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The Middle Eastern Muddle

Ropes of Sand: America’s Failure in the Middle East

by Wilbur Crane Eveland
Norton, 382 pp., $14.95

Arabia, the Gulf and the West: A Critical View of the Arabs and Their Oil Policy

by J.B. Kelly
Basic Books, 530 pp., $25.00

Mistakes in foreign policy, like beauty, tend to be in the eye of the beholder, Nowhere is this more apparent than in Western policy toward the Middle East. Such partisan attitudes prevail on the respective Arab and Israeli causes that one side’s right almost automatically becomes the other’s wrong. All too often serious attempts to criticize policies attract a barrage of prejudice that merely obscures the issues at stake.

There are two basic and interlocking issues: first, the Arab struggle against Israel to secure Palestinian rights—with its reverse side, Israel’s right to exist in a hostile region; and second, Western strategic concern to obtain access to oil supplies. In substance these issues have been present since the partition of Palestine and the establishment of Israel in 1948. However, it has taken three Arab-Israeli wars, a major shift in the power of Arab oil, combined with a Palestinian refusal to be cowed into obscurity, for these issues to be seen with any degree of clarity. Carter is the first US president to mention the rights of the Palestinians as a central element in the Middle East; while talk of the need for an “even-handed” policy is an inherent admission of the bias that previously existed.

Partly from a greater sense of original sin, partly because they are so much more dependent upon Arab oil than the US, the Europeans have been quicker to see the issues. But now the Europeans can do little more than play the Fool to King Lear in Washington. Hence it is important for a constructive debate to take place within the US on Middle East policy which does not get distorted by the differing lobbies. In their own very separate ways, both of the books under review provide provocative material for such a debate.

The two authors look at what they regard to be the failures of Western policy in the Middle East from wholly different points of view. Wilbur (Bill) Eveland is a former CIA adviser and former member of the policy planning staffs of the White House and Pentagon with responsibility for the Middle East. J.B. Kelly, a New Zealander by birth, is an academic, who has written two previous books on the Gulf. Drawing on his own experience, Eveland is concerned essentially with the failures of successive US administrations to understand the Middle East—with particular emphasis on the Dulles era.

Instead of adopting policies based upon recognition and consideration of the aspirations and rights of the overwhelming majority of the people of the area, we attempted to establish two small states—first Lebanon and then Israel—as models for the rewards for supporting American efforts to prevent the spread of communism and Arab nationalism. These efforts not only failed to stifle the ideologies we opposed but also placed in jeopardy the survival of the two states America selected as its allies.

This thesis will find a strong echo of support among Arabs of all political persuasions. Not because such an observation is new; but because it comes from someone who has had firsthand experience of how decisions on the Middle East are formulated. Eveland’s view is, in fact, the quiet complaint of Middle East hands whose advice had consistently been ignored or overridden in Washington.

Kelly, on the other hand, has no time for such a “soft” view. He sees Western policy toward the Middle East in the Sixties and Seventies as a failure because the Western imperial role has not been sustained. The West, he says, has lost its will to use its power—rather than had its power diminished by Arab oil. It has itself to blame for no longer being able to protect vital oil supplies and global security against the encroachment of the Soviet Union and its allies. The rot set in when Britain ignominiously pulled out of Aden in 1967 and since 1970 neither the Western governments nor their oil companies have been able to say boo to OPEC. As a result we are all paying the price:

It is doubtful whether at any time in the history of mankind a group of intrinsically insignificant politics at a comparatively primitive stage of economic, political and social development have possessed such enormous powers as the handful of Gulf states.

The tone throughout Kelly’s book is polemical and he clearly revels in propounding his unfashionable thesis of “stand up and fight.” He displays open contempt for the Arabs, even though he himself once was an adviser of Sheikh Zaid of Abu Dhabi in his frontier dispute with Saudi Arabia. The confrontation between the Arabs and the West he ultimately reduces to an unfinished version of the crusades.

Much of what he says is notable not for its content but for its elegant verbal wrapping. Indeed he gets so carried away with his command of language that at times it is hard to tell whether things are said for effect or because he genuinely means them. His message, though, will be music to the ears of the right-wing supporters of Ronald Reagan and for the Western polemicists who feel that the industrialized world is being unnecessarily humiliated and blackmailed by the Arabs—and the Iranians. He would have made his points more effectively in a pamphlet than in a lengthy book. One cannot take very seriously (or at least I cannot) the conclusions of a man who writes:

in the shallowly cynical and infinitely knowing intellectual atmosphere of Britain in the 1960s all that was traditional, long established or revered was deemed only fit for mockery, contumely or delegation to oblivion.

