Chapter 27


THE PRECEDING CHAPTERS EXAMINED IN DETAIL THE diverse ways in which the United States has interacted with the Middle East since 1776. The purpose was to reveal the richness and substance of that history and to explore the foundations of America’s involvement in the region today. Another goal was to fill a gap in the literature on the relationship between the United States and the Middle East in the 150 years separating the Revolutionary War from the end of World War II.

This final section deals with the past six decades, from the advent of the Cold War to the war in Iraq, a time of intense American engagement in the Middle East. In contrast to the 1776–1945 period, about which relatively few works exist, the contemporary phase has yielded vast quantities of articles and books. Many fine studies have been conducted on American efforts to mediate an Arab-Israeli peace prior to the 1973 war, for example, or on the evolution of the U.S.-Saudi alliance in the 1950s and 1960s, and little can be added to them in terms of original research. On the other hand, analysis of the major events of the last thirty years is hampered by lack of internal government documents—the bedrock of serious research—which are still classified and closed to the public. Any attempt to reconstruct American involvement in the Middle East from 1948 to the present risks either repeating what has already been written or speculating on what is not yet adequately known.

In view of these pitfalls, this concluding section attempts to provide not an exhaustive study of this period but rather an overview of its crucial turning points and trends. The emphasis is on the continuity between the post–World War II phase of this history and earlier stages and on the persistent themes of power, faith, and fantasy. American policymakers, it will be shown, wrestled with many of the same challenges faced by their prewar predecessors and similarly strove to reconcile their strategic and ideological interests in the area. Mythic images of the Middle East, meanwhile, remained a mainstay of American popular culture.

By focusing on the consistency of America’s involvement with this crucial region and by placing its current involvement there within a historical context, the chapter aims to deepen the understanding of the nature of U.S.–Middle East relations. The objective is to enable Americans to read about the fighting in Iraq and hear the echoes of the Barbary Wars and Operation Torch or to follow presidential efforts to mediate between Palestinians and Israelis and see the shadows of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. The same illusions that lured John Ledyard to explore the Middle East, they will learn, still entice Americans to attend movies with Middle Eastern motifs. After more than two hundred years, the interaction between the United States and the peoples and lands of the Middle East has remained remarkably vibrant, multifaceted, dynamic, and profound.

Cast between Communism and Nationalism

For a while, it seemed, Harry Truman managed to harmonize America’s newfound status as the preeminent power in the Middle East with its traditional role of liberator and peacemaker. Hoping to heal the wounds opened by the creation of the Jewish state, the president supported United Nations efforts to establish peace between Israel and the Arabs. The task fell to the UN special mediator on Palestine, Ralph Bunche, a former UCLA basketball star, accomplished editor, and one of the first African Americans to receive a Harvard Ph.D. “Have a look at these lovely plates!” the dapper but straight-talking Bunche told the Arab and Israeli delegates who dined with him on the island of Rhodes. “If you reach an agreement, each one of you will get one to bring home—if you don’t, I’ll break them over your heads!” By July 1949, Bunche had ironed out armistice agreements between Israel and the neighboring Arab states of Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria and established a precedent for more permanent treaties. His achievement earned him the Nobel Peace Prize and appeared to restore America’s reputation as a principled mediator.1

Truman also sought to balance Cold War concerns with the ascending tide of Middle Eastern nationalism. The first test of the president’s prowess came in Iran, where the prime minister, a seventy-year-old Swiss-educated lawyer named Mohammad Mossadegh, declared himself the champion of the people and the adversary of all forms of foreign domination. He worked to steer the country clear of Soviet influence but also maneuvered to ease the British out of Iran by nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC).

Mossadegh was a forerunner of the nonaligned movement, composed mostly of developing countries that declared their neutrality in the Cold War, affiliated with neither the Soviet Union nor the West. Such a position could well have antagonized the United States, but Mossadegh, to the contrary, became something of an American hero. Iran, in the eyes of many Americans, was still the enchanted land of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. They continued to flock to Middle Eastern fantasy films such as The Son of Ali Baba (1952) and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1953) and to the 1953 Broadway sensation Kismet, in which a love-struck caliph croons to a lissome Iraqi slave, “Take my hand, I’m a stranger in paradise.” They remained mesmerized by the myth of the liberty-loving Middle Easterner, which Mossadegh seemed to embody. The American press consequently compared him to Paine and Jefferson, and Time magazine named him its 1951 Man of the Year. Truman invited the prime minister to the White House and, much to Britain’s annoyance, supported his claims to Iranian oil.

Another example of Truman‘s ability to juggle America’s strategic and ideological interests occurred in Egypt. There, too, the nationalist movement mobilized to expel the British, disband parliament, and overthrow the monarchy of King Farouk. In scenes evocative of the ‘Urabi revolt seventy years earlier, rioters rampaged through the streets of Cairo and Alexandria in January 1952, torching foreign-owned buildings. Among the classic structures destroyed was the Shepheard’s Hotel, which had once hosted Mark Twain. Such chaos, Truman feared, was liable to be exploited by the Soviets in order to penetrate Egypt politically. He consequently assigned Kermit Roosevelt and other CIA agents to identify an Egyptian nationalist figure, “a Moslem Billy Graham,” who could restore order in the country and enroll it in a NATO-like Middle East Defense Organization (MEDO). Their search took them to a cell of self-described Free Officers who were plotting to stage a coup and to their thirty-four-year-old leader, Lieutenant Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser.2

Articulate and strikingly handsome, Nasser looked like a modern incarnation of ‘Urabi, as well as a hero culled from the pages of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. He was also the product of the nationalist ideas introduced to Egypt by American veterans of the Civil War and by Arab graduates of the Syrian Protestant College. Nasser indeed seemed to be the leader whom the CIA, for the first time in its Middle East operations, sought to install, and the agency assured him and his co-conspirators of America’s sub rosa support. Emboldened by this backing, the officers seized government buildings on July 23, 1952, dissolved the parliament, and deposited Farouk on a yacht bound for Europe. The British responded with horror to these events, but the United States promptly recognized the new regime and initiated a dialogue with Nasser.

By the last year of his presidency, Truman had succeeded in mediating between Arabs and Israelis, in supporting nationalists, and in blocking Soviet aggression. A pax Americana in the Middle East suddenly appeared within grasp. But that proximity proved to be a mirage. The Arab states declared that the armistice was little more than a provisional truce and that a state of war continued to exist between them and Israel. Egypt blockaded Israel-bound cargoes from traversing the Suez Canal or from passing through the Straits of Tiran, at the entrance to the Red Sea, to Israel’s southern port of Eilat. In violation of the armistice, the Jordanians banned Israelis from entering the Old City in East Jerusalem, home to the holiest of Jewish shrines, the Western Wall. Israel, for its part, refused to repatriate the Palestinian refugees without a peace agreement and retaliated for Palestinian infiltration across its border with large-scale raids into Arab territory.

Burned-out vehicles and the bullet-ridden dead once again littered the landscape sacred to millions. Scenes elsewhere in the Middle East, though, were scarcely less appalling. Much of the region from Morocco to Iraq was agitated by nationalist demonstrations and sporadic guerrilla attacks against the French and British authorities. The tumult coincided with renewed Soviet provocations against Iraq and Iran and by the Kremlin’s decision to embrace the Middle Eastern nationalists whom it had formerly shunned as “bourgeois lackeys” as its natural allies in the Cold War. A convergence of communism and radical nationalism imperiled the Middle Eastern oil on which the West depended for its well-being and even its survival.

The inability of the Western allies to stabilize, much less redress, the multiple conflicts rocking the Middle East was apparent as early as 1950, when Britain, France, and the United States issued the Tripartite Declaration. The document implicitly admitted the powers’ growing frustration with Arab-Israeli peace efforts and called on both disputants to exercise restraint. Rather than shoot at one another, the powers urged all states in the Middle East to aim their guns at their common Soviet foe by cooperating on regional defense.

