Document:Western Power And The Middle East

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Disclaimer (#3)Document.png working paper  by Denis W. Healey
Subjects: Middle East
Source: Bilderberg/1984

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Working Paper Prepared by The Rt. Hon. Denis W. Healey, Member of Parliament, (UK)

"Decisive action in the hour of need

Denotes the hero, but does not succeed".

- Hilaire Belloc

The recent fiasco of President Reagan's policy in the Lebanon is not the first failure of Western power in the Middle East. In 1956 Britain and France were even more drastically humiliated at Suez. Nor is official doubletalk an American monopoly. Many of the Near East's present problems spring from contradictory commitments made during the First World War by the British Government to the Arabs, the French, and the Jews.

Plain ignorance has been responsible for many Western blunders; Foreign Secretary Herbert Morrison thought Kuwait was an island in the Persian Gulf. But President Reagan has added a new dimension to misunderstanding by claiming that "the Soviet Union underlies all the unrest that is going on. If they were not engaged in this game of dominoes, there would not be any hot-spots in the world." So it was America's "duty to stop the cancerous spread of Soviet influence" in the Middle East, and the continued presence of American troops in Lebanon was "central to our credibility on a world scale."

The background

In fact the Middle East has been ravaged by war and revolution for three thousand years long before the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace. Religion has played a major role in the Middle East for the second half of that period. Like the Christians in Europe, the Moslims were often more cruel to those who espoused another sect of their own religion than to the Christian and Jewish minorities among them. The Christians themselves in the Middle East often shared the prevailing savagery. When Warren Austin appealed at the United Nations to the Jews and Arabs to behave like Christians, did he foresee the massacre at Chatila camp?

Since the Crusades, Western attempts to establish a physical presence in the Middle East have never lasted long. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire gave Britain and France the opportunity to create new states to serve their national objectives. But the frontiers of the new states have always been disputed, and sometimes divide peoples, like the Kurds and Syrians, who have a strong sense of national identity.

By the end of the Second World War loyalty to these artificial states was being challenged by the new concept of pan-Arab unity. Oddly enough this concept was first developed by American missionaries in Nineteenth Century Beirut, and derived new impetus in the late Thirties from the writings of Christian Arabs. For 20 years President Nasser inflamed the imagination of the Arab masses throughout the Middle East with his appeal to "Arabiya". But he failed to make a reality even of Egypt's union with Syria. The Arab League today is torn by internal strife; only the fight against Israel provides a narrow basis for unity.

The new Muslim fundamentalism

In 1984 both the traditional monarchies and the military dictatorships in the Middle East are threatened by a new form of Muslim fundamentalism which has gained massive reinforcement from the revolution in Iran. Small conspiracies of Muslim fundamentalists had already produced the bloody uprising in Hama against the Assad regime in Syria, had assasinated Sadat, and had captured the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The new type of fundamentalism, which looks to the Ayatollah Khomeini, may well become a mass movement of social revolt in many Muslim countries since it appeals to the Shi'a Muslims, who, though numbering only 90 million as against the 650 million Sunni, form a majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrein and Lebanon. It was the Shi'a who provided the most effective terrorists in Lebanon, and in the end took over Southern Beirut with their Amal militia - who wear Khomeini badges although their leader is a Westernised moderate. So far the Shi'a in Iraq seem loyal to the regime, but if Iran looked like winning the Gulf war they might well change sides, and the effects would be felt in most of the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia.

Muslim fundamentalism is already absorbing pan-Arab nationalism in much of the Middle East; but it spreads far beyond the Arab world, witness the recent riots in Eastern Nigeria and the burning of the American Embassy in Pakistan. It is profoundly xenophobic, hates the Soviet Union as much as the U.S., and has a curiously mixed attitude to Israel, which it treats on the one hand as an outpost of ungodly Western imperialism, on the other as an example of what can be achieved by a politicised religion which can mobilise the masses.

