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408 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 17 illus., 2 maps, notes, bibl., index

Published: Fall 2003

Containing Arab Nationalism
The Eisenhower Doctrine and the Middle East

by Salim Yaqub

Copyright (c) 2003 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


On 5 January 1957 U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower addressed a joint session of Congress to warn of a grave crisis in the Middle East. The region, he said, was in danger of falling under the control of the Soviet Union, and the United States had to do all it could to help Middle Eastern nations keep their independence. Eisenhower asked Congress to pass a resolution authorizing him to pledge increased economic and military aid and even direct U.S. protection to any Middle Eastern nation willing to acknowledge the threat posed by international communism. Two months later Congress passed the requested resolution in slightly modified form. By then the policy embodied in the legislation was universally known as the Eisenhower Doctrine. The doctrine marked America's emergence as the dominant Western power in the Middle East, a role the United States continued to play long after the policy itself had been abandoned.

The immediate catalyst of the Eisenhower Doctrine was the Suez war of late 1956, in which Britain, France, and Israel had spectacularly failed to reverse Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal Company. As a result of this fiasco, Britain was widely regarded as having forfeited its status as the preeminent Western power in the Middle East. Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, believed that Britain's humiliation had left a "vacuum" in the region that the Soviet Union would fill unless the United States took action. One way the Soviets could conceivably fill the vacuum, though U.S. officials agreed this was improbable, was by direct military intervention in a neighboring country like Turkey or Iran. A far more likely scenario was that the Soviets would increase economic and military aid and develop closer political ties to Arab states. Already Egypt and Syria had concluded military and economic agreements with the Soviet bloc. With Britain's Arab allies now facing overwhelming political pressure to shun their discredited patron, there was a danger that other Arab countries would soon follow Egypt's and Syria's example.

Officially, then, the Eisenhower Doctrine was aimed at protecting the Middle East from Soviet encroachment; in this sense it was merely a more specific application of the general containment doctrine with which the United States had waged the Cold War for a decade. But the Eisenhower Doctrine also sought to contain the radical Arab nationalism of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and to discredit his policy of "positive neutrality" in the Cold War, which held that Arab nations were entitled to enjoy profitable relations with both Cold War blocs. As Eisenhower and Dulles saw it, "positive neutrality" was neither. They believed that Nasser had in fact grown so hostile to the West that he had become, albeit perhaps unwittingly, a tool of Soviet expansionism. (In July 1958 Eisenhower privately remarked that Nasser "is a puppet [of the Soviets], even though he probably doesn't think so.")[1] Rather than cooperate with Egypt, as it had done until recently, the United States would now try to strengthen conservative Arab regimes—like those of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Libya—and reinforce their pro-Western tendencies. Through economic aid, military aid, and explicit guarantees of American protection, the administration hoped to encourage such governments to side openly with the West in the Cold War, thus isolating Nasser and his regional allies, among them the Syrian government and Nasserist opposition parties in other Arab countries. The administration pursued this strategy until late 1958, when it reluctantly concluded that Nasserism was too politically powerful to be successfully opposed and that the United States should instead seek an accommodation with that movement.

While historians have by no means ignored the Eisenhower Doctrine, their treatments have tended to be either piecemeal or cursory. Ray Takeyh, Erika G. Alin, Irene L. Gendzier, David W. Lesch, and Robert B. Satloff have written studies confined to the formulation of the Eisenhower Doctrine or to individual crises associated with that policy.[2] Nigel John Ashton, Fawaz A. Gerges, Zachary Karabell, and Ritchie Ovendale have treated the doctrine as a whole, but only as part of larger studies.[3] This book offers the first comprehensive account of both the formulation and the implementation phases of the Eisenhower Doctrine. Examining the doctrine at some length and in its entirety is the best way to illuminate its underlying political dynamics, which tend to remain obscured when the policy is treated too briefly or as a series of discrete case studies. Those political dynamics, in turn, offer insight into the psychological and moral dimensions of U.S.-Arab relations, not just in the 1950s but in later decades as well.

Essentially, what occurred in 1957 and 1958 was a political struggle between the United States and the Nasserist movement over the acceptable limits of Arabism, that is, over what should be seen as falling within the mainstream of Arab politics and what should be regarded as marginal or extreme. Each party—the United States on one hand and the Nasserist movement on the other—tried to put together a broad coalition of Arab states that shared its basic foreign policy orientation. Each party sought to define that orientation in such a way that those not sharing it would seem beyond the pale of acceptable Arabism. For the United States the cardinal issue was international communism. If a critical mass of Arab states could be induced to declare their opposition to international communism—to "stand up and be counted," as the phrase went at the time—then those Arab governments advocating positive neutrality in the Cold War could be marginalized. The Nasserist movement stressed "Western imperialism" and Zionism, insisting that those Arab governments with close ties to Britain or France (or, increasingly, the United States itself) were themselves outside the mainstream of Arab politics, discredited by their association with the great powers' "imperialist" policies and support for Israel.

One might wonder, of course, why the Eisenhower administration ever thought it could prevail in such a contest. Although none of the Arab states was a democracy, Arab governments did have to consider domestic Arab opinion, which could not be expected to oppose international communism as vehemently as it opposed Western imperialism and Zionism. Whereas the first threat was theoretical and remote from Arab concerns, the other two were actual and immediate. Eisenhower and Dulles believed, however, that the events of late 1956 had created a historic opportunity for the United States. By opposing aggression against Egypt during the Suez war, the United States had demonstrated that it was a fair and just power, more interested in upholding the rights of weak nations than in excusing the misdeeds of its allies and friends. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, had shown its true colors by brutally suppressing the Hungarian uprising. Gratitude toward the Americans and revulsion against the Soviets would now enable the United States to put together a majority coalition of pro-American, anticommunist Arab states, leaving Egypt and Syria with the choice of either joining that coalition or facing growing isolation in the region. Or so Eisenhower and Dulles hoped.