The Tripartite Declaration marked another attempt to reconcile the incompatible components in America’s Middle East policy. The Truman administration naïvely believed that the United States could befriend both Israel and the Arab world, and that it could support demands for Middle Eastern independence while expecting Britain and France to defend the region from communism. Those assumptions were baseless, however, and by 1952, with the rise of Arab-Israeli tensions and the resurgence of nationalist revolts, the United States again faced agonizing choices. Either it could continue supporting Israel and further inflame Arab anger or back away from the Jewish state and garner Arab goodwill. America could either stand beside Britain and France in protecting the Middle East from Soviet aggression or abandon them in favor of native nationalists, some of whom were already in contact with the Kremlin.

Truman would not have to make those decisions. In January 1953, the Democratic White House passed into the hands of the Republicans under the square-jawed former general and World War II icon, Dwight David Eisenhower. “We who are free must proclaim anew our faith,” Eisenhower, a Kansan, drawled in his first inaugural address. Appearing no fewer than fourteen times in the text, the word “faith,” for the new president, meant confidence in America’s ability to protect freedom worldwide while respecting “the special heritage of each nation.” The United States had at last achieved the supremacy necessary to disseminate its values around the globe, but so, too, had the Soviet Union. And the “special heritage” of those nations still languishing under imperial rule contained at least as much hostility toward the West as it did fear of Soviet aggression. “Faith,” Eisenhower proclaimed, “defines our full view of life,” but that weltanschauung still overlooked the contradiction between nurturing nationalism and combating communism in an increasingly labyrinthine Middle East.

Dull, Duller, Dulles

Never adept at foreign policy, Eisenhower ceded responsibility for the Middle East—indeed for much of the world—to his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. Prim and stodgy, his gaze frigid behind steel-rimmed glasses and his smile precluded by a pipe, Dulles was notorious for his lack of pathos. Winston Churchill, who again served as British prime minister in the early 1950s, epitomized him in three words: “Dull, Duller, Dulles.” A Princeton graduate and a pious Presbyterian, the secretary was Wilsonian in his anticolonialism but Jacksonian in his determination to safeguard America’s interests abroad. He regarded communism as a global evil and viewed nonaligned countries such as India and Indonesia as abettors of that evil. Radical nationalists were also considered dangerous by Dulles. “Whether it is in Indo-China or Siam or Morocco or Egypt or Arabia or Iran…the forces of unrest are captured by the Soviet Communists,” he told the Senate. Together with his brother, Allen, formerly of the State Department and now head of the CIA, Dulles vowed to rid the Middle East of those who furnished entrées for the Russians.

The first target of this campaign was Mohammad Mossadegh. Shedding his avuncular image, the prime minister emerged in 1953 as Iran’s strongman. He severed relations with Britain, seized control of the army, and forged alliances with the communist Tudeh Party. The ineffectual but pro-Western shah, Mohammad Reza, was forced to flee the country. These events, in Dulles’s mind, augured the imminent fall of the entire Persian Gulf to a nationalist-communist coalition and the loss of irreplaceable Middle Eastern oil. Determined to prevent this catastrophe, Dulles collaborated with the British in plotting Mossadegh’s ouster. The operation, code-named Ajax, was carried out by the CIA’s Kermit Roosevelt with the assistance of Loy Henderson, now serving as America’s ambassador to Teheran, and General Norman H. Schwarzkopf, all of whom had supported Iranian nationalism in the past. The conspirators inserted virulent attacks on Mossadegh in the Iranian press and incited antigovernment riots in the streets. Civil war threatened to bifurcate Iran when, on August 19, 1953, Ajax finally succeeded. The shah regained his throne and eliminated hundreds of Mossadegh supporters. The deposed prime minister was placed under house arrest, where he remained until his death, in 1967.3

The Iranian coup served as a precedent for the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in 1954. And yet, in countries in which the danger of communist takeover was not perceived as acute, the United States continued to foster nationalist movements, even at the expense of its European allies. Such was the case in North Africa. “We cannot give the French the support they desire for their North African policies without incurring the enmity of the native populations,” the State Department averred in 1955. “The French are operating a police state in North Africa,” raged the Republican senator from Nevada, George Malone, who assailed the United States for sinking “into the filthy business of bolstering colonial slavery” by aiding France. The United States in fact pressed for the repatriation of King Muhammad V of Morocco and the Tunisian nationalist Habib Bourguiba, both of whom had been banished by the French, and helped their countries to achieve independence in 1956. The Eisenhower administration similarly urged France to show restraint in its suppression of Algerian nationalists. “Having gone so far to try to protect the independence of the Arab nations,” the president said, the United States “did not want to back a French position which might destroy all the good we had done.”

Resentment of America’s role in the coup against Mossadegh would fester among many Iranians, but bitterness over America’s support for the independence of other Middle Eastern states brewed in Britain and France. One senior British official regretted how “some Americans always saw a budding George Washington in every dissident or revolutionary movement,” and another denigrated the “ideal dream” of creating “a chain of independent Muslim states from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean working in grateful cooperation with the American Liberators.” The French general Alphonse Juin railed against the “vast conspiracy” in which “the religious fanaticism and xenophobia of the Middle East joins with American anti-colonialism” to eject the French from North Africa.4

Frustration with America’s vacillating policies in the Middle East increasingly roiled Europe and eventually boiled over in Egypt. The bonds between the United States and the Free Officers’ junta thickened under the Eisenhower administration. Returning from a tour of Cairo and other Middle Eastern capitals in May 1953, Dulles publicly endorsed Nasser’s demand for the complete withdrawal of British forces from Egypt. “From Foster’s personal observation,” Eisenhower wrote Churchill, “I have come to the conclusion that some step should be made soon to reconcile our minimum defense needs with the very strong nationalist sentiments of the Egyptian Government and people.” Dulles was convinced that, once freed of Britain, Egypt would willingly join the Middle East Defense Organization. But the British believed that Nasser was inherently anti-Western and that by supporting him the United States would undermine, rather than fortify, MEDO. “The old colonial attitude toward the natives will drive them into the hands of the communists,” Dulles complained. While British soldiers came under repeated attack from Egyptian guerrillas, Dulles intensified his pressure on London. Finally, in July 1954, Churchill capitulated and agreed to evacuate all British troops from Egypt. This ended a seventy-year occupation which had resulted in part from the rise and fall of Egyptian cotton prices during and after the Civil War.5

But Egypt did not enter MEDO. Nasser now explained that another obstacle to Egyptian membership in the organization remained: the conflict with Israel. Friction between Egyptian and Israeli forces had spiked in the wake of the British withdrawal and threatened to ignite the entire region. Restrain the Israelis, Nasser informed Dulles, and compel them to forfeit territory as a down payment on peace, and Egypt would surely join MEDO.

The offer deeply appealed to Dulles. Like many of the State Department officials who were descended from missionaries, he reviled the Jewish state—“the millstone around our necks,” he called it—and generally empathized with the Arabs. He agreed with the department’s assessment that Israel could achieve peace by ceding large portions of territory to the Arabs. But peace, for Dulles, was not only a means of assuring Middle East defense but also an exalted end in itself. Conditioned by his religious upbringing to feel a special attachment to Palestine, the secretary felt morally bound, if not celestially ordained, to restore tranquillity in the Holy Land.

The combined thrust of these strategic and theological impulses led Dulles to invite the British, only weeks after he had helped evict them from Egypt, to participate in an attempted mediation between Egypt and Israel. By the end of 1954, a team of Anglo-American planners had produced Alpha, a covert plan in which Israel relinquished swaths of territory to Egypt and Egypt promised to display nonbelligerency toward Israel. Predictably, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion of Israel rejected the proposal—Egypt should not be rewarded for its aggression in 1948, he explained—but Dulles was willing to pressure him to yield. All he needed was Nasser’s approval.

