can never be imposed by diplomacy. This implies that the United States give up the ambition to solve on its own (or with any combination of outside powers) the Arab-Israel conflict.
The United States should respond to local initiatives. It can facilitate communications, serve as an honest broker, provide security guarantees, and help ease the financial burdens associated with movement toward peace. For example, Washington can encourage quiet discussions between Jordan and Israel on those practical matters - water rights, currency regulations, Jordanian influence on the West Bank - where its good offices could make a difference.
A second temptation concerns the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While the disposition of these areas is of great importance to the Arabs living in those regions and to all Israelis - indeed this issue may have mortal significance for Israel - it is not central to the Arab-Israel conflict. It therefore need not greatly concern the United States. Arabs and Israelis fought for many years before the West Bank and Gaza came under Israeli rule in 1967; there is no reason to assume that return of these territories to the Arabs would end the larger conflict. Peace can be reached by Arab states without the approval of West Bank and Gaza residents or of the PLO; conversely, none of the latter can conclude the Arab conflict with Israel on their own. For this reason, settling the status of the West Bank and Gaza, often referred to as "solving the Palestinian problem", is but a minor aspect of the overall Arab-Israel relationship.
Rather, the kernel of the conflict lies in the refusal of the Arab states to recognize Israel. It is this issue that the United States can most profitably influence and that it should address.
Of 21 member states in the Arab League, the only ones in a position to make war on Israel are those four with borders adjoining Israel - Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. Three of these four neighbors have resigned themselves to Israel's existence: Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979, Lebanon tried to sign peace accords in 1983, and Jordan has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to co-exist. Syria alone maintains a policy to destroy Israel by force. Further, Damascus not only prepares for war against Israel, but it exerts maximum pressure on other Arab leaders - including those of Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and the PLO - not to accommodate Israel's existence.
For the United States fruitfully to address the Arab-Israel conflict, it must deal with the problem of Syrian intransigence. This means working toward the isolation of Syria and the reduction of its influence on the other Arab states. Though very difficult to achieve, steps toward this end might include: helping Syria's Arab opponents co-ordinate policies among themselves, taking preventative measures against terrorism, aiding forces opposed to the regime in Damascus, and pressuring the Soviet Union to reduce its military aid to Syria. In addition, Syria's military must not be permitted to prevail over Israel's; Israel must be provided with whatever arms are necessary to assure its military predominance.
U.S. Relations with Israel. Lines are clearly drawn in the Middle East. Whereas the United States strongly supports the only unequivocally pro-Western country of the region - Israel - the Soviet Union strongly supports those governments and organizations that engage in terrorism against the West - Libya, Syria, and the PLO.
Consistent Soviet support for Israel's worst enemies results from Moscow's noting that a powerful Israel forces Arab leaders to realize that armed struggle is hopeless, inducing them to turn to Washington for help. Having to choose between pursuing their conflict with Israel militarily with Moscow or diplomatically with Washington, one Arab leader after another foregoes the Soviet route for the American one. Anwar Sadat summed up this situation when he noted that "the United States has 99% of the cards." Alone of the Middle East states, Israel explicitly aligns with the West against the U.S.S.R., making available a variety of military, intelligence, and political benefits. This is one reason for the U.S. to build up Israeli strength.
There are two other reasons. Israel's strength helps defend Western supplies of oil from the Persian Gulf. Israel potentially provides the finest military infrastructure in the area or it could, as the local state most capable of projecting power, act on its own.
Second, Israel offers special advantages as an American ally. As the only consistently democratic country of the Middle East, it enjoys the most stable system of government in the region. Israeli political continuity has inestimable value in a situation where most regimes can be overthrown by a coup or a bullet. Also, Israel's freedom of expression and its moral principles make it unusually valuable at a time when many Americans reject alliances with dictatorial regimes.
There are some in the West who see the benefits Israel brings as costing more than they are worth, arguing that this relationship weakens bonds with the less pro-Western and more numerous Arab states. But this is wrong. There is every reason to believe that the United States can have good relations simultaneously with both the Arab states and Israel. The United States signed a military co-operation agreement with Israel in November 1983, for example, and subsequently paid no significant price for this with the Arabs. To the contrary, relations then improved with both Israel and the Arabs, especially with the Persian Gulf states threatened by Iran. As this shows, the "strategic consensus" sought at the beginning of the Reagan Administration can, under proper circumstances, indeed be attained.
To make use of the strategic relationship with Israel vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and its proxies, it should be deepened and strengthened through pre-positioning of materiel, co-ordination of battle plans, joint maneuvers, and shared intelligence. Also the U.S. should make clear to all states of the region that it intends not to arm both sides of a conflict. This implies only providing weapons deemed defensive to governments that maintain a state of war with Israel (including Jordan and Saudi Arabia).
U.S. Relations with Saudi Arabia. U.S. relations with Riyadh bear an odd resemblance to those with Peking. In both cases, Americans go out of their way to prove sincere friendship in a coalition that both sides know to be merely tactical. As with China, these unnecessary gestures of good will characterize U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia: the sale of superfluous arms, the holding back on filling the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and the reluctance to press for greater military co-ordination are all indications of this.
