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About The Author

Stephen P. CohenStephen P. Cohen

STEPHEN P. COHEN, the president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, has lectured at Yale and elsewhere. For over forty years, he has made 150 trips to the region, and attended the Madrid peace conference and other high-stakes meetings. He lives in New... More

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EXCERPT

PROLOGUE: THE UNITED STATES IN THE MIDDLE EAST
 
 
THE UNITED STATES TAKES THE STAGE AS A WORLD POWER
 
When President Wilson went to Paris in 1919, the world was to discover an important limit of American presidential power. The separation of powers in the United States meant that congressional views on foreign policy could not be ignored in negoti­ations with the United States. If the party in control in Congress was not the party of the president, congressional leadership could prevent the president from implementing his foreign policy. This remains a very dif.cult lesson for many foreign leaders to learn and understand. After World War I, whether or not Wilson fully understood this con­gressional power, he certainly had not prepared the ground for the Republican leadership to follow his innovative direction at the Paris Peace Conference.

Wilson came to Paris much clearer on the philosophy he would carry to the conference than on the military facts on the ground or on the very explicit imperial demands of Britain and France. American idealism in foreign policy was well represented by Wilson’s decla­ration of the Fourteen Points, including the insistence on “open covenants openly arrived at,” rather than the secretive diplomacy in which France and Britain specialized. Wilson also spoke for the self­-determination of small peoples under colonial control. Most of all, he stood for the idea of the League of Nations, which he saw as the path to open negotiations among the powers of the world and to collective security. Wilson’s most important advocacy for an American interest in foreign policy was the primacy he gave to open navigation of the world’s seas. He was less precise and less knowledgeable about the working ways of the great powers and of the life of the peoples of the now defunct Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Sadly, his advisers were unable to fill in all the details. Moreover, Wilson had not built any substantial support for his approach to American policy among members of the majority Republican Party in Congress. Nor could he predict that his own physical vulnerability to ill health would stop him in his tracks. This combination of factors meant that Wilson went to Paris with exaggerated expectations of his ability to in.uence the other participants and departed with deflated outcomes and a new recognition that the United States did not yet have the necessary power or wealth, or the internal policy unity, to prevail over the en­trenched intentions of the European powers.

While in Europe, Wilson expanded his public popularity, but that adulation could not make up for his limited in.uence with the key leaders he was about to face in negotiations. He was able to persuade them to form the League of Nations, but he could not win on the pri­mary issue: the nature of peace with Germany. As to the future of the Ottoman Empire, he could not overcome the imperial plans of Britain and France. The best he could do on this issue was adopt an idea from Jan Smuts of South Africa: to replace direct imperial control with the institution of a mandate system. But even on the issue of mandates, Wilson could not be fully convincing, because his own American gov­ernment would not accept a mandate over Armenia, even though the Christian Armenians had suffered terrible massacres. This upset the American people, but not enough to assume this new kind of overseas responsibility.
 

KING-CRANE COMMISSION

In the days before he left Paris, President Wilson hoped to convince friends in France and Britain that the future of Palestine and Syria could be decided by close consultation with the peoples involved. For this purpose he proposed a tripartite delegation of the United States, France, and Britain, which would go to the region to hear what the people there actually wanted for their future. The French refused to choose a delegation until the British fully withdrew from Damascus and recognized French rights over that territory. The British were not willing to form a delegation unless it was agreed that all considera­tions would begin from the point of who had military control over the areas to be discussed. Realizing that these British and French condi­tions were never going to be met, Wilson dispatched his delegation to the region on its own. This commission, which came to be known as the King-Crane Commission, is notable for the wide gap it showed between the perceptions within certain elements of American civil so­ciety and the policies of the U.S. government. For example, Henry Churchill King and Charles R. Crane found strong opposition to any French mandate in Syria, but the United States did not have the stand­ing to cancel the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France, which gave France the upper hand on the future of that coun­try. King, president of Oberlin College, was a Protestant theologian, and Crane was a wealthy Chicago businessman with strong Arabist commitments.

The two Americans ful.lled their responsibilities with careful at­tention and persistence. They interviewed the local people in Syria (including Palestine) and were determined to base their recommenda­tions on what these indigenous residents desired. By the time they submitted their findings, President Wilson had departed from Paris, and their report sat on the shelf, too little and too late to have any im­pact on actual policy making.