Grasping these political calculations is essential to understanding the Eisenhower Doctrine as a whole. Some scholars have viewed the military dimensions of the doctrine too narrowly and thus have been mystified as to their purpose. Referring to the security arrangements that the Eisenhower administration made with conservative Arab regimes, Ray Takeyh finds it "hard to see how such networks, with their demarcation lines and trip-wires, could regulate the movement of ideas. Nasser did not achieve his aims by dispatching the Egyptian armed forces, but appealed directly to the inhabitants of these states by promising a new dawn in Arab history."[4] In fact, the Eisenhower Doctrine's security arrangements were not intended to "regulate the movement of ideas" or even, primarily, to deter overt Egyptian aggression. Their main purpose was to increase the confidence of pro-U.S. governments (partly by enabling them to combat Egyptian-sponsored subversion), thus emboldening them to stand openly with the United States in the Cold War. The Eisenhower administration realized that the Nasserist challenge was essentially political, and so, too, was the American counteroffensive, even in its military aspects.

Takeyh is correct, however, in stressing that the Eisenhower Doctrine did not represent a fundamental repudiation of Britain's policies and role in the Middle East. While U.S. officials saw the Suez fiasco as demonstrating Britain's inability to serve as the Western standard-bearer in the region, they still hoped to preserve the remnants of British power and influence in the Arab world; the loss of those remnants would only enlarge the perceived regional vacuum and invite further Soviet encroachment. The Eisenhower Doctrine did represent, as Takeyh puts it, "America's attempt to reintegrate Britain back into the regional political order," albeit under conditions of U.S. preeminence. Indeed, on some occasions in the post-Suez years, the United States favored a higher degree of unilateral British involvement in the region than Whitehall itself thought wise.[5]

For the most part, the British accepted their newly subservient role, consoling themselves that the Eisenhower Doctrine amounted to a belated acknowledgment of the Nasserist threat against which they had long inveighed. The Eisenhower administration rewarded such acquiescence by increasingly taking the British government back into its confidence, and by late 1957 the two nations' Middle East policies were being closely coordinated at the highest levels. The broad trend was still one of British decline in the Middle East, but that process was to be far slower than most observers could have predicted in the immediate aftermath of Suez. Not until the early 1970s would Britain withdraw the last of its military forces from the Arab world.

In evaluating the overall success of the Eisenhower Doctrine, one must distinguish between the policy's ultimate objective and the strategy employed to achieve that objective. The ultimate objective was to prevent a Soviet takeover of the Middle East, and since such a takeover never occurred, it has to be said that the objective was achieved. But the strategy behind the policy—discrediting Arab figures deemed "soft on communism" by promoting other Arab figures who were conspicuously anticommunist—failed miserably. Fortunately for the Eisenhower administration, the strategy was so ill chosen in the first place that its failure did not compromise the ultimate objective, a point to which we shall return.

The anti-Nasserist strategy failed for two main reasons. First, Eisenhower and Dulles had drastically overestimated America's political strength in the Arab world while underestimating that of Nasserism. Suez notwithstanding, the United States had no intention of repudiating its alliance with Britain and France or its support for Israel's existence and security—stubborn realities that prevented the United States from gaining the wholehearted support of Arab public opinion. Nasser's own regional popularity, by contrast, soared in the aftermath of Suez. Thus any Arab figure seeking to align himself with U.S. Cold War policies, or to oppose Nasserist policies at U.S. instigation, could be successfully branded an enemy of Arabism by Nasserist propagandists. Conservative Arab leaders sometimes played the Arabism card themselves, reminding their audiences that the Soviet Union, too, had supported the creation of the state of Israel, thus implying that radical nationalists were "soft on Zionism." The fact that Moscow had since adopted a stridently pro-Arab position on the Arab-Israeli conflict, however, limited the effectiveness of this charge.

Behind the scenes, Nasser's popularity gave Egypt another crucial advantage over its Arab rivals. Within the diplomatic corps and government ministries of the conservative Arab regimes were numerous individuals who secretly sympathized with Egypt's policies and were willing to share confidential information about their own governments with Egyptian officials.[6] While much of this information was useless gossip, some of it was sufficiently valuable to enable Egypt to anticipate and counter hostile political initiatives that its Arab rivals were contemplating.

The second reason Eisenhower's anti-Nasserist strategy failed was that the conservative Arab leaders were unable or unwilling to play their assigned roles. Usually those leaders were too fearful of domestic or regional opinion to take a strong stand in favor of the United States or against Nasserism. Even when they were prepared to take such a stand, they were too suspicious of one another to do so as a bloc. The most celebrated case in point was the long-standing feud between Saudi Arabia and Hashemite Iraq, but there were other rivalries—between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, between the Iraqi and Jordanian branches of the Hashemite dynasty, and within the Saudi and Iraqi governments—that also obstructed conservative unity.

A related problem was that many conservative Arab leaders saw the Eisenhower Doctrine as an opportunity to advance local agendas that were not necessarily compatible with U.S. objectives in the Middle East. Both King Hussein of Jordan and King Saud of Saudi Arabia declined to endorse the Eisenhower Doctrine unconditionally, pleading that the political cost of such a gesture would be too great. Each king, however, convinced the Eisenhower administration that his general orientation was sufficiently pro-Western to warrant major U.S. political support for him. Hussein used that support to establish, for decades to come, the supremacy of the palace in Jordanian political life, while Saud tried, far less successfully, to use American support to enhance his regional prestige and to strengthen his bid to shift the line of royal Saudi succession away from his brothers and toward his own sons. Iraq and Lebanon formally endorsed the Eisenhower Doctrine, but they demanded American concessions in return. Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Sa'id pushed relentlessly for U.S. backing of Iraqi efforts to acquire portions of northeastern Syria—pressure to which Dulles briefly succumbed in early 1958. Lebanese president Camille Chamoun sought U.S. support for an ill-considered plan to amend his country's constitution so that he could remain in office for another presidential term. Although U.S. officials privately doubted the wisdom of Chamoun's scheme, they felt politically obliged to endorse it as a reward for Chamoun's embrace of the Eisenhower Doctrine.

