Sheik Ahmad Zaki ai Yamani
Sheik Ahmad Zaki ai Yamani; drawing by David Levine

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.

The Russians, conscious of the opportunity, offered to supply arms to Egypt through Czechoslovakia. Nasser held off on this offer as long as he felt was prudent and even called in Kermit Roosevelt in one last effort to resuscitate the deal. But to no avail. Eveland’s account confirms both Copeland’s and Seale’s versions that Nasser was driven into accepting Soviet military aid. He did not deliberately identify himself with Soviet ideology. Yet this was largely how his action was interpreted at the time, and reinforced by the subsequent Soviet financing of the Aswan High Dam.

John Foster Dulles never forgave Nasser and thereafter saw his Arab nationalism as synonymous with communism. This suited the British because they were out to topple Nasser; and it was equally convenient for the Israelis, forming the basis of one of their principal arguments to obtain support from the West: Israel was a bastion against the spread of Soviet influence in the area. Thus the contrary argument was buried. Namely that the desire of the Arabs to arm against Israel, and the West’s refusal to help them do this, or to deal with the Arab claims against Israel, accounted for the spread of Soviet influence in the area.

The tarring of the principal Arab state with a Soviet brush persisted in the minds of many Western politicians and commentators until President Sadat sent the Soviets packing in 1972. The Israelis were also able to convince successive US administrations of a “fortress Israel” policy that involved a conscious buildup of their military might so as to be always militarily superior to the Arabs, thus allowing them to be increasingly intransigent over peace negotiations—a situation which still persists. It also led to a general mistrust of dealing with Arabs, which in turn made the US pin more support on non-Arab Iran.

Eveland was involved in a somewhat similar military mission to Syria in the summer of 1955. He was sent there by the CIA to see what could be done to shore up the conservative groups in that country against the gains of the left-leaning Ba’ath Party. He suggested to Allen Dulles that a helpful gesture would be to supply 1,700 heavy-duty trucks and 850 cargo trailers to the Syrian armed forces. He flew especially to London to meet with Allen Dulles, urging that unless this request were granted Syria would, like Egypt, turn to the Soviets. This deal falled, as did the bid, subsidized by the CIA and negotiated by Eveland, to build Syria’s first refinery at Home. Eveland maintains that Allen Dulles during these crucial moments was reluctant to alert his brother to advice from Americans in the field who were skeptical of the bellicose line of the British, the wishes of France then involved in the Algerian war, or some of the claims of Israel.

In this atmosphere Eveland describes an extraordinary meeting in London with British Intelligence heads in March 1956. At this meeting, he says, the British proposed the overthrow of the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. First would come the fall of the Syrian regime, to be achieved by Turkey moving troops to its common border with Syria, while Iraq stirred up trouble among Syria’s desert tribes and antigovernment elements infiltrated from Lebanon. This was part of the destabilizing background that led up to Suez. Because he knew Syria, Eveland was to be a glorified bagman, making contact with Syrian politicians ready to overthrow their government. The man selected was Michail Ilyan, a rich pro-Iraqi politician, and Eveland in a “totally unprofessional operation” drove across from Lebanon into Syria with 500,000 Syrian pounds in the trunk of a Ford. Belatedly the coup date was postponed by five days and scheduled for October 29. This happened to be the day that Israel, with British and French blessing, invaded Sinai. Eveland recounts how a dismayed Ilyan contacted him saying the coup was off:

“How could you have asked us to overthrow our government at the exact moment when Israel started a war with an Arab state?”

Despite his position, Eveland had no advance warning of the Suez venture and implies that the CIA was perhaps wholly ignorant of British-French plans to occupy the Canal with Israeli assistance, hoping thereby to topple Nasser, Intriguingly he suggests that one of the Syrian plotters might have been working for British intelligence who arranged the coup to coincide. If the British plot had worked, Syria would have had a pro-Western and pro-Iraqi government; if it falled the Americans would have carried the can—so weakening US ability to condemn the Suez venture. Perfidious Albion!

