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

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…

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