Shmuel Rosner, Chief U.S. Correspondent
A senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem research and educational institute, Michael Oren has a new book coming out: Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present. American policy in the Middle East will be the focus of our discussion this week.
Oren is the well known author of the best-selling Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Oxford, 2002), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Award. His writing has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Republic, Commentary, and the Wall Street Journal (more bio here).
As usual, readers can send questions to email@example.com
Dear Prof. Oren,
Can you please tell us who's to blame - historically - for the
deterioration in American-Iranian relations, and how, in your
opinion, it can be reversed?
There is much talk today about America's culpability in ousting Iran's nationalist president Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, but many people forget that America also played an instrumental role in assuring Iran's independence in 1947.
At the height of the cold war, Soviet tanks were rumbling toward Tehran when President Harry Truman summoned the newly created UN Security Council and pressed for a full Soviet withdrawal. The maneuver worked and Iran gained its independence. However, with the restoration of the Shah's autocratic rule in 1953, and with America's unqualified support for his regime, Iranian goodwill toward the U.S. gradually diminished.
American military and diplomatic assistance to the Pahlavi monarchy reached a height in the 1970s under the aegis of U.S.Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who viewed Iran as a bulwark against Soviet expansion in the region. Jimmy Carter continued this tradition;indeed he spent New Year's Eve in 1977 in Tehran toasting to the Shah's continued reign. Carter's failure two years later to respond robustly tothe takeover at the American embassy in Tehran provided the inchoate regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini with immense success and prestige.
America's backing of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War further alienated Tehran from Washington. President Reagan's clandestine attempts to placate the Iranians by selling them Israeli-supplied arms
affected no major change in Iranian attitudes toward the United States and triggered a major domestic crisis for the Reagan administration.
By the late 1980s, American destroyers were firing at Iranian naval craft and oil facilities in the Persian Gulf, and actually downed an Iranian airliner. The defeat of Saddam Hussein by George Bush Sr. in the first Gulf War in 1991 might have opened the door to rapprochement between the United States and Iran but instead the mullahs persist in their unremitting hostility toward America--an animosity that continues undiminished until today.
It is difficult to perceive any opportunity for improved Iranian-U.S.relations today when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is denying the first Holocaust and assiduously trying to acquire nuclear weaponscapable of affecting a second one, while Iran is striving to underminepro-Western governments throughout the Middle East, arming anti-American insurgents in Iraq, and sponsoring global terror.
Though the recently published Iraq Study Group Report has called on the Bush Administration to initiate a dialogue with Ahmadinejad, it is difficult to imagine how such a dialogue could be conducted. The minimal opening price of the Iranian demand is a free hand to nuclearize and to overthrow the democratically elected government of Lebanon. It seems that substantive restoration of U.S.-Iranian relations can only come about after a change of regime in Tehran.
Dear Prof. Oren,
I am a big fan of your work. Last semester I took a class on American Foreign Policy and in that course we read a book by A.F.K Organski called The $36 Billion Bargain: Strategy and Politics in US Assistance to Israel. The basic premise is that all-throughout the Cold War Israel was the perfect client state for US in its global war against the Soviet Union and the spread of communism. US saw that Israel fought wars, defeated its many enemies fairly easily (although with many losses), and most of all, it stood together with US in preventing the Soviet Union from attaining a stronger sphere of influence in the Middle East.
So US invested in Israel by giving it $36 billion, which was not nearly the same amount that the US spent in its bloody anti-communism campaigns in the Korean War and Vietnam (not to mention the deaths of American soldiers). But after the fall of the Soviet Union, for the past 17 years, was Israel still such a big ally for the US? If yes, then how and for what purpose did the US continue to give billions more when Israel evacuated the settlements only recently, in 2005. But more specifically, today, in the so-called "war on terror" and with the hopeful cause to bring democracy to Iraq and the Palestinian Territories (and the Middle East) isn't Israel a liability in the grander scheme of the American Foreign Policy?
