Continuing Storm: The U.S. Role in the Middle East

This Special Report is from Global Focus: U.S. Foreign Policy at the Turn of the Millennium, the new Foreign Policy In Focus book that features major foreign policy analysts charting the dimensions of U.S. foreign policy. Also included are provocative essays on U.S. policy in all major global regions and a comprehensive reform agenda. Global Focus is available from St. Martin’s Press.

Throughout the centuries, Western nations have tried to impose their order on the region now commonly known as the Middle East. For certain periods of time they have succeeded, only to find themselves at the receiving end of a popular and oftentimes violent backlash. Now, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the triumph in the Gulf War, the United States stands—at least for a time—as the region’s dominant outside power.

Some in Washington have traditionally argued that because the United States has entered the region eschewing colonial ambitions, championing the rule of law and the authority of the United Nations, and seeking economic growth and political stability, America stands out as a singular and responsible overseer. Most of those in the Middle East and most independent Western observers, however, see the United States’ role as far less benign, citing U.S. support for repressive and corrupt monarchies, the exploitative practices by American oil companies and other multinational corporations, the promotion of a secular and materialistic lifestyle, the highly prejudicial use of the UN Security Council, the arming and bankrolling of a militaristic and expansionist Israel, destabilization efforts against internationally recognized governments, and periodic military interventions.

Whatever the nature of U.S. policy, however, there is no question that the United States recognizes the region’s significance. At the intersection of three continents and the source of most of the world’s petroleum reserves, the Middle East has been described by leading American officials as the most strategically important area in the world. No longer concerned that the region might fall to Soviet influence, the United States is still apprehensive about the influence of homegrown movements that could also challenge American interests. There is a widely perceived, ongoing threat from radical secular or radical Islamic forces, as well as concern over the instability that could result from any major challenges to the rule of pro-Western regimes, even if led by potentially democratic movements. The most crucial part of the Middle East, according to most U.S. policymakers, is the Persian Gulf region, where conservative, pro-Western monarchies feel under threat from the radical regimes in Iraq and Iran and look to the United States for protection.

The Persian Gulf

The six Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf are guardians of valuable oil reserves to which the United States seeks access, not just to supplement American reserves (currently around 18% of U.S. consumption) but as a means of maintaining a degree of leverage over the import-dependent European and Japanese markets. During the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, the United States played the combatants off against each other to ensure that neither of these militant regimes would become too influential. With oil, water resources, and sizable populations, both had the potential to become regional powers that could conceivably challenge American interests. Since 1993, the U.S. has articulated a policy of “dual containment” toward these governments, guarding against potential expansionist ambitions by either against the pro-Western sheikdoms. More recently, however, the extreme hostility toward Iran may be lessening as a result of the election of a more moderate Islamic government in 1997, which has provided a justification for those in Washington already interested in rebuilding ties with the oil-rich and potentially powerful country.

The British had been the dominant power in the Persian Gulf for most of the 20th century, but—in recognition of their decline as a major world power—they announced their military withdrawal from the region in 1969. The United States, which had been increasing its presence in the Middle East since the end of World War II, was determined to fill the void. President Richard Nixon, facing growing opposition to the Vietnam War, knew that sending U.S. combat troops into this volatile region would not be politically feasible. By the early 1970s, antiwar sentiment had lessened, due in part to Nixon’s Vietnamization program, whereby the reliance on South Vietnamese conscripts and a dramatically increased air war had minimized American casualties. As a result, the Nixon Doctrine (also known as the Guam Doctrine or “surrogate strategy”) came into being, wherein Vietnamization evolved into a global policy of arming and training third world allies to become regional gendarmes for American interests.

The Persian Gulf was the primary testing ground, with Iran’s shah—who owed his throne to CIA intervention in the 1950s and had long dreamed of rebuilding the Persian Empire—playing the part of a willing participant. Throughout the 1970s, the U.S. sold tens of billions of dollars worth of highly sophisticated arms to the shah, and sent thousands of U.S. advisors to turn the Iranian armed forces into a sophisticated fighting unit capable of counterinsurgency operations. Such a strategy proved successful when Iranian forces helped crush a leftist insurgency in the southeastern Arabian sultanate of Oman in the mid-1970s.

