In her brief monograph, Bonnie Saunders examines the U.S.-Syrian relationship during Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency. This examination is presented against the backdrop of the Cold War and the rise of Arab nationalism. The author reargues old debates over whether Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, actually believed that neutralism and Arab nationalism were communistic or whether such an equation was merely made for public and political consumption. She clearly sides with the former: "The available documents...demonstrate that both Eisenhower and Dulles saw the Arabs who so fervently embraced nationalism and neutralism as, at best, naive about Soviet intentions and, at worst, subservient to Soviet Communism" (p. 22). As further evidence, she notes that if Washington's rhetoric was for political purposes, "No one bothered to inform [U.S. ambassador to Syria, James] Moose, who kept up a constant barrage of criticism against Syrian radicalism. His telegrams and dispatches to the State Department indicated that he equated neutralism and radical Arab nationalism...with Communism" (p. 31).
Saunders maintains that the Eisenhower administration focused on Syria for a number of reasons: 1) its proximity to U.S. Cold War allies Turkey and Israel 2) its strategic location between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea, 3) its hosting of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline which transported oil from the Persian Gulf states (and the subsidiary fact that NATO countries obtained 75 percent of their oil from this region), and 4) its unstable and neutralist politics. As she states in the preface, "Believing that the Syrian brand of Arab nationalism might provide the Soviets with easy entry into the Middle East, the Eisenhower administration expended most of its diplomatic energies in Syria trying to alter what.it perceived as radical governments" (p. vii).
At first, the United States sought to curry favor with Damascus by offering limited economic and military aid, as well as membership in anti-Soviet military alliances such as the Middle East Defense Organization or the Baghdad Pact. Syria repeatedly rejected these American overtures because of the strings attached, especially U.S. attempts to force talks with Israel or permanently resettle Palestinian refugees within Syria. Damascus also spurned U.S. efforts because it viewed imperialism (particularly Britain's) and Zionism as the major "isms" threatening the Arab world rather than Soviet communism. Syrians, like most Arab nationalists, found Washington's anti-Soviet rhetoric irrelevant since the USSR had never invaded an Arab state. Eventually, Damascus would turn to the Eastern bloc for economic and military aid because this assistance came with few overt strings attached.
Saunders relates an anecdote that captures the absurdities of Cold War competition over Syria. In 1956, Syria decided to build an oil refinery at Homs and solicited construction bids. U.S. and British officials were alarmed that the Soviets might finance this plant and thus be closer to having oil destined for Western Europe at its mercy. Washington first asked Iraq to pressure the Syrian government into using an Anglo American firm even though that corporation has submitted a bid $1 million higher than a Czech company. Iraq and Saudi Arabia were also unsuccessfully approached by American diplomats about providing money to narrow the gap between the two bids.
The Eisenhower Administration then suggested to Britain, France and Italy that they funnel monies generated by the sale of U.S. agricultural commodities to the Anglo American firm to help it compete with the Czechs. Only Italy agreed. Saunders writes that "while the State Department agonized over whether to provide direct U.S. government aid [to the Anglo-American concern]...the Syrian government finally awarded the contract to the Czech company in March 1957. From the U.S. perspective, the Soviets had won increased influence in Syria" (p. 33).
With incidents such as the Homs oil-refinery case, the author notes, "U.S. diplomatic efforts to persuade Syrians to moderate their leftist politics, their strident nationalism and their determined neutralism failed" (p. 36). Following these diplomatic failures, covert actions were utilized in attempts to overthrow the Syrian nationalists. Working at times with dissident Syrians, the British or the Iraqi regime (which had ambitions of absorbing Syria), Washington engaged in numerous efforts to destabilize or remove the government. In chapters three and four, the author weaves an interesting portrait of these intrigues including "Operation Straggle" (1956) and "Operation Wappen" (1957). Her work should be read alongside Douglas Little's 1990 Middle East Journal article, "Cold War and Covert Action: The United States and Syria, 1945-1958," for a fuller picture of these covert operations. A number of factual or structural problems are contained in Saunders's work, such as misidentifying Nuri al-Said as a former prime minister when he was actually in power again at the time of the Iraqi coup d’état in July 1958 (p. 84) or misspelling Secretary of State George Shultz's name as "Schultz" five times (pp. 93-94). Both of these errors can be found in the last chapter, which is the weakest link in the monograph. This chapter seems as if it was thrown together as an afterthought and seeks to highlight the complicated U.S.-Syrian relationship from 1958 through 1993 in less than twelve pages.
Despite these problems, Saunders' original research is impressive. She has successfully mined documents housed in the Eisenhower Presidential Library and the National Archives and utilized oral history projects both at the Eisenhower Library and the Georgetown University Foreign Affairs Oral History Project. Her work, particularly for the 1951-57 period, is solid (especially in its use of the diplomatic correspondence of Ambassador Moose), but she treads paths already more adequately covered elsewhere. An excellent comprehensive examination of the same period is David W. Lesch's Syria and the United States: Eisenhower's Cold War in the Middle East (Westview, 1992).