This refers to the people who were knocking the Pax Britannica and sapping the will to rule the waves. Yet there was good reason to raise questions after the disastrous Suez venture, arguably Britain’s last real act of imperialism. It is also hard to accept the opinions of a book about the Arabs and oil and the West which contains only thirteen pages mentioning Israel and five references to the PLO. His attitude to arabophiles is shown by his evident scorn of James Akins, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, when he writes:

That Akins felt strong sympathy for—one might almost say, identification with—the beliefs and aspirations of Arab nationalism is now more or less public knowledge.

For Kelly an official like Eveland also presumably falls into the same category. Yet it would be unfortunate to dismiss Eveland with a slur. His book is clearly the product of much thought, prodding from friends, and a deep affection for, and knowledge of the Middle East. Ropes of Sand has attracted publicity because of Eveland’s tangles with the CIA over clearance of the manuscript. (He has gone ahead and published without the agency’s authorization after lengthy delays to all his requests for clearance.) But he is no disgruntled employee trying to get his own back on the CIA, but rather someone who wants to offer the considered wisdom of his experience.

Eveland was an active participant in US Middle East policy during the years 1953-1958. This was a seminal stage, witnessing three principal phenomena; first, the rise of Arab nationalism championed by Gamal Abdul Nasser; secondly, Britain’s forfeiture of its dominant position in the region to the US; lastly, the first political gains of the Soviet Union. At the outset of this period the US possessed most—if not all—the necessary cards not only to persuade Israel to accommodate its Arab neighbors but also to ensure a solid relationship with the emergent Arab nations. America was untainted by a colonial past in the region and America was regarded as a source of great hope. For its part the Soviet Union was deeply mistrusted. On the one hand there persisted a residual suspicion by the Islamic Arabs of a regime that was communist. (Syria was the sole country with a legalized communist party.) On the other hand, the Arabs had not forgotten Moscow’s vote in favor of the establishment of Israel—a vote given by the Soviets in the belief that the new socialist state would prove a potential weapon to good British imperialism.

This period has been no better covered than in Patrick Seale’s Struggle for Syria written over fifteen years ago.1 The former CIA agent Miles Copeland also wrote about some of the same events in his Game of Nations.2 But neither Seale nor Copeland had the same inside track as Eveland. In November 1954 he was sent out to Cairo on what became known as the Gerhardt-Eveland mission, a trip sponsored by the Pentagon to discuss the sale of arms to Nasser. The failures surrounding this mission were to have a direct and profound influence on subsequent events.

Nasser was desperate for arms. The Egyptian armed forces were in poor shape and unable to prevent humillating Israeli raids across the border into Gaza. No weapons could be expected from Britain, Premier Anthony Eden regarded Nasser as a dangerous fanatic, hell-bent on destroying British interests in the area. Besides, the British were bound to temper any military aid to Egypt against their needs to bolster the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq, a country central to Britain’s presence in the area. The US secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, was attracted to the idea of giving limited arms to Nasser. In this way he thought the Egyptians would join the Free World’s fight against the spread of “International Communism” (he always capitalized these two words). His brother Allen, running the CIA, had his own reasons for bolstering Nasser. The CIA was flush after having just restored the Shah of Iran to his Peacock Throne. Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt, head of CIA operations in the Middle East, had helped the Free Officers Movement in Egypt and had become a friend of Nasser. Thus the arms deal would reinforce the value of the CIA’s first Arab “property” which also happened to be astride the Middle East. These two factors, combined with the CIA’s close liaison with Israeli intelligence, Mossad, offered the prospect of gaining definitive ascendancy over their rival British “cousins.”

Against this background, Eveland was authorized to offer Nasser some $30 million worth of military aid. This was much less than Nasser had hoped for, Because of Kermit Roosevelt’s special position in Washington, with direct access to both the Dulles brothers, Nasser thought both that the offer would be bigger and that corners could be cut and the Israeli lobby silenced. Nasser moreover was espousing nonalignment and did not share John Foster Dulles’s view of the common enemy. For Nasser the proclaimed enemy was not communism but Zionist expansionism. Also a condition of the American offer was that he accept American advisers, something which he found unacceptable, having only just expelled the British from the Canal Zone. Nasser’s response therefore was cool and Eveland’s mission stalled. This allowed the British time to lodge their objections with Dulles and Eisenhower.

  1. 1

    Patrick Seale, The Struggle for Syria (Oxford University Press, 1965).

  2. 2

    Miles Copeland The Game of Nations (Simon and Schuster, 1970).

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