This strategy came crashing down in 1979, however, with Iran’s Islamic revolution, which resulted from the popular reaction against the highly visible American support for the Iranian regime, the shah’s penchant for military procurement over internal economic development, and his brutal repression against any and all dissent. The vast American-supplied arsenal fell into the hands of a radical anti-American regime. It was then that the Carter Doctrine came into being with the establishment of the Rapid Deployment Force (later known as the Central Command), which would enable the United States to strike with massive force in a relatively short period of time. This extremely costly effort would enable the U.S. to fight a war that would rely so heavily on air power, be over so quickly, and enjoy such a favorable casualty ratio that popular domestic opposition would not have time to mobilize.

This was precisely the scenario for Operation Desert Storm. Though the exact circumstances that would trigger such a war were not known, the military response had in effect been planned for more than a dozen years prior to the Gulf War and was designed in part for domestic political impact. From Washington’s strategic vantage point, it worked well. The massive international mobilization led by the United States forced Iraqi occupation forces out of Kuwait and severely damaged Iraq’s military and civilian infrastructure in less than six weeks and with only several dozen American casualties. The war was a dramatic reassertion of U.S. global power, just as its former superpower rival was collapsing, and it consolidated the U.S. position as the region’s most important outside power.

Ironically, the United States had been quietly supporting Iraq’s brutal totalitarian regime and its leader, Saddam Hussein, through financial credits and even limited military assistance during its war against Iran in the 1980s, including offering components and technical support for programs bolstering the development of weapons of mass destruction. Washington downplayed and even covered up the use of chemical weapons by Saddam’s armed forces against the Iranian military and Kurdish civilians during this period, and the U.S. opposed UN sanctions against Iraq for its acts of aggression toward both Iran and its own population. It was only after Iraq’s invasion of the oil-rich, pro-Western emirate of Kuwait in August 1990 that Saddam Hussein’s regime suddenly became demonized in the eyes of U.S. policymakers and the American public at large.

Since the Gulf War

Even prior to the Gulf War, the United States had thrown its immense military, diplomatic, and economic weight behind the monarchies of the Persian Gulf. Though they rule over less than 10% of the Arab world’s total population, these regimes control most of its wealth. Prior to the war, it was difficult for the United States to engage in military exercises or even arrange a port call without asking for permission months in advance. Not any more.

Figure 1

Oil Reserves and U.S. Imports

Region

Oil Reserves
(billions of barrels)

% of U.S. imports

Middle East 673.7 23.5
(Persian Gulf) (667.0) (23.4)
South & Central America 89.5 .23.2
North America 85.1 29.7
Africa 75.4 16.9
Former Soviet Union 65.4 0.1
Asia/Pacific 43.1 1.7
Europe 20.7 4.4
Sources: BP Amoco, Statistical Review of Worl Energy 1999 (Chicago: BP Amoco, 1999) Available on the internet at: http://www.bpamoco.com/worldenergy/
Energy Information Administration, “Imports of Crude OIl and Petrolium Products into the United States by Country of Origin.” Available on the Internet at: http://www.eia.doe.gov/pub/oil_gas/petrolium/data_publications/
petrolium_supply_annual/psa_volume1/current/txt/table21.txt

There is now an effective, permanent U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf. The financial costs are extraordinary—running between $30 and $60 billion annually, according to conservative estimates—and are shared by the U.S. and the gulf monarchies. Though there appears to be a bipartisan consensus in Washington that there is a clear strategic imperative to maintaining such an American presence, there are critics—even among conservatives—who argue that such a presence is too costly for the American taxpayer and creates a situation where American military personnel are effectively serving as a mercenary force for autocratic sheikdoms.

Most Persian Gulf Arabs and their leaders felt threatened after Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait and were grateful for the strong U.S. leadership in the 1991 war against Saddam Hussein’s regime. At the same time, there is an enormous amount of cynicism regarding U.S. motives in waging that war. Gulf Arabs, and even some of their rulers, cannot shake the sense that the war was not fought for international law, self-determination, and human rights, as the Bush administration claimed, but rather to protect U.S. access to oil and to enable the U.S. to gain a strategic toehold in the region. It is apparent that a continued U.S. presence is welcome only as long as Arabs feel they need a foreign military presence to protect them.