The withdrawal from Suez left the US the effective champion of Western interests in the Middle East; and tailored to this new situation was the Eisenhower Doctrine propagated in January 1957. America committed itself to protecting any Middle Eastern state that requested assistance “against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by International Communism.” The doctrine, a pure John Foster Dulles product, was a logical follow-up to the Soviet action in Hungary and the gains he perceived the Soviets were making in the Middle East. The fundamental weakness of this doctrine was that it ignored the jungle of Inter-Arab rivalries (dynastic, ideological, territorial, and often of long standing) and imposed cold war labels on nationalist politics. Moreover, It was scarcely designed to do what needed to be done, which was to win back states like Egypt and Syria. Nasser for one was not prepared to go along with the line “you are either for or against us.” The Arab states in the light of Suez were, he believed, more threatened by Israel and Western imperialism.

In carrying out this doctrine Eveland had a minor part in another attempted coup in Syria. This failed, leading the Syrians to invite the KGB to organize their security and to expel US diplomats, the first time this had been done by an Arab country. Eveland had a more important mission when the US tried to shore up the pro-American regime in Lebanon against the Intrigues of Syrian and Egyptian agents. Eveland was then the contact man with President Chamoun, connected by a direct two-wave radio to the palace. But he was working for the CIA, not the State Department. While in 1958 the CIA was backing Chamoun to stay on in office at least until the presidential elections, the US ambassador, Robert McClintock, was supporting the army commander, Fuad Shehab.

Mounting unrest between Christians and Moslems in Lebanon produced the first and only application of the Eisenhower Doctrine. Shortly after the Hashemite monarchy was overthrown in a bloody revolution in Baghdad, Chamoun called in the US marines. He feared that the Syrians might use the situation in Iraq as an excuse to move into Lebanon, whose frontiers it had never formally recognized. Instead of checking the inevitable march of International Communism, the US had been drawn into a complex inter-Arab and national conflict. One of Eveland’s most important contentions is that the US Middle East policy became sidetracked into exploiting inter-Arab disputes rather than seeking to resolve the problem of Palestinian rights and establish a binding Arab-Israeli peace. Even now the same argument could be applied to Camp David. Detractors of the agreement argue that it has merely served to neutralize Egypt, and skirted the fundamental issues separating Arabs and Israelis. The step-by-step diplomacy of Dr. Kissinger served the same end.

Ropes of Sand also has pertinent comments on the workings of the CIA and the State Department. The US entered the Middle East with only a small group of Arabists, who became embittered at the scant attention given their views. Because of Britain’s presence in the region, there was a natural tendency, certainly at the top, to defer to British views and British intelligence assessments. The CIA was also heavily indebted to Mossad, Israel’s intelligence bureau. In the early days of the cold war, the US intelligence gathering operation in Eastern Europe relied extensively on Mossad’s contacts. This in turn led them to defer to Mossad on Middle East intelligence. Thus during the years when a new pattern of power was taking shape in the Middle East, the CIA did not have a sufficient capacity for independent evaluation of intelligence. This dependence on or deference to friendly intelligence services helps to explain why the CIA was caught unaware by the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and more recently by the revolution in Iran.

Another weakness of the CIA at this time was the huge influence of Kermit Roosevelt, who preferred covert operations to the more tedious work of evaluating intelligence piece by piece. Indeed the CIA during this period tended to attract persons with a Boy Scout fascination for cloak and dagger activities. Roosevelt’s self-congratulatory account of the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran epitomizes this.3 (Eveland Incidentally voices a view, considered bitchy within the CIA, that much of the groundwork for the return of the Shah in 1953 was done by the British.) The respective authority of the CIA and the State Department was never clearly defined—and one suspects it still is not. Thus when the arms deal with Nasser fell through there was a highly regarded ambassador in Cairo but the CIA did all the running. If the deal had been left to the ambassador in the first place, Nasser might have gained a more realistic view of what he could expect.