The Egyptian leader had just then embarked on an ambitious project to establish his primacy in inter-Arab politics and his prominence, along with India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, in the nonaligned movement. The first objective vitiated any chance that Nasser would make peace with the Arabs’ ultimate enemy, while the second negated the possibility of Egyptian membership in MEDO. Rejecting Alpha’s terms, Nasser proceeded to oppose Britain’s military alliance with Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq—the so-called Baghdad Pact—and to recognize Red China. In September 1955, he purchased massive quantities of Soviet arms via Czechoslovakia. Dulles nevertheless launched a second peace initiative, this one dubbed Gamma, in which a special presidential envoy shuttled between Nasser and Ben-Gurion in an attempt to arrange a meeting between the two. The emissary, the former defense secretary Robert B. Anderson, arrived in the region in the early spring of 1956 only to learn that Nasser had no intention of discussing peace and little interest in receiving him.

Dulles, enraged by this snub, authorized yet another operation, Omega, designed to effect regime change in Egypt by all means short of assassination. In addition to strengthening the friendly governments of Jordan and Lebanon and staging a pro-Western coup in Syria, Omega sought to promote King Saud as an “Islamic pope” who would supersede Nasser as the Arabs’ leader. Most draconian, though, was Omega’s stipulation for the withholding of U.S. aid for constructing the Aswan Dam. The project, first proposed by the American military explorer Erastus Sparrow Purdy in 1874, was the pride of Egypt’s ruler.6

Nasser refused to bow to the sanctions, however, and on July 23, 1956, he stunned the world by announcing Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. The move, Nasser, explained, was aimed at “the exploiters, the imperialists, and the stooges of imperialism” who had conspired to undermine Egypt by inhibiting the spread of its influence and cutting off funding for Aswan. In the eyes of the British, major shareholders in the Canal, Nasser had become a second Hitler and the seizure of Suez another Anschluss. “My object is to get rid of Colonel Nasser and his regime,” swore Prime Minister Anthony Eden. Nasser was also bankrolling Algerian guerrillas, a gesture that scarcely endeared him to the French. If Egypt got away with the nationalization scheme, Foreign Minister Christian Pineau warned from Paris, France would be reduced to a third-rate power and Europe would be “totally dependent on the Arabs’ goodwill.” French and British leaders immediately began drafting a military offensive against Egypt and seeking a green light for the attack, tacit or express, from the United States.7

The Suez crisis once again confronted the United States with difficult choices: either back a nonaligned nationalist with strong ties to Moscow or side with the two powers most capable of safeguarding the Middle East. The Americans had given priority to strategic over ethical concerns in Iran by colluding with Britain to oust Mossadegh, but in Egypt their ideology prevailed. The conflict, Dulles claimed, was not between Nasser and the West but rather between Middle Eastern nationalism and the imperialism of Europe. “The United States cannot be expected to identify herself one hundred per cent either with colonial powers or the power uniquely concerned with the problem of getting independence as rapidly and as fully as possible,” he opined. Though he secretly assured the British and the French that he never ruled out the use of force against Egypt, Dulles publicly opposed any resort to arms.

“Such cynicism towards allies destroys true partnership,” Eden protested. Pineau actually accused the United States of collaborating with the Kremlin to keep Nasser in power and prevent the emergence of a genuine Egyptian democracy. Exasperated by Dulles’s double-talk, the French began clandestinely arming the Israelis and encouraging them to attack Egypt first. Ben-Gurion welcomed the proposal, convinced that Nasser’s Soviet-equipped army mortally threatened the Jewish state. The British, who had never reconciled themselves to Israel’s existence, initially hesitated, but by September they, too, were party to the plot. Israeli forces would strike within the vicinity of the Suez Canal and create a pretext for Anglo-French intervention to “protect” the vital waterway.

Just after daybreak on October 29, 1956, the sky over Sinai’s Mitla Pass, twenty-five miles from the canal, was dotted with descending canopies. Landing, Israeli paratroopers fought a savage battle with Egyptian units in the pass while, farther to the north, Israeli armored formations smashed through Egyptian defenses en route to Suez and Gaza. France and Britain then threatened to intervene militarily unless all troops, Israeli and Egyptian, were withdrawn from the area of the canal. Egypt, as anticipated, rejected this ultimatum and an Anglo-French armada prepared to sail. Eden assured Dulles that the gathering invasion was not “a harkening back to the old colonial and occupational concepts” but rather an attempt to “strengthen the weakest point in the line against Communism.” Dulles, however, fumed. He accused his former World War II allies of acting more barbarously than the Soviets whose tanks were just then crushing an anticommunist revolt in Hungary. “The United States would survive or go down on the basis of the fate of colonialism,” the secretary bellowed. “Win or lose, we will share the fate of Britain and France.”

While French and British planes bombed Egyptian airfields, the Americans and the Soviets together approved a General Assembly resolution condemning the aggression against Egypt and authorizing the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces along the canal. Ignoring the resolution, British and French forces landed in Egypt on November 5 with the intent of occupying the canal within a week. Two days later, however, amid fierce Egyptian resistance, the Soviets threatened to intervene militarily against the invaders and the United States levied massive economic pressure on Britain. Intimidated by these tactics, the Anglo-French expedition was compelled to withdraw, disgraced, leaving Suez under exclusive Egyptian control. Israel, too, buckled under the threat of American sanctions and withdrew its forces from Sinai and Gaza. Though UN forces continued to pacify these areas and Israeli ships now passed unhindered through the Straits of Tiran, the Arabs construed Israel’s retreat as their triumph. As a result of the United States’s actions, Nasser emerged from the Suez Crisis as the region’s unrivaled master.8

Spurred by romantic notions of Middle Eastern nationalism and an anticolonialist creed, the United States had banded with its perennial Soviet enemy against its European friends and saved an Egyptian dictator whom Dulles had plotted to depose. In return for pursuing this meandering course, America earned contempt from the Soviet Union, acrimony from the British and the French, and antagonism from many Arabs. Rather than express gratitude to the nation that had saved him, Nasser denounced the United States as the new imperialist power in the Middle East. “The USA is being urged to take over the place of bankrupt and impotent Britain and France and to impose her influence over the Middle East,” alleged Nasser’s young spokesman, Anwar Sadat. Within a year of the Suez crisis, Nasserist agitation was undermining pro-Western governments throughout the area.

America, however, was virtually powerless to resist this onslaught. Having completed the work begun by Truman of ridding the Middle East of European imperialists, Eisenhower now found himself saddled with his allies’ burdens but without the means of shouldering them. The United States did not maintain significant forces in the Middle East, nor did it have a legal basis for intervening forcibly in the region. “We have to act now or get out of the Middle East,” he told Dulles. “To lose this area by inaction would be far worse than the loss in China, because of the [Middle East’s] strategic position.” Like Truman before him, Eisenhower needed a doctrine. Consequently, on January 5, 1957, the president asked Congress for $400 million to help steel Middle Eastern countries against any state “controlled by International Communism” and for permission to send American troops to defend them. “Seldom in history has a nation’s dedication to principle been tested as severely as ours,” he asserted, and Congress overwhelming concurred.

America’s dedication would indeed be tested the summer of 1958, when mobs in Baghdad brutally overthrew the Iraqi government, publicly dismembering its prime minister and king. The conservative regimes of Jordan and Lebanon also faced anti-Western revolts. Panicked by the prospect of an Egyptian-executed, Soviet-backed takeover of the entire Middle East, Eisenhower invoked his doctrine. U.S. Air Force planes were dispatched to resupply the British paratroopers who were interceding in Jordan and U.S. forces were sent to bolster the beleaguered Lebanese government. On a scorching July morning, some 8,500 GIs splashed onto the beaches near Beirut. Unlike previous American amphibious landings in the region, this one encountered no opposition. Thousands of sightseers did turn out for the event, however, along with dozens of food and souvenir vendors who hawked their wares to the waterlogged soldiers.