Iraq still has not recovered from the 1991 war, during which it was on the receiving end of the heaviest bombing in world history. The U.S. has insisted on maintaining strict sanctions against Iraq to force compliance with international demands to dismantle any capability of producing weapons of mass destruction. In addition, the U.S. hopes that such sanctions will lead to the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. However, Washington’s policy of enforcing strict sanctions against Iraq appears to have had the ironic effect of strengthening Saddam’s regime. With as many as 5,000 people, mostly children, dying from malnutrition and preventable diseases every month as a result of the sanctions, the humanitarian crisis has led to worldwide demands—even from some of Iraq’s historic enemies—to relax the sanctions. Furthermore, as they are now more dependent than ever on the government for their survival, the Iraqi people are even less likely to risk open defiance. Unlike the reaction to sanctions imposed prior to the war, Iraqi popular resentment over their suffering lays the blame squarely on the United States, not the totalitarian regime, whose ill-fated conquest of Kuwait led to the economic collapse of this once-prosperous country. In addition, Iraq’s middle class, which would have most likely formed the political force capable of overthrowing Saddam’s regime, has been reduced to penury. It is not surprising that most of Iraq’s opposition movements oppose the U.S. policy of ongoing punitive sanctions and air strikes.

In addition, U.S. officials have stated that sanctions would remain even if Iraq complied with United Nations inspectors, giving the Iraqi regime virtually no incentive to comply. For sanctions to work, there needs to be a promise of relief to counterbalance the suffering; that is, a carrot as well as a stick. Indeed, it was the failure of both the United States and the United Nations to explicitly spell out what was needed in order for sanctions to be lifted that led to Iraq suspending its cooperation with UN inspectors in December 1998.

The use of U.S. air strikes against Iraq subsequent to the inspectors’ departure has not garnered much support from the international community, including Iraq’s neighbors, who would presumably be most threatened by an Iraqi biological weapons capability. Nor have U.S. air strikes eliminated that capability. In light of Washington’s tolerance—and even quiet support—of Iraq’s powerful military machine in the 1980s, the Clinton administration’s exaggerated claims of an imminent Iraqi military threat in 1998, after Iraq’s military infrastructure was largely destroyed in the Gulf War, simply lack credibility. Nor have such air strikes eliminated or reduced the country’s biological weapons capability. Furthermore, only the United Nations Security Council has the prerogative to authorize military responses to violations of its resolutions; no single member state can do so unilaterally without explicit permission.

Kurdistan

The U.S. also usurped UN Security Council authority with a series of air strikes against Iraq in September 1996, justifying them on the grounds that Iraqi forces had illegally moved into Kurdish-populated areas of the country that had been under UN protection since Saddam’s brutal repression of the Kurds at the end of the Gulf War. There is reason to believe, however, that these air strikes were not so much for the defense of the Kurds as simply another futile attempt by a frustrated administration to strike back at an upstart dictator who continues to challenge the United States.

The Kurds are a nation of more than 20 million people divided among six countries and containing nationalist movements rife with factionalism. The worst repression against the Kurds in recent years has come from Turkey, a NATO ally, which the U.S. considers part of Europe. Turkey receives large-scale military, economic, and diplomatic support from the United States; during the 1990s, U.S. military aid and arms sales totaled about $10.5 billion. On several occasions in recent years, thousands of Turkish troops have crossed into Iraqi territory to attack the Kurds. Though these incursions also took place in the UN safe zone and have been far greater in scope than Saddam’s 1996 forays, President Clinton supported the Turkish attacks, making his harsh response to Iraq’s incursion appear to be motivated by other than humanitarian or legal concerns.

Although the United States clearly wants Saddam Hussein removed from power, the U.S. and other countries may not want to risk Iraq’s total disintegration. Washington wants neither a victory by a radical Kurdish movement in the north nor a successful rebellion in the south of the country, where an Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim movement has challenged the authority of the Sunni Muslim-dominated government in Baghdad. At the same time, the totalitarian nature of the Iraqi regime renders prospects for internal change unlikely, at least as long as the population is suffering so much economic hardship from the sanctions.

In 1998, the United States successfully pressured Syria to expel Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a radical Kurdish nationalist guerrilla group fighting Turkey for greater autonomy. In February 1999, the United States assisted Turkish intelligence agents in locating Ocalan in Kenya, where he was kidnapped and brought to Turkey to face what virtually all outside observers (the Clinton State Department being an exception) see as unfair judicial treatment.

The U.S.-backed Turkish regime has used the PKK’s sometimes brutal tactics as an excuse to crush even nonviolent expressions of Kurdish nationalism; for example, speaking the Kurdish language or celebrating Kurdish cultural life has been severely repressed. Kurdish civilians have been the primary targets of Turkey’s counterinsurgency campaign. The United States has been largely silent against the Turkish government’s repression but active in condemning what is sees as Kurdish terrorism.

Figure 2

Kurdish Population Estimates: 1997

Country Total population
(in millions)
Kurd Population
(in millions)
% Kurds

Iran 65.0 6.5 10
Iraq 19.3 4.4 23
Syria 13.4 1.1 8
Turkey 65.0 14.3 22
Elsewhere - 2.3 -
Total - 28.5 -

Source: David McDowall, “The Kurds,” Minority Rights Group Report, Washington Kurdish Institute, 1996. Excerpts available on the Internet at: http://www.clark.net/kurd/kurdname.html.

Washington’s military and diplomatic support of Turkey’s repression of the Kurds is quite consistent with U.S. acquiescence to other controversial policies by this NATO ally. The U.S. has blocked enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions 353 and 354 calling for Turkey to withdraw its occupation forces from northern Cyprus. The U.S. has also failed to condemn the Turkish government for widespread human rights violations against its own population. And Washington has refused to even acknowledge the Turkish genocide against the Armenians earlier this century, in which well over one million people were slaughtered. This double standard, which rejects adherence to international law or basic standards of human rights, further undermines U.S. credibility in the region.

Islamist Radicalism

The United States has been greatly concerned over the rise of radical Islamic movements in the Middle East. Islam, like other religions, can be quite diverse regarding its interpretation of the faith’s teachings as they apply to contemporary political issues. There are a number of Islamic-identified parties and movements that seek peaceful coexistence and cooperation with the West and are moderate on economic and social policy. Many Islamist movements and parties have come to represent mainstream prodemocracy and pro-economic justice currents, replacing the discredited Arab socialism and Arab nationalist movements.

There are also some Islamic movements in the Middle East today that are indeed reactionary, violent, misogynist, and include a virulently anti-American perspective that is antithetical to perceived American interests. Still others may be more amenable to traditional U.S. interests but reactionary in their approach to social and economic policies, or vice versa.

Such movements have risen to the forefront primarily in countries where there has been a dramatic physical dislocation of the population as a result of war or uneven economic development. Ironically, the United States has often supported policies that have helped spawn such movements, including giving military, diplomatic, and economic aid to augment decades of Israeli attacks and occupation policies, which have torn apart Palestinian and Lebanese society, and provoked extremist movements that were unheard of as recently as 20 years ago. Similarly, the United States has taken the lead in encouraging the adoption of neoliberal economic policies by a number of Middle Eastern governments. Such policies have destroyed traditional economies and turned millions of rural peasants into a new urban underclass populating the teeming slums of such cities as Cairo, Tunis, Casablanca, and Teheran. Though policies of free trade and privatization have resulted in increased prosperity for some, far more people have been left behind, providing easy recruits for Islamic activists rallying against corruption, materialism, and economic injustice.

It is also noteworthy that in countries that have allowed Islamic groups to participate more fully in the democratic process — such as Jordan, Yemen, and, for a time, Turkey — Islamists have played a largely responsible role in parliamentary politics. It has only been in countries where democratic rights are seriously curtailed that Islamists have adopted the more radical, militaristic, and antidemocratic forms that the U.S. finds so disturbing. Many Islamic movements, such as those in Egypt, Palestine, and Algeria, include diverse elements that would span the ideological spectrum if they were allowed to function in an open, democratic system.

In a response that bears striking similarity to the perceived Communist threat during the cold war, however, the standard U.S. reaction to radical Islamic movements appears to be to support authoritarian regimes in imposing military solutions to what are essentially political, economic, and social problems. The result of such a policy may be to encourage the very extremist forces Washington seeks to curtail.

What has made such policies particularly difficult to challenge is the role of influential elements in the American intelligentsia and foreign policy establishment, as well as certain Christian fundamentalist leaders, who have played upon the widespread prejudice many Americans have regarding Islam to create a popular antipathy toward Muslims that justifies hard-line policies toward Muslim countries, peoples, and organizations. Given the size and importance of the world’s Islamic population, however, the development of a more enlightened policy is crucial.

Terrorism

The U.S. has highlighted the threat of terrorism from the Middle East, billing it as America’s major national security concern in the post-cold war world. Washington considers Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Libya to be the primary sources of state-sponsored terrorism and has embarked on an ambitious policy to isolate these regimes in the international community. Syria’s status as a supporter of terrorism has ebbed and flowed not so much from an objective measure of its links to terrorist groups as from an assessment of their willingness to cooperate with U.S. policy interests, indicating just how politicized “terrorist” designations can be.