Although the United States often looks to the Saudi government to exert political influence (on the peace process, on Syria, on Lebanese factions), it is in fact a weak regime unable to stand up to its neighbors and demand changes in their policies. Expecting Saudi help is unrealistic; further, by putting pressures on the Saudi government that cannot be answered, it endangers the regime.
The situation implies that the U.S. give less to the Saudis, demand less in foreign affairs, and demand more internally:
Lebanon. American military efforts in Lebanon between August 1982 and February 1984 amounted to a serious U.S. foreign policy failure, probably the most ignominious experienced in some years. Major errors committed included: (1) inadequate support in the U.S. for an ambitious military undertaking; (2) deployment of troops without a specific mission; (3) deficient understanding of the factions within Lebanon and the reasons for their conflict; (4) a mistaken appraisal of the Syrian government's goals in Lebanon; and (5) a re-orientation of interest away from Lebanon just at the moment of greatest opportunity (the Reagan Initiative turned attention toward the West Bank and Gaza exactly at the moment when a breakthrough in Lebanon was within closest reach). These mistakes were especially dismal in that nearly all of them repeated earlier errors in Vietnam.
However unfortunate the U.S. experience in Beirut - and it still continues - Lebanon remains a key country in the Middle East and the battles taking place there have importance for the U.S. Lebanon has a key role in the intellectual, political and economic life of the Middle East; its population includes some of the most pro-Western elements in the region; and its location forces it to play a role in Arab-Israel relations. There is yet much to be won or lost in Lebanon and the United States needs to retain influence there.
Washington faces a choice in Lebanon: it can work for peace in the country by pressing for a political restructuring of the country to enfranchise those elements, especially the Shi'i Muslims, who have until now been excluded. But this will lead to a coming to power of forces less friendly to the West. Alternatively, the U.S. can bolster forces friendly to it by assisting the central government's army. To do this is to maintain links, to a key actor and may prevent those forces from falling under Soviet influence.
The Iraq-Iran War. American policy has been consistent through four years of war: condemn both sides' aggression, maintain strict political neutrality, and quietly give military help to whichever side is losing. When both parties to a conflict outdo the other in pursuing repugnant policies and insulting the United States, the American interest is to prevent either side from winning. Instead, it aims for the parties to negotiate a settlement and return eventually to their pre-war borders.
Within the general goal of preventing either side from gaining a clear victory, the United States needs to worry about an Iraqi victory more than an Iranian one. Iranian military success could lead to a fundamentalist Muslim regime in Baghdad. That government would presumably threaten existing regimes in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. An Iraqi victory would pose these same dangers, however, by fuelling the ambitions of Saddam Hussein's regime. In addition, Iraqi success would jeopardize the integrity of the Iranian state, possibly lead to the dissolution of that country as it now exists, create opportunities for the Soviet Union to intervene, facilitate Moscow's influence in Iran, and bring the oil resources of the Persian Gulf under its control.
Iran borders on the Soviet Union and Iraq does not; this fact alone makes good relations with Iran permanently more critical than with Iraq. Either as a Soviet or as an American ally, Iran counts more than Iraq. Iran is clearly the strategic prize; forced to choose, the U.S. must expect to concern itself with Iran's future more than Iraq's. Working relations with Iran thus require a very high priority.
These views imply several policies with regard to the Iraq-Iran conflict. For one, assistance should be given to neither combatant unless it is in imminent danger of losing the war. In such a case, discreet and minimal support should be offered to the losing side until it serves militarily.
A fleet should be stationed outside the Persian Gulf so long as the war continues. This protects shipping, stabilizes the area in the event of local emergencies, and reduces the likelihood of Soviet intervention.
To be more effective, American policy toward the Persian Gulf belligerents calls for co-ordination with the NATO allies, France, and Japan. Co-operation has special importance with regard to arms sales; also, the boycott of Iraq's or Iran's oil might, at this time of oil glut, exert political pressure on those countries.
Private lines to the Iranian government must be kept open to assure communications, especially in times of crisis. Iran is too critical in world politics for Americans to indulge year after year a pique dating from the Teheran hostage problem.
Finally, the U.S. should take advantage of the Iranian threat to satisfy ties with those Arab states of the Persian Gulf that cannot on their own stand up to the Iranian forces.
The emphasis on the East-West conflict in Turkey and Afghanistan leads to the neglect of local issues; conversely, the emphasis on local issues in the Arab countries, Israel, and Iran leads to policies that ignore the main principles of United States foreign relations. Were it possible to borrow some of the excess concern for the Soviet Union from the former category and apply it to the latter, policy toward all parts of the Middle East would benefit.
 A mere listing of American-sponsored agreements since 1973 makes this clear: Kilometer 101, Sinai I, the Syrian-Israeli disengagement agreement, Sinai II, Camp David, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the 1981 PLO-Israel agreement, the PLO evacuation from Beirut, and the Lebanese-Israeli accord.
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