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The Changing United States Policy in the Middle East

ISSUE:  Summer 1964

The significance of the Middle East for the West in the Cold War continues. It is idle and premature to speak today of the diminishing strategic value of this area. The “revolutionary changes in military technology” cannot eliminate the strategic value of the Middle East so long as the possibility of conventional warfare remains constant. Nor would it be realistic to speak of the reduced strategic value of the area on the ground that Western Europe is determined to substitute the atom for petroleum as a source of energy. The NATO countries derive about 70 per cent of their oil from the Middle East, which contains close to 70 per cent of the world proven reserves. No substitution is possible in the foreseeable future, although it is hoped that nuclear energy will supplement fuel oil. This will not, however, reduce the current dependence of Western Europe on Middle East oil. Conversely, all available forecasts indicate that this dependence will increase because of Europe’s evergrowing energy demands, in part as the result of the impact of the European Common Market.

Ever since the announcement of the Truman Doctrine in 1947, when American moral and material support was committed to the maintenance of Greek and Turkish independence, the “stability” of the Middle East has been a fundamental goal of the United States in this area. However, detailed examination of United States policy would reveal that until the mid-1950’s “stability” was largely conceived of as the presence of any situation which proved conducive to the preservation of the status quo. In the early postwar period the status quo was favored because it was believed to result in maintaining the traditional influence, rather than control, of the West in the Middle East. Such influence would not only insure the West’s undisturbed access to the area’s arteries of vital communication and oil resources but also would discourage Russia from attempting to establish its long-cherished hegemony over the Middle East.

The status quo was first preserved through the Greek-Turkish Aid Program, which implemented the Doctrine. This was an unilateral attempt on the part of the United States. It affected only Greece and Turkey, which had been menaced by Communist guerrilla warfare and Soviet pressure respectively. But the momentous events of the years following the declaration of the Truman Doctrine required a different approach to the problem. The Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia, the Berlin Blockade, and the Communist victory in China were finally crowned by the Communist aggression in Korea. The global nature of the Communist threat and the readiness of the Communists to resort to military force for the attainment of their objectives seemed to challenge the position of the West throughout the world, including the Middle East with its vast oil resources, with its strategic location between Europe, Asia, and Africa, and with its extensive and vulnerable frontiers with the Soviet Union.

In light of the seriousness and extent of the Soviet menace it did not appear in 1951 that the status quo in the Middle East could be maintained in the same way that the Greek and Turkish independence had been defended earlier. What seemed to be needed was the establishment of some sort of an alliance with Western sponsorship. Thus, as early as 1951 it was believed that the status quo in the Middle East should be achieved through alignment of the region with the West.

The gravest single mistake in formulating such a policy was the unwarranted assumption that all Middle Eastern countries would welcome co-operation with the West in the same way that Greece and Turkey had accepted American aid. In the first attempt at aligning Egypt, and then other Arab countries, with the West the United States, Britain,

France, and Turkey categorically stated in their 1951 proposal for the establishment of the Allied Middle East Command that “Egypt belongs to the free world.” Egypt rejected this proposal and proceeded to sever its ties with the West by abrogating its 1899 and 1986 treaties with Britain in a fit of nationalist self-assertion. Nevertheless, in August, 1952, a new proposal was made for the establishment of the Middle East Defense Organization. This met the same fate as its predecessor. A year later Secretary Dulles admitted that this organization “belonged to the future,” but introduced his Northern Tier concept. Although this scheme did not insist on Egyptian membership, it subscribed to the assumptions underlying previous plans for alliance.

Mr. Dulles gave the goal of preserving the status quo an unprecedented priority. This was not only evident in the vigor and persistence with which he pursued the idea which gave rise to the Baghdad Pact (presently known as CENTO or Central Treaty Organization) but also in the way that he viewed alliances in general. His preoccupation with alliances soon led to an intolerant attitude toward neutralism. In a commencement address at Iowa State College in 1956 he labeled neutralism as an “obsolete conception” which was also “immoral” and “short-sighted.” Mr. Dulles’ dogmatism on this matter was shared by others including, for example, General Van Fleet who declared in 1957: “I hate neutrals as much as I hate the Commies.”