Figure 3

U.S. Trade Balances with Middle East, 1998
(billions of $U.S.)

Country

1998

Algeria 0.9530
Jordan -0.2872
Kuwait 0.0700
Morocco -0.3360
Tunisia -0.3100
Israel 2.8000
Oman -0.0538
Saudi Arabia 1.2000
Syria -0.1400
United Arab Emirates -1.4000
Regional Trade Balance with U.S. 2.4960
Note: The 1998 figure for Egypt was not available and would significantly affect the region’s trade balance. For 1997, Egypt had a trade deficit of $3.146 billion with the United States.

Source: U.S. State Department 1998 Country Reports on Economic Policy and Trade Practices, Near East. Available at: http://www.state.gov/www/
issues/economic/trade_reports/
neareast98/index.html

The U.S. war against terrorism has been hampered by double standards. During the 1980s, for example, the Nicaraguan contras—armed, trained, and effectively created by Washington—were responsible for far more civilian deaths than all terrorist groups supported by all Middle Eastern countries combined. In addition, the most serious single bombing attack against a civilian target in the history of the Middle East was the March 1985 blast in a suburban Beirut neighborhood that killed 80 people and wounded 200 others. The attack was ordered by CIA director William Casey and approved by President Ronald Reagan as part of an unsuccessful effort to assassinate an anti-American Lebanese cleric. The U.S. role in the bombing, which was widely reported throughout the Middle East and elsewhere, has lent Washington’s crusade against Middle Eastern terrorism little credibility in much of the world. (Though the initial report of U.S. involvement made the leading front-page headline of the New York Times and was described in detail in Bob Woodward’s book Veil, it is rarely ever mentioned by so-called experts on Middle Eastern terrorism in the United States.) The perpetrators have never been brought to justice.

Libya has long been a major target of the United States regarding international terrorism. In 1992 and 1993, the United States successfully pushed through a series of sanctions by the United Nations Security Council against the government of Libya for its failure to extradite two of its citizens to Great Britain or the United States, where they face criminal charges in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland in 1988. Libya cited both the absence of any extradition treaty with the United States or Great Britain and concerns over the likelihood of an unfair trial. Libya and the United States reached a compromise agreement in 1999 to extradite the suspects to the Netherlands for trial before a Scottish judge; UN sanctions were suspended but unilateral U.S. sanctions continue.

What apparently provoked the terrorists who destroyed the airliner was the 1986 American bombings of two Libyan cities, in which scores of civilians were killed. The U.S. justified the air strikes on the grounds that they would prevent future Libyan-sponsored terrorism, an ironic justification given the subsequent event. What is less well-known is the fact that the U.S. has similarly refused to extradite several American citizens charged with acts of terrorism. Both Venezuela and Costa Rica, for example, have outstanding warrants for CIA-connected individuals linked to a series of terrorist attacks in Latin America, including the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner, in which several dozen passengers were killed.

Figure 4

Middle East Trade with U.S.
(as % of total external trade)

Country

1998

Algeria 11.23
Jordan 5.52
Kuwait 14.89
Morocco 4.13
Tunisia 2.74
Egypt N/A
Israel 26.33
Oman 4.73
Turkey 6.84
Saudi Arabia N/A
Syria 2.60
United Arab Emirates 4.40
Regional % Trade with U.S. 13.365
Source: U.S. State Department 1998 Country Reports on Economic Policy and Trade Practices, Near East. Available at: http://www.state.gov/www/issues/
economic/trade_reports/

More recently, the United States has focused attention on the activities of Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi millionaire orchestrating a number of terrorist cells operating out of the Middle East. Ironically, many of the key players in these terrorist networks originally received their training and support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency when they were mobilized to fight the Soviet-backed communist regime that ruled Afghanistan in the 1980s. In August 1998, the United States bombed suspected terrorist bases in Afghanistan—originally built by the CIA—in an effort to cripple Bin Laden’s movement. The U.S. simultaneously bombed a civilian pharmaceutical plant in Sudan under the apparently mistaken belief that it was developing chemical weapons that could be used by these terrorist networks. Given the highly questionable strategic value of such air strikes, these responses seem to be little more than foreign policy by catharsis. Though strong intelligence and interdiction efforts are important in the fight against terrorism, such impulsive military responses are likely to merely continue the cycle of violence.