The Lebanon operation marked an inauspicious end to a convoluted period in America’s Middle East policies. The United States had first cooperated with Britain in overthrowing a popular Iranian leader and then pressured the British to evacuate Egypt; it had supported North African nationalists against the French but plotted the overthrow of the nationalists’ sponsor, Nasser; it rescued Nasser from the Anglo-French invasion in Suez but next intervened with Britain to protect Arab governments from Nasser. Torn between the antipodes of principles and realpolitik, the Eisenhower administration had effected a bewildering succession of reversals in the region, embittering its allies and further provoking its foes. And yet, Americans in general believed that their government had acted both properly and prudently in Iran, North Africa, and Egypt, preserving their crucial interests and promoting their democratic ideals. They remained, as Mark Twain once portrayed them, innocents abroad in the Middle East, though they sometimes acted like “American vandals.”

The guilelessness with which Americans continued to view the increasingly complex and morally ambiguous Middle East was reflected in Ben-Hur, a Hollywood extravaganza released in 1959. Based on the novel written eighty years earlier by Lew Wallace, America’s ambassador to the Porte, the movie was a remake of a silent film, but this new version contained a wistful political message. The script has Judah Ben-Hur, a nationalist Jewish prince, befriending an Arab sheikh named Ilderim and together resisting their common enemy, the Roman tribune Messala. Ilderim (played by the British actor Hugh Griffith) delivers his lines in a generic Middle Eastern accent, but Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) speaks like a typical Midwesterner—the conflation, once again, of the new American and the ancient Jew. The Romans, however, sound like British lords. Judah and Ilderim predictably emerge victorious, humbling the vengeful Messala.9 In the real Middle East, though, there was little affinity between Jewish nationalist Israel and the government of the United States, and scant Arab affection for either. To the ears of many of the region’s inhabitants, moreover, the tribunes of imperial power no longer sounded like Englishmen but rather, unmistakably, like Americans.



Yet the peoples of the Middle East soon heard a new inflection emanating from the United States, one that combined Old World refinement with a modern noblesse oblige. That voice described a different vision of America’s relations with the area, a partnership based on equality rather than dominance, on the peaceful resolution of conflict and mutual respect between leaders. Resonating to Egyptians and Jordanians and to Palestinians and Israelis alike were the Boston Brahmin tones of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Camelot Comes to the Middle East

Though raised a Roman Catholic, Kennedy embraced the Puritan concept of America as the “city on the hill” and the missionary commitment to disseminate American values throughout the world and promote native independence. “The single most important test of American foreign policy today is how we meet the challenge of imperialism,” Kennedy, while still a senator, proclaimed. “On this test more than any other, this nation shall be critically judged by the uncommitted millions in Asia and Africa.” In the Middle East, America could meet this test by supporting the few nationalist movements that had yet to succeed in casting off European rule and by reaching a modus vivendi with those newly independent regimes that remained nonaligned. Ascending to the presidency in January 1961, Kennedy endorsed Algeria’s quest for independence from France and reconsidered America’s antipathy toward Nasser.

Among Kennedy’s first acts in office was to write the Egyptian leader and offer to resuscitate the friendship between the two countries forged after the Civil War. The United States, he reminded Nasser, had once been like the Arab world: an assortment of liberated colonies that longed to combine into a viable commonwealth. He congratulated Nasser on the anniversary of the creation of the United Arab Republic—the ultimately short-lived merger between Egypt and Syria—on February 22, “the birthday anniversary of our own first president, Washington.” The gesture was promptly and warmly requited. Nasser expressed “immense satisfaction and appreciation” for Kennedy’s letters and emphasized the “love and admiration” with which he and his countrymen had always regarded Americans.

Camelot, the Arthurian court to which the idealistic administration was often likened, appeared to have opened a new and gallant chapter in U.S.–Middle Eastern relations. A concrete sign of that chivalry came in the form of massive economic aid and wheat shipments; 60 percent of all Egyptians were soon receiving their daily bread courtesy of the United States. The revived amity between Nasser and the United States, and America’s enduring romance with the unencumbered nomad, was intuited by the movie industry in Lawrence of Arabia, a 1962 classic. In one illuminating scene, a brassy American journalist named Bentley—clearly a stand-in for Lowell Thomas—declares his support for Prince Feisal and the struggle for Arab independence during World War I. “Your Highness,” Bentley tells Feisal, “we Americans were once a colonial people and we naturally feel sympathetic to any people, anywhere, who are struggling for their freedom.” The prince, played by the august Alec Guinness, laconically replies, “Very gratifying.”

Hollywood myth and Middle Eastern realities once again parted, however, that same year, 1962, with the collapse of Kennedy’s initiative in Egypt. The breakdown began with the overthrow of the pro-Western imam of Yemen by a group of Free Officers closely associated with Nasser. When Saudi Arabia stepped in to restore the royalists, Nasser responded by transferring tens of thousands of his troops to Yemen. Egyptian planes also started bombing Saudi targets, some with poison gas. The sight of a Soviet-armed and Soviet-advised army so close to the oil reserves on which America’s economy depended keenly upset a Kennedy administration that had scarcely recovered from the Cuban missile crisis. Though never favorably disposed toward the Saudis, who, he felt, “somehow represented yesterday rather than tomorrow,” Kennedy nevertheless had to decide between his reconciliation with Nasserism and the defense of the Persian Gulf. The choice, in the end, was virtually made for him when Nasser violated an American-brokered cease-fire. Two years after posting his first letter to Cairo, in November 1963, Kennedy sent warplanes to defend Riyadh.10

Stymied in his attempts at rapprochement with Nasser, Kennedy refocused his energies on Israel and its ongoing dispute with the Arabs. Since the failure of operations Alpha and Gamma in the 1950s, American policymakers had concluded that there was no chance for peace in the region. Instead, they resolved to keep the Arab-Israeli conflict “in the icebox” by preventing another outbreak of war. Enraptured by the image of Ari Ben Canaan, played by a strapping Paul Newman, leading gallant Israelis against Arab anti-heroes in the 1960 blockbuster Exodus, many Americans had romanticized the conflict. Kennedy, though, who had never forgotten the violence he witnessed in Jerusalem in 1939, had a more nuanced view. As a first step toward resolving the dispute, he proposed resettling thousands of Palestinian refugees in the arid Jordan Valley, which would be irrigated by Jordan River water. But Ben-Gurion, reluctant to share Israel’s major water source with its enemies, balked at the idea, while Arab leaders rejected any degree of cooperation with Israel. Flustered by his failure to make peace, Kennedy turned to preventing a new outbreak of Arab-Israeli bloodshed. He was particularly concerned about the secret production of nuclear weapons by Israel, a project that, he feared, would precipitate an unbridled arms race in the Middle East.

“A woman should not only be virtuous, but also have the appearance of virtue,” Kennedy told Ben-Gurion at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in May 1961. The president enjoyed excellent relations with the American Jewish community, whose support was widely credited with having helped to propel him to a narrow electoral victory in 1960, and was openly friendly toward Israel. Privately, though, Kennedy rejected the claim that Israel was developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes only and railed at Ben-Gurion’s refusal to allow American inspectors to verify the “virtue” of the Israeli reactor at Dimona. “It is to our common interest that no country believe that Israel is contributing to the proliferation of atomic weapons,” Kennedy advised the much older, far shorter, and less gainly Ben-Gurion. But the more seasoned Israeli statesman brushed aside the president’s concerns. He reassured his host of Israel’s peaceful intentions while apostrophizing how Nasser, if ever victorious, “would do to the Jews what Hitler did.”

