6 June 2018

Revisiting the U.S. Role in Three Middle East Crises


It has long been conventional wisdom to blame the Western powers, first and foremost the United States, for the ills of the contemporary Middle East. No sooner had al-Qaeda terrorists steered two hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center than the atrocity was presented as a response to Washington’s overbearing and self-serving Middle Eastern policy. What goes around comes around, ran the common argument, and it is only natural for the seeds of rage that Washnigton has sown to come home to roost. In the words of historian Gabriel Kolko: “The events of September 11 were the direct result of over fifty years of American involvement in the region, the consequence of actions and policies that have destabilized the arc of nations extending from the Mediterranean to South Asia.”[1]

Protesters burn flags in anti-U.S. demonstrations, Tehran. Despite popular beliefs to the contrary, Washington has generally followed a course in the Middle East that has sought not only to advance its own interests but also to further those of regional actors.

This conventional view wrongly inverts Washington’s Middle Eastern policy and the nature of its relations with local allies. Not only have Middle Eastern actors not been hapless pawns of foreign powers, but they have been active and enterprising free agents pursuing their own goals and agendas, often beyond Washington’s control and at times against its wishes.[2] And nowhere has this tendency been more vividly illustrated than in three major crises in the formative period when U.S. administrations became engaged in the region: the November 1947 partition resolution and the creation of the state of Israel; the overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq; and the June 1967 Six-Day War.

The Roots of Anti-Americanism

The roots of what Jean-Fran├žois Revel termed “the theory of American guilt in all things”[3] can be traced to the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries when U.S. diplomats, missionaries, and educators first ventured to the Middle East. These “Arabists” generally held sympathetic views of the cultures and people among whom they lived. While their dominance in the Foreign Service waned in the wake of World War II, they have retained a profound impact on the Department of State—consistently the most pro-Arab governmental organ.[4] This influence has been further reinforced by a powerful pro-Arab lobby comprising oil companies, lobbyists in the employ of Saudi Arabia, other Arab or Muslim governments, and non-Arab special interest groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the National Iranian American Council that seek to influence U.S. policies and American public opinion.[5]

The 1960s were a turning point for American attitudes towards Middle East policy particularly among intellectuals and academics. More importantly, the decade witnessed turmoil associated with the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, with revisionist interpretations of the Cold War blaming U.S. administrations for the conflict gaining traction, and new radical movements making their debut on the political scene. Consistent with this nascent, radical outlook, a National Conference for New Politics, which met in Chicago that year, adopted “a Black Power resolution condemning the ‘imperialist Zionist war’ between Israel and the Arab countries.”[6]

This process of radicalization continued well into the 1970s with more and more academics advancing their revisionist interpretations of U.S. foreign policy in both their writings and the classroom.[7] Likewise, academic outlets such as the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), established in 1971, and The Journal of Palestine Studies, which began publication the following year, became platforms from which critics of U.S. policy spouted their ideas.

With respect to the “narrative,” it was Edward Said, the Columbia University professor of English and Comparative Languages whose 1978 book Orientalism had enormous influence on Middle East studies; he lambasted the supposed “web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, [and] dehumanizing ideology” in the United States and the West against the Arabs. He further contended that so-called Orientalists had constructed myths in order to facilitate the “conquest and domination” of the region.[8] Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at that same institution, emphasizes how Cold War exigencies coupled with U.S. naivety and unstinting support for Zionism have left “a legacy of betrayal and abandonment” throughout the region.[9]

The Partition Resolution and Israel’s Birth

This virulent anti-American censure has been vividly illustrated by criticism of President Harry Truman’s support for the November 1947 U.N. partition resolution as being “entirely in Israel’s favor without any regard for Arab sensibilities,”[10] ignoring altogether the fact that the resolution was equally beneficial for the Palestinian Arabs in that it provided for the establishment of an Arab state alongside its Jewish counterpart.

