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Spring 2002 l Capital University Journal
What Now in the Middle East?

by Frank Whitlatch


America’s military and financial war on terrorism has had notable successes. But this country’s relationship with Middle Eastern nations—and with the Muslim world in general—remains strained at best.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes on, with American policy often blamed for causing some of the violence. Radical terrorist groups continue to recruit by promising to punish the West for a litany of perceived wrongs. Moderate Muslim leaders and intellectuals often complain that America comes across as too arrogant, too intent on forcing its economic system and values on weaker nations.

Most U.S. scholars and commentators agree America can’t be blamed for the lives taken on Sept. 11. But the question remains: Should the U.S. be doing things differently? That may prove to be the most important foreign policy question of a generation.

Photo: Sac State history professor Henry ChambersOur nation needs a history lesson, says Sac State history professor Henry Chambers. He says most Americans don’t understand the circumstances that keep dragging us into conflicts involving the Middle East. Instead, we wonder “Why?” as each conflict unfolds. Chambers says that’s because we focus only on the current crisis, missing its relationship to history.

“Ours is a foreign policy that is crisis-focused,” Chambers says. “The crisis comes and then it goes away, but we don’t make any conclusions about good solutions that should be carried forward—what we get instead of strong analysis is instant experts. These ‘experts’ appear on TV when there’s a crisis, but seldom have any long-term knowledge of the issue.”

While some commentators talk of an East-West clash of civilizations, one they say has been going on for thousands of years, Chambers focuses on our modern problems in the Middle East.

He says our challenges in the area stem primarily from the U.S. government’s unwavering support of Israel in nearly all its disputes with the Palestinians, and our efforts to maintain the flow of cheap oil from the region. In the post-World War II world, both have bred resentment toward Americans by those in Muslim nations. Both need reexamination, he says, if there is to be any hope of peace in the region.

Before World War II, Chambers says, many Middle Eastern nations just emerging from colonialism admired America. They saw us as a model for independence and national development.

After the war and the formation of Israel, the admiration began to fade.

America armed Israel with far better weaponry than its neighbors, and then voted consistently against United Nations resolutions that sought to condemn Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Through a series of armed conflicts with nearby nations, America supported Israel even though, Chambers says, there are clear cases when Israel provoked the situation. While Israel’s existence needs to be assured, he says, the uneven treatment causes resentment.

At the same time, Chambers says the United States has worked hard to keep undemocratic, and often unpopular, leaders in power in Middle Eastern countries with strong oil reserves—Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and others.

This meddling causes anger among citizens there, he says. The very leaders we sustain then play on that anger to try to build internal support. It’s a vicious cycle.

“Unfortunately, the way things stand now, I don’t think America wants democracies in the Middle East. They wouldn’t be nearly as friendly to us,” Chambers says.

Photo: Ayad Al-QazzazAmerica simply prefers to deal with dictators in the region, which is too bad, says Ayad Al-Qazzaz, a Sac State professor of sociology. Al-Qazzaz teaches classes on Middle Eastern cultures and societies, and pioneered Middle Eastern studies at Sac State in the early 1970s.

He says America’s long-term strategy in the Middle East should include promoting democracy, or at least not propping up unpopular leaders.

Al-Qazzaz says America has the potential for better relations in the Middle East. The people of the region generally have a deep admiration for America, he says; they like our democratic way of life, our technology, our music. A large number of their intellectuals were educated in the United States.

What they don’t like, he says, is American foreign policy, which many feel blatantly favors Israel and is too intrusive in their countries’ internal politics and economies.

Al-Qazzaz echoes Chambers in saying that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the main problem for America in its dealings with the Middle East.

He also points to the ongoing economic sanctions against Iraq, which many Muslims see as hurting children more than Saddam Hussein. In fact, he argues that U.S. foreign policy in Iraq, while publicly designed to get rid of Hussein, really maintains his power for a variety of reasons—using Hussein as a new “boogeyman” to replace the Soviet Union, scaring other Gulf countries, selling billions of dollars worth of arms in the region and allowing a U.S. military presence there.

Al-Qazzaz says America’s foreign policy helps breed the hatred that allows radical terrorist groups to recruit
members.

“Certain people are able to exploit the social, political and economic environment in the Middle East for their own means,” he says. “Unless we can make major changes to that environment, the problem will not be solved.”

He says the best way to fight extremism is to promote a Middle East in which political participation is encouraged, the rule of law is observed, economic development is promoted and human and civil rights are respected. Unfortunately, the U.S. doesn’t practice these ideals in its foreign policy in the region, he says.

“We need to have a more balanced foreign policy,” Al-Qazzaz says. “But I don’t see our officials in Washington ready to do that. I’m not optimistic about the
situation.”

Photo: Bahman FozouniNot only do U.S. officials appear unwilling to change, our Middle East policy makes even less sense since the end of the Cold War, says Bahman Fozouni, who teaches international politics at Sac State. The United States is experiencing a “policy drift,” he says.

According to Fozouni, U.S. policy in the Middle East crystallized into three objectives in 1957: containing Soviet expansion into the region, ensuring the free flow of oil to the industrial West and protecting the security of Israel. “The formula we chose to reconcile these conflicting objectives was to forge alliances with conservative, anti-change regimes in the region,” he says. “These regimes were anti-communist, they were not inclined to nationalize oil and push out U.S. companies, and they kept their animosity toward Israel mostly at the rhetorical level.

“Our policy reflected the aims of three different constituencies: cold warriors, oil business interests and the Israeli lobby in the United States,” Fozouni says. “And we implemented this policy without any clear understanding of the region and the changes that were taking place in the region. It was sheer bad luck for the Middle East that their attempt at modernization coincided with the Cold War.”

Remarkably, he says, our policy remained unchanged throughout the Cold War. Of course, with the Soviet Union gone, our Middle East policy is no longer driven by the containment objective. However, he says, instead of adjusting to the new realities, we have experienced a classic case of “policy drift”—the means for implementing the policy have replaced policy goals.

This is quite apparent, Fozouni says, in our continued support of the conservative regimes that were the “means” for achieving our three Cold War objectives. Ensuring the survival of those regimes against external and internal enemies has now become an “end” in itself. These regimes have quashed fledgling democratic movements, he says, creating extensive political dissatisfaction. And the person on the streets in the Middle East strongly associates them with the United States.

Like Al-Qazzaz, Fozouni says small minority groups end up so hating the United States that terrorist attacks against us become a continuing possibility.

“It was clear from the beginning that eventually the indigenous reaction to our policy would come back and haunt us, a phenomenon the CIA aptly calls a ‘blowback,’” Fozouni says.

Fozouni suggests the United States should encourage democratization in Middle Eastern countries. He says we should insist on a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one anchored on an Israeli pull-out of all occupied territories. He also advocates a phased draw-down of U.S. military involvement from the region. “We are the last remaining empire,” he says. “We have to admit that, and at the same time we better recognize that our empire is stretching its resources too far.”

Map of the Middle East



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