Unresolved, the issue of Israel’s atomic capabilities remained a source of friction in Kennedy’s relations with Israel. In an attempt to assuage Ben-Gurion’s fears of Egypt, the president offered to supply him with Hawk ground-to-air missiles, setting a precedent for American arms sales to Israel. Ben-Gurion merely deployed the Hawks around Dimona and continued to block the American inspections. By the summer of 1963, an irate Kennedy was warning the Israelis that their relations with the United States were liable to be “seriously jeopardized” by their intransigence on the nuclear issue.11

Jack Kennedy had set out to distinguish his policies toward the Middle East from those of the preceding president only to be repeatedly frustrated. He strove for reconciliation with Nasser and for a nonproliferation agreement with Ben-Gurion, but was brazenly rebuffed by both. Arab-Israeli reconciliation remained an elusive American dream. Such disappointments ultimately compelled Kennedy to abandon his righteous policies in favor of Eisenhower-era measures to shield the region from communism and to guarantee the outflow of oil. In the Middle East, perhaps more flagrantly than in any other realm, Camelot’s magic had failed.

The president who descended onto Love Field in Dallas on the morning of November 22, 1963, had despaired of achieving a breakthrough in any area of American–Middle Eastern relations. Kennedy’s assassination later that day would conventionally be remembered as a transformative juncture in U.S. history, inaugurating a spate of revolutionary changes within American society and a scourge of calamities in the nation’s foreign affairs. Little of this upheaval exerted any impact, however, on America’s interaction with the Middle East. The postcolonial regimes of Syria, Egypt, and Iraq had devolved into repressive military dictatorships, inimical to the West and hostile to one another. The lines between Soviet-backed rulers such as Nasser and the pro-Western monarchies of Jordan and the Persian Gulf were ineffaceably drawn. The public might still be charmed by the sight of a scantily clad Barbara Eden wafting from an Aladdin-esque lamp in the midsixties sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, but American policymakers had largely wearied of such myths. Before terminating at the Berlin Wall, the front in the Cold War ran through the hellish jungles of Vietnam to the oases and deceptively idyllic dunes of the Middle East.

From the Alamo to El Alamein

The thirty-sixth president was not a romantic. Fathomlessly ambitious, ruthlessly shrewd, as resolute in his fight for civil rights at home as in his ill-fated struggle against communism in Southeast Asia, Lyndon Baines Johnson exhibited none of Kennedy’s penchant for Middle Eastern fantasies. Nor were events in the region conducive to reverie. Nasser was waging vicious propaganda wars against America’s Jordanian and Saudi allies, blatantly collaborating with the Soviets, and pressing for the closure of the Wheelus air base, America’s sole strategic asset in Libya. In November 1964, rioters in Cairo burned down the U.S. embassy’s library. When the American ambassador protested the vandalism, Nasser told him to “go drink from the sea” and threatened to “cut out the tongue” of anybody who spoke ill of Egypt. “We are not going to accept gangsterism by cowboys,” he pledged, alluding to the president from Texas. Johnson, in reply, suspended all further wheat shipments to Egypt.12

Johnson’s hardheaded approach to the region did not prevent him from displaying an almost mawkish sentimentality toward Israel. “You have lost a very great friend,” he told an Israeli diplomat shortly after Kennedy’s murder. “But you have found a better one.” Some of the new president’s closest advisers, including Undersecretary of State Eugene Rostow and UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg, were American Jews with pronounced pro-Israeli views. On a political level, Johnson’s affection for Israel flowed from his gratitude for the overwhelming support that American Jews continued to show to the Democratic Party, and yet that affection continued in spite of mounting American Jewish opposition to the Vietnam War. A deeper reason for Johnson’s pro-Israel policies lay, rather, in religion. “Take care of the Jews, God’s chosen people,” his strict Baptist grandfather had exhorted him, and his aunt warned, “If Israel is destroyed, the world will end.” The State Department conversely continued to caution that America’s ties to Israel would alienate the Arabs and jeopardize oil supplies, but the president remained unperturbed. Israel, for him, was a latter-day Alamo, surrounded on all sides by compassionless enemies, and Nasser was the reincarnated Santa Ana, the Mexican general who laid siege to that fort.13

The analogy became eerily apt on May 15, 1967, the day Nasser placed his nation on a war footing. Tensions in the region had been inexorably rising as a result of Palestinian guerrilla raids into Israel staged by the Syrian-backed al-Fatah organization, led by a roughshaven and unflinching former engineer named Yasser Arafat. In response to this challenge to Egypt’s leadership of the Arab world, Nasser established a rival movement, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and instructed to it to launch its own operations. Israeli reprisals for these attacks led to large-scale clashes with Syrian forces on the Golan Heights, overlooking northern Israel, and finally to Soviet claims of an imminent Israeli invasion of Syria. Though Nasser quickly ascertained that these predictions were false, he exploited them as an excuse for evicting the peacekeeping forces that the UN had maintained in Sinai and the Gaza Strip since the end of the Suez crisis. A week later, Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and concluded military pacts with Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Mass demonstrations erupted throughout the Arab world, clamoring for all-out war. “Our goal,” declared President ‘Aref of Iraq, “is clear—to wipe Israel off the face of the map.”

But who would shoot first? With nearly half a million Arab soldiers converging on its borders and the Soviets encouraging them to strike, Israel faced a potentially existential situation. Israeli hospitals were frantically stockpiling bandages and units of blood, while rabbinical authorities dug thousands of graves for the war’s anticipated casualties. The sudden decision of the French, Israel’s erstwhile allies, to switch to the Arab side, only amplified Israel’s need to neutralize Nasser immediately. But Levi Eshkol, Israel’s bland but sagacious prime minister, and Abba Eban, the urbane foreign minister, fretted over the American reaction. Would the United States act as it did in 1956, they worried, rescuing Nasser and forcing an Israeli retreat?

Though he shared many of the Israelis’ concerns, Johnson did, in fact, oppose a preemptive strike, which he feared might drag the entire Middle East and perhaps the world into war. “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone,” the president repeatedly told Eban at the White House on May 26. More portentously, Secretary of State Dean Rusk warned, “If Israel fires first, it’ll have to forget the U.S.” In a desperate effort to avoid a perilous war, the president proposed to assemble a convoy of ships from two dozen nations and sail it through the blockaded Tiran Straits to Eilat. If the Egyptians opened fired on the convoy, Johnson explained, the ships and planes of the U.S. Sixth Fleet would bombard strategic targets in Egypt. The plan, clandestinely known as Regatta, impressed the Israelis, who agreed to delay their offensive in order to give Johnson time to implement it. Congress, though, already reeling from America’s entanglement in Vietnam, recoiled from any operation that was liable to lead to another foreign imbroglio. The Europeans, in a fashion reminiscent of their forebears’ refusal to join a U.S.-led coalition against the Barbary pirates, rejected the proposal outright. “I failed. They’re going to go,” Johnson, referring to the Israelis, admitted to his aides. “They’re going to hit. And there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Johnson’s only consolation came from U.S. intelligence agencies that predicted Israel would swiftly overpower Egypt or any combination of Arab armies. The Israelis more than confirmed that forecast. In a surprise attack that began at eight o’clock in the morning of June 5, Israeli warplanes strafed and bombed Egyptian jets, most of which never left the ground, destroying 286 of them. Israeli tanks and mechanized units then punched through the fortified Egyptian lines in Sinai and Gaza. Honoring their treaties with Nasser, Jordanian and Syrian forces entered the fighting, only to be crushed by Israeli counteroffensives. Tortuous columns of destroyed Egyptian vehicles stretched the length of Sinai, while retreating Syrian and Jordanian troops left a trail of smoldering tanks and fallen comrades on the Golan Heights, throughout the West Bank, and across East Jerusalem. Jewish soldiers, by contrast, were planting the Israeli flag on the peak of Mount Hermon, wading with raised rifles into the Suez Canal, and dancing, their shoulders draped with bullet belts instead of prayer shawls before the Western Wall.