But Eveland’s catalogue of failures ignores the fact that America has nevertheless managed to retain a position of power in the Middle East. Kelly glosses over the same facts of US power in his scenario for the decline of the West. There are four basic reasons for continuing US power. First, a group of conservative Arab states, especially in the Gulf, remain deeply suspicious of Soviet intentions. They are not even willing to attempt to balance one Great Power against another and prefer to hold on to their friendship with the US as the lesser of two evils. Secondly, the ruling elites of the Arab world have been educated, and continue as a general rule to be educated, in European countries or America. They are aware that the West has more to offer in goods and technology than the Eastern bloe. Thus even those states considered “radical” have built up important trading links with European and American concerns. Thirdly, the US is considered the one country capable of pressuring Israel into a settlement, even though such pressure has yet to be used. Fourth, the US, largely through ARAMCO, has built up a powerful presence in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter.

The US presence in Saudi Arabia is examined in depth by Kelly, primarily with a view to demonstrating how the Americans set out to supplant the British, Kelly, incidentally, often refers to the unfortunate effects of Anglo-American rivalry in the Middle East. Eveland makes the same point, though from an American view. This rivalry was an undercurrent in many decisions and is an aspect of policy that should perhaps be given more public attention than it has had.

In the Saudi case, King Ibn Saud was weary of the British both for their control over the two branches of the Hashemite family (in Iraq and Jordan) and their administration of the Lower Gulf whether in the Trucial States, Oman, or Aden. In the US, Ibn Saud saw a more accommodating ally. His chief courtier, H. St. John Philby (father of Kim Philby), had a grudge against the British government and encouraged American interests. This left the field open for the American oil companies—subsequently organized as ARAMCO—to establish an extraordinary position. ARAMCO became the kingdom’s “surrogate banker” and it effectively managed US policy toward the al Saud family and the kingdom itself. ARAMCO’s desire to extend its empire of oil exploration coincided with the al Sauds’ desire to settle historic tribal territorial disputes, especially over the Buraimi Oasis. This led to constant friction with the British.

The Saudis were not unhappy to see the British pull out from Aden in 1967. By implication, Kelly suggests that the US raised no serious objection to the decision of the Wilson government to leave part of the West’s vital oil route without secure protection. The US was already working toward the idea that future security in the Gulf was best guaranteed by building up the twin pillars of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The logic of this policy, which the Shah of Iran enthusiastically embraced, was that Britain’s military presence in, and administration of, the Lower Gulf became increasingly untenable.

Officially Britain withdrew from the Gulf in 1971 because it was ending its role east of Suez and because it could not afford the costs of staying on, Kelly, rightly, demolishes this reasoning as superficial. The Gulf rulers were more than willing to pay the cost of the British presence, which was a paltry sum anyway. Kelly argues convincingly that Britain could no longer afford to alienate the Iranians and the Saudis who dangled fat civil and military contracts so that Britain would let them have a free hand in the other Gulf states. (Britain had blocked Iran’s claim on Bahrain for instance.) Kelly also maintains that Britain was struck by post-imperial palsy and simply gave up the idea that it could—or should—continue to exercise influence through a military presence. That British withdrawal created a vacuum is not in doubt. Nor is there now much confidence that Iran and Saudi Arabia are able to provide the necessary security for Western oil supplies, especially after the Iranian revolution. This is implicitly recognized by recent US moves to beef up the Indian Ocean Fleet and secure base agreements with Kenya, Oman, and Somalia.

But Kelly errs in suggesting that a) Britain could have stayed on; b) that Britain left the region naked to aggressive actions; c) that this was the catalyst spurring oil price rises. For Britain to have stayed on would have involved formidable domestic political risks. The secrecy under which British troops were kept in Oman after 1971 is good evidence of this. They were meant not to be fighting the Dhofar rebels, but merely advising. (The initial deaths were concealed as traffic accidents.) Also Britain risked being the subject of a hostile reaction throughout the region if its forces were used in a local conflict. The argument that the presence of British troops would have added to the stability of the Gulf area could just as well be turned on its head.