Their King-Crane Commission Report demonstrates one set of attitudes that American civil society had maintained toward the Ot­toman Empire. However, it does not grapple with the three factors that actually determined the disposition of these territories. First, the United States never endorsed the peace conference at Versailles. Sec­ond, the British and French had overpowering interests in the con­ference’s outcome, which were directly contrary to the desires of the indigenous Arab peoples, as reported by King and Crane. Third, Woodrow Wilson had already endorsed the Balfour Declaration, which pledged Britain to help establish a Jewish homeland in Pales­tine. King and Crane had found near unanimous opposition to the Zionist idea among local Arabs.

King’s strong Protestant attachment to the Holy Land has contin­ued to be a signi.cant element in American public attitudes toward the Middle East, and Crane’s business interests were able to express themselves through the support of an early U.S. search for oil in the Arabian Peninsula. However, the strategic interests of both the United States and its allies in the region would continue to dominate decision making, though that strategic perspective came to include strong support for the eventual Jewish state in the late forties, and since then, and strong emphasis on America’s interests in the oil re­sources of the region. Of.cial negotiations over these territories took place after the Paris Peace Conference had concluded, in San Remo, Italy, in 1922.
 
 
U.S. BUSINESS PRECEDES ITS GOVERNMENT INTO OIL POWER IN THE ARAB/PERSIAN GULF
 
Before World War I, the British had discovered oil in Persia (later to be called Iran) and staked their claim on it by creating the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which later became the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. This oil became the basis for British Petroleum, BP. The United States did not compete with the British for control of Iranian oil, but American businesses insisted that their government demand equal treatment for oil purchase by U.S. companies intending to oper­ate in the region. However, the Iranian government of the 1920s wanted U.S. business to play a wider role. Iran sought advice from the American private sector on its oil price negotiations with Britain and on ideas about oil profit sharing with the British. The Iranian govern­ment went further still by engaging American businessmen in the general planning of the Iranian economy. Thus a positive niche for American-Iranian business relations had been established since the 1920s. But this private-sector niche was sacrificed by the Eisenhower coup against the Iranian leader Mossadegh in 1953, which undermined the trust and replaced it with the deep suspicion that an American on Iranian soil was up to no good.
Within a few years, U.S. geologists uncovered Saudi Arabian oil, the great mother lode of all petroleum resources. American oil bu­siness interests pushed the United States to establish a consulate in Saudi Arabia and to enter negotiations with King Ibn Saud, which led to the creation of Aramco, the Arab-American oil company. A number of leading American oil interests banded together to gain ac­cess to the greatest oil resources in history. This agreement with Ibn Saud assured American oil giants of their leadership among all oil distributors.

In the preparations for World War II, the United States realized that it needed more oil than was being pumped in America. Roosevelt sent his trusted aide Harry Hopkins to reach an agreement for Saudi oil to sustain the Allies in their military effort throughout the war. The United States also established a major forward supply base in Egypt, for military equipment and other items needed for the war. In this way, Egypt and Saudi Arabia became two pillars of American na­tional security, which they have remained ever since. With this in mind, President Franklin Roosevelt, though in.rm and in his last months of life, decided that his meetings in Yalta with Churchill and Stalin required him to begin planning for the postwar world. He stopped on his way home for meetings with key leaders of the Middle East and Africa. His yacht carried him to the Great Bitter Lake, in Egypt’s Sinai Desert, south of the Suez Canal, where he met with King Farouk of Egypt, King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. The critical meeting was with King Ibn Saud, and it was a complex and difficult one. The positive outcome was an understanding of the strategic partnership between the two nations. The United States would provide a security umbrella for Saudi Arabia against any non-American foreign in.uence, especially from the Soviet Union. In return, the Saudis assured the United States and, through it, the soon-to-be-created NATO alliance of a reliable source of energy at reasonable prices to help implement what was to become the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe, and to ensure American postwar leadership through NATO and through tremendous U.S. economic growth. The problematic part of the meeting between Roosevelt and Ibn Saud was their direct discussion of the future of the Middle East. They failed to reach any agreement on the disposition of Jewish war refugees, a responsibility Roosevelt had himself neglected during the military phases of the war but felt he could no longer postpone. Ibn Saud, of course, could not violate Arab expectations by accepting more Jews in Palestine. Roosevelt, by this time, had accepted the Zionist goal of creating a Jewish state in Palestine, and this, too, was anathema to King Ibn Saud. Remarkably, these two great leaders did not allow this powerful issue of Palestine to undermine their fundamental bilateral strategic agreement.