Privately, at least, Johnson applauded Israel’s triumph. While assuring the Soviets that America was making every effort to stop the fighting, the president, in fact, maneuvered to delay approval of a UN cease-fire until the Arabs’ defeat was assured. Even after Israeli jets and missile boats on June 8 mistakenly fired on an American spy ship, the USS Liberty, killing thirty-four sailors and wounding 171, the president’s position remained staunchly pro-Israel. His devotion was further tested the following day when the Soviets, in a move reminiscent of the 1956 crisis, announced their intention to intervene militarily. But Johnson refused to flinch. “Find out exactly where the Sixth Fleet is,” he instructed his advisers, “and tell it to turn around.” The Soviets backed down and continued to watch as Israel concluded its rout.

The Six-Day War, as it would be remembered by Israel and the West, represented the greatest military triumph in the Middle East since the British defeat of the Germans at El Alamein twenty-five years earlier. Israel suddenly controlled territories more than three times its original size and placed at least two million Palestinian Arabs—residents of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza—under occupation. The geographical, political, and human consequences of the war owed much to Johnson’s decision making, but so did the peacemaking efforts that followed the fighting. No sooner was the cease-fire accepted than the president asked Undersecretary of State Rostow to draw up a comprehensive peace plan. “Let us not forget that a crisis is also an opportunity,” Rostow told his staff. “Many patterns become loosened, and doors open. Let your minds rove over the horizon.”14

The American formula called for Israeli withdrawals from occupied Arab territories in exchange for Arab recognition of the rights of all states in the region to exist in peace “within secure and recognized boundaries.” The proposal also cited the need for a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem. These guidelines served as the basis of UN Resolution 242, enacted that November, and as the starting point for what soon became known as the peace process. The chances for the initiative’s success did not, however, appear auspicious. Though Israel offered to relinquish all of Sinai and the Golan Heights in return for formal peace treaties with Egypt and Syria, it also unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem. The Arab states, meeting in Khartoum, enacted the notorious “three no’s”—no negotiating with Israel and no granting it peace or recognition. The Palestinians were furious over the failure of 242 to address their right to self-determination and resolved to carry on the armed struggle to eliminate Israel. The effort would be spearheaded by the PLO, which, breaking free of Egyptian control, came under al-Fatah’s sway and the chairmanship of Arafat.

The 1967 war, the reverberations of which continue to convulse the region, was a primary juncture in the making of the modern Middle East. Arab nationalism, a largely secular ideology, suffered a setback from which it would never recover and which accelerated the rise of its rival, Islamic extremism. Zionism was conversely reinforced by Israel’s victory and, through the Jewish people’s reunion with their spiritual homeland in Jerusalem and the West Bank, galvanized by a new religious zealotry. The war was also pivotal for America’s relations with the region. For the millions of evangelical Americans who had always valued Israel as the fulfillment of biblical prophecies, the Six-Day War was an act of divine intervention designed to hasten the coming of the messianic age. But the victory also persuaded American policymakers, many of whom had previously advised against maintaining close relations with the Jewish state, to view Israel as America’s small but muscular cohort in the Cold War.

Israel’s transformation in American eyes from distant friend to de facto ally was scarcely lost on the Arabs. In spite of Johnson’s efforts to achieve peace and to restore their captured lands, six Arab states followed Egypt’s lead in severing relations with Washington. Nasser proceeded to launch a war of attrition in which Egyptian and Israeli forces facing each other across the Suez Canal exchanged daily salvos of high-explosive shells, sniper fire, and aerial strafing. From Jordan, PLO units regularly bombarded Israeli border towns and settlements. If intended to hamper the intensifying ties between Washington and Jerusalem, these assaults had precisely the opposite effect. Johnson sold 150 warplanes to the Israeli air force, completing the process through which the United States replaced France as Israel’s principal arms supplier.

Though hardly conducive to mediation, these developments seemed only to stiffen Johnson’s resolve to mount a major Middle East peace effort in 1968. The need for such an initiative appeared to be underscored by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the late president’s younger brother and a contender for the presidency, by a deranged Palestinian named Sirhan Sirhan. The murder took place on the first anniversary of the Six-Day War, but by that time Johnson had dropped out of the electoral race, a victim of domestic back-wash from Vietnam. The Johnson period, a turbulent interlude in which Cold War considerations vied with religious stimuli in the making of America’s Middle East policies, had ended. Faith, however, would play little or no role in shaping the next administration’s attitudes toward the region, nor would fanciful illusions. Starting in 1969, piety and illusions gave way to a staid and almost purblind focus on power.

American Metternichs in the Middle East

The Middle East inherited by Richard Milhous Nixon was a doleful place, war-wracked and ideologically fractured, but the president had the bleak, disjointed personality to match it. Though he was raised in a God-fearing Quaker family, religion played an imperceptible role in Nixon’s handling of Middle Eastern affairs. Rather, his policies were informed solely by his sense of the Soviet threats facing the region and of the potency America needed to meet that menace. All other objectives—the attainment of Arab-Israeli peace or the broadening of Arab-American understanding—became, in Nixon’s mirthless mind, subordinate to Cold War exigencies.

Nixon’s worldview was to a large extent shared by his brilliant but inscrutable adviser on national security, Dr. Henry A. Kissinger. As a teenage Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Kissinger had learned the perils of political chaos and, conversely, the paramount value of stability. The hero of his Harvard doctoral dissertation was Metternich, the artful Austrian prince who managed to preserve his empire’s interests throughout the Sturm und Drang of post-Napoleonic Europe and to maintain a finely wrought balance between the powers. Kissinger sought to replicate Metternich’s achievement on a global scale, fortifying America’s role internationally and establishing a durable equilibrium with Moscow.

The challenge was far from trivial, especially in the Middle East. “The difference between our goal and the Soviet goal in the Middle East is very simple,” Nixon explained. “We want peace. They want the Middle East.” Accordingly, the administration sought to prevent the outbreak of another Arab-Israeli war, which would render the Arabs even more dependent on Soviet arms and advisers, and to protect the friendly regimes of Jordan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Israel’s security also preoccupied the president. His attachment to the Jewish state owed little to his Quaker legacy or to his desire for electoral support—less than 8 percent of America’s Jews had voted for him—but once again to his need to repel the Russians. “Israel is the current most effective stopper to the Mideast power of the Soviet Union,” he told a delegation of senior legislators. “I am supporting Israel because it is in the interest of the United States to do so.” But Nixon also believed that an Israel that felt secure in its alliance with America would take the risks necessary for attaining peace. Less than a year after assuming office, the president authorized his secretary of state, William P. Rogers, to mediate an end to fighting between Egypt and Israel and to press Israel to accept a territory-for-peace arrangement on the basis of Resolution 242. In keeping with the spirit of détente, Nixon invited the Soviets to co-sponsor the initiative.