Because of these circumstances—the political weakness of the United States, the political strength of Nasserism, and the independent proclivities of the conservative Arab regimes—the Eisenhower administration was unable to achieve Nasser's regional isolation. Despite apparent successes for the strategy in the early months of its implementation, serious difficulties arose in the summer of 1957, and by the summer of 1958 the strategy was in shreds. Egypt had merged with Syria to form the United Arab Republic (UAR), vastly increasing Nasser's power and terrifying the conservative Arab regimes; King Saud had virtually abdicated his throne in favor of a brother committed to placating Nasser; the Iraqi regime had been overthrown by army officers who appeared to be Nasserist in orientation; the Lebanese and Jordanian regimes had come to the brink of collapse, rescued only by the intervention of American and British forces; throughout the Arab world, the forces of radical nationalism seemed to be running rampant. Eisenhower and his advisers could do little more than gape in disbelief at the magnitude of the apparent political disaster.

Actually, things were not as bad as they seemed. The political triumph of Nasserism in 1958 did not automatically redound to the Soviets' benefit. To the contrary, by early 1959, just months after having vanquished his conservative Arab foes, Nasser was publicly feuding with the Soviets, accusing them of interfering in internal Arab affairs. Quite unexpectedly, Nasserism had become a barrier to, rather than an avenue of, further Soviet penetration of the region. The result of this transformation was a modest rapprochement between the United States and the UAR that continued for the remainder of Eisenhower's term and into that of his successor.

Thus, in the end, the Eisenhower administration was the beneficiary of its own prior miscalculation. Having chosen an unsuitable strategy to begin with, it did not suffer unduly when that strategy collapsed. Such irony was typical of the administration's Middle East policy, which seemed always to hover in some twilight zone between achievement and failure, between subtlety and naìveté. Eisenhower and Dulles thought long and hard about the challenges of Arab nationalism, and they responded to them with a policy of considerable intricacy, sophistication, and internal coherence. Yet the whole edifice rested on a basic misreading of the Nasserist movement, on a drastic underestimation of its power and independence. Nasser himself was bemused by the contradiction. "The genius of you Americans," he once said to businessman and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent Miles Copeland, "is that you never made clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make us wonder at the possibility that there may be something to them we were missing." Copeland writes that Nasser, who attributed the Eisenhower Doctrine solely to Dulles, saw that policy as "one of the shrewdest mistakes ever made by a Great Power diplomat."[7]

Over the last two decades there has been growing scholarly interest in the role of cultural differences and cultural antipathies in defining America's relations with the Arab world. Such analyses can tell us much about the cultural and psychological environments in which policies have been formulated, but they should be treated with caution. Americans and Arabs have indeed been divided by vast cultural differences, giving rise, at times, to considerable mutual antagonism. These facts tell us relatively little, however, about the actual content of the Eisenhower administration's policies toward the Arab world. The United States and the Arab countries did have markedly different diplomatic styles in the 1950s, but this was due less to separate cultural heritages per se than to differences in power and geopolitical circumstance. While the United States and the Nasserist movement did take sharply divergent positions on several international questions, that divergence had less to do with clashing values than with conflicting applications of shared values.

At one end of the spectrum of culture-oriented scholars are those who warn that Arabs and Muslims harbor a fundamental hostility to the West that Westerners ignore at their peril. Such hostility, these scholars allege, derives less from disagreements over specific issues than from a deep-seated, and not entirely rational, rejection of everything the West represents: secularism, liberalism, relativism, and modernity. Since the rejection of the West is existential, the argument goes, Western nations can do little to appease Arab and Muslim wrath.[8]

In recent years this "clash of civilizations" thesis has been most often applied to Islamist movements in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, but in 1964 Bernard Lewis used a version of it to explain radical Arab nationalism and its attitude toward the United States. Lewis rejected the proposition that Arab nationalists' hostility to the United States was primarily due to the latter's association with Zionism and European imperialism. After all, the Soviet Union had largely escaped such hostility despite its own complicity in Israel's creation and despite its long record of imperial rule over Muslim lands, a record not shared by the United States. A more satisfying explanation, Lewis wrote, could be found "if we view the present discontents of the Middle East not as a conflict between states or nations, but as a clash between civilizations. The 'Great Debate,' as Gibbon called it, between Christendom and Islam has been going on, in one form or another, since the Middle Ages." Arabs were especially prone to atavistic anti-Westernism, Lewis argued, because they lacked the political experience of non-Arab Middle Easterners: "Old sovereign states like Turkey and Persia have developed consistent foreign policies based on national interests and rational calculations; Arab policies are still at the mercy of a mood of ethnic and communal collectivism, which treats the West as a collective enemy."[9]

A quarter of a century later, in an article on the sources of anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world as a whole, Lewis reiterated this basic argument. Opposition to imperialism and Zionism could not account for Muslim hostility toward the United States, Lewis claimed, because America's connection to those phenomena was too tenuous. The real explanation was far more profound: "This is no less than a clash of civilizations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both." Lewis's themes (and phrasing) were soon amplified in a provocative article and book by Samuel P. Huntington, who argued that Muslim hostility toward the West (and vice versa) has turned less on specific political or economic grievances than on "broader intercivilizational" antagonisms that have been centuries in the making.[10]

The problem with the "clash of civilizations" thesis, however, lies in its glib dismissal of precisely those concrete grievances. For Arab nationalists during the Cold War era (and for Islamists more recently), opposition to Zionism and Western imperialism was a genuine cause of anti-U.S. sentiment, not merely a cover for deeper antipathies. It is true that Eisenhower's relations with Israel were relatively chilly; but his predecessor had played a key role in Israel's creation, and his successors would tilt dramatically in favor of the Jewish state. It is true that the United States itself was not a colonial power in the Middle East or North Africa; but it was closely aligned with nations that were, and since the 1980s it has projected military power directly into those regions. Moreover, the United States has strongly supported local authoritarians, like the Shah of Iran and the Saudi ruling family, who have oppressed their own citizenry and plundered or squandered their nations' wealth.

