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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Who Lost the Middle East?

Between 1941 and 1945 the United States defeated Nazi Germany with enormous help from the Soviet Union, which had to face far more and better-equipped German troops than we did, built more and better tanks, and inflicted and suffered much higher casualties. The Soviets reached Berlin before we did, quickly imposed Communism in three occupied countries (Rumania, Bulgaria, and Poland), and managed to bring about Communist political victories in Hungary and Czechoslovakia two years later (victories won without the help, actually, of Soviet troops.) Meanwhile, the United States was helping its democratic allies take power in Western Europe, outmaneuvering large Communist parties there. None of this, I suggest, will look very surprising to future historians, but all through he 1950s American politics were riven by the question of who had "lost" Eastern Europe. Even today, President Bush likes to mention Yalta as a terrible mistake that sold millions into slavery, never explaining how he, Roosevelt, Truman or anyone else could have changed things very much.

That, of course, was not all. In China the eight years of war against the Japanese had fatally weakened Chiang Kai-Shek's government, and the Chinese Communists, with a little help from the Soviet Union, managed to establish a new base in Manchuria. Chiang, with American help, flew his best troops into Manchuria and staked everything on an all-out battle there. When he lost that battle in 1948, his political position collapsed completely in the Yalu and the Yangtze Valleys as well, and he was driven off the mainland. A revolution in a country of 500,000 million people surely had to have profound causes, but the cry of "Who Lost China?" became even louder than the fury over Yalta. This prompted Denis Brogan, a British historian who knew and loved the United States very well, to write a brilliant essay, "The Illusion of American Omnipotence," which still makes very interesting reading today.

The "loss" of Eastern Europe and of China took place during Democratic Administrations, and came when Republicans were becoming increasingly desperate to get back into power. When Adlai Stevenson tried to "talk sense to the American people" about China in 1952, a tidal wave swept him away. When South Vietnam fell in 1975 we heard relatively little about who lost it (although Henry Kissinger immediately blamed the Congress). Republicans were now in power and the war had gone on too long and too futilely for most Americans to care. But in the last twenty years a whole "who lost Vietnam" industry has sprung up, fueled by various stab-in-the-back theories that blame American journalism, the American people, and the peace movement, as if 59,000 lives and untold millions of dollars were not enough for the US to have sacrificed for that particular endeavor.

Now comes the turn of the Middle East. For those who think that my headline is going too far, I would like to present the results of the latest Zogby poll of five relatively friendly Middle Eastern countries. KSA stands for Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Table 1.1: Opinion of the United States













































There, in a nutshell, are the results of the Bush Administration's policies in the region--the reduction of pro-American sentiment from low to virtually non-existent. As Zogby explains in his analysis of his figures, our policies in Iraq, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in Lebanon are cited by respondents as the source of their dislike. It will not help that we are now evidently helping Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stage what amounts to a coup d'etat against the elected Hamas government, or that the Administration seems very likely temporarily to increase the number of troops in Baghdad. Nor do these figures tell the whole story. Although we might do somewhat better in the smaller Persian Gulf states, Pakistan is clearly emerging as an enemy, not an ally, of US policy. The Pakistani government wants the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan and has made deals allowing it to operate freely within an enormous border area. No one paid much attention, but the Pakistani government also let slip recently that it was an American bomb, not a Pakistani one, that killed about 80 students in an Islamic school in an attempt to kill Al Queda leader Al-Zawahiri. The Iranian people are rallying around their government. Not every Middle Eastern government is destined to become fundamentalist and revolutionary, but pro-American ones will remain, at best, fragile oddities.

The Baker-Hamilton Commission, it seems to me, was trying to make this point with some of its recommendations, but they clearly are going to be discarded. In addition, the polling data suggests that things have now gone too far to be reversed. (Some of the deterioration in our position, incidentally, is directly related to the consequences of invading Iraq. Jordan is now home to more than half a million Iraqi refugees, and this cannot have made the US more popular.) Yet I see no possibility that the Bush Administration is going to reverse its policies, which means that the American position will be even worse two years hence.

Even now more Americans than not, I am afraid, subscribe to the illusion of American omnipotence. This week's New Yorker features another long article by George Packer, the author of The Assassin's Gate, which I reviewed here on November 25, 2005. In his book Packer frankly admitted that he had supported the invasion of Iraq, although he clearly regretted it then. His new piece, however, explores the ideas of various Americans on how we are going to defeat a "global insurgency" among Muslims, which amounts, really to setting the political development of enormous regions of the world on a new and more congenial path. Packer's optimism seems to have to some extent returned; he does not unqualifiedly endorse any of the ideas he runs down, but surely he would not have used so much precious New Yorker space on them if he didn't think this was a worthwhile project. Let me make one thing clear: as a historian, I do not.

Boomers, frankly, still don't understand how the United States secured its position of world leadership: by helping to win a huge war, maintaining a large military, and setting up a vast network of alliances to defend against a common enemy. Democracy and capitalism were part of the mix, but probably less important, ultimately, than our concrete achievements from 1940 through 1955 or so. Now we still have democracy and capitalism (although neither one is providing as appealing an example to the world as it did in years past), but our military is much smaller in manpower terms and we have allowed our alliances to decay. Nowhere is it written that the United States must rule the world, benevolently or otherwise--but many of us can't seem to face that.