Nixon had embarked on a proactive and calculating course in the Middle East, but events converged to derail its progress. In Libya, the dashing and often delusional Colonel Muammar Qadhafi (or Qaddafi) had ousted King Idris, closed the Wheelus air base, and warmly allied himself with the Kremlin. Soviet arms streamed into Algeria and Sudan, and thousands of Red Army advisers deployed in Egypt, South Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. Rogers secured a cease-fire between Egypt and Israel, but then Nasser violated it by moving his Soviet-made missiles into the truce zone. The Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir—the former Golda Meyerson of Milwaukee—was happy to receive Rogers’s assistance in ending the attrition war and eager to accept Nixon’s offer of additional arms sales. But she refused to give up the territories Israel captured in 1967 for anything less than full peace. Nasser still recoiled from the notion of talking with Israel, much less reconciling with it.15


The administration’s inability to achieve even its minimum policy goals in the Middle East was exemplified by the escalating lawlessness in Jordan. The PLO had established a virtual state within a state in the country; it regularly sent guerrilla bands across the Jordan River into the occupied West Bank and fired rockets at Israeli border settlements. Israel retaliated massively for these raids, perpetuating yet another round of spiraling violence. But tensions took on a sharper, international edge on September 6, 1970, when Palestinian guerrillas waylaid three passenger planes belonging to TWA, Swiss-air, and Pan Am and forced them to land in the Jordanian desert. The hijackers took fifty-four hostages, thirty-four of them Americans, and sequestered them in an Amman hideout. They then set charges under the aircraft and, with cameras whirring, blew them apart.

The explosions ignited the long-simmering confrontation between the PLO and Jordan, the period preserved in Palestinian memory as Black September. Vicious fighting broke out between Palestinian militias and forces loyal to Hussein, Jordan’s bantam king. The royalists quickly subdued the rebels, but then the Syrians threatened to intervene on the Palestinians’ behalf. A panicked Hussein appealed to the United States to save him from the numerically superior Syrian army, but the administration demurred. Though Nixon admired Hussein and appreciated Jordan’s value in the Cold War, he feared that any attempt to aid the kingdom militarily would provoke the Soviets to intercede in Syria and trigger a direct superpower clash. Only one alternative remained. Using a secret phone line that had been installed between the White House and the Israeli embassy, Kissinger asked Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin, the chief of staff during the Six-Day War and the son of a former New Yorker, whether Israel would move its army into northern Jordan to block the Syrians’ advance. Jewish troops were being asked to sacrifice their lives for the sake of an Arab monarch and for the security of the United States. Rabin conveyed the request to Meir in Jerusalem, who promptly approved it.

Israeli assistance, as it turned out, proved unnecessary. Jordanian jets picked off Syrian tank formations as they rumbled across the border. Arafat and the PLO were banished to Lebanon and Hussein reigned on as the unvanquished Hashemite king. The White House, though, would long remember Israel’s readiness to fight at America’s behest. Over the next three years, American military aid to the Jewish state multiplied tenfold and pressure for Israeli territorial concessions ceased.

The emerging alliance between Israel and the world’s paramount superpower made an immense impression on Arab rulers. While the Soviet Union might provide them with the wherewithal of war, only the United States could furnish the diplomatic leverage needed to pry captured Arab lands from Israel’s grip. And few Arab leaders understood this subtle but momentous change better than Anwar Sadat. Having risen to power after Nasser’s death—literally, from heartbreak, while trying to resolve the Black September crisis—the dark and gangly Sadat was widely viewed as an unsubstantial lackey. His anti-American utterances were legion. Yet Sadat would soon reveal himself to be an astute and farsighted statesman, a visionary who foresaw the importance of wooing the Americans away from Israel and back into the Arab fold. The road to Sinai ran not through Damascus or Moscow, Sadat realized, but through the capital of the United States.

Sadat lost little time in signaling his openness to Washington. “You would be mistaken to think that [Egypt] was in the sphere of Soviet influence,” he informed Nixon, assuring him that if the United States “proves friendly to us, we shall be ten times as friendly.” Sadat further indicated that, in return for an interim agreement that facilitated the reopening of the Suez Canal, closed since the Six-Day War, and the return of a symbolic number of Egyptian troops to Sinai, he would evict the Soviet advisers from Egypt. “There is no reason why the Arabs should be closely aligned to the Soviet Union,” he said. “My people like the West better.” Sadat branded 1971 as his year of decision and stressed that the direction in which Egypt turned, whether toward peace or war, hinged principally on America.

Nixon was eager to explore Sadat’s intentions, but events—international, regional, and domestic—again conspired to obstruct him. Deeply engaged in secret negotiations to end the Vietnam War and in efforts to reach an agreement with the Soviets on limiting nuclear arms, the administration shied away from any policies that were liable to irritate Moscow. Instead, in May 1971, the superpowers pledged to work collectively toward an overall Arab-Israeli settlement. A year later, Sadat abruptly expelled as many as fifteen thousand Soviet advisers from Egypt, but his coup de main failed to effect a change in American policy. Détente with the Soviets still took precedence over Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

The chances for diplomatic breakthroughs further receded over the course of 1972. Among the worst hindrances to peace were actions by the PLO and other Palestinian organizations that, in the wake of the 1967 defeat, had attained a new heroic status in Arab eyes. Eager to build on this popularity and to focus international attention on their cause, the Palestinians launched a series of increasingly brazen and bloody attacks against Israeli targets. These reached a climax in September 1972, when masked members of Black September, a PLO offshoot named for the preceding year’s war in Jordan, slaughtered eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games. The Munich massacre was the first major terrorist action to be captured live on television and watched by much of America. It was also the harbinger of far deadlier violence to come. Nixon nevertheless reacted perfunctorily to Munich, refusing to denounce the PLO’s Soviet and Arab backers or even to lower the White House flag to half-staff. More pressing for the president was the need to counter accusations of deep-seated corruption in the White House and charges that his staffers had burglarized the offices of the Democratic National Committee in Washington’s Watergate Hotel.

As long as the United States remained committed to joint diplomacy with the Soviets, and with much of the Middle East in flames and the president politically hamstrung, Sadat could not hope to achieve a negotiated accord. Kissinger, who replaced Rogers as secretary of state in September 1973, proposed a step-by-step process of Egyptian commitments to Israeli security and Israeli recognition of Egyptian sovereignty over Sinai, but his efforts proved tardy.16 At two o’clock in the afternoon of October 6—a day after Kissinger discussed his plan with Sadat’s foreign minister—Egypt went to war.

The attack, coordinated with a Syrian assault across the Israel-occupied Golan Heights, caught the United States completely off guard. The country’s attention was riveted on Watergate and Nixon, retreating to his Florida home, left much of the decision making to Kissinger. The secretary had accepted intelligence assessments that war in the Middle East was highly improbable—“We were brainwashed by the Israelis who brainwashed themselves,” one American official complained—and was successfully misled by Sadat. The Israelis were no less shocked. Most of them were at home that day or in synagogue observing the holiest Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Prime Minister Meir had earlier been warned about the offensive and considered striking Egypt preemptively as Israel had done in 1967, but Kissinger dissuaded her. The international community no longer viewed Israel as a David fighting the Arab Goliath, he explained, and would condemn the Israelis as aggressors. Meir concurred and the cost of her decision proved exorbitant. Under a nearly impenetrable umbrella of artillery shells and ground-to-air missiles, some eighty thousand Egyptian troops stormed over bridges and ferried across the Suez Canal. They overran the outnumbered and unprepared Israelis and established an inextricable foothold in Sinai. Hundreds of Syrian tanks meanwhile plowed through the minefields and redoubts on the Golan Heights. The scenes of desert roads lined with charred tanks and blackened bodies were revisited, only this time most of the wreckage was Israeli.

The Yom Kippur War or, as the Arabs called it, the October War, was the crucible of Kissinger’s realist approach to Middle Eastern politics. His goals in the crisis were threefold: to stop the bloodshed as rapidly as possible, to prevent the Soviets from gaining any political advantages from the crisis, and to lay the groundwork for post-war American mediation. The United States would accordingly place its diplomatic weight behind UN efforts to achieve a cease-fire and flex its military muscle to discourage Soviet intervention in the war. Though Israel was expected to rally and quickly repulse the Arab invaders, the administration assumed it would make extensive territorial concessions once the fighting ended. “We could not make our policy hostage to the Israelis,” Kissinger said, emphasizing that anti-Americanism in the Arab world suited Israel’s interests but was, for the United States, “a disaster.”

