U.S. policies in the Middle East have created a situation of extreme discomfort among its remaining friends in the Arab world, a situation which many feel threatens their own stability and that of the region. A longtime Middle East hand recently returned from several Arab countries, including some which the United States considers close allies, remarked that "attitudes towards the United States are the worst I've seen since the 1960s." A reading of mainstream (not radical or anti-American) Arab publications reflects a similar concern. Several friendly Arab states are genuinely alarmed that the United States is pursuing policies in the Middle East which may directly threaten their own stability, and appears to be ignoring their own advice on a number of issues. Of even greater concern is that U.S. policy makers appear to dismiss the evidence of the growing rift between the United States and the Arab world as if it either does not exist or does not matter to them.
The critical moment was unquestionably the deepening tension during February as the United States appeared on the verge of a major military strike against Iraq, but the disquiet preceded that crisis. It has been building since the election of a Likud government in Israel in 1996, though it is not exclusively due to that event. It appears to linger despite the apparent avoidance of military confrontation due to the diplomacy of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. In fact, even without a U.S. military strike, there were violent anti-government demonstrations in Maan, Jordan, anti-U.S. demonstrations on Egyptian college campuses, numerous demonstrations throughout the Palestinian Authority, and unconfirmed reports by Saudi opposition groups of anti-American demonstrations in Taif, Saudi Arabia. What the response to a military operation lasting from several days to a few weeks might have been, can only be guessed, but there is little reason to think it would have been welcome either to the United States or its friends in the region.
As recently as 1994, the United States appeared to be mastering the art of Middle East peace. It had won the war with Iraq in 1991, allied with most major Arab governments. It had pushed for the Madrid Peace Conference as a result of that war, and, though the United States was left out of the crucial negotiations, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization reached the Oslo Accords, and Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn in 1993. The following year, Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty, and Israel began negotiating commercial and other agreements with a variety of Arab states from Morocco to the Gulf. Economic Conferences in Casablanca in 1994 and Amman in 1995 brought most Arab states together to talk about a future Middle East with investors who included Israelis.
Less than four years later, it is a different world. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is frozen, if not dead. The latest in the series of Middle East Economic summits - in Doha, Qatar, in 1997 -was boycotted by such staunch U.S. friends as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, While those countries sent high-level delegations to the Islamic Conference Summit the following month in Tehran, Iran. When the United States sought to launch air strikes against Iraq in February, 1998, it was publicly rebuffed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and privately by every other Gulf state except for Kuwait (and, arguably, Bahrain, which gave conflicting indications which were never put to the test). Thus the United States found itself seeking to carry out military operations which it claims are in defense of Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, but forbidden to use their territory to do so. What had happened?
The basic answers are clear enough to most Middle East watchers, but what is unusual is that the U.S.-policy leadership appears oblivious to what is, to almost everyone else, obvious. Whether this is due to a genuine myopia or an unwillingness to acknowledge a situation which is rapidly spinning away from U.S. control is hard to judge.
It seems clear enough that, in the minds of the leaders of most friendly Arab states, several points make up the bill of particulars in their complaints about the United States:
First, those states which supported the peace process feel abandoned. Most Arab governments, and the elites they represent, were more accepting of the peace process than the average Arab in the proverbial "street". But, while most Arab countries are hardly democracies, their elites must be responsive to the opinion of the street. Therefore, they expected that in return for their open support of the peace process, the United States would deliver at the very least what had been agreed at Oslo. It has not. While most friendly Arab leaders are realistic about the political constraints imposed by a Congress which seeks to micromanage foreign policy, they feel betrayed and abandoned.
Second, there is genuine concern about the humanitarian situation in Iraq. There are very few, if any, Arab leaders who trust or admire Saddam Hussein, and most would like to see him gone. But there has always been a sense of solidarity with other Arab peoples, and the vision of the Iraqis, once one of the best educated and most prosperous of Arab nations, suffering without food and medicine is of genuine concern, and also has great resonance with the "street". While most pro-Western leaders may well recognize the degree to which Saddam has brought these problems upon his own population, they believe it is time to stop punishing the Iraqi people. A few years ago, this may have been a matter of paying lip service to the idea in order to appeal to the opinion of the "street"; today, it appears to be much more genuine everywhere except Kuwait.
Third, there is the often mentioned case of a double standard for Israel. Israel introduced nuclear weapons into the Middle East, and its nuclear capability was the original spark for many Arab states’ efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Israel is seen by most Arab states (rightly or wrongly) as not in compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions on return of Arab lands, and as violating both the letter and the spirit of the Oslo Accords. The fact that the United States is intent on destroying Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and enforcing every Security Council resolution on Iraq to the letter while it puts only mild pressures on the Netanyahu government in Israel is seen as a double standard.
Fourth, there is growing alarm over the Israeli-Turkish strategic alignment, which several Middle Eastern states see as a greater immediate threat to their security than the defeated, starving Iraqi Army. Oddly enough, few Western commentators have even taken note of what has been a major theme in the Middle East for the past two years. Israel and Turkey have increased their strategic and intelligence cooperation in many areas, have signed several defense equipment agreements and have engaged in joint training and maneuvers, in one case in a rescue operation involving U.S. Naval forces as well. What was initially seen by Syria as a strategic alignment directed at isolating it, has now come to be seen as a hostile move by a number of other Arab states, particularly Egypt. Egyptian-Turkish relations, relatively healthy only a couple of years ago, have become extremely cool. The United States is seen as facilitating, or at least tolerating, what most Arab states see as a growing anti-Arab alignment.