Although the earlier attempts at drawing Egypt into an alliance with the West were abandoned in favor of the Northern Tier concept, it was still believed that the membership of other Arab countries was desirable. Iraq’s membership was welcomed because it was thought that something of the British influence which was then being threatened by the expiration of the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1980 could be saved. But no attention was paid to the then prevailing inter-Arab rivalries, particularly those between Baghdad and Cairo. This rivalry was already undermining the Arab League, but with the membership of Iraq in the Pact the League suffered a deadly blow. The consequent aggravation of dissension between Egypt and Iraq, coupled with the baffling Arab-Israeli conflict, assisted the USSR in pursuing its aims in the Middle East.

Yet in spite of all the value that the United States has attached to CENTO it has refused to join the organization. This non-membership is more fiction than reality. The United States belongs to CENTO’s Economic, Anti-Subversion, and Military Committees, and has for all practical purposes been its most ardent supporter. The fiction has been perpetuated on various grounds. It has been argued that the United States avoided membership partly because it did not wish to antagonize Egypt, and yet the entire attitude of the United States toward Egypt’s neutralism was one of contempt. What non-membership has actually accomplished is the ever-present suspicion of some of the members of the organization concerning the sincerity of the United States. The argument that the American people do not wish to undertake any new commitments is meaningless, since the United States signed three separate defense pacts with Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey after the formation of CENTO.

A most erroneous assumption made in regard to the Northern Tier concept was that it would block the Soviet Union from penetrating into the Arab Middle East. This assumption was probably made on the basis of the Korean experience, where the Communists had resorted to military force for gaining their objectives. It was believed that if Iran and Turkey were militarily strengthened they would constitute an effective defensive shield against Soviet encroachments. But to our dismay the Soviet Union leapfrogged into the Southern Tier without firing a single bullet. How such a possibility could have gone unnoticed is not clear. As early as 1950 the Soviet Union had begun to penetrate economically into Afghanistan principally by exploiting the Afghan-Pakistani rivalry over the problem of Pushtoonistan. But apparently we did not anticipate a similar attempt on the part of the Soviet Union in the Arab Middle East where the Cairo-Baghdad Cold War and the Arab-Israeli conflict provided a far more attractive opportunity for the Kremlin,

The Soviet penetration into the Arab Middle East took the form of military and economic aid and cultural activities. In September, 1955, while the three Western Foreign Ministers were engaged in preparatory exercises for their meeting which was to follow the Summit Geneva Conference, the USSR opened a new front in the Cold War. Taking advantage of two of the worst border clashes—the Gaza incident of February, 1955, between Egypt and Israel, and the Lake Tiberias incident of December, 1955, between Syria and Israel—the Soviet Union sold arms in the Arab Middle East for the first time. The arms transactions were followed by increased trade and economic aid to these and other Arab countries. Egypt and Syria received approximately $485 million and $1,294 million in economic and military aid from the Communist countries. Arms, however, comprised the bulk of the aid, and were promptly delivered. Arms deliveries were followed by the arrival of many hundreds of Communist officers, technicians, and military experts in Egypt, Syria, and Yemen.

It was feared in Washington that these three Arab countries might fall under the control of the local Communist elements and might threaten the rest of the Middle East countries. To prevent such an eventuality the Eisenhower Doctrine was formulated. Furthermore, it was aimed at deterring the USSR from committing outright aggression in the Middle East. In a very real sense, however, this basically unilateral action in 1957 was to accomplish in the Arab Middle East what the United States had wished to do as early as 1951 through a regional alliance. In 1957, as in 1951, preservation of the status quo was still the fundamental goal of the United States. The Eisenhower Doctrine was to assist the attainment of this goal in the Arab countries in the same way that the Baghdad Pact had “stabilized” the situation in the non-Arab countries of Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey.