It is also true that, during the Cold War, Arab nationalists were generally less critical of the Soviet bloc than they were of Western powers, but such a posture was consistent with reasoned opposition to Zionism and Western imperialism. Although the Soviets supported Israel in the early years of its existence, they abandoned that position in the early 1950s and stridently championed the Arab cause thereafter. Although Moscow subjugated the states of Eastern Europe and even some Muslim lands in Central Asia, it did not dominate the Arab countries themselves, instead offering them economic and military aid. Such circumstances could not fail to influence Arab attitudes. In November 1956, following the Soviet Union's brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising, Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli told a U.S. diplomat that the "situation in Hungary is not our affair, and I do not care if 50 Budapests are destroyed."[11] Al-Quwatli's disregard for the victims of Syria's benefactor may have been callous and unprincipled, but it was hardly irrational.

The spectacular emergence of Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s, and especially his apparent sponsorship of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, has clearly enhanced the credibility of those stressing "broader intercivilizational" differences. In bin Laden, after all, we have a figure even more committed to the "clash of civilizations" thesis than Huntington. The implications of 11 September will be discussed at greater length in the Epilogue. Suffice it to say here that bin Laden and his operatives represent a tiny and extreme minority in Arab politics. Moreover, while bin Laden's message occasionally strikes a chord with wider Arab audiences, it does so primarily by stressing standard political grievances against the United States and its regional allies: Israel's continuing occupation of Palestinian lands, Washington's support for authoritarian Arab regimes, and the devastation of Iraq by economic sanctions and war. Such critiques are often exaggerated or unfair, but they do suggest that Arab opinion as a whole is more concerned with America's political behavior than with its civilizational status.

At the other end of the culture-oriented spectrum are those who see the deep-seated hostility as emanating primarily from the Western side. Since the publication in 1978 of Edward W. Said's Orientalism, there have been numerous studies documenting and analyzing European and American cultural biases and stereotypes regarding the Middle Eastern "Other"; most of these studies argue, implicitly or explicitly, that such perceptions have had a profoundly distorting effect on Western policies toward the Middle East.[12] While these arguments are more typically directed at contemporary U.S. policy, scholars have occasionally projected them backward in time. Said himself finds that "the notion of Arab people with traditions, cultures, and identities of their own is simply inadmissible in the United States…. This morbid, obsessional fear and hatred of the Arabs has been a constant theme in US foreign policy since World War Two." In a more detailed study, Douglas Little contends that between 1945 and 1970 "orientalism and anticommunism … put the American eagle on a collision course with the sphinx of Arab nationalism." Seeing Arabs as "treacherous, unreliable, and vulnerable to Soviet subversion," U.S. policymakers failed to accord Arab nationalism the respect it deserved.[13]

As Little ably demonstrates, the documentary record from the 1950s is full of disparaging remarks made by U.S. officials about Arabs. What is less clear is the extent to which such anti-Arab sentiment actually explains the Eisenhower administration's policies toward the Arab world. One difficulty that immediately arises is that of distinguishing the documented anti-Arab sentiment from the blanket condescension with which top administration officials regarded Others in general, be they Arabs, Jews, Europeans, or U.S. congressmen. There is nothing surprising about Eisenhower's view that Arabs and Israelis "have built up an emotionalism that at times borders on the hysterical," but the president also felt that "the British have never had any sense in the middle east." Dulles complained that America's European allies were "selfish." In their various disputes with former and present colonies, he charged, Europeans "are so involved in emotionalism that nothing less than a comparable emotionalism on our part will satisfy them." Dulles also decried the "emotionalism … of a good many Zionists in this country who feel that we ought to, in effect, give a blank check to Israel." Equally pathetic were U.S. congressmen who bowed to the "pressure of the Jews" and were "jealous among themselves."[14] Apparently Eisenhower and Dulles alone were capable of transcending the fanaticism and small-mindedness of human affairs.

Even if we were to grant that anti-Arab prejudice is of a different order from the generic condescension outlined above, we would still need to establish that the former had a significant impact on U.S. Middle East policy. That, however, is a difficult case to make, at least with respect to the Eisenhower years. Social psychologists have shown (and common sense would suggest) that prejudiced individuals are capable of disregarding negative ethnic or cultural stereotypes and behaving in a nondiscriminatory manner when other priorities—like the easing of their consciences or the avoidance of the appearance of bigotry—so dictate.[15] It stands to reason that prejudiced American policymakers, responding to a similar set of moral and political pressures, could make similar adjustments when dealing with foreign nations. Any antipathies such officials may have harbored toward a particular national or ethnic group would likely have been tempered by a sense of propriety and fair play and, more importantly, by the recognition that manifestly discriminatory behavior could damage America's international image.

Such constraints have not applied, of course, during periods when extreme bigotry was common or when the United States faced little international pressure to behave in a nondiscriminatory way. Both conditions were present in the antebellum years, when the U.S. government refused, on racial grounds, to conduct diplomatic relations with the predominantly black nation of Haiti. Similarly, as we shall see in the Epilogue, since the early 1980s it has become increasingly clear that the Arab states as a whole lack the strength, unity, and strategic leverage to pressure or threaten the United States in any fundamental way. Consequently the United States has grown more willing to disregard Arab opinion and to take actions that, arguably, reflect discriminatory attitudes toward Arab peoples.