There is an historic coincidence that at precisely the juncture when the Soviet bloc fell, a new and more potentially devastating force arose in the Middle East in the form of Islamic extremism. And just as Israel had been at the forefront of the fight against Soviet expansion in the Middle East, Israel is on the front line in the struggle to defend the West as well as moderate Arab elements from takeover by Islamists.
For the United States, Israel remains the ultimate strategic bargain. For the cost of a "mere" $3.2 billion a year, less than the cost of one major warship, the United States receives facilities in which thousands of American soldiers train in anti-terror tactics every year, storage areas in which vital munitions and medical equipment are stockpiled, cooperation on developing military technology vital for America's defense. One can also say that Israel "runs interference" for the United States in the war on terror. If Israel did not exist, the terrorists would be aiming their guns first and foremost at the American people.
This is not to say that support for Israel doesn't cost the United States substantively in terms of its relationships with the Arab and Muslim world--but those costs must be weighed against the immense strategic benefits that America derives from its alliance with Israel, to say nothing of the strong spiritual and ideological ties that bind the two nations. Finally, one must ask whether Arab and Muslim rage against the United States would be in any way diminished if Israel never existed, or if America abandoned its allies to placate Islamist terror.
How influential were American Jews in the process of shaping American policy in the region?
American Jews have been active in the Middle East since the early nineteenth century, when the State Department began appointing leading members of the community to diplomatic posts in the region. The practice was based on the quaint notion that Jews - even those born in Germany - formed a natural link between Christian America and the Muslim Middle East. Among the outstanding American Jews who served as representatives in the Middle East were the journalist and proto-Zionist Mordecai Noah and the jurists Simon Wolf, Oscar Straus, and Solomon Hirsch. So entrenched was the tradition that in 1912, when Woodrow Wilson named Henry Morgenthau as America's ambassador in Istanbul, Morgenthau complained that the post had become a Jewish sinecure. "Would prominent Methodists or Baptists be told there is a 'position' reserved for them, go find one of your faith to fill it?" he protested.
The tradition ended in the 1920s as the appointments once reserved for Jews were claimed by the descendants of missionaries, many of whom were raised in the Middle East and knew its languages and customs. Jews were largely barred from America's Middle East embassies until the 1970s when another German-born Jew, Henry Kissinger, took over the helm of U.S. diplomacy in the region. Henceforth, the career path was opened to Dennis Ross, Dan Kurtzer, and Martin Indyk.
Today, there are rising allegations of disproportionate Jewish influence on the making of America's Middle East policies, most of it leveled by Israel detractors such as Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, and Jimmy Carter. Their preferred target is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee - AIPAC - which works to maintain a robust alliance between the United States and the Jewish state. Though it was founded in 1953, AIPAC only became a political force in 1975, during President Ford's "reassessment" of America's support for Israel. AIPAC compelled the White House to abandon that policy and later succeeded in promoting legislation increasing aid to Israel and imposing sanctions on terror-sponsoring regimes. But AIPAC also lost several showdowns with various administrations, beginning with Ronald Reagan's insistence on selling sophisticated AIWACS intelligence planes to Saudi Arabia. Jewish organizations have been unable to persuade even the most pro-Israel presidents to permit the transfer of jointly developed U.S.-Israel military technology to China or to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Though critics of America's alliance with Israel have accused pro-Zionist neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Pearl of serving Israeli interests by pressing for U.S. military intervention in Iraq, the fact remains that America's chief policy-makers are not Jewish and neither are their primary constituents. American Jewish influence on Bush's decisions in the Middle East is dwarfed by that exerted by Evangelical Christians in the United States, to say nothing of that wielded by the oil lobby.
Is writing about the early endeavors of America in the Middle East, to which a large part of your new book is dedicated, relevant to current policy makers?
Or we can phrase the question this way: What can George W. Bush learn from the problems James Madison was dealing with in 19th century Algeria?