Let us try to grow up. Although the Bush Administration has massively accelerated the process, it did not lose the Middle East. The Middle East has been moving away from the United States for at least 50 years, since John Foster Dulles withdrew the financing of the Aswan Dam from Nasser in Egypt and the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown. The biggest milestones along the way are the Six Day War, the Lebanon civil war, the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, the emergence of Hizbollah and Hamas, the coup d'etat in Algeria that nullified a fundamentalist election victory in 1991, the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 2000, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its consequences. Things looked more hopeful on two occasions: during the Egyptian-Israeli peace talks from 1973 through 1979, and after the 1991 Gulf War. We could not however follow through on the first, all the more so after Sadat was assassinated, and we threw away our gains after the Gulf War by deciding catastrophically to invade Iraq. But the long-term trend is clear. It serves little real purpose to debate how much of the problem relates to our support of Israel, since we have never seriously considered changing course there, and since it is far from clear that anyone, after 1967 anyway, could have made a lasting peace. Support of Israel has contributed to the problem, but things have gone too far now to reverse it even if we wanted to, which we don't. If there is a change it will come from inside Israel, not from American pressure.

The United States has been the political leader of western civilization for the last 60 years. We may now lose that position because of the Bush Administration’s policies, particularly if Europe steps up to the plate; but in either case, we should remind ourselves of a few world-historical truths. Neither the Greeks, nor the Romans, nor early Christian or early Modern Europe, or even the European imperial powers of the 1870-1945 period depended on having the entire world conform to its values. The greatest advances of European civilization in the 17th and 18th centuries took place with the Ottoman Turks and a Russian despotism on Europe's doorstep. Our children may face something similar, but they can survive and prosper nonetheless, just as we did while Communism spread over much of the globe. What has happened in Iraq is tragic, but it is hardly all our fault. We imprudently and illegally removed a foreign government, but we did not force the Iraqis to start a bloody civil war. The Muslim world will have to put its own house in order. Let us not take the job upon ourselves. We have much to do at home. We do not want to have to ask the more difficult question, who lost America?


Anonymous said...

As to the "coup d'état" in Palestine, CNRS Rechercheur Jean-François Legrain says that Mahmood Abbas carried out a permanent "coup d'état" the day after the elections brought Hamas to power. Abbas has been denying the legitimate cabinet any and all powers.

"This permanent "coup d'état" has taken various forms -civil, military and political- as well as civilian and military appointments aimed at preventing the Cabinet from functioning normally."

The coup "also enjoys the active and passive support of Israel and the international community. Today, tensions between the Presidency and its ally Fatah and the Hamas Cabinet have spilled into the streets, with an increasing number of armed clashes between elements claiming to represent one side or another."

Calling new elections is the latest action in the permanent coup d'état.

Anonymous said...

While it's always very nice (and rare) to see an understanding of current events found in history, I must respectfully disagree with your analysis. First of all, I don't think you can say that the US "lost" Middle East because we never had it. We had a very small presence there before WWII, as most of it was run by French- or British-created monarchies. While there was some hope in many independence movements after the war that the US would act as an "anti-imperialist", that hope was completely extinguished within the first post-war decade. In my view, the past sixty years of relations with the Middle East has been full of ups and downs, and not a steady slide down as you suggest. We have seen it fit to ally with or support different regimes in different countries at different times. The combined influence of energy politics and the "special" US-Israeli relationship has caused very turbulent relations in the post-war period. Also in regards to one point you made: did the US back the revolution in Algeria in 1991? I wasn't aware of that, but I guess I wouldn't be surprised either.

The other idea I take issue with is the isolationist position you seem to take at the end of the post. While it is certainly true that we have a lot to do here at home, that should in no way preclude us from continuing to be an active international leader. In this globalized world, it is increasingly difficult to separate international events from domestic events. It is not a question of our moral responsibility to help a Middle East which we screwed up, but a strategic responsibility to ensure stability. As the status-quo power, the status quo benefits us. While I disagree with Bush on most everything, I agree with him that stopping problems abroad is better than waiting for them to come to us.

Anonymous said...

Quick comment on your observation that "Between 1941 and 1945 the United States defeated Nazi Germany with enormous help from the Soviet Union, which had to face far more and better-equipped German troops than we did, built more and better tanks, and inflicted and suffered much higher casualties." Recent academic analysis (published in the Journal of Military History as I recall) shows that the major portion of German's industrial effort was directed against the Western allies after early 1943. This was due largely to German efforts to build up the U-Boat force (too late) and the Luftwaffe and anti-aircraft forces to counter the growing bombing campaign. These forces represented the "high-tech" portion of the force and required a larger portion of German industry. Also, the Navy and Luftwaffe consummed a larger portion of oil production. The West had first priority on modern aircraft with older types such as the JU-87 remaining in service in the East. The Luftwaffe also pulled experienced aircrews from units in the East freqently after 1943 to beef up defense of the Reich.

The largest number of ground forces was obvioulsy always on the Eastern Front. However, the naval and air wars occupied the majority of Germany's industrial effort from around 1943 on (obviously no exact date). Indeed, without that diversion, the Soviet Union's position would have been substantially different, perhaps untenable in 1943.