In the 1950s, however, U.S. officials still believed that Western actions deemed harmful to Arab interests might elicit a hostile and concerted Arab reaction. In April 1956 Dulles told congressional leaders that the United States should not become a major arms supplier of Israel because doing so "would alienate the Arabs and result in cutting off Arabian oil. This in turn would greatly weaken Europe economically and bring NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] to a standstill. All the gains of the Marshall Plan would be cancelled and Europe would be forced to turn to the Soviet Union for economic survival and for its oil imports. Thus we would save Israel but lose Europe." That same month Eisenhower told British military officials "that he had been spending much time reading up [on] the history of Arab nationalism and the wars of the crusades. Europe had suffered for a thousand years from the last Islamic surge and … we (repeat we) could not afford another."[16] While such fears were based on a stereotype of Arabs as a vengeful horde, they often prompted U.S. officials to treat Arab concerns with greater deference than they might have otherwise.

The Eisenhower Doctrine in particular seems to owe little to anti-Arab prejudice. True, the doctrine reflected the view that Nasserism was incapable of true neutrality in the Cold War, suggesting, perhaps, a dismissive attitude toward Arab capabilities. In other ways, however, the doctrine flew in the face of prevailing anti-Arab stereotypes, which were often invoked to convey the futility of relying on the Arabs to resist international communism. A 1950 State Department report, quoted by Little, remarked that "the Near East is vulnerable to communistic exploitation" mainly because such "natural deterrents … as religion, a modern social system, a flourishing economic life, and a democratic political structure, are weak or lacking." Eisenhower probably would have agreed with this statement, but he used the Eisenhower Doctrine to cultivate the region's "natural deterrents" anyway. Dulles expressed doubt about "the ability of the Arabs to unite for any constructive purpose," but that did not stop him from encouraging the conservative Arabs to unite. In early 1958, when opposition to the doctrine was starting to build within the U.S. government, a National Security Council (NSC) paper noted that "the 'stand up and be counted' character of the [Eisenhower] Doctrine is incompatible with traditional Arab reluctance to be committed." The doctrine, in other words, had failed to take into consideration the moral cowardice of the Arabs. In June 1959 Eisenhower himself grumbled, "If you go and live with these Arabs, you will find that they simply cannot understand our ideas of freedom or human dignity."[17] Eisenhower's doctrine had been based on a more hopeful assessment of Arab capacities.

Since the 1990s, scholars of orientalism have extended their analyses to gender, arguing that Western imperialists and neoimperialists "feminized" Middle Easterners by ascribing to them such "unmanly" characteristics as weakness, irrationality, hysteria, emotionalism, cowardice, and self-indulgence. In the early 1950s, Mary Ann Heiss writes, U.S. and British officials recoiled from the histrionic public style of Mohammed Mosadeq, Iran's nationalist prime minister, dismissing him as "feminine" and "not manly enough for international politics." Such disparaging views of Mosadeq "made it much easier for Anglo-American officials to discount his position"—and ultimately depose him. In a study of American images of Israel from 1948 to 1960, Michelle Mart notes that "while Jews were increasingly depicted as masculine insiders in American popular and political culture, Arabs were increasingly depicted as unmasculine outsiders." Unlike their tough, smart, forthright, and dependable Israeli counterparts, Arabs appeared in such discourses as incompetent, excitable, cowardly, and devious. "A corollary stereotype," Mart adds, "is the licentious Arab male." This "sex-crazed" figure "was unmanly because he was out of control—a wild monster as opposed to a mature adult."[18]

Although gendered portrayals of Arabs do abound in the postwar U.S. diplomatic record, it is difficult to know what, if anything, their existence tells us about American policies toward the Arab world. Certainly such "tropes of gender" are not unique to American depictions of Arabs. Scholars have found similar portrayals of "natives" in the discourses of Americans in South Asia, of Britons in Bengal, of French in Vietnam, of Dutch in Indonesia, and of Spaniards in Mexico.[19] Nor have such categories been applied solely to Third World peoples. As Frank Costigliola has shown, during the Cold War U.S. officials frequently juxtaposed images of the NATO allies "as effeminate, effete, or otherwise lacking in robust masculinity" against images of the United States as virile and rational. These dichotomies, Costigliola argues, "map[ped] the supposedly natural inequality of the conventional sex-gender system onto the domain of the Western alliance, thereby further legitimating U.S. hegemony."[20] From the outset, then, one hesitates to make too much of the fact that Arabs were feminized when so many others received similar treatment.

Nor is it easy to make political sense of the disparate ways U.S. officials applied gendered categories within the Arab world. Arab figures in the 1950s were feminized or masculinized (or both) with little regard to their standing in Washington. In 1957 CIA director Allen Dulles, Foster Dulles's brother, complained that pro-Western Syrian army officers lacked "guts or courage," but he still apparently supported their effort to mount a coup.[21] Lebanese president Camille Chamoun and Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Sa'id appear variously in Anglo-American documents as "courageous" and "hysterical," as "resolute" and "difficult," yet both of them enjoyed almost unwavering American and British support.[22] The two Arab leaders most nearly conforming to the manly ideal as defined by the American political elite were King Hussein and Nasser, the first a close ally of the United States, the second a sharp antagonist. In 1957, when the twenty-two-year-old Hussein decisively ousted pro-Nasser figures from his government and army, American observers celebrated the king's transformation "from boy to man."[23] For decades thereafter, Hussein's reputation for physical courage would be deeply ingrained in the American official imagination. Meeting Nasser for the first time in September 1960, Eisenhower found the Egyptian leader a model of military bearing: "impressive, tall, straight, strong, positive." Two years earlier, noting that Nasser's attitude toward Israel was often more conciliatory than that of his conservative Arab rivals, Undersecretary of State Christian A. Herter had detected "a healthy element in the fact of an Arab strong man of such stature that he does not need to compete with other Arab countries in baiting the Israelis."[24]

Equally irrelevant to official policy were American stereotypes about Arab sexual licentiousness, an unmanly quality in Mart's scheme. Certainly such images had little bearing on Eisenhower's decision to forge a close political alliance with Saudi Arabia's King Saud, the one Arab leader whose sexual behavior gave some credence to the stereotypes. Saud had innumerable wives and concubines, and he spent much of his time on royal peregrinations seeking to marry and impregnate as many Saudi women as possible, the better to cement the political allegiance of his subjects. (The ease with which women could be married and divorced made it possible for Saud to take countless brides without exceeding, at any given time, the four-wife limit.)[25] Saud's promiscuity may have embarrassed Eisenhower,[26] but it did not keep the president from trying, in 1956 and 1957, to transform the pro-American Saud into a pan-Arab leader. Nasser, by contrast, had poor relations with Washington, even though his wholesomeness was never doubted by U.S. officials. A former U.S. ambassador to Egypt later remembered Nasser as "a great family man," "clean as a whistle," and "very fond of his children, used to plan his vacations so he could take them to the beach."[27] Saud, with his 107 acknowledged offspring, would have had a hard time organizing such an excursion.

A third claim, less contentious than either the "clash of civilizations" or the anti-orientalism argument, has been that the Eisenhower administration faltered in the Middle East because it failed to approach the region on its own cultural terms. Diane B. Kunz hints at such a criticism when she describes the administration's Johnston Plan (an attempt to ease Arab-Israeli tensions by encouraging Jordan and Israel jointly to develop the Jordan River Valley) as "very American in its emphasis on technical problem solving and money to overcome intractable political and religious differences." More explicitly, Matthew F. Holland argues that the Middle East has a distinct "diplomatic culture" whose very nature prevented the Eisenhower administration from achieving major successes in the region. According to Holland, who in turn draws on the work of L. Carl Brown, that "diplomatic culture" consists of a set of axioms that have governed Middle Eastern diplomacy since the early nineteenth century: alliances shift constantly "in a bewildering series of tactical moves"; Middle Eastern actors repeatedly enlist the support of great powers, ensnaring them in local controversies in which they have little at stake; Middle Eastern states exhibit "an exasperating refusal to compromise on minor points"; and everyone sees international politics as a zero-sum game.[28]

In this context, however, the use of the term "culture" can be misleading.[29] The tendencies Holland describes have indeed characterized Middle Eastern diplomacy in the modern era, but they have no particular connection to Arab, Islamic, or Middle Eastern civilization. Rather, they have been the stock-in-trade of most small countries not permanently dominated by a single big power. Holland is much nearer to the mark when he writes that Nasser "played the traditional role of a weak player by playing one big power off against the other." Eisenhower saw the matter in similarly general terms, describing Egypt's recalcitrant approach to the Suez crisis as one of the many "tyrannies of the weak" that his administration had to endure.[30]

This is not to say that cultural or religious features specific to the region played no role in the struggle over the Eisenhower Doctrine, but the process was less straightforward than one might expect. Islam, for example, was scarcely an issue in the Eisenhower administration's confrontation with the Nasserist movement, whose outlook was largely secular. Eisenhower tried to make it an issue by promoting the regional leadership of King Saud, whose formal duties included the protection of Islam's holy places, but the effort went nowhere. Saud's Islamic credentials did not translate into significant political influence in the Arab world. To the contrary, they occasioned a bitter U.S.-Saudi dispute over Israel's maritime use of the Gulf of Aqaba, to which Saud objected on Islamic grounds. Saud saw the Aqaba issue as "a question of life and death," while Eisenhower thought the king was being "almost childish" over the matter, "particularly when he talks about Allah."[31] If the United States was engaged in any clash of civilizations, it was with one of its own allies, not the Nasserist movement.

At the same time, there were undeniable differences in how the United States and the Nasserist movement saw their own roles in the Middle East and in the standards of international conduct they claimed to accept. In April 1956 Dulles told a group of U.S. foreign service officers that "the United States is, I suppose, the only country in the world which has foreign policies which are not primarily designed for its own aggrandizement. Almost every other country is thinking primarily [of] how it can develop itself, generally at the expense of somebody else. The United States is not thinking of the thing that way. We have enough and are not eager to have more." Virtually every other nation, Dulles continued, "is emotionally involved in some international controversy, and it wants to be able to have the United States backing it." But the United States, being the only nation truly able to see the big picture, had both the luxury to avoid taking sides in such controversies and the duty to try to resolve them through patient diplomacy.[32] Much as "consensus" historians of the era argued that the lack of feudal and aristocratic heritages had spared the United States from European-style class conflict, so Dulles maintained that global preeminence allowed the United States to eschew the self-aggrandizing posture of most other nations.[33] "I believe," he remarked in congressional testimony a year later, "that the United States is freer than almost any great nation has ever been from the temptation to abuse its power for selfish purposes." Indeed, the United States was freer from that temptation "than any other nation in the world today except some of the very smallest nations."[34]

Dulles's rhetoric is hyperbolic and self-serving, but it does lend some insight into the Eisenhower administration's posture in the Middle East. Because the United States had no colonies or former mandates in the Middle East and did not rely directly on the region's oil, it could afford to take a more detached approach to the area's problems than could Britain, France, or the Middle Eastern nations themselves. The United States did see Middle Eastern disputes largely in global terms, favoring peaceful and, if necessary, gradual resolutions over sudden, violent upheavals that the Soviet Union might exploit. The United States did take a relatively dispassionate view of the bitter conflicts that pitted the Israelis against the Arabs, the French against the Algerians, and the British against the Egyptians and the Saudis (though it was almost always more partial to the British than to any of these other antagonists). U.S. officials were genuinely dismayed by the emotional rhetoric and intransigent positions adopted by all parties to these disputes.[35]