Many historians also give short shrift to Truman’s humanitarian motives for backing the Zionists in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, or to the Cold War context in which the issue arose, and above all, to the legacy of staunch presidential support for the Jewish right to national self-determination:[11] All of Truman’s predecessors without exception (plus the U.S. Congress) endorsed the November 1917 Balfour Declaration, urging the establishment of a Jewish national home. Similarly, scant attention is given to the question of whether Arabs and Jews could coexist peacefully in a unified state under Arab rule given the bitter memories of repeated anti-Jewish violence and incitement,[12] especially during the 1936-39 “Arab revolt,” and under the likely leadership of the Nazi collaborator Hajj Amin Husseini.

Palestinian Arabs riot, Jerusalem, December 6, 1947, following the U.N’s November 1947 partition resolution. Far from showing unconditional support for partition, Washington’s backing came after that of Moscow and was opposed by the Department of State and the Pentagon.

Moreover, Washington’s actual support for the Zionists was ambiguous, halting, and limited. Its support for partition followed that of Moscow and was virtually confined to the White House, which acted against the staunch opposition of the Department of State and the Pentagon. Indeed, not only did the State Department collaborate with the British to exclude the Negev from the territory of the prospective state of Israel (only to be foiled by Truman), but in late 1947, State orchestrated a regional arms embargo that left the Palestine Jews highly disadvantaged as London sustained its arms supplies to the Arab states, which had vowed to attack the nascent Jewish state upon the termination of the mandate. In fact, it was Stalin, rather than Truman, who yet again came to the aid of the Zionists by supplying them with arms via Czechoslovakia. Yet most who castigate U.S. policy are largely silent about this fact.[13] Moreover, in March 1948, as Arab-Jewish violence in Palestine escalated by the day and the Arab states were gearing up to invade the new state, the State Department maneuvered Truman into abandoning the partition plan in favor of the creation of an international trusteeship for Palestine.

Even when Jewish military operations overwhelmed the Palestinian Arabs and the pan-Arab force that had penetrated the country in early 1948, the State Department sought to prevent the May 14 anticipated proclamation of the state of Israel. In a terse meeting with the Zionist movement’s “foreign minister” Moshe Shertok (Sharett) on May 8, U.S. secretary of state George Marshall warned:

If the tide did turn adversely and [you] came running to us for help, [you] should be placed clearly on notice now that there was no warrant to expect help from the United States, which had warned [you] of the grave risk [you] were running.[14]

That this warning was flatly ignored was evidenced by a New York Times article on May 11, titled “Jews to proclaim state despite U.S.”

The Israelis were eager to obtain fighter aircraft and antiaircraft artillery from Washington, but Marshall would not allow Israel to obtain weapons for its defense.[15] He made good on his threat to withhold U.S. military aid to Israel in the face of the Arab invasion even though Britain continued to back its Arab clients. Likewise, full, de jure recognition of Israel by Washington occurred only in January 1949 after the Jewish state had defeated the Arab states and held its first parliamentary elections. To add insult to injury, the tripartite Anglo-American-French declaration of 1950 perpetuated the prohibition of the sale of weapons to Israel while leaving the Soviet arsenals open to the Arabs.[16]

The Mossadeq Affair

Much more than its support for the Palestine partition, Washington’s role in the August 1953 overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq has become the epitome of the U.S. government’s (supposed) self-serving perfidy—an original sin that has allegedly beset Washington’s relations with Tehran for decades and for which it must continue to make amends.[17]

Prior to the August 1953 overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq (with cane, being taken to trial), U.S. officials repeatedly sought to reconcile Tehran and London after Mossadeq nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

One needs to look no further than the Academy Award winning film Argo and its simplistic linking of the hostage crisis a quarter-of-a-century later to lasting Iranian grievances towards the CIA to see how deeply this narrative has become entrenched in popular culture. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lent credence to this view when she publicly declared that “it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.”[18] In his 2009 Cairo speech, President Barack Obama alluded, with similar disapproval, to Washington’s “role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.”[19]