The impotence of external powers

This brief caricature of the Middle East, past and present, may serve at least to explain why Western policy has had so many defeats there since the war. But Soviet policy has fared no better. Russia's alliance with Egypt collapsed like the Western alliances with Iraq and Iran. Soviet influence in Damascus is no more absolute than American influence in Jordan - or in Israel. Moreover the ability of the Middle Eastern states themselves to exert effective power beyond their own frontiers is severely limited. Syria has been unable to produce an internal settlement in Lebanon. Israel's attempt to control Lebanon by force has reduced her security and cost her nearly 600 dead, compared with nine killed in cross border raids in the previous three years. The idea that Moscow could "incorporate the region into the Soviet bloc" is as fanciful as the idea that America could incorporate the Middle East into NATO.

The most that external powers can hope to achieve is to prevent the instability endemic in the area from jeopardising their major interests. For the West those interests include continued access to oil from the Gulf and the security of Israel behind recognised frontiers. Neither of these interests is shared by the Soviet Union. But Russia has one major interest in the Middle East which she shares with the West: to ensure that the superpowers are not dragged into direct conflict with one another by the action of Middle Eastern states which they cannot control. And she has one major interest which the West does not share: to prevent a victorious Muslim fundamentalism from rousing the Muslim peoples of Soviet Central Asia and Afghanistan. I believe these shared interests could form the basis of limited cooperation between Russia and the West at least in the Gulf area if not, immediately, in the Near East.

The Threat to Gulf Oil

The war between Iraq and Iran could lead to the interruption of oil supplies from the Gulf at any moment. The West might survive an interruption of some weeks by drawing on existing stocks, including America's strategic reserve. If the interruption lasted some months, it would be a disaster, not only for the countries which need Gulf oil, particularly Japan, but for the whole economic and financial system of the Western world. The debtor countries could not survive the consequent increase in the price of oil to some $100 a barrel, and a further rise in the value of the dollar. Widespread default could then bring down the whole of the private banking system. The West would have to take physical action at some stage before that to reopen the Gulf. But the Gulf is part of Russia's backyard. Bahrein, like Beirut, is only half as far from the Soviet frontier as Grenada from the American. It would be essential to secure Moscow's understanding and at least her acquiescence in advance of any Western use of force. Otherwise fighting between Russia and the West could not be excluded. It is by no means inconceivable that Russia would give the necessary understanding. In principle she has a major interest in freedom of passage through inland seas, since her access to the oceans depends largely on passage through the Baltic and Mediterranean.

Controlling the arms traffic

Talks between the West and Russia on keeping the Gulf open might well be broadened to consider other aspects of great power policy in the Middle East. If neutralisation of the region was too difficult to start with, the great powers should at least discuss the possibility of controlling arms supplies. All the dangers presented by instability in the Middle East are increased by the recent unbridled competition between the external powers in supplying arms. Russia, America and China have supplied both sides in the Gulf War. The most likely scenario for closure of the Gulf assumes that Iraq fires French Exocets from French SuperEtendard aircraft to destroy the Iranian oil terminals on Kargh Island and that Iran retaliated by sowing French mines in the Gulf from French torpedo boats. There are already signs that Western powers may be supplying Middle Eastern states with what they need to produce chemical and nuclear weapons.

In an area so unstable, where loyalties are so fragile, the political damage caused by such behaviour must outweigh any economic gain. Soviet cooperation in controlling arms supplies is a sensible objective for the West. Russia did not attempt to overturn the postwar Tripartite agreement between Britain, France and the U.S. to limit arms supplies to Israel and her Arab neighbours until the West challenged Soviet security by bringing Iraq and Iran into the Baghdad Pact.

The need for Soviet cooperation

In 1977 Secretary Vance offered Gromyko the prospect of cooperation in the Middle East. The Russians were ready to accept until the Camp David agreement undermined the basis of their understanding.

Perhaps now is the time to try again. With the multinational forces finally withdrawn from Lebanon, a greater United Nations' role is highly desirable. But that requires support from the Soviet Union. King Hussein may be right in believing that the forthcoming elections in Israel could create a window of opportunity for a new attempt to achieve a Palestinian settlement. Such a settlement too would be far easier with Soviet understanding than without it. Experience should have taught Russia as well as the West that the application of external power in the Middle East is rarely succesful and never for long - particularly while the region is the theatre for competition between the superpowers. The collapse of existing policies should give us all a chance to think again about the scope for cooperation rather than confrontation as a means of securing our interests.