To the Nasserist movement, however, and to those familiar with its requirements, it was unrealistic to expect the Arabs to place a similar value on tranquillity and conciliation while engaged in a historic struggle for self-determination and dignity. In 1958 Johns Hopkins University professor Elie Salem, who would later serve as Lebanon's foreign minister, wrote a memorandum to U.S. agriculture secretary Ezra Taft Benson calling for an American accommodation with Arab nationalism. "Present Arab history," Salem wrote, "is one of action not of thought. The military is highly respected, strong action is desired. This will lead to turbulence and violent change…. One cannot fight these tendencies. In fact, one must be prepared for them." When the Eisenhower administration protested that the UAR's use of propaganda, threats, and subversion amounted to "indirect aggression" against its neighbors, UAR ambassador Moustafa Kamel replied that the "concept of indirect aggression … is not recognized by most Arabs"; with the Arab world undergoing a social and political revolution, such legalisms were beside the point. To U.S. criticism of UAR propaganda, Egyptian journalist and Nasser confidant Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal replied that the "UAR is conscious of its weakness vis-à-vis great powers and that [the] propaganda to which Arab masses [are] receptive is about its only available device." If the UAR were in a stronger position, Haykal said, its propagandists "would speak with [the] polished restraint of Selwyn Lloyd," Britain's foreign secretary.[36]

Still, it would be a mistake to conclude that, as a general proposition, Americans have been culturally disposed toward dispassionate problem-solving and Arabs culturally disposed toward uncompromising partisanship. The temperamental differences described above resulted mainly from differences in power and geopolitical position, a reality recognized on both sides. Haykal, as noted, attributed the UAR's reliance on propaganda to its position of weakness. Dulles denied that Washington's high-mindedness meant that "the United States is morally superior to other people. We are big enough, we are strong enough so that we don't have to be [self-aggrandizing]."[37]

At other times, and on other issues, Americans have been given to extremely passionate engagement in political causes, and Arabs have tried to finesse what others have seen as fundamental, even irreconcilable, political differences. As Nasser himself liked to point out, the circumstances of America's founding spawned a patriotic rhetoric no less passionate than his own country's; a nation reared on "Don't tread on me" and "Give me liberty or give me death" should not have been so disdainful of Nasserist slogans. Americans also seemed to have forgotten what it was like to be a small, struggling nation imposed upon by stronger nations and vulnerable to fluctuations in the global balance of power. The United States, too, had once resorted to the "tyrannies of the weak," playing great powers against one another. Even the denunciation of imperialist bogeymen for domestic political advantage—a technique Nasser perfected in the 1950s—had American precedents. As former secretary of state Dean Acheson observed in 1958, "Nasser runs against us the way Big Bill Thompson 'ran' against King George V in Chicago."[38]

U.S. diplomacy in the 1950s was no less prone to high emotion and extravagant commitment. The Eisenhower administration could take a relatively detached view of the Arab-Israeli dispute and the controversies rooted in European imperialism because it had less at stake in those disputes than did the primary contestants. The administration was far more concerned with preventing such disputes from spinning out of control—and thus threatening Western access to Middle Eastern oil—than with upholding the interests of any given party. But there was another conflict in which the United States was a passionate partisan and that it could never reduce to a matter of technical problem-solving: the Cold War. Where that struggle was concerned, the United States was so committed to victory that it repeatedly exempted itself from the legalisms and restraints it urged in other arenas, as the people of Iran, Guatemala, and Syria learned all too well.[39]

Scholars have recently questioned the extent to which American policymakers in the 1950s were bound by Cold War thinking in their dealings with the Third World. In those regions, the argument goes, U.S. policymakers were equally preoccupied with racial and cultural issues and with "North-South" concerns such as population growth, famine, drought, and modernization.[40] Elsewhere in the Third World, U.S. policymaking may well have been as multidimensional as some historians now suggest. In the Middle East, however, preoccupation with the Cold War was pervasive, crowding out or co-opting most other concerns. To be sure, Eisenhower and his top advisers occasionally fretted over the threat of resurgent Islam or responded favorably to the optimistic projections of modernization theorists. But not only were such remarks vastly outnumbered by direct references to the communist challenge; they were themselves usually couched, implicitly or explicitly, in Cold War terms.[41] Actions, too, are revealing: only after Nasser began publicly feuding with the Soviets in 1959 did U.S. relations with the UAR markedly improve.

U.S.-Arab relations in the 1950s were highly asymmetrical in most respects, but they were symmetrical in the following sense: Each party—the United States on one hand and the Nasserist movement on the other—was moved by two competing sets of values. The first set was associated with the vanquishing of evil: honor, sacrifice, solidarity, steadfastness, simplicity, and moral absolutism. The second set was best suited to conciliation and deal-making: patience, pragmatism, empathy, compromise, subtlety, and moral relativism. Each party could find in its history positive precedents for either approach. Americans could invoke the wars they had fought against tyranny and aggression, but also the cautioning spirit of George Washington's Farewell Address and the historical commitment of the United States to the freedom of the seas and to the arbitration of foreign conflicts.[42] Nasserists could look back on the impressive military performance of the Prophet Muhammad's early successors and of Salah al-Din, but also on the commercial heritage of the region and on the long experience of Arab leaders in manipulating and maneuvering among the great powers.[43]