What this popular narrative fails to note is that this “democratically elected” Iranian government came to power as a result of terrorism and in a climate of fear for which it bore much responsibility. As Iranian-American historian Abbas Milani has shown, it was the assassination of Mossadeq’s rival, Ali Razmara, at the hands of an Islamist group that “paved the way for the Oil Nationalization Act [allowing Tehran to seize the assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, AIOC] and for Mossadeq’s rise to the pinnacle of power.” Indeed, immediately after Razmara’s murder, the influential cleric and Mossadeq ally Ayatollah Kashani called the assassin a hero and threatened the shah if the authorities continued to hold the culprit under arrest.[20]

In truth, Washington tried to play the honest broker between Tehran and London after Mossadeq nationalized the AIOC in 1951. The U.S. administration also helped rescue Iran from Russian claws in the immediate wake of World War II when Moscow strove to create Soviet-style republics in Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. But faultfinders conveniently elide on this, too.[21]

In addition, at the time of the Mossadeq crisis, Washington showed sympathy for Iranian nationalism. U.S. officials repeatedly sought to reconcile the two sides by supporting Iran’s sovereign right to the petroleum produced on its soil while at the same time allowing AIOC shareholders to receive a fair, market value compensation for their losses. Furthermore, the U.S. administration restrained its British counterpart from using military force in retribution for Tehran’s “theft” of oil rights. Only when this policy proved futile due to Mossadeq’s intransigence did the incoming Eisenhower administration opt for more direct measures.[22]

No less important, by the time the CIA and the British foreign intelligence service MI6 moved against the Iranian prime minister in August 1953, many of his erstwhile allies had abandoned him, notably Kashani who derided Mossadeq’s extralegal referendum to dissolve Iran’s popularly elected parliament (majles). Mossadeq’s growing authoritarianism, his reliance on the Iranian street, his continued dalliance with the pro-Soviet Tudeh party, and his inability to deal with Iran’s prolonged economic crisis ultimately proved too much for Washington. U.S. officials feared that the country might drift to the Soviet orbit with the erratic prime minister unwittingly acting as catalyst to the move.[23] The fact that Mossadeq had himself played the Cold War card to extract Washington’s support against the British, as well as the arrival in Tehran of Anatoly Lavrentiev, Soviet ambassador to Prague following the 1948 communist takeover in Czechoslovakia, did little to endear Mossadeq to Washington policymakers.

U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower (left) with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, New York, September 1960. The Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations tried to woo Nasser over to the West. But Moscow armed Egypt, upsetting the regional balance of power. As result, Washington consolidated its relations with Jerusalem.

The Eisenhower administration thus pressed Shah Reza Mohammed Pahlavi to use his powers to dismiss the prime minister before it was too late. In the end, the plan went badly awry as someone tipped off Mossadeq. This unexpected development led the shah to flee the country while the Tudeh rallied its masses in street demonstrations in the capital. Facing a debacle, Washington recalled Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt, the CIA agent behind the attempt to topple Mossadeq. Yet not all was lost. What the West started, the Iranians finished. Pro-shah crowds took to the streets and brought about an abrupt turn that culminated in the prime minister’s arrest and the monarch’s return. And while it is true that the CIA had helped organize protests and paid for individuals to rally for the shah, a no-lesser role in bringing the masses to the streets was played by the shah’s local proponents, notably Ayatollah Mohammed Behbahani. Indeed, one cannot account for Mossadeq’s downfall without understanding both the domestic circumstances and the shortcomings of the man himself, notably his failure to appreciate that politics is the art of compromise.[24] Admittedly, Washington had played a part in these events, but that role has clearly been greatly exaggerated and distorted.

The Six-Day War

No less misconstrued are standard criticisms of Washington’s supposedly escalatory role in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Thus, for example, political scientist William Quandt contended that President Lyndon Johnson “abandoned the policy of making an all-out effort to prevent war” between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors, allowing the Israelis to understand “that they could take action without worrying about Washington’s reaction.”[25] Noam Chomsky took this charge a big step further by describing the war as “the U.S.-backed Israeli victory in 1967.”[26]

What is paradoxical in this case is that both the Eisenhower and the Kennedy administrations had repeatedly tried to woo Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser over to the West, only to find their unrequited advances spurned. The two presidents were thus forced to watch Moscow arming Egypt (as well as Syria and Iraq) to the teeth, endangering Israeli security and upsetting the regional balance of power. As an unintended consequence of this development, Washington gradually consolidated its relations with Jerusalem.[27]

