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.
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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