This Roosevelt–Ibn Saud meeting demonstrated that the United States, by its victory in World War II, had become the most important international player in what would turn into the Israeli-Palestinian con.ict and the Israel–Arab states con.ict. It also demonstrated that as powerful as the United States was, it could not smother the pro­found Arab feelings of rejection of a Jewish state. Nor could the Arabs prevail over the American awareness of the necessity, after World War II and the Holocaust, of creating a Jewish state. Despite the strategic signi.cance of the United States to the Arabs going into the cold war, and the strategic signi.cance of the Arabs to the United States by geography and oil resources, neither could move the other. This historic standoff was to continue until the Egyptian president Sadat’s peace initiative of traveling to Jerusalem in 1978 and Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace initiative leading up to the Arab summit in Beirut in 2002. Roosevelt and Ibn Saud had, in this one intense meet­ing, resolved the American-Saudi alliance through the cold war, but the Arab-Israeli con.ict required many more iterations of struggle and negotiation. It still requires one more on Israeli-Palestinian peace and a regional treaty between Israel and the key Arab states, which can be brought about only by the next great encounter between a U.S. president and a Saudi king, an encounter that would not be allowed to end without an agreement on the future of the Jewish state and the Palestinian people.

The United States under Harry Truman was faced with historic decisions on the partition of Palestine and on the recognition of the state of Israel, as soon as it was declared in May 1948. To carry out these decisions, Truman had to overrule the opposition of the State Department Arabists, which re.ected the opposition to a Jewish state from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Truman did decide that the United States would join with Britain and France to observe the Tripartite Agreement, a negotiated settlement to refuse arms sup­plies to either side of any conflict that ensued.

Though the U.S.–Middle East story begins in earnest with Presi­dent Wilson, the Middle East policies of Britain had many years ear­lier set the stage on which America would become a leading actor. Our purpose here is not to review British imperial history in the Mid­dle East but—as we turn our attention to speci.c countries with which the United States has played an important role, especially from World War II onward—to explain some basics of the table as set by the British and the French. Ever since the creation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the British and the Persians tried again and again to reach agreement on a fair division between them of the prof­its to be made from oil sales. It was the failure of direct negotiations between the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and the Iranian government to reach a long-term understanding that opened the way for the United States to become involved in the core issues affecting the British relationship with Iran and Iran’s relationship with its primary natural resource. Somehow the Iranians were able to see the United States as an honest broker in the British negotiations with Iran. In the 1920s the United States could advise without having a major stake in the dispute. But in the 1930s there were changes to the equation: if in the 1920s the United States gained entry as advisers, in the 1930s they became concessionaires. As oil played a more and more prominent role in the industrial development of the United States and Europe and in the strategic planning of World War II, Iran and its oil gained greater strategic importance. It was pressure placed by U.S. oil com­panies on their government and the great strategic threats emerging in the 1930s that combined to make the struggles over oil-rich countries so intense.
 
 
FROM WILSON TO TRUMAN, THE UNITED STATES ENTERS THE ISRAELI-ARAB CONFLICT
 
Another dimension of American civil society and private-sector im­pact on U.S. government policy is exemplified by the history of the struggle over the creation of a Jewish homeland and eventually the existence and security of a Jewish state. The idea of a Jewish state grew into existence in the late nineteenth century, through Jewish thinkers in Western Europe such as Theodor Herzl, who lived in Vi­enna. Herzl was motivated to propose the idea of a Jewish homeland by his disappointing experiences watching the Dreyfus trial in Paris, which shattered his hopes that the Enlightenment and the ideas of equality that had emerged from the French Revolution would allow Jews to become equal citizens in modern Europe. Still, it was in East­ern Europe, where the masses of Jews lived, that the idea of a Jewish state began to have wide popular appeal. Chaim Weizmann, a Russian Jew, first became a Zionist diplomat in continental Europe at the time when he tried to overcome opposition by the Ottoman Empire to Jew­ish settlement in Palestine and in the Sinai Desert.