Nor did Britain leave the area naked to aggressors. British military officials remained as advisers, usually key ones; and the British continued to help to maintain, and often run, the Internal security in Gulf nations. This is still the case today in the Lower Gulf, especially in what is now the Union of Arab Emirates. As for Kelly seeing in Britain’s departure the catalyst that set in motion a new balance in the relationship between producers and consumers of oil, this would seem exaggerated. Undoubtedly it contributed to the feeling, especially among the hawks in OPEC such as Algeria, Iran, Iraq, and Libya, that they were in the ascendant. But these hawks were pressing for higher prices either to finance ambitious economic development or to set right what they regarded as an unfair economic relationship heavily weighted in favor of the oil companies and the consuming countries—or both.

Kelly maintains that concerted action by Western governments and oil companies in 1970/1971 could have prevented the balance of power tipping to the producers in OPEC. It is an argument worth advancing but ultimately is riddled with wishful thinking. The industrialized countries did not, and do not, have homogenous supply requirements or financial resources. This makes solidarity hard to achieve and the unity now shown over Iran has only come after several years of experience. In the early Seventies too the inherent conflict between the major oil companies and the independents was open for exploitation, Libya, which began the price leap, frogging in 1970/1971, cleverly played the independents off against the majors. Independent companies in Libya, such as Occidental Petroleum, were desperately dependent, in some cases wholly dependent, on Libya as a source of crude supply and were willing to bid up the price. In a market system, as Lenin pointed out, the capitalist will even sell the hangman’s rope.

Kelly openly advocates the use of a trade and technical aid embargo to counter Arab “blackmail” on oil. This is difficult to organize against one country, vide Iran; but on a collective basis it becomes much harder. It also goes counter to genuine efforts to elaborate a fairer set of rules governing the international distribution of wealth. For Kelly the North-South dialogue would seem to be useless posturing by a guilt-ridden West and without any substance. For him there is no possibility of basing security upon a community of mutual and interlocking interests. The Arabs are not to be trusted, and it is better for the West to make sure that it continues to consume the lion’s share of the world’s resources without any reciprocal responsibility.

Basically one suspects that Kelly’s puritan conscience, nurtured on the capitalist work ethic, cannot adjust to the shock of OPEC’s wealth—“Ill-gotten gains” unscrupulously acquired “without a scintilla of effort, skill or capital.” What he chooses to forget is that the very possession of these resources has provoked instability and suffering in these countries and continues to make them objects for the designs of the consuming nations. The Allies invaded Iran, for instance, in 1941, forcing the late Shah’s father to abdicate in order to secure access to Iranian oil. The Algerian struggle for independence lasted for two extra years primarily because France was intent on retaining control over the Saharan oil fields. It is also worth mentioning that if these nations did not take control over their oil resources, they would be exploited according to the needs of the oil companies and the consumers.

Where Kelly’s voice does deserve to be heard, however, is in his critical view of the near panic that seized many Western politicians and commentators after the quadrupling of oil prices in 1973. The brutal awakening of the industrialized countries to the vulnerability of their economies to a shortfall in oil supplies led to overreaction. This took the form of a sudden and obsequious deference to the masters of the oil tap. Kelly cites with justification the caviling statements of politicians and articles by journalists anxious to please, desperate to obtain contracts to prop up their flagging domestic economies. Every word of the Saudi Oil Minister, Sheikh Ahmad Zaki ai-Yamani, was chronicled—and still is—with awe. If people defer to you, it is only natural to feel flattered and important, assuming the status that is offered. The West offered OPEC the role of arbiters of its economic fate, and now OPEC is playing that role—and playing it far better than one would expect from Kelly’s book.

This Issue

October 23, 1980