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A century of Mideast mistakes

In his new book, “Quicksand: America’s Pursuit of Power in the Middle East,” military historian Geoffrey Wawro takes a sweeping look at U.S. engagement in the region over the past century. He discovers that today’s problems reflect a tendency to repeat old errors and to adopt doctrines that fail to adjust to realities on the ground. Here Wawro, director of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas, elaborates in an email Q&A.

What's the biggest American misstep in the Middle East in the past century?

Milking the Middle East for domestic-political benefit. During the Truman administration there was a lively struggle between Secretary of State George Marshall and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal on one side and what Truman called the White House “back room boys” (Eddie Jacobson, Max Lowenthal et al) on the other. Marshall and Forrestal condemned the too rapid and eager embrace of Israel, accusing the president of making U.S. power unpopular in the broader Middle East in order to pick up votes among American Jews.

Truman’s reply anticipated all subsequent policy: “I’m sorry gentlemen…but I don’t have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”

What errors does America keep repeating?

This confluence of domestic-political expediency and faux statecraft. Presidents, members of Congress, the military, oil companies and defense contractors have created a Washington consensus that has become all but immovable. The relationship with Saudi Arabia – like the one with Israel – underpins the consensus.

From the 1940s, we viewed Saudi Arabia as a promising gas pump, and as the “elephant fields” emerged from the ground, we chose to ignore and even encourage the kingdom’s unique blend of sloth, corruption, piety and viciousness. Someone in Washington authorized a secret flight of Saudi slaves (on a U.S. plane) to serve the princes attending the UN Conference in San Francisco in 1945.

Other administrations provided Saudi princes with “bejeweled Cadillacs” and “walking around money.” Superficially, this gave us access to Saudi oil, loans and markets, and it erected a Wahhabi front (like the one wielded by Reagan in Afghanistan) against the Soviets.

But the long-term consequences were revealed most shatteringly on 9/11, when the bulk of the hijackers were Saudi nationals. Their evil maestro, of course, had cut his teeth running a “services bureau” in Peshawar in the 1980s, which distributed U.S. and Saudi dollars to the very cutthroats who would attack us in 2001.

Which is worse: idealism or practicality?

Idealism. George W. Bush’s Iraq War was black comedy, built around a “forward strategy of freedom” that even Candide would have blushed at. The elections that did follow on the heels of Bush’s drive into Afghanistan and Iraq returned parties like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood Worse, the idealism was cankered by Bush’s zealous embrace of the Likud and its arrogant methods.

Really, few U.S. presidents have taken an idealistic line; they have been practical men, but “practical” has meant stringing U.S. strategy between the two wobbly tent poles of Israel and Saudi Arabia. “Quicksand” relates the fascinating duel in the George H.W. Bush administration between an idealist (Paul Wolfowitz) and a pragmatist (Brent Scowcroft). Scowcroft emerges as “the smartest guy in the room,” but Wolfowitz emerges with a dangerous contempt for realists.

If doctrines don't work, what does?

Flexibility, patience, international teamwork and respect for other cultures. It is not “soft bigotry” – as the neo-cons alleged – to accept that other countries govern themselves differently. There is a confusing dichotomy in our relations with the region. We extend flexibility and patience to certain regimes, and crack down brutally on others.

During the Cold War, a too-close alignment with Moscow earned our wrath. Nowadays, suspicion of terrorist support or nuclear ambitions will do the same. But none of the old Soviet satellites in the region ever posed a real risk to the United States. They could have been laughed at.

In 2003, we launched a disastrous war to remove an Iraqi dictator, who could also have been safely (and cheaply) ignored. Having toppled the only regime that checked Iranian power, we now (predictably) find ourselves eyeball-to-eyeball with Iran. The fading “confrontation state” would like nothing more than a rejuvenating confrontation with Great Satan. Our best bet there is to do just what Obama is doing: assemble a global coalition that will impose sanctions on the Iranian nuclear program. Beyond that, the Iranian people, who greeted this regime joyously three decades ago, must find their own way to get rid of it.

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By Steven E. Levingston  |  April 16, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
 | Tags: Iraq War, Paul Wolfowitz, Saudi Arabia, u.s. errors in the middle east, u.s. middle east policy  
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NO mention of Operation Ajax... propping up the Shah... SAVIK. It doesn't take a genius to figure out how Iran thinks we are The Great Satan.

Posted by: biffgrifftheoneandonly | April 16, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

So it is possible for an American intellectual to see beyond the narrow, fevered Zionist worldview? There's hope yet for the world's only superpower.

Posted by: politbureau | April 16, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

That would be SAVAK, not SAVIK. Not that it mattered to the inmates who were tortured and murdered at Evin prison. Guess who trained SAVAK operatives? Stormin' Normans dad himself, then a major general. Great Satan indeed.

