Few realize how US policy at the start of the radical Islamist era in Middle
East history parallels the policy that prevailed at the beginning of the
previous, Arab nationalist, era that began in the 1950s. At that time, American
policymakers believed Arab nationalist military officers would be moderate,
pro-Western, enhance stability and fight totalitarianism.
policymakers expect that revolutionary Islamism will do the same
More than a half-century ago, though, there was no public debate
(or even knowledge) of what was happening. Equally, American and European
leaders only played a minor role in the launching of six wasted decades of
dictatorship, war, terrorism, hatred and stagnation. Today, they are playing
major roles as enablers.
During the early 1950s, there were
understandably great fears that communism and Soviet influence would spread
throughout the Middle East. And so some liberal strategists argued that the
solution was to be found in a “third alternative”: efficient moderate secular
nationalist movements that would replace the old, corrupt, unpopular regimes but
would not become part of the communist bloc. The new regimes would win the
people’s loyalty, modernize the countries and raise living standards.
who in a country like, say, Egypt could do this? What was the most efficient and
modernized of institutions in the Arab world able to achieve this result? The
This involvement shouldn’t be overstated.
But the US
government did accept the idea and the CIA was tasked to implement this policy.
Certainly, in Iran and Guatemala during the 1950s, the US government feared –
with good reason – that local nationalist forces were too close to communism,
and Washington did support coups against them. But all the more reason, went the
argument, that the United States needed its own form of non-communist liberal
MANY YEARS ago, I tracked down all the former staff members
of the US embassy in Cairo from 1952 that I could find. I particularly remember
my conversation with one former deputy military attaché, long retired, who told
me what happened to him in the early morning hours of July 23, 1952.
was awakened from a deep sleep by a loud pounding on his door (security
arrangements were less impressive in those days). It was one of his friends from
the Egyptian army who, without even saying hello, breathlessly yelled in an
excited voice: “We have seized control of the government! We’ve taken over the
radio station!” Then he paused, calmed down, and asked with some embarrassment,
“May I come in?” By the way, this man later became head of the left-wing faction
of the military regime, supported the Soviet Union, and was purged by President
Anwar Sadat in the early 1970s.
There were also murky US connections with
the Syrian army and its political ambitions at the time.
government, however, only played a tiny role in the Arab nationalist takeovers
of that area. Soon it became clear that the new Egyptian government was radical
and anti-Western, and that it was the biggest threat to regional stability. Oh,
and it also allied itself quickly with the Soviets.
In other words, US
efforts to create a new, moderate kind of regime to be friendly to the West,
promote stability, and fight communism in the Middle East resulted in creating a
radical new kind of regime that was the West’s enemy, the USSR’s friend, and the
source of instability.
True, the Eisenhower administration soon wised up.
It’s possible to provide the precise date. On April 1, 1955, a State Department
paper set out the new US policy.
Egypt was threatening America’s friends
in the region – notably Saudi Arabia – and thus the State Department wanted
America to align with the non-radical regimes against the new pro-Soviet
Israel wasn’t on the list of friends, as the US-Israel relationship
was minimal. But that didn’t prevent the Arabs from hating America. By the way,
there’s a neat cable from the US Embassy in Damascus from about that time noting
the beginning of Syrian television. Naturally, the cable said humorously, the
inaugural program was an anti-American one.
Despite several serious
errors – including saving the radical Egyptian regime from being overthrown by
Britain, France and Israel in the 1956 Suez war – the Eisenhower administration
and contemporary experts quickly grasped the nature of the threat and took
measures to deal with it.
In addition, the Truman and Eisenhower
administrations could be excused because they had no experience with a brand new
phenomenon. Today there is no such rationale.
Bottom line: The United
States did not create the monster that did to the Middle East during the second
half of the 20th century what Godzilla did to Tokyo, but it certainly took him
out to lunch and gave him a few high-fives before figuring out where all the
corpses and flattened buildings came from.
FAST FORWARD to today. The
Obama administration thinks it is going to create a new type of regime: the
modern Muslim democracy. It hopes these governments will promote stability, be
friendly to the West and fight the “real” danger: Islamists, a category that
seems almost totally restricted to al-Qaida. This time, the US government is
supposedly helping the “nice” revolutionary Islamists.
making the Truman and Eisenhower management better than that of Obama is that
the Egyptian Free Officers had not cheered terror attacks on America (September
11) or spoken incessantly about committing genocide against Israel before they
got into power.
Finally, a lot of the radicalism and ambition had gone
out of Arab nationalism by the late 1970s. The regimes settled down to being
dictatorships that rewarded their elites, much as what happened in the USSR.
Still, we shouldn’t exaggerate their middle-aged passivity or cynicism. Saddam
Hussein did invade Iran, Kuwait, and fire missiles at Israel. The Syrian regime
backed terrorism, sought to control Lebanon, and struggled against US interests
and Israel’s existence.
As for Arab nationalist ideas, the “Arab” part
kept them meddling in the region and undermining a “normal” state situation,
while the nationalist part mobilized popular support.
it, that there has been no serious discussion concerning the earlier phase of
failed policy, or of how key experts and government officials argued at the time
that Iran’s revolution would lead to what we’d today call “moderate Islam?”
True, the Islamists might settle down into growing fat on corruption and cynical
about their own slogans. Still, that could take decades. How many people will
die? How many billions of dollars will be wasted? How many lives wrecked and
development stifled? In Iran, there certainly has been a lot of elite corruption
and caution on foreign policy. But that doesn’t mean Teheran, after almost a
third of a century of Islamist rule, has been turned into a tame pussycat
either. Remember that drive for nuclear weapons.The writer is director
of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and the author
of The Rubin Report blog (http://rubinreports.blogspot.com). He is also a
featured columnist at Pajamas Media.