It was soon discovered, however, that the Doctrine was largely irrelevant to the turbulent and revolutionary conditions of the Arab Middle East. The April-May, 1957, crisis in Jordan was resolved in favor of King Hussein as a result of the loyal support of the Arab Legion. The Syrian crisis of August, 1957, which nearly brought the Communist elements into control of the government was averted by the Baathists, who chose to unite their country with Egypt rather than see the Communists in control of Syria. The murderous coup of July, 1958, in Iraq not only led to the defection of that country from the Baghdad Pact but also installed in power a revolutionary regime which defied the Eisenhower Doctrine and the West, opened the country to the unprecedented influence of Communist agitators, and finally culminated in another bloody revolution in February, 1968. It might be argued that the Doctrine found application in Lebanon, but such a contention is not wholly acceptable. In the first place, the endorsement of the Doctrine by President Chamoun aggravated the crisis in Lebanon. The opposition claimed triumphantly that the acceptance of the Doctrine had compromised Lebanon’s traditional policy of neutrality. Secondly, when the crisis reached the danger point, President Eisenhower could not see how his Doctrine could be invoked, since it allowed the use of United States forces only where “armed aggression” had occurred from “any country controlled by international Communism.” It had already been alleged that the United Arab Republic was the chief culprit, and to have invoked the Doctrine would have clearly implied that Egypt and Syria were controlled by international Communism I


By the late 1950’s it was becoming clear that all United States efforts at preserving the status quo in the Arab Middle East had failed. The proposals for establishing the Allied Middle East Command and subsequently the Middle East Defense Organization had been rejected. Iraq, the only Arab country that had been drawn into the Baghdad Pact, had defected. And the Eisenhower Doctrine found no durable customer in the Arab Middle East. These setbacks seemed to call for re-evaluation of the basic assumptions underlying the United States policy in the Middle East. The earliest manifestation of such a reappraisal was President Eisenhower’s proposal of August, 1958. He proposed in the General assembly of the United Nations that consultations be immediately undertaken by the Secretary-General with the Arab nations of the Middle East for the establishment of an Arab development institution governed by the Arab states themselves, and supported with their own resources. The United States would also be prepared to support this institution, whose function would be to provide loans to the Arab states as well as the technical assistance required in the formulation of development projects. This proposal signaled the significant change that ever since has been discernible in the United States policy in the Arab Middle East.

It was realized that preservation of the status quo was not sufficient for the protection and promotion of the interests of the United States or the West in this strategic region of the world. It was also discovered that the past preoccupation with military arrangements in the Middle East had tended to impede the launching of new economic and technical assistance programs and to eclipse the ones already in existence. Alignment had become the main valid test of distinguishing between our friends and foes and the non-aligned nations had been looked upon with little favor in the distribution of our aid. Neutralism had been by definition politically, militarily, and even morally objectionable.

Our recognition of the insufficiency of the policy of status quo has been accompanied by an unprecedented emphasis on the concept of stability. It is now believed more than before that genuine political stability is necessary for the preservation of our interests in the Middle East. Our Middle Eastern allies continue to receive our military aid, but we are now constantly reminding them that their security as well as ours will in the long run depend upon the creation of socio-economic conditions conducive to political stability. On the other hand, the non-aligned nations of the area have been shown since the end of the 1950’s that their neutralist posture in world affairs no longer necessarily places them in an unfavorable light in Washington.

The clearest formulation of this emerging attitude, however, took place during the Administration of the late President Kennedy. The President stated: “If neutrality is the result of a concentration on internal problems, raising the standard of living of the people and so on, particularly in the underdeveloped countries, I would accept that. It [neutralism] is part of our own history for over a hundred years. We should look with friendship upon those people who want to beat the problems that almost overwhelm them, and wish to concentrate their energies on doing that, and do not want to become associated as the tail of our kite.” This attitude has permeated the United States policy toward Egypt. American-Egyptian relations, which had been deteriorating ever since Cairo’s arms deal with Czechoslovakia, have now been improved. Egypt is pursuing its policy of “positive neutrality” with the United States’ understanding. To no small extent this understanding has been encouraged also by the change in the attitude of President Nasser toward Moscow and the treatment of the Communists in Egypt.

Although to date Egypt has received approximately $700 million in economic aid (commitment) from the Communist bloc, and Russia is paying substantially for the construction of the Aswan High Dam, President Nasser’s attitude toward the local Communists has dispelled much of the anxiety that characterized the policy of Mr. Dulles in the mid-1950’s. More important, it has become clear that the hostile attitude that President Nassar has displayed toward the Communists in Egypt is held as an example by Nasserites and Baathists in other Arab countries. The supreme example of this is provided by the events surrounding the Mosul revolt of March, 1959, in Iraq. The revolt itself was the high point of the Communist-pan-Arab nationalist struggle for power. The pro-Nasser faction had been alarmed by the growing dependence of Premier Kassem on the Iraqi Communists.

