U.S. Strategic Reach in the Middle East

Key Problems

  • Washington’s goals in the Middle East involve support for Israel, assuring oil flow, and ensuring political stability for economic growth.
  • Ensuring reliable U.S. military access for intervention in the region and beyond means increasing military aid and arms sales, and supporting military solutions to regional instabilities.
  • U.S. is guarantor/sponsor of troubled Israeli-Arab peace process.

Since World War II, U.S. priorities in the Middle East have focused on assuring access to oil and, after 1948, the defense of Israel. With the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s, the U.S. emerged as the unchallenged superpower in the region. Since then, Washington has also pushed efforts to create a stable, growing market economy open to U.S. and allied investment. The U.S. seeks region-wide stability and a lowering of the levels of political and military conflicts that have plagued the Middle East.

U.S. strategy revolves around the defense of Israel (see In Focus: the U.S. and Israel). Israel depends on continuing U.S. economic aid and unswerving political support even in periods of Israel’s regional or international isolation. In turn, the U.S. counts on Israel to act as a reliable collaborator in strategic political and economic goals both within and beyond the Middle East. The two countries also cooperate on military research and development and share certain high-technology advances. Middle East oil imports, though only 9% of U.S. needs, remain crucial for the United States. Given its role as guarantor of Middle East oil for Japan and Europe, Washington maintains its dominant world position. The U.S., Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf kingdoms have negotiated an agreement that links oil supplies with strategic protection. Since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, U.S. strategy to protect oil sources and Israel has relied on dual containment—preventing both Iran and Iraq from emerging as independent regional power centers.

The U.S. initiated the 1990-91 Gulf War in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, both to demonstrate that it would not tolerate challenges to its power in the region and to reaffirm the sanctity of oil supplies. Since that war, U.S.-led moves to punish Iraq through economic sanctions have left Iraq devastated. The U.S. opposes lifting the military and economic embargoes against Iraq, even though its threat to the region has been removed. The U.S. continues to provide military support to the oil-rich Gulf monarchies that repress growing domestic opposition resulting from government corruption, Islamist rejection of rapprochement with Israel, and serious human rights violations. The U.S. also provides military and economic support both to pro-Western governments facing similar challenges in Jordan and Egypt, as well as to several Arab states of North Africa.

After the Gulf War the U.S. launched a major set of diplomatic initiatives in the region; it is the main sponsor of the Israeli-Palestinian (and other Israeli-Arab) negotiations known as the Oslo peace process. Yet Washington’s political and economic promises to the Palestinians remain largely unfulfilled; Israel has realized Oslo’s major gains by normalizing relations with Turkey and most Arab countries and gaining an end to the Arab boycott. The U.S. remains actively engaged in attempting to keep the often-faltering Palestinian peace process alive.

U.S. economic aid in the region—a key instrument of U.S. influence—goes primarily to Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan. The first three also account for most U.S. military assistance, while Israel and Egypt alone receive 43% of the total 1996 U.S. foreign aid budget.

While encouraging Turkey’s recent expansion of economic and military ties with Israel, the U.S. has expressed its unease with historically secular Turkey’s new Islamist-led coalition government. Since taking office in mid-1996 the Turkish government has improved ties with Iran and Libya; it refused to back the Clinton administration’s September 1996 bombing of Iraq and has continued to mobilize other nations for an end to the oil embargo against Iraq, which has cost Turkey billions of dollars in trade since the Gulf War.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

  • Washington’s narrow definition of regional stability ignores violations of fundamental justice, which spurs further instability.
  • The U.S.-sponsored peace process has frozen because of U.S. double standards.
  • The U.S.-backed impunity of Israel’s regional aggression, hegemonic ambition, and nuclear arsenal reduces Washington’s credibility with other regional players and leaves it vulnerable to attacks by those who see the U.S. as pro-Israel and anti-Arab.
  • U.S. response to serious human rights violations throughout the region is inadequate and discriminatory.
  • Massive U.S. arms sales in an already over-armed region further distorts local economies and fuels popular opposition in the pro-U.S. Arab countries.