At the outset, let me say that, though I have lived in Israel for most of my adult life, I remain an American citizen and spend several months each year teaching and lecturing in the United States. So I have no problem including myself in the category of "we Americans," and stating that, like a great many Americans, I believed that the country's involvement in the Middle East began with the discovery of Arab oil, with the Cold War, or with the advent of the Arab-Israeli conflict. That is, until I was in graduate school and for the first time heard about a group of Civil War veterans who, in the late 1860s, went to Egypt to help modernize the army and ended up building a school system for teaching literacy and American ideals to Egyptian youth. Suddenly I realized that America's experience in the Middle East was much longer and richer than I'd assumed. I also saw that Americans, who were being asked to make fateful decisions in the Middle East that would deeply impact their future - if not the future of the world - lacked an historical context for determining their policies. That is why I set out to write the first comprehensive history of America in the Middle East and to establish a thematic framework for understanding that engagement - Power, Faith, and Fantasy.
What, then, can George Bush - or any other American leader - learn from America's past encounters with the Middle East? As you indicated, Shmuel, the newly-independent United States faced its first strategic threat from the Middle East at the end of the eighteenth-century in the form of pirate attacks from the so-called Barbary States of Morocco, Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli (today's Libya). Espousing a jihadist theology, these rogue states were attacking American ships and taking dozens of prisoners. The Founding Fathers faced a large-scale hostage crisis in the Middle East and yet, lacking a navy, they had no means of responding to it. They had to decide, firstly, whether to emulate the long-standing European practice of bribing the pirates and, if not, whether to build the warships necessary to combat them. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were among those who believed that paying off the pirates would only induce them to intensify their attacks and that Americans, by nature, bristled at the thought of extortion. The debate raged for many years, while the numbers of American hostages multiplied, until 1794, when Congress finally allocated the funds for creating a navy "adequate for the protection of the commerce of the United States against Algerian corsairs." In three major campaigns - in 1801, 1805, and 1815 - the Navy took on the Barbary threat and achieved freedom for American navigation.
A mortal Middle Eastern threat had compelled the United States to create power and to project it abroad - certainly there is a lesson for contemporary American leaders. In addition, any attempt to conciliate terrorists and their state sponsors will only yield more terror. But Jefferson and Madison also understood that power, alone, would not safeguard American interests in the Middle East. When, in 1805, a force of U.S. Marines marched to "the shores of Tripoli" and prepared to conquer the pirate capital, Jefferson resisted the urge for vengeance and cut a diplomatic deal. Here, too, is precedent worthy of learning. America's ability to alter the Middle East by military force is limited and that prudence and diplomacy are often required.
In this long history of American involvement in the region, what do you think is the one or two most important decisions made by American presidents - the decisions that had the most long-lasting impact on policy?
That's the kind of question that every historian loves, Shmuel - thank you.
The first monumental decision was made by Woodrow Wilson during World War I. The United States entered the war in April 1917, opening hostilities against Germany and Austria-Hungary. The question then arose whether America would also make war against the third major member of the Central Powers, Ottoman Turkey.
The pattern in the war had been for the combatants to fight their enemies as well as their enemy's allies. That's how a minor scrapple between Russia and Serbia snowballed into the Great War. So it seemed natural that the United States would also declare war on Turkey. Solid majorities in both houses of Congress staunchly supported the move. Only by entering the conflict in the Middle East, they insisted, could America participate in the region's post-war settlement. "We ought to declare war on Turkey without an hour's delay," proclaimed the still-popular former president Theodore Roosevelt. "It will be a lasting disgrace to our nation if we persist in this failure."
But Wilson was subject to lobbying from another, no less influential, group: Protestant missionaries and their backers. They had been active in the Middle East for nearly a century, building hospitals and schools. Were the United States to go to war in the area, they argued, the Turks would destroy all of these good works and massacre the missionaries much as they did the Armenians. "'A declaration of war' would be fatal to our interests," wrote Cleveland Dodge, the missionaries' principal philanthropist, in an impassioned letter to the president.