This about-face was largely confined to the political sphere and occurred despite the construction of the Dimona nuclear facility, which U.S. officials feared would trigger regional nonconventional proliferation, and differences over the resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem among other issues. In 1955-64, Moscow supplied Egypt with more than US$1.2 billion worth of arms and military equipment, compared to the mere $40 million in U.S. military aid to Israel in the twice-longer period of 1948-64.[28]At the time of the 1967 war, Israel was effectively armed with French weapons. In no way did Washington accelerate the regional arms race at the time.

When the specter of confrontation between Israel and its neighbors loomed large from mid-May 1967 onward, Washington attempted to resolve the crisis peacefully. President Johnson twice wrote Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol to warn him against making a preemptive strike in the face of the tightening Arab noose; the president also informed Nasser of the U.S. readiness to work with Egypt to defuse the crisis and sought to get Moscow to moderate its Arab clients. In a meeting with Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban on May 26, Johnson famously warned that Jerusalem must not “be the one to bear the responsibility for any outbreak of war” and that “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone.”[29] On the other hand, the administration’s promises to make its “best efforts and best influence” to keep the Straits of Tiran open to Israeli navigation were just that—promises. Unable to recruit an international flotilla to sail through the Red Sea waterway and faced with a Congress that had not forgiven him for exploiting the Gulf of Tonkin incident to wage war in Vietnam, Johnson could not make a military commitment to Jerusalem and instead continued to pursue diplomatic measures right up to the outbreak of hostilities. This indecisive conduct reinforced Israel’s conviction that it could only rely on its own strength in the face of the second all-Arab attempt in a generation to destroy the Jewish state, leading to the June 5 preemptive strike on the Egyptian air force.[30]

But, there is also another side to the ledger. Had it not been for Washington, the catastrophe visited upon Egypt, Syria, and Jordan over the next six days would have been even worse. When war broke out, Washington made the first use of the famous hotline established with Moscow after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis in an attempt to prevent the conflict from spreading, as well as used the U.N. as an instrument to bring about a ceasefire, albeit to no immediate success. When Moscow threatened military action in support of the collapsing Arab armies, Johnson moved the Sixth Fleet to the eastern Mediterranean, knowing that Soviet intelligence would report the news back to the Kremlin, while pressuring Jerusalem hard to accept a ceasefire before things got out of hand. The president consequently secured Israel’s agreement to end the fighting even with its troops on a clear path to Damascus.[31]

In the conflict’s aftermath, Washington played a critical role in bringing about Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967, which established the principle of “land for peace” as the cornerstone of future Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. As such, it had a major presence at the creation of what would become the peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors, which has thus far resulted in the Egyptian-Israeli (1979) and Jordanian-Israeli (1994) peace treaties, and the Palestinian-Israeli Declaration of Principles (September 1993), which has yet to culminate in a fully-fledged peace agreement.


Washington has hardly played the overbearing and disruptive role in Middle Eastern affairs alleged by its critics. While its policies may have at times been injudicious and not purely altruistic, it has generally followed a course that sought not only to advance its own interests but also to further those of the local actors. Even its part in Mossadeq’s overthrow was far less self-serving and heavy-handed than is commonly asserted. This is true as well of the U.S. role in the 1948-49 and 1967 Arab-Israeli conflicts where it tried, albeit with little success, to bring about a solution amenable to all parties.

One can hope, therefore, that more scholars, commentators, and policymakers will become aware of this reality, instead of engaging in Obama-like self-flagellation over nonexistent “original sins.” It would be more useful to tell things as they are, with a view to reasserting Washington’s constructive regional role. As two of the most sagacious former U.S. secretaries of state have recently stated: “If the world is to be spared even worse turmoil, the U.S. must develop a strategic doctrine for the region. Stability requires an active American role.”[32]

George L. Simpson, Jr. is a professor of history at High Point University and the editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Middle East and Africa.

No comments: