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424 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 1 map, notes, bibl., index

$34.95 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2737-1

Published: Fall 2002

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American Orientalism
The United States and the Middle East since 1945

by Douglas Little

Copyright (c) 2002 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


Gideon's Band in the Holy Land
We're Not in Kansas Anymore

The people stared at us every where, and we stared at them. We generally made them feel rather small, too, before we got done with them, because we bore down on them with America's greatness until we crushed them. . . .

If ever those children of Israel in Palestine forget when Gideon's Band went through there from America, they ought to be cursed once more and finished. It was the rarest spectacle that ever astounded mortal eyes, perhaps.

--Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869)

Crush USA

--Graffiti in Karachi, Pakistan, New York Times, 30 September 2001

On a crisp and cloudless Tuesday morning in September 2001, two Boeing 767 jetliners commandeered by Arab terrorists streaked across the New York skyline and slammed into the World Trade Center. Ninety minutes later the twin glass and steel towers imploded, killing nearly 3,000 office workers, firemen, and passersby and crushing whatever collective illusions of innocence or omnipotence Americans may have had. In ways that few could ever have imagined, Osama bin Laden and his Afghan-based terrorist network al-Qaeda had brought the Middle East to America. As rescue workers probed the smoldering rubble in lower Manhattan and policymakers in Washington hammered out plans for military retaliation against bin Laden and his Taliban allies, President George W. Bush[1] posed a question that most Americans were already asking themselves: "Why do they hate us?"

The president's answer came during a nationally televised address nine days after the tragedy. "They hate our freedoms--our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other," Bush asserted on 20 September. "These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life," he insisted. "They stand against us, because we stand in their way."[2] Although Bush's remarks seemed to capture a contemporary truth, the full answer to his question was deeply rooted in the past. Some initial clues had surfaced 130 years earlier, when Mark Twain and a band of self-styled pilgrims hailing from Boston, St. Louis, and points west first brought America to the Middle East. In June 1867 Twain hurried down Wall Street and clambered aboard the first-class steamer Quaker City bound for the Holy Land, where he and his fellow travelers stumbled into terra incognita. Although his voyage took place more than a century before the Middle East became a national obsession, Twain provided Americans with an enduring portrait of an unpredictable and unforgettable region at the moment when the United States was beginning to emerge as a world power.

U.S. interests in the Middle East have deepened since Twain first steamed east across the Atlantic, but in some respects American attitudes have changed very since the nineteenth century. The public at large, of course, is now far more likely to get its information from CNN or the New York Times than from an epic travelogue like Innocents Abroad. The hundreds of students who have attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem or American University in Beirut, the thousands of emigrants who have made new lives for themselves in Israel, and the tens of thousands of tourists who have touched the Wailing Wall or surveyed the ruins at Luxor have helped create a more nuanced picture of the Middle East in the United States. And the oil executives, national security managers, and academic experts who shape U.S. policy today have a far better grasp of the cultural, ideological, and commercial forces at work in the Middle East than did the passengers aboard the Quaker City.

Yet early in the new millennium many Americans remain frustrated by the slow pace of social change, disturbed by the persistence of political autocracy, and appalled by the violent xenophobia of groups such as al-Qaeda emanating from a part of the world whose strategic and economic importance remains unsurpassed. From the dawn of the Cold War through the twilight of the twentieth century, U.S. policymakers insisted time and again that Islamic radicals, Israeli prime ministers, and Iraqi dictators had merely misunderstood America's good intentions and that better understanding would produce better relations. Over the years, however, critics from Tel Aviv to Tehran have retorted that they understood those intentions all too well and that the peculiar blend of ignorance and arrogance that characterized U.S. policy would effectively prevent Americans from ever truly understanding the region and its peoples.

The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 constituted both a brutal reminder of how very different the Middle East is from the Middle West and a stunning confirmation that, as Dorothy told Toto in The Wizard of Oz, "We're not in Kansas anymore." Having spent his boyhood on the other side of the river in Missouri, Mark Twain would have known this intuitively. Indeed, Twain was among the first to interpret the U.S. relationship with the Middle East as the byproduct of two contradictory ingredients: an irresistible impulse to remake the world in America's image and a profound ambivalence about the peoples to be remade. I explore that irony in the pages that follow.

The definition of the Middle East employed here is expansive and encompasses not merely Israel, the Arab states, and Iran but also the Muslim lands stretching from the Sahara Desert to the Khyber Pass and from Algeria to Afghanistan. Although it is intended to be of interest to specialists in diplomatic history and area studies, this book is also designed to provide the general reader with a broad understanding of the political, cultural, and economic considerations that have influenced U.S. policy since 1945. In recent years some outstanding monographs have appeared on topics such as multinational oil, the special relationship with Israel, and the Iranian revolution.[3] Some fine case studies have been written on the Suez crisis, the Six Day War, and the conflict in the Persian Gulf.[4] Most overviews of U.S. policy, however, have been long on chronology and short on analysis and have usually sacrificed depth for breadth.[5]

American Orientalism combines the best of both approaches through a series of eight thematic chapters that, read in sequence, tell the story of America's relationship with a very complicated region. Each chapter is devoted to a single topic and is designed to stand alone, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But each chapter also touches on a broader aspect of diplomatic history with relevance beyond the Middle East (for example, the persistence of racial and cultural stereotypes, the rise of the national security state, and the challenges of modernization in the Third World). Taken as a whole, then, this book helps make sense of the complex and sometimes inconsistent attitudes and interests that determined U.S. policy in the region.

The central premise of Chapter 1 is that if one wishes to understand America's encounter with the Middle East after 1945, one must appreciate the cultural baggage and the racial stereotypes that most Americans carried with them. A quick look at eighteenth- and nineteenth-century popular culture shows that Muslims, Jews, and most other peoples of the Middle East were "orientalized" and depicted as backward, decadent, and untrustworthy. By 1900 anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic sentiments were as American as apple pie. During the early twentieth century, businessmen, missionaries, and archaeologists reinforced this orientalist outlook, with help from popular magazines like National Geographic. With the coming of the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the founding of Israel, however, anti-Semitism abated somewhat, and Jews were "westernized" while Arabs and Muslims were "demonized" as anti-Western terrorists. By the late 1990s these more complicated orientalist messages were being projected not only onto America's movie screens through Hollywood blockbusters such as Schindler's List and True Lies but also into America's living rooms through nightly news footage that contrasted telegenic Israeli moderates with ruthless, rich, or radical Arabs.

Notwithstanding such orientalist imagery, the most recognizable symbol of the Middle East for most Americans has probably been the oil well. After briefly tracing the emergence of the international oil industry, Chapter 2 zeroes in on the question of whose interests have been served by multinational corporations. During the quarter-century after 1945, policymakers and oil executives developed a symbiotic relationship that allowed the United States to provide aid and exert influence in the Arab world while keeping shareholders and friends of Israel relatively happy. What was best for Exxon and Texaco seemed also what was best for America, and vice versa. With the emergence of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) after 1970, however, corporate and national interests diverged sharply. Many on Main Street and Capitol Hill attributed the ensuing energy crunch to collusion between greedy Arab sheiks and profit-hungry multinational corporations, who conspired to cut back output, jack up prices, and fleece American consumers while U.S. policymakers were preoccupied with Cold War crises. Outraged at having their loyalty called into question, oil executives screamed foul, pushed patriotic themes in their public relations, and blamed America's energy woes principally on the special relationship between the United States and Israel.

America, of course, has had a special relationship with Israel, and that relationship has created problems with the Arab oil states. A common faith in democratic values and an uncommon reliance on interest group politics have been the glue binding Americans and Israelis together since the late 1940s. Chapter 3 shows that what made that relationship truly special, however, was Israel's development of nuclear weapons and its potential to serve as America's strategic asset in the Middle East. Once the United States became convinced that the Israelis possessed both the will and the way to build an atomic bomb, conventional arms sales became part of a concerted but ultimately unsuccessful U.S. effort to convert Israel into a regional partner and prevent it from going nuclear. Although the Israelis never really accepted the notion that what was good for the United States was necessarily good for the Jewish state, down through the 1991 Gulf War both sides acknowledged that geopolitics was at least as important as interest group politics in shaping the special relationship.

Cultivating Israel as America's geopolitical asset seemed more and more essential for U.S. policymakers as they struggled to prevent the Soviet Union from filling the vacuum created by Britain's slow-motion withdrawal from its empire east of Suez after 1945. Chapter 4 traces U.S. efforts to contain the Soviet Union by utilizing the newly created Cold War "national security state" to enforce what amounted to a Monroe Doctrine for the Middle East. The Truman Doctrine envisaged the United Kingdom providing the military muscle and the United States bankrolling a regional security system that stretched from Turkey to Pakistan. The Suez crisis, however, showed that U.S. and U.K. interests were not identical, and America moved to convert Britain into its junior partner under the Eisenhower Doctrine during the late 1950s. Following the Labour Party's decision to liquidate the remnants of British imperialism during the 1960s, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson laid the groundwork for what would become the Nixon Doctrine, a "twin pillars" policy in which Iran and Saudi Arabia would serve as anti-Soviet regional proxies. But after the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 revealed the limitations of such an arrangement, U.S. officials decided to stand alone with the Carter Doctrine, a policy reminiscent of President Harry Truman's approach, with America cast in Britain's role.

Although such doctrinal thinking may have helped keep the Soviets out of the Middle East, it could not hold back the rising tide of revolutionary nationalism that surged out of Egypt and swept through the Arab world after 1945. Chapter 5 suggests that America's ambivalent reaction to Gamal Abdel Nasser's nationalist revolution was rooted in deep misgivings about radical political change that dated from the nineteenth century. After Nasser seized power in July 1952, U.S. officials hoped he would become a Middle Eastern Thomas Jefferson. But his nasty divorce from Whitehall over Suez and his noisy flirtation with the Kremlin thereafter led the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower to dismiss him as at best the Egyptian equivalent of Alexander Kerensky and at worst the Egyptian equivalent of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Despite a brief display of sympathy for the devil during the Kennedy years, LBJ and his advisers regarded Nasser and like-minded revolutionary nationalists as Arab equivalents of the Viet Cong and welcomed Israel's attempt to cut them down to size in June 1967.

Chapter 6 argues that the United States hoped to avoid a replay of revolution in Egypt by modernizing and reforming traditional Muslim societies from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. Relying on modernization theories similar to those at the heart of JFK's Alliance for Progress in Latin America, U.S. policymakers deluded themselves into thinking that by initiating evolutionary change in Iraq, Libya, and Iran, they could make revolutionary change unnecessary. In Baghdad the Eisenhower administration worked with Britain to reform the Hashemite monarchy, only to touch off a revolution of rising expectations punctuated by a series of ever more bloody coups that eventually brought Saddam Hussein to power. In Tripoli U.S. officials encouraged King Idris to modernize his regime, only to trigger an anti-Western revolt led by Muammar al Qaddafi. And in Iran Kennedy, Johnson, and President Richard M. Nixon invested heavily in the shah's "White Revolution," only to be repaid with an Islamic backlash led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In short, America's attempt to modernize the Middle East backfired, igniting the very revolutions it was supposed to squelch and inadvertently sparking a bloody war in the Persian Gulf between Iran's thoroughly traditional Ayatollah Khomeini and Iraq's brutally modern Saddam Hussein.

The Iran-Iraq War ended in stalemate in 1988 without significant U.S. military involvement. Two years later, however, President George Bush would send a half-million GIs to Saudi Arabia after "the butcher of Baghdad" invaded Kuwait. Chapter 7 shows that the 1990-91 Gulf War must be understood not merely as a response to Saddam Hussein's smash-and-grab tactics but also as a reaction to the "Vietnam Syndrome" that had curtailed armed U.S. intervention in regional conflicts for nearly two decades. The Middle East had actually served as the testing ground for an early application of the doctrine of "limited war" in 1958, when Eisenhower sent the Marines to Beirut and back in just 100 days. But the model of controlled escalation so central to Ike's success in the Middle East eventually produced disaster in Southeast Asia, where LBJ's no-win war left both the public and policymakers in the United States wary of military intervention anywhere. The Ronald Reagan years were marked by abortive efforts to reverse that mentality from the Shouf Mountains of Lebanon to the sea lanes of the Persian Gulf. With the overwhelming victory in Operation Desert Storm, the White House claimed that America had finally kicked the Vietnam Syndrome. But George Bush's reluctance to march on Baghdad in 1991 and President Bill Clinton's equivocal policies in the Balkans eight years later suggested that antiinterventionism remained alive and well in Washington.

If the U.S. victory in the Gulf War did not quite cure the Vietnam Syndrome, it certainly helped pave the way for Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiations during the 1990s. Chapter 8 argues that for more than fifty years the U.S. prescription for an Arab-Israeli settlement has been based on one simple truth: If there is to be an end to bloodshed, both Arab and Jew must accept the principle of "peace for land." From 1947 to 1967 the Arabs rejected this principle and, as Abba Eban said, never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy all floated some variant of the peace-for-land formula only to be greeted with Arab intransigence. After the Israelis conquered the Sinai, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights during the 1967 war, however, they seemed to lose interest in the American formula. After fifteen years of unabashed expansionist policies from Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, the other Yitzhak--Rabin--finally put the Jewish state back on the path to compromise with the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Despite high hopes that the breakthrough in the land of the midnight sun would mark the dawn of a new era of peace and reconciliation between Arab and Jew, the final years of the old millennium brought a season of rising frustrations for all parties. To be sure, the swift establishment of a Palestinian Authority led by a "new" and seemingly more pragmatic Yasser Arafat raised hopes that Israel had at last found a reliable negotiating partner. The assassination of Rabin in November 1995, however, rapidly polarized the Jewish state between Benjamin Netanyahu, a right-wing opportunist who irritated Washington by backing away from the peace-for-land formula at the heart of the Oslo process, and Ehud Barak, who rallied Israeli voters to the banner of peace in May 1999 with help from Rabin's widow and the man in the Oval Office. But when Bill Clinton convened a "minisummit" at Camp David fourteen months later, Barak's maximum offer fell short of Arafat's minimum demands, the peace talks deadlocked, and the Israelis and Palestinians blamed each other. When violence rocked the West Bank and Gaza with Arafat's tacit blessing in September 2000, Israeli support for Barak's conciliatory policies plummeted, and the electorate swung toward hard-liners such as Ariel Sharon, whose victory at the polls in February 2001 signaled that the Jewish state was shifting its strategy from "peace for land" to "peace through strength."

Dismissing Clinton's eleventh-hour bid to broker an Israeli-Palestinian settlement as little more than diplomatic grandstanding, George W. Bush saw no hope for resolving the Middle East conflict in the near future and distanced himself from the peace process during his first months in office. The inability of Clinton or Bush to break the Arab-Israeli stalemate would have come as no surprise to Mark Twain, who had toured the Middle East eighty years before America's forty-second and forty-third presidents were born. Unlike most of the other passengers aboard the Quaker City, Twain was a shrewd judge of character and a lifelong student of irony who observed that wherever they went, from Damascus to Jerusalem to Cairo, Americans tended to underestimate the resourcefulness of Arabs and Jews while overestimating their own Yankee ingenuity. This seemed to him a prescription for frustration that, under the wrong circumstances, might tempt Uncle Sam to bear down on the peoples of the Middle East with America's greatness until it crushed them. To a very great degree the United States succumbed to that temptation after 1945, unleashing a dynamic whose most significant unintended consequence was Osama bin Laden's monstrous bid to crush the United States on 11 September 2001. This book explores the impact of that dynamic on five decades of U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

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