The acrimonious Nasserite-Communist contest produced high tension between Cairo and Moscow for the first time since the close rapprochement between the two capitals began in 1955. Only three days after the Mosul uprising Premier Khrushchev stated that President Nasser’s anti-Communist policy was “doomed to failure,” and warned him against trying to force a union of Iraq and the United Arab Republic. Three days later, he went even further by stating in a press interview in Moscow that the President of the United Arab Republic was “a rather hot-headed young man.” President Nasser, in turn, denounced the Premier’s statement, and said that the Communists in the United Arab Republic must be crushed as agents of a foreign power.

The United States has in principle favored the Arab desire for, and attempts at, unity, although it has been made clear that such endorsement is to be understood in the light of the American commitment under the Tripartite Declaration of 1950. This means that Arab unity as an historic and legitimate aspiration of the Arab countries will be supported, but if these countries unite in order to “destroy” Israel the United States will definitely oppose them. On this basis the United States formally recognized the formation of the United Arab Republic in February, 1958. There is also every reason to believe that recognition will be extended to the new United Arab Republic after Egypt, Iraq, and Syria work out the details of their federated state which was proclaimed in April, 1968, but has been plagued by chronic dissension and rival loyalties ever since.

Coinciding with the United States’ emphasis on political stability through socio-economic development, Turkey and Iran, the West’s Middle Eastern allies, have undergone unprecedented changes. Turkey was suddenly plunged into unprecedented political instability following the coup d’etat of 1960. After thirty-seven years of enviable record of socioeconomic development within a progressively democratic framework Turkey looked more like its unstable Middle Eastern neighbors than its West European friends and allies. Military elites have taken over in one country after another in the Middle East, but until the coup Turkey had managed to live under a civilian government. Despite the signs of restlessness and dissatisfaction political contests had gone on in an orderly manner and without violence.

The new regime has committed itself to “rapid economic progress within a regime of freedom.” The achievement of this goal is the supreme test of viability of the Turkish society. The new Constitution may be an improvement over the old one but legal refinements are no substitute for creating a stable government. The present coalition government is threatened with collapse and there is no reason to think that the same may not be the fate of a future one. Is it not possible that this kind of political “freedom” may impinge increasingly on rapid economic progress? Is it not possible that such an impediment to meeting the rising economic demands in Turkey may be seen as justification for full-fledged authoritarianism? We must be concerned with these and similar questions because Turkey is the staunchest ally of the West and still the bright hope of democracy in the Middle East.

While Iran was continuously in serious economic crisis, the Shah, on his visit to the United States in 1962, gave the impression that he was in the main interested in securing more military aid. But the communiqué issued by the Shah and the late President Kennedy at the end of the visit shows that Washington’s change of emphasis from military build-up to socio-economic development in countries such as Iran was not without effect on the Shah. It stated in part that the two heads of state “agreed on the necessity for the acceleration of economic development in Iran and the need for continual external assistance to Iran to enable that country to pursue the goals of its economic development.” About a month before the issuance of the communiqué the Iranian Government had estimated its need at $800 million. This amount represented deficit in carrying out Iran’s Five Year Plan, and was expected to be forthcoming from Europe as well as the United States.

However, it was generally understood in both the United States and in Iran that the major reform measure which was long overdue pertained to Iran’s ancient landowning system. As early as 1951 the Shah began distributing the Crown lands in the hope that Iran’s big landowners would follow his example, but his hope was not realized. In January, 1968, therefore, the Government proceeded to implement land-reform measures on an unprecedented scale. This movement which is labeled the “White Revolution” in Iran was hailed by the country’s only living Constitutional leader, Sayyed Hassan Taghizadeh, as “the most significant reform program in the entire history of Iran.”

During the Government of former Premier Ali Amini the Shah issued a Six-Point Royal Decree (Farman Sheshganeh) which directed him to enforce laws limiting landholdings, to form agricultural co-operative societies, to set up youth work battalions and to utilize the Army to build feeder roads, irrigation canals, and instruct farmers. Dr. Hassan Arsanjani, the former Minister of Agriculture, was most active in pushing the land-reform measures. His “bill,” which is the basis of the current land-reform program, stipulated that landowners can possess only one village, that they must sell to the Government, which will repay them in ten equal installments (now changed to fifteen), and that the Government will resell these to the peasants, who must pay the Government in fifteen installments. The same bill also provides for the establishment of co-operatives for the purpose of development and distribution of seeds and husbandry, extension of credits and services, maintenance and improvement of water-ways, the utilization of agricultural mechanization, et cetera.