By limiting its political efforts in this strategically important and volatile region to a narrowly defined quest for stability, the U.S. has largely abandoned crucial issues of fundamental justice. The current neglect of important issues, such as the illegal occupation of territory by force and the need to prevent human rights and national rights abuses committed by allies as well as opponents, sets the stage for continued instability and a long-term reduction of U.S. influence in the region.

Recent U.S. strategy in the Middle East has centered on promoting the Oslo peace process. In fact, while Oslo was ostensibly based on UN resolution 242 and its call for an exchange of land for peace, the U.S. abandoned that formula, instead accepting Israel’s view of a “peace for peace” exchange that does not require Israel to relinquish land it occupied in 1967. Although Israel, Jordan, and Palestine have signed treaties under Oslo, the actual process has failed to set the economic or political conditions for a durable peace in the region.

The U.S. claims only an interest in insuring that the Oslo process continues, stating that results are “up to the parties.” It has refused to pressure Israel to make serious concessions—or even to implement agreements already signed. As a result, the U.S. has lost some credibility on the Arab street, while opposition forces simultaneously challenge pro-U.S. governments throughout the region.

On the pivotal Israeli-Palestinian front, the immediate problem lies with the refusal of Israel’s rightwing Netanyahu government, elected in May 1996, to implement key agreements signed by the former Labor government, including pulling most Israeli troops out of Hebron and releasing Palestinian prisoners. Instead, Israel has opted for a program of 1) settlement expansion, 2) closing the Palestinian territories, and 3) ending all Palestinian rights in Arab East Jerusalem.

As a result, many Palestinians and some Israelis dismiss the Oslo accords themselves as insufficient to meet even a minimum level of Palestinian rights. U.S. acquiescence to these Israeli provocations appears to demonstrate a double standard in regional power struggles. It calls into question U.S. claims to act as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians.

Serious human rights violations continue throughout the region. Many governments routinely ignore democratic norms, including elections, free speech, and freedom of religion. Corruption and rich/poor disparities are on the rise. Israeli military personnel, and occasionally Palestinian authorities, imprison Palestinians, often torture them, and hold them without trial.

In Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, monarchies maintain absolute control, and women are especially victimized. While the U.S. appropriately excoriates abuses in Syria, Iran, and Iraq, it has refused to use its leverage in the region to stop or even call attention to similar abuses perpetuated by allied governments.

Largely because of massive arms sales to Washington’s closest allies, the Middle East region receives the largest proportion of all U.S. arms transfers. Throughout the 1980s Washington sold arms to both sides of the Iran-Iraq War. From 1992-96, the Middle East accounted for 64% of U.S. arms sales. The U.S. also maintains six military bases in the region, with more than 37,000 U.S. troops stationed there, and in the fall of 1996 at least 33 U.S. ships were patrolling in the area.

This is especially dangerous as internal tensions in the already overarmed region heat up. The unacknowledged 200 plus nuclear bombs in Israel’s Dimona plant constitute another threat to regional stability. The Israeli nuclear arsenal provides Arab governments with justification for their massive diversion of revenues to fund conventional arms build-ups. But Washington’s willingness to ignore the Israeli threat in the Middle East strengthens the prevalent Arab view that the U.S. practices a dangerous double standard.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recomendations

  • The U.S. should insist that signatories implement the regional pacts they have accepted; the failing Oslo process should be replaced or amended to include a serious commitment to the formula of land for peace.
  • Human rights violations should not be tolerated; U.S. economic and military aid should be conditioned on adherence to signed agreements and acceptance of basic human rights standards.
  • Double standards should be ended, and the U.S.-Israel special relationship should not lead to U.S. endorsement of Tel Aviv’s violations of international law.