In the 1950s the United States and the Nasserist movement applied their shared values inversely, each urging compromise where the other demanded commitment. The Americans wanted the Arabs to be conciliatory toward Zionism and European imperialism but partisan in the Cold War. The Nasserists insisted on their right to make deals with the communist bloc even as they demanded U.S. support for the Arab positions against Zionism and imperialism. Dulles explicitly rejected the proposition that America's friends could engage in rational bargaining with both Cold War blocs, warning an Egyptian diplomat in 1957 that "if a country came and indicated that it was in a good bargaining position and that if we did not give them what they wanted, they could get it from the Soviet Union, we were not interested in that sort of a relationship." Having begun his tenure at the State Department by demanding "positive loyalty" from his employees, Dulles was not about to tolerate "positive neutrality" on the part of foreigners. It was the Nasserists' failure to show sufficient deference to this sentiment that made the Eisenhower Doctrine seem necessary in the first place. The issue was moral as well as geopolitical: President al-Quwatli's professed willingness to see fifty Budapests destroyed scandalized U.S. officials, further convincing them of the need to educate Arab opinion about the evils of international communism.[44]

For their part, Nasserists defended positive neutrality with both pragmatic and high-minded arguments. Fruitful relations with both Cold blocs would enable Arab countries to develop their economic and military strength much more fully than they could through exclusive relations with either bloc. A policy of nonalignment was also "the best way to serve the cause of peace and bring an end to the Cold War," as Nasser put it in a 1957 interview.[45] At the same time, Nasserists criticized the United States for urging Arabs to compromise in their struggles against European imperialism and Zionism. How could one split the difference between independence and foreign domination? How could one allow an interloper even part of the land he had seized? Privately, most Arab leaders acknowledged that removing the vestiges of imperialism required patient negotiation and that trying to dismantle Israel would be impractical. In public discourse, however, the moral high ground usually belonged to those taking the most defiant view.

Indeed, the distinction between public and private expression was a recurrent theme in U.S.-Arab relations. Behind closed doors, U.S. and Arab officials occasionally professed sympathy for each other's positions while insisting that they were powerless to make such sympathy public. Speaking to a U.S. diplomat in January 1957, Nasser admitted that he was concerned about the "growing strength [of the] Communist movement in Egypt…. [But w]hat would happen if he stood up and said [the] Soviets were [the] greatest threat when the Egyptian people saw them as helpful and sympathetic[?] People can be led but only up to a point." On a subject as grave as the threat of international communism, Dulles had little patience for such dissembling. "If Nasser attaches importance to U.S.-Egyptian friendship," he warned Egypt's ambassador, "… he must be willing to pay a domestic political price for such friendship." But things looked rather different when European imperialism was the issue. Urged by an Arab League official "to support the Arab position in the debate on Algeria in the [United Nations] General Assembly," Dulles demurred, remarking "that the public position we might find it necessary to take would probably not reflect exactly our private position…. We could do more effective work privately and quietly rather than having the issue become even more involved and complex through public debate."[46] There was a time and place for moral clarity, and a time and place for creative ambiguity.

Ironically, then, the United States and the Nasserist movement were divided by a shared moral dualism whereby the virtue of promoting international harmony vied with the imperative of shunning repugnant adversaries. This dualism was primarily expressed in attitudes toward third parties, be they Soviet, Israeli, British, or French. There was, however, an additional tension that Americans and Nasserists experienced concerning their dealings with one another. From early 1956 on, each of the two antagonists was under enormous compulsion to press its advantage against the other. Doing so was not only psychologically satisfying but potentially reassuring to pugnacious regional allies. The United States faced constant pressure from the Iraqi and Lebanese governments to toughen its line against Egypt and Syria. Nasser privately grumbled about "Egyptian and Syrian hotheads" who urged him to ratchet up his rhetoric against conservative Arab regimes—pressure to which Nasser all too often succumbed.[47]

Sometimes, however, figures on both sides saw the wisdom of conciliation. A U.S. State Department policy study in March 1958 recommended that the United States work harder to avoid public controversy with Nasser, who "continues to represent the answer to the prayers of many Arabs." After each of the major crises associated with the Eisenhower Doctrine, Eisenhower himself would briefly muse about improving relations with Nasser, though without sufficient conviction to change the course of U.S. policy. In May 1957, after pro-American forces had scored a political victory in Jordan, al-Quwatli privately aired his misgivings over Egyptian and Syrian newspapers' furious reaction to the setback. Such vituperation, al-Quwatli maintained, was merely increasing the regional isolation of the radical Arab camp. Egypt and Syria would do well to follow the example of Britain, which was now seeking to restore its shattered relations with Egypt: "England … is a great nation, yet when it suffered a big defeat [in the Suez war] it did not lash out emotionally but rather worked for understanding in order to achieve whatever result was possible."[48]

As al-Quwatli's comment implied, such self-criticism occasionally transcended pragmatic considerations and touched on starker questions of honor and decency. In the spring of 1956, against a backdrop of rapidly deteriorating U.S.-Egyptian relations, U.S. ambassador to Egypt Henry A. Byroade privately wrote that he was "appalled" by the Eisenhower administration's heavy-handed use of economic pressures to compel a more favorable Cold War position in Cairo. Such an approach, Byroade protested, "really seems to me unworthy of our country's traditions." In November 1957 Ahmed Hussein, Egypt's ambassador to the United States, confessed to an American diplomat that the Egyptian government's verbal attacks on King Hussein were "undignified and disgraceful and [were] blackening Egypt's face in [the] world."[49] On both sides of the divide, however, these franker sorts of introspection were rare.

The struggle over the Eisenhower Doctrine was largely a moral conflict, but one that occurred within a shared moral framework. The United States and the Nasserist movement each proclaimed the virtues of national liberation, political independence, economic empowerment, and international harmony, but they disagreed over when and where those values were at stake. Both parties were willing to consider conciliation with each other, provided it did not compromise their own security, alliances, or basic sense of fairness. Leaders on both sides were rational, resourceful, and selectively principled men, moved less by the need for cultural vindication than by a common desire for justice and advantage. Theirs was a clash of interests and priorities, not of civilizations.

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