Events in the field, however, once again failed to conform to America’s agenda. The anticipated Israeli counterattack did not materialize, and the embattled Jewish state soon found itself desperately bereft of supplies. The Arabs, by contrast, were receiving continuous shipments of guns and ammunition from the Soviets. Kissinger deliberated whether or not to respond to the Soviets’ move; the Defense Department claimed that restocking Israel would harm America’s war effort in Vietnam. But the prospect of victory for communist arms was sufficiently horrific to rouse Richard Nixon from his seclusion. “Whatever it takes,” the president commanded, “save Israel.” Galaxy and Starlifter aircraft subsequently flew the 6,000-mile journey to Tel Aviv some three hundred times—Operation Nickel Grass—and delivered more than 22,000 tons of matériel. The replenished Israeli forces doggedly turned the tide, driving the Syrians back to Damascus within a week and encircling the Egyptian army in Sinai.

Washington initially welcomed this battlefield turnaround, until it precipitated two unexpected and ominous results. First, the Arab oil producers whose families had been doctored by American missionaries, enriched by American oil companies, and protected by every president cut off oil supplies to the United States and other industrialized countries, ostensibly in retaliation for their support of Israel. Production lines and power stations all but shut down and long lines of vehicles waited with empty tanks at gas-depleted filling stations throughout America. Far more harrowing than the Arab use of the oil weapon, however, was the Soviets’ decision to place their ground and naval forces on the highest alert, hazarding a nuclear exchange.

The United States suddenly confronted the specter of an American economy paralyzed by lack of fuel and, more nightmarishly, of a global war with Russia. “We may have to take [the Soviets] on,” Kissinger conceded. “We have to be tough as nails now.” Demonstrating that tenacity, war-ready state of DEFCON-III was declared for American troops in Europe and for the Sixth Fleet in the eastern Mediterranean. At the same time, the White House concentrated immense pressure on the Israelis to halt their drive on Damascus and to ease their stranglehold on the Egyptian army. Several cease-fire efforts foundered and American and Soviet battleships nearly scraped prows. Nevertheless, by October 28, Israeli soldiers were delivering jerry cans of water to their Egyptian counterparts and cooperating with them on tension-reducing measures. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 338, calling for a “just and durable peace” on the basis of 242 and providing for an international conference to achieve it. An exultant Kissinger reported to Nixon, “It was a tremendous victory.”17

The secretary was perhaps overly generous in his self-praise. By concentrating almost exclusively on global strategic factors, the United States had failed to prevent a regional conflict and, by dallying on diplomatic efforts, may even have hastened its eruption. As many as fifteen thousand Arabs lay dead and more than twenty-five hundred Israelis. The war had also exposed serious splits within the Western alliance, as many NATO countries closed their airspace to American planes flying to Israel. “The Europeans behaved like jackals,” Kissinger later commented. “Their behavior was a total disgrace.”

Could realism alone suffice to rectify this devastation and clear a pathway toward peace? The dispiriting answer was provided in Geneva, where, in December 1973, the international peace conference convened. The Arab delegates refused to discuss a political settlement in advance of a total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories; the Syrians boycotted the proceedings entirely. Propelled by the Arab embargo, meanwhile, the price of oil skyrocketed nearly 400 percent, and Palestinian organizations that had been excluded from Geneva carried out massacres in two northern Israeli towns. This was the seismic environment in which Kissinger undertook his most delicate diplomatic task.

Fifty years after the State Department abandoned the tradition of appointing Jewish immigrants from Germany like Simon Wolf, Oscar Straus, and Henry Morgenthau as intermediaries between America and the Muslim world, replacing them with the descendants of missionaries, another German-born American Jew was mediating in the Middle East. Employing the tactic pioneered by Robert B. Anderson in the 1950s, the secretary shuttled between Arab and Israeli capitals in a step-by-step effort to separate the warring armies. Unlike Anderson, though, who traveled incommunicado, Kissinger peregrinated in public. A typical day began with a visit to Cairo and kisses of greeting from Sadat followed by a stopover in Damascus, to be kissed by the Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad, and concluded in Tel Aviv, where Kissinger finally embraced Golda Meir. “Oh, Mr. Secretary,” the prime minister quipped, “I didn’t know you kissed girls, too.” But behind the bonhomie, the negotiations were strained, especially with the Israelis, whom Kissinger often had to browbeat into compliance. The result was separation-of-forces agreements on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts and the renewal of diplomatic ties between America and the Arab world.

Buoyed by these successes, Kissinger was poised to progress toward more far-reaching Arab-Israeli agreements, but obstacles sprouted in his path. Desperate for a respite from Watergate and to revel in his last diplomatic success, Nixon deplaned in the Middle East in June 1974. Exuberant crowds turned out to greet the president in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, and the Israelis treated him deferentially. The adulation did little to improve his status at home, however, and Nixon resigned shortly after returning. His replacement, the affable but lackluster Gerald Ford, had little experience in statecraft and was generally unversed in the Middle East. Golda Meir, who stepped down four months after Nixon, was succeeded by Yitzhak Rabin, a deceptively quiet politician who proved equally hawkish on territorial issues. The infelicitous combination of Ford and Rabin produced the direst crisis in U.S.-Israel relations since Suez, with Ford announcing a “reassessment” of American support for the Jewish state. Rabin responded by mobilizing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby—against the president. Though founded in 1953, AIPAC had only now, in the mid-1970s, achieved the financial and political clout necessary to sway congressional opinion. Confronted with opposition from both houses of Congress, Ford rescinded his “reassessment.”

Still, Kissinger, who remained as Ford’s secretary of state, succeeded in mediating a second treaty between Israel and Egypt, in September 1975. Israel agreed to further pullbacks in Sinai in return for Egyptian pledges of nonbelligerency and American security guarantees. The accord perhaps owed less to Kissinger’s Metternichian approach, though, than to the deepening desire of Egyptians and Israelis for peace. A more notorious example of Kissinger’s dispassionate diplomacy in the Middle East occurred that same year when, during a border dispute between Iran and Iraq, the secretary clandestinely encouraged Iraqi Kurds to revolt against Iraqi rule. The Kurds rebelled, but the shah and Saddam Hussein soon resolved their differences, freeing the Iraqi army to crush the insurrection. The Kurds appealed to Kissinger for help, but the secretary was now impervious. “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work,” he said.18

For seven years, throughout the terms of Nixon and Ford, the United States had weathered relentless upheavals in the Middle East. It had braved a whirlwind of battles, coups, and boycotts and had skirted Soviet squalls. Both presidents strove to restore America’s status in the Arab world and restrict that of Russia, all the while nurturing a delicate strategic balance. Their achievements, in the final reckoning, were impressive. Egypt, the predominant Arab state, had been coaxed back into the American orbit and Soviet influence in the region, though still strong in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, was contained. Arabs and Israelis for the first time since the 1949 armistice had initialed diplomatic agreements and renounced further recourse to war. Peace, in the view of many of the conflict’s parties, was attainable—not under the watch of the UN or the Soviet Union, however, but solely under the auspices of the United States.

Yet peace remained a remote destination toward which American leaders still had to trudge. Israel was already building settlements in the territories it had captured in 1967, signaling its resistance to the concessions intimated by Resolution 242. Hafez al-Assad sent forty thousand Syrian soldiers into civil war–torn Lebanon, beginning a brutal thirty-year occupation. The terror first unleashed against the Israelis soon lashed out at Americans. Cleo Allen Noel Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Sudan, and his chargé, George Curtis Moore, were abducted and shot by the PLO in March 1973—freeing Sirhan Sirhan was one of the organization’s demands—and three years later, Palestinian gunmen killed Ambassador Francis Meloy and the economic counselor Robert Waring in Beirut. On September 8, 1974