Beyond defending Israel and containing Iran and Iraq, U.S. strategy in the Middle East should include plans that address the needs of the region’s poor. Military responses to every challenge to U.S. dominance, such as the periodic air strikes against Iraq, do little to solve the underlying conflicts and serve to isolate the U.S. within and outside of the region. And the U.S. efforts to open a region-wide market economy must include efforts to mitigate some of the exploding gaps between have and have-not countries and peoples.

The U.S. has staked its prestige and international influence on its sponsorship of the Oslo peace process. Only the U.S. has the power to insist that all signators implement the terms of the agreements without delay. Specifically, this means ignoring domestic political pressures and doing whatever is required to assure Israel’s compliance with all aspects of the agreements signed by its previous government, including those involving Hebron and Palestinian prisoners. The U.S. should also ensure that deliberate provocations by any signator–such as Israel’s recent opening of a tunnel alongside Islamic shrines and its rampant settlement expansion programs–are unequivocally and evenhandedly condemned, and that steps are taken to reverse such actions.

In the longer term, the U.S. must take the lead in shaping a new framework for regional peace based directly on UN resolution 242′s call for the exchange of land for peace. The U.S. must also ensure that the exchange really is land for peace, not merely an Israeli grant of municipal authority for peace.

Concretely this means the U.S. should:

  • Support the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, alongside a secure Israel.
  • Insist on the end of Israel’s occupations of southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights in return for full peace.
  • Ensure equitable access to regional water resources.
  • Help to create a reasonably level economic playing field for the poorer countries in the region (Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and others) long excluded from international economic advances.

The U.S. should include the Europeans as full partners in this new effort. They are closer to the region geographically and economically and have broad credibility with all sides. The U.S. should also end its exclusion of UN involvement in Middle East negotiations. Since Washington has taken primary responsibility for bringing peace and stability to the Middle East, its policy must go beyond mere continuation of talks to implrementation of comprehensive solutions.

The U.S. should respond to human rights abuses committed by allies such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority, with exactly the same resolute condemnation it heaps on opponents such as Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Libya. Future U.S. aid should be made explicitly contingent on implementation of human rights norms without allowing the excuse of special circumstance exceptions. By taking a strong stand against human rights abuses committed by its allies, the U.S. will go far in winning popular support among local populations, and the sometimes violent opposition to a U.S. presence in the region will be undermined.

The U.S. should reassess policies designed to undermine Iraq and isolate Iran. It should maintain the arms embargo against Iraq but lift the drastic economic/oil sanctions, which have punished the Iraqi people far more than the regime. It should engage Iran economically and exploit political openings.

The Middle East is already over-armed. The U.S. should discourage poor countries like Egypt and Jordan from expending scarce resources on expensive weapons, and U.S. aid should be diverted from military assistance to developmental uses. The U.S. should no longer allow wealthy, repressive states–such as Saudi Arabia–to have unlimited access to advanced weapons systems, when such access is based on unsubstantiated fear of future Iraqi aggression. Military aid to Israel, a major arms developer itself, should be drastically decreased.

This is the time to question the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel. Although the U.S. should not ignore the decades of a close political/military alliance and Israel’s place in U.S. domestic politics, the time has come to face the fact that the strategic bond is derived from U.S. underwriting of Israel’s now robust economy. The fledgling Israel of yesteryear has become a powerful Israel-in economy and defense. Israel no longer needs or merits automatic support regardless of how provocative, aggressive, or violative of international norms Israeli actions may be.

Nor can that partnership legitimize U.S.-backed Israeli impunity in the regional context. Just as Israel normalizes its relations with once-enemy Arab states, the U.S. must normalize its relations with an Israel once deemed immune to any criticism. An equitable and unbiased policy in the Middle East is incompatible with Washington’s continued protection of and uncritical support for Israel.

Written by Phyllis Bennis, Institute for Policy Studies Fellow.