Wilson sided with the missionaries. The grandson, son, and nephew of Presbyterian ministers, a lifelong friend of Cleveland Dodge, the president was intimately associated with the missionaries and openly enamored of their success. He could not bear to see those accomplishments destroyed. And so the United States never went to war against Turkey and the ramifications of that decision were immense.
By the time of the armistice, in November 1918, Great Britain had nearly a million troops deployed between Cairo and Istanbul. French forces also occupied strategic positions in the area. The United States, by contrast, had not a single soldier stationed anywhere in the Middle East. The results of that vacuum soon became apparent at Paris, where the Allies gathered to draw the map of the new Middle East. Though his ideas for the region's future differed substantively from that of Britain and France, lacking military leverage, Wilson was powerless to prevent the British and the French from dividing the Middle East between them. Among their creations were Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestine Mandate - later to morph into Israel.
Many historians would probably list Harry Truman's recognition of Israel in May 1948 as one of America's most fateful decisions in the Middle East. A more seismic event, I think, was Dwight D. Eisenhower's decision to support Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1956 Suez Crisis. Though Nasser had plotted against Arab moderates and had violated international agreements by nationalizing the Suez Canal, Eisenhower sided with the Soviet Union - this while Soviet tanks were crushing freedom-fighters in Hungary - in rescuing Nasser from certain defeat at the hands of Britain, France, and Israel. A vastly strengthened Nasser once again turned his Soviet arms against Arab moderates and ultimately aimed them at Israel. But imagine if Eisenhower had just stepped back and let Nasser fall. There might not have been wars in 1967 or 1973, no occupied territories, no intifadas or Hamas. Minus Nasser, the Middle East might today look radically different.
It is well known that for many years now American policy makers thought that solving the Israeli-Arab conflict is crucial for stabilizing the Middle East. Do you think this conclusion is rational and reasonable - or is it just wishful thinking?
There is no doubt that solving the Arab-Israeli conflict would assist the search for Middle East stability, but that is a long way from saying that peace between Israelis and Arabs - or even Israelis and Palestinians - will pacify the Middle East. I do not subscribe to the linkage theory, as recently espoused by the Iraq Study Group, which holds that the road to peace in Baghdad, Damascus, and Tehran runs through Jerusalem. That assumption has certainly proved faulty in the past. Though former secretary of state James Baker and ex-congressman Lee Hamilton, the co-chairs of the group, might not have known it, the linkage idea was first formulated in the early 1950s, shortly after Israel's creation.
Back then America's enemy in the Middle East was not Islamist terror but Soviet communism. State Department officials were convinced that the Palestine dispute, as it was still called, would alienate the Arabs from the West and drive them into the Soviet camp. Oil supplies would be discontinued and Western economies would crumble. To avert that disaster, the United States joined with Britain in promoting several secret initiatives - code-named Alpha and Gamma - to pressure Israel into relinquishing swaths of Negev territory to Egypt in return for a promise of non-belligerency (not peace). The powers were more than willing to levy sanctions on Israel to compel it to comply once the Egyptians accepted the plan. They never did. Nasser ridiculed the program and eventually evicted the presidential emissary sent to mediate it. Peace was not realized, but neither were the State Department's apocalyptic forecasts. The Arab world did not become an exclusive Soviet sphere and oil continued to flow westward.
Today, more than fifty years later, it is difficult to see how an Arab-Israeli treaty will make the West more palatable to Islamists who abhor the West's secular, egalitarian culture, or how it would help reconcile Sunnis and Shiites, Alawites and the Druze, the Turks and the Kurds. This is not to say that attaining peace between Israel and even part of the Arab world should not be a perennial American objective. But Americans should not be deluded into believing that peace in Israel/Palestine will bring tranquility to Lebanon or Iraq or to the many intractable conflicts of the Middle East.
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