In addition to land-reform measures, Iran has experienced another unprecedented development in recent months. For the first time in its history women have been given the right to vote and to be elected to the Parliament. After two and a half years of suspension the Parliament opened in October, 1968. With an eye to the land-reform program and the franchise of women, the Shah in his inaugural address to the Parliament stated that “from now on public policy decisions will truly reflect the interests of the majority of the Iranian people because they have for the first time elected their own representatives.” These optimistic forecasts are understandable, and the United States cannot but hope that these reform measures will usher in an era of ever-growing participation of the Iranian people in their government.

The United States’ increasing emphasis on economic development is not only evident in its bilateral approach to the countries of the Middle East but also in its policy toward CENTO. Although the CENTO pact includes the development of the economic structure of the member countries as one of its major objectives, in the early years of its existence the organization paid little attention to problems of economic development. But in more recent years these problems have received unprecedented attention. Between 1957-1961 the United States alone contributed $25 million to CENTO for various economic projects. As a full-fledged member Great Britain also has assisted the organization in a great number of economic schemes. The assistance of the two Western countries is giving rise to the ever-increasing impression that CENTO is perhaps heading toward becoming an “alliance for progress.”

Perhaps the most significant contribution of CENTO will be the opportunity that it provides for co-operation not only between the neighboring countries of the area but also between them and the Anglo-American world. To obstruct such co-operation the Soviet Union has publicly stated that its short-run objective is the destruction of CENTO, and the Soviet propaganda machinery has persistently assailed the organization as the “capitalist” instrument for “enslaving” the Middle Eastern countries. The organization has also been characterized as a threat to peace and security in the Middle East, and as an “offensive conspiracy” of Iran and Turkey against their neighbor—the Soviet Union.

Perhaps a powerful rebuttal to these charges could be provided by molding the organization into a truly progressive instrument of socio-economic change in and co-operation among the regional members. At no other time have the circumstances favored such a policy to such an extent as at the present time when the emphasis of the United States has so perceptibly changed in favor of social, economic, and political development in the Middle East. Obviously, the pursuance of such a course cannot impair the defensive function of the organization. The sense of security that the regional members derive from the military strength of CENTO is essential for the fulfillment of their developmental goals. But to borrow the words of former President Eisenhower during his visit to Iran in 1959 “military strength alone could not insure security, and freedom could still be lost if the basic aspirations of humanity were not served.”

The change in the United States policy just discussed is encouraging. Recognition of the insufficiency of attempts at maintaining the status quo by military means is a major step forward. Our current policy of combining these attempts with an unprecedented emphasis on socio-economic development toward the goal of political stability is basically sound. But the public must avoid an easy equation of socio-economic development and political stability in the Middle East. Our past disillusionment was in no small degree the product of the unwarranted assumption that military assistance and alignment would insure political stability. We shall expose ourselves to fresh disillusionment if we now assume that socio-economic development will automatically lead to a kind of political stability conducive to the maintenance of our interests in the Middle East.

We hope that socio-economic development with our assistance will in the distant future provide conditions favorable to more stable political systems in the Middle East. The processes of industrialization, urbanization, rapid communications, and universal and better education may assist the closing of the gap between the poor masses and the rich few by giving rise to a middle class. We hope that this will help the creation of more stable regimes by encouraging and providing the opportunity for an ever-growing participation of the people in their government. But in the near future all our attempts at assisting these countries in their modernization efforts will tend more frequently to aggravate instability than to insure stability. Our military, economic, and technical assistance programs accelerate the tempo of change, give rise to new groups, create new desires and aspirations, and increase demands on the existing regimes which they are not always capable of meeting. More important, however, this situation is compounded with deep-seated problems of the Middle East itself.

Examination of these problems is beyond the scope of this study, as they relate, in the last analysis, to the multifaceted and complex processes of cultural change. Suffice it to say that because of our inescapable involvement in these processes, there is little doubt that the nature of our leadership can influence the outcome of change from the traditional Islamic order to a modern way of life in the strategic Middle East.


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