Another source of concern for the Clinton administration is the use of terrorism by Palestinian extremists determined to disrupt the peace process. Although both suicide and the taking of civilian life are explicitly proscribed in the Islamic faith, such prohibitions have not stopped underground movements from organizing several deadly suicide bombings against civilian targets in Israel. The United States has pressured Palestinian authorities to crack down still harder on Islamic dissidents, including those not directly involved in acts of violence. Repression alone, however, will not work. Such desperate acts of terror erupt not from any outside conspiracy or from any inherent cultural or religious base, but from a people frustrated that the economic prosperity and national independence promised by Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat as a reward for Palestinian nonviolence and moderation has not been forthcoming. Some Palestinians have committed acts of terrorism for the same reasons as did some Kenyans, Algerians, and Zimbabweans: they feel that they are prevented from attaining their national freedom nonviolently. Indeed, the Zionist movement produced its share of terrorist groups during the Israeli independence struggle against Britain in the 1940s, with two prominent terrorist leaders—Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir—later becoming prime ministers. As long as the U.S. and Israel oppose Palestinian statehood, such attacks will not end.

Israel and its Neighbors

Figure 5

U.S. Aid to World Regions
(thousands $U.S.)

Source: USAID Congressional Presentation, Fiscal Year 1999, Summary Tables.

One area where the Clinton administration has received high praises in the mainstream media is in its pursuit of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Yet the U.S. has, in large part, hampered rather than promoted the peace process. For over two decades, the international consensus for peace in the Middle East has involved the withdrawal of Israeli forces to within internationally recognized boundaries in return for security guarantees from Israel’s neighbors, the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and some special status for a shared Jerusalem. Over the past thirty years, the Palestine Liberation Organization, under the leadership of Yasir Arafat, has evolved from frequent acts of terrorism and the open call for Israel’s destruction to supporting the international consensus for a two-state solution. Most Arab states have made a similar evolution toward favoring just such a peace settlement.

However, the U.S. has traditionally rejected the international consensus and currently takes a position more closely resembling that of Israel’s right-wing governments: supporting a Jerusalem under exclusive Israeli sovereignty, encouraging only partial withdrawal from the occupied territories, allowing continuation of the illegal policies of confiscation of Palestinian land and the construction of Jewish-only settlements, and rejecting an independent Palestine. As a result, there are serious questions as to whether the United States can actually serve as a fair mediator in the conflict. A more neutral arbiter, such as the United Nations, might better serve the peace process in the Middle East.

Although successive U.S. administrations have—on occasion—criticized certain Israeli policies and actions, Washington is more likely to come to Israel’s support. For example, the U.S. has blocked enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions calling for Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon and has defended Israeli attacks on Lebanese villages—in retaliation against Muslim guerrillas fighting Israeli occupation forces—even when such attacks have resulted in large-scale civilian casualties. Washington also refuses to insist upon Israeli withdrawal from the Golan region of Syria, even after the once-intransigent Syrian regime finally agreed to international demands for strict security guarantees and eventually normalized relations with Israel in the early 1990s. Regarding the Palestinians, the interpretation of autonomy by Israel and the United States has thus far led to only limited Palestinian control of a bare one-tenth of the West Bank in a patchwork arrangement that more resembles American Indian reservations or the infamous Bantustans of apartheid-era South Africa than anything like statehood.

Most observers recognize that one of the major obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace is the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. However, the U.S. has blocked enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions calling for Israel to withdraw its settlements from Palestinian land. These settlements were established in violation of international law, which forbids the colonization of territories seized by military force. In addition, the Clinton White House—in a reversal of the policies of previous administrations—has not opposed the expansion of existing settlements and has shown ambivalence regarding the large-scale construction of exclusively Jewish housing developments in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem. Furthermore, Clinton has secured additional aid for Israel to construct highways connecting these settlements and to provide additional security, thereby reinforcing their permanence. This places the United States in direct violation of UN Security Council resolution 465, which “calls upon all states not to provide Israel with any assistance to be used specifically in connection with settlements in the occupied territories.”