With the outbreak of World War I, the central diplomatic scene of Zionist efforts moved to Britain, which was leading the Allied war ef­fort. Weizmann realized that his intense personal diplomacy in Britain nonetheless required some equivalent effort in the United States. The Zionist movement in America was at that time weak, but Louis Bran­deis, who had been appointed by Wilson to the Supreme Court, the first Jew ever to hold that high a position, was unabashedly Zionist, and he considered advocacy for Zionism as fully consistent with his American patriotism. Although he played only a minor role in the story of the Balfour Declaration, which was after all primarily a British story, Brandeis did provide timely assistance to Weizmann’s efforts with the British cabinet, passing on to Weizmann the critical information regarding Wilson’s sympathy concerning the idea of a Jewish homeland. This helped prompt the British cabinet to approve the Balfour Declaration at a critical moment in the summer of 1917. At that time the British were desperate to encourage the United States to enter the war and were very worried about how to prevent Russia from dropping out of it. Given the lack of reliable scienti.c analysis of Jewish opinion in either Russia or America, it seemed to the British that supporting the Zionist cause could help in both cases, and could preempt the implementation of the rumored idea of Germany’s be­coming the new sponsor of Zionist diplomatic aspirations. This stereotyped exaggeration of Jewish power over either American or Russian decisions is a powerful example of the unintended bene.ts to Jews that sometimes comes from the anti-Semitic imagination.

Woodrow Wilson’s semi-entry into the Middle East created an ambiguous legacy for his successors, persisting until today. Wilson brought to his thinking about the transition of Ottoman lands from their colonial status a strong American idealism that aroused powerful hopes that the United States, as it rose to world power, would bring about a change in world politics that would liberate many oppressed peoples. However, this idealism was not matched by an equivalent commitment to action. Wilson’s benevolent view of how victory in World War I should be free both of punishment of the losers and of the extension of imperial ambitions was not the one he had shared with a broad consensus of the American people. After returning from the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson began to face the Republican congressional rejection of his ideas for the League of Nations and for collective security. He was determined to go over the heads of Con­gress directly to the American people. He started his amazing, ex­hausting series of speeches, traveling from state to state and city to city, until his human frailty overwhelmed his superhuman idealism.

Wilson had left Paris before the ultimate decisions were made about the succession to the Ottoman Empire. He was right that he had to rescue his peace leadership ideas in America, but he ignored his in­ability to fulfill the promises implied in his Fourteen Points speech made before entering the war, the speech that had ignited so much hope in the Arab world that America was going to champion their self-determination after the war. It is not that he could have done it, even if he had stayed longer in Europe, but that by making this great promise and not fulfilling it, he initiated the problematic American reputation of speaking with idealism about the future of others while acting in service of American self-interest.

If we see the Paris Peace Conference as a great struggle between Wilsonian ideals of a new world order after the war versus the contin­uation of the British and French struggle for power against Germany as the great land and economic power of Europe, it seems that Wil­son’s ideas were defeated until Franklin Roosevelt, George Marshall, and Dwight Eisenhower, in alliance with the Russian Red army, crushed Germany more fully in World War II. This unconditional surrender of Germany put an end to the great wars of Europe. Only then could a consensus emerge to forge a world organization made up of all the combatants, this time including the United States. However, the joining of American, British, and Russian forces in the conquering of Berlin also set the stage for the cold war, which dominated world politics for the next forty-.ve years. This shift of power from Britain and France and their empires to the United States signaled an end to the colonial domination of the Middle East and Africa. The United States has continued to try to control the politics of the Middle East with its values and with power exerted from a distance, and even from within the region itself, but it still has not instilled in its people suf.­cient understanding and empathy for that world and its culture and re­ligions to be able to maintain that singular impact on life in the region and the values of its peoples.

Excerpted from Beyond America's Grasp by Stephen P. Cohen.
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen P. Cohen.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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