Posted by: biffgrifftheoneandonly | April 16, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

So that is what passes today for policy analysis. If you're ready to take an extreme anti-Israeli "stand", you can pretty much say anything.

Let's start from the beginning. Assume for a moment that the antisemitic clique of Marshall, Forrestal, McCloy etc. had won and in spite of the expressed desire of the American people President Truman had refused to recognize Israel. Do you really think that the Zionist leaders would then say "oh sorry, just kidding"? No - they would turn to Soviet Union for help and assistance. In fact, beyond recognition America did nothing to help Israel in its war of independence. The arms that prevented Arab genocide of Jews in Palestine had come from Czechs courtesy of Stalin. If America would have spurned the Jewish state, it would have to deal with it as a Soviet ally, and who knows - if Stalin would realize his threat of sending 100,000 Jewish veterans of WW2 to Israel, the borders of the Middle East would look quite differently. Geoffrey Wawro's rabid anti-Zionism blinds him to the fact that Israel isn't some colonial state, but a realization of collective hopes, fears and beliefs of the Jewish people after the Holocaust. It would come to exist regardless of what America thought about it or even without the blessing of the UN.

Now to Wawro's no less "penetrating" take on Saudi Arabia. He must decide - either he opposes neo-con efforts to establish democracy in Muslim world, or he demands that America break its ties to Saudis because they are backward, religious and corrupt. If he indeed is a "realist", then perhaps he should show the Saudi kingdom more respect.

Bottom line - Wawro shows his blinkered ideology when he calls two most stable regimes in the region - Israel and Saudi Arabia - "two wobbly tent poles of American strategy". It was American hold on those two states that enabled the United States to control events in the Middle East without investing too much of its strength. Wawro doesn't get it - he's simply out of his depth.

Posted by: arik67 | April 16, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

arik67 shows his blinkered Zio-fascist ideology with his smearing of patriotic Americans like Gen. Marshall as anti-semites. His real complaint is that some Americans give their first loyalty to the USA and not Israel.

Israeli historians have conclusively shown that Israel used mass terror to ethnically cleanse Palestine of Palestinians. See the works of, e.g., Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe.

Bottom line: arik67 and his ilk are only satisfied when America bows2Israel.

If you're an American, arik67, tell us who comes first: America or Israel?

If you're not an American, take a hike.

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Posted by: itkonlyyou9 | April 16, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

The decision to create a Jewish State of Palestine predates Truman by 40 years. The fact that the Brit's took it upon themselves to create an Arab state rather then their mandate to create a Jewish state wan illegal, unethical and immoral. Antisemitism was rampant in 1940's America and Britain as was segregation and racism. Marshall didn't want to confront Britain in Palestine even though in the 1920's Congress had passed an act approving the mandate for the creation of a Jewish State by Britain. Narshall was also informed that Britain would not allow a Jewish victory and sent in it's Arab Legion under the command of Glubb Pasha, Sir John Bagot Glubb to illegally occupy Judea, Samaria and East Jerusalem. Bigoted historian's are a dime a dozen today.

Posted by: djfeiger | April 16, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

No the problem is that we've aligned ourselves with Wahabist muslim fanatics, namely the Saudis. Rather than instituting wholesale reform of a nihlistic, regressive 8th century construct, we've allowed ourselves to be held hostage by a bunch of tribal troglodytes who despise everything we cherish; freedom, civility, , equality, justice, etc.

Posted by: freepost | April 16, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

In the years before Holocaust, it was perfectly possible for a member of a WASP establishment to be an American patriot and an antisemite (honest antisemite, that is, one who doesn't hide his feelings). The assessments of the Chiefs of Staff on the Middle East at that period look like "Protocols of Zion's Elders", with respected American military leaders expressing fear that a tiny Jewish state will strive to dominate the Middle East economically and politically. Forrestal made no bones about his dislike of the Jews and, as many of his kind, eventually went nuts. John J. McCloy, the author of the decision not to bomb Auschwitz, went on to orchestrate mass release and rehabilitation of Nazi war criminals in Germany.
Marshall was made into all-American hero and saint for being an architect of American victory in WW2 and a restorer of Western Europe. He deserves all that. Nevertheless, he was a product of his time - he called blacks "darkies", he opposed desegregation in the military, he thought "Negroes" can't be good soldiers (his current admirer Colin Powell would be sadly surprised), he protected and promoted Nazi sympathizers as late as 1940, he was a bosom buddy of general and Jew-baiter George Van Horn Moseley... so yes, get used to it, George Marshall was, indeed, an antisemite.

Posted by: arik67 | April 16, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

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