The Struggle for Democracy

The growing movement favoring democracy and human rights in the Middle East has not shared the remarkable successes of its counterparts in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia. Most Middle Eastern governments remain autocratic. Despite occasional rhetorical support for greater individual freedoms, the United States has generally not supported tentative Middle Eastern steps toward democratization. Indeed, the United States has reduced—or maintained at low levels—its economic, military, and diplomatic support to Arab countries that have experienced substantial political liberalization in recent years while increasing support for autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, and Morocco. Jordan, for example, received large-scale U.S. support in the 1970s and 1980s despite widespread repression and authoritarian rule; when it opened up its political system in the early 1990s, the U.S. substantially reduced—and, for a time, suspended—foreign aid. Aid to Yemen was cut off within months of the newly unified country’s first democratic election in 1990.

Figure 6

Military vs. Economic Aid to the Middle East FY 1999 (est.)

Source: The Secretary of State, Congressional Appropriations for Foreign Operations 2000 (Washington, DC: Department of State, 1999).

Despite its laudable rhetoric, Washington’s real policy regarding human rights in the Middle East is not difficult to infer. U.S. aid to Israel increased during the 1980s, when the Israeli government’s repression in the occupied territories reached record levels. In addition, American occupation forces failed to stop widespread repression—even lynchings—of Palestinian residents in Kuwait immediately after liberation from Iraq. Aid to Morocco grew as that country’s repression in occupied Western Sahara (and even within Morocco itself) continued unabated. The U.S. largely welcomed the 1992 military coup in Algeria that nullified that country’s first democratic elections. Washington has pressed Syria, an authoritarian government undergoing some gradual liberalization, to crack down even harder on left-wing Palestinian groups based in Damascus who were critical of the U.S.-led peace process. The Clinton administration has also pressured the Palestinian authorities to engage in active suppression against both Islamic and secular opposition groups within areas of their administrative jurisdiction. Whatever the actual intentions of the U.S., the message to Middle Eastern countries appears to be that democracy is not important.

The Middle East is the destination of the majority of American arms exports, creating enormous profits for politically influential weapons manufacturers. Despite promises of restraint, U.S. arms transfers to the region have topped $50 billion since the Gulf War. Joe Stork, in a survey for the Middle East Research and Information Project, argues that the ongoing Middle Eastern arms race continues for three reasons: 1) arms sales are an important component of building political alliances, particularly with the military leadership of recipient countries, 2) there is a strategic benefit arising from interoperability—having U.S.-manufactured systems on the ground in the event of a direct U.S. military intervention, and 3) arms sales are a means of supporting military industries faced with declining demand in Western countries. One episode revealing the facade of the security argument justifying increased weapons sales occurred during a 1993 off-the-record seminar involving assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy, top Saudi officials, and the vice-chairman of the board of Morgan Guaranty (the bank that organized the financing of Saudi Arabia’s 1991 war effort), where it was acknowledged that arms transfers had little to do with the objective security needs for the Saudi kingdom.

To link arms transfers with human rights records would lead to the probable loss of tens of billions of dollars in annual sales for American weapons manufacturers, who are among the most powerful special interest groups in Washington. This may help explain why the United States has ignored the fact that UN Security Council resolution 687, which the U.S. has cited as justification for its military responses to Iraq’s possible rearmament, also calls for region-wide disarmament efforts, something the United States has rejected.

With the exception of Israel, which has provided an exemplary democratic system for its Jewish citizens, none of America’s allies in the region could really be considered democracies. Yet none require democratic institutions in order to fulfill American strategic objectives. Indeed, the opposite may be true: the Middle Eastern countries that most vigorously opposed the U.S. war against Iraq in 1991—Jordan and Yemen—were the two Arab states with the most open political systems. Most observers acknowledge that close strategic cooperation with the United States tends to be unpopular in Arab countries, as are government policies that devote large sums toward the acquisition of weapons, most of which are of U.S. origin. Were these leaders subjected to the will of the majority, they would likely be forced to greatly reduce arms purchases from and strategic cooperation with the United States. As the British-based Middle East specialist Dilip Hiro explains, the United States does not actually support democracy in the Middle East because “it is much simpler to manipulate a few ruling families (and to secure fat orders for arms and ensure that oil prices remain low) than a wide variety of personalities and policies bound to be thrown up by a democratic system.” Elected governments might reflect the popular sentiment for “self-reliance and Islamic fellowship.”

It is undeniable

An associate professor at the University of San Francisco, Foreign Policy In Focus senior analyst Stephen Zunes is an expert on Middle Eastern history and politics.