Fifth, the United States appears to be behaving as if each of these issues can and should be dealt with independently of all the others. This may be the most fundamental misperception which seems to be held by U.S. policy makers, and it represents a dramatic difference from the clear linkage which the Bush administration made between the Desert Storm coalition and the Madrid Peace Conference. One of many examples of this can be seen in this exchange during the disastrous "Town Meeting" held February 18 in Columbus, Ohio, involving Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Secretary of Defense William Cohen and National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger:
Question: This is for Secretary Albright. The United States has put a lot of time and effort into peace talks between Israel and (Palestinians) and the Middle Eastern countries. If we go into Iraq, how will this impact those peace talks? And do you perceive any type of backing away from the table if that happens?
Secretary Albright: I have spent quite a lot of time on this issue in the last months. 1997 was not a great year for the peace talks, but we are determined to continue. These are two very separate issues that need to be resolved. [emphasis added.] We will spend the time that's necessary. I've been in touch with both the leaders there and others in recent days and weeks, and we will continue to press that because that's an issue of great importance to the United States. [Source: Town meeting at Ohio State University, February 18, 1998; transcript, U.S. Department of State.]
While clearly indicating continued U.S. support for the peace process, these remarks reiterate an idea which Albright has frequently insisted upon: the two processes are separate. But no one in the Arab world sees them as separate, or separable. Ironically, it would appear that Israel does not either: several Israeli leaders argued that the pro-Iraqi demonstrations in the Palestinian Authority would hurt the chances of forward progress in the peace process, which certainly suggests that Israeli leaders themselves see a linkage, if a negative one.
The United States may well argue that there should be no linkage between the two processes, or that Iraq should be judged purely on its record and not by comparison with Israel or any other regional state. But the region perceives matters differently. From the perspective of the region, the connections between the problems are much more obvious. U.S. foreign policy is often compartmentalized, with decisions on Iraq being made without full appreciation of their impact on events elsewhere. Many in the Arab world, even if they understand the pressures created by Congress and domestic politics on foreign policy, find it hard to believe that the United States is not pursuing some complex, Machiavellian scheme. They seek an explanation which accounts for lack of U.S. pressure on Israel, seemingly excessive pressure on Iraq, ignoring the advice of its friends, supporting the Turkish-Israeli alignment, etc. The results often lead to a conclusion that the United States is actively pursuing a policy aimed at restraining, limiting, and containing the Arab world. That this plays into the rhetoric of political Islamists who believe that the United States is replacing Communism with Islam as its ideological enemy is particularly unfortunate, since it seems to offer further support for the worst of all possible interpretations of U.S. intentions.
Pro-Western Arab states presumably know better than to indulge in these extreme constructions of U.S. policy, but they also know that the United States is pursuing policies which appear to undermine their own domestic support, and that the United States has not delivered on the apparent promises of the peace process. They might well be prepared to live with a long-term freeze in the process provided that the United States not make matters worse. But the prospects of a sustained
U.S. military campaign against Iraq threatened to do precisely that. U.S. policy makers, who should know better, continue to give the impression that the United States will make decisions in the Iraqi crisis based purely on perceived U.S. interests and without regard for the opinion of other states. In a vacuum, that sounds like a prescription for realpolitik, but the Middle East is not a vacuum. U.S. presence in the Gulf is explicitly linked to maintaining the stability of Saudi Arabia and its neighbors and securing free access to oil. A policy which destabilizes these states, or which is strongly opposed by them, seems to work against the stated basis for the U.S. presence.
In 1991 the United States went to war with Iraq, but it did so with a broad coalition of forces, including its European allies and a majority of Arab states, and it did so while maintaining a clear linkage between the victory in that war and the convening of the Madrid Peace Conference on Arab-Israeli peace. In 1998 it threatened to do so again, with military support only from Britain, and with only Kuwait unequivocally offering a base from which to launch the strikes. The differences were glaringly apparent to the states of the region.
The insistence that there is no linkage between Israeli-Palestinian issues and Iraqi issues is not only unrealistic, flying in the face of reality as perceived by both Arabs and Israelis: it is also an indication of the lack of any overall vision of U.S. Middle Eastern policy, which instead seeks merely to pursue and maintain policies which have long been set in place, even as their tracks have diverged from each other over time.
The tensions of February should be seen as a lesson: the U.S. position in the Arab world has been eroding, and now is in danger of crumbling even more rapidly. Anti-U.S. feeling is running high in the Arab street, but suspicions and distrust of the United States has also invaded the presidential and royal palaces of friendly countries. In a one-superpower world, many of these leaders have nowhere to go but the United States, but they are no longer enthusiastic about the partnership.
Since the United States did not actually launch military action in February, it is not too late to restore a measure of good relations with long-friendly Arab states. But if the opportunity is missed, the situation may continue to deteriorate. It is unlikely to deteriorate so far as it did in the difficult days of the 1960s, when many Arab states did not even have diplomatic relations with the United States, but it is already a far cry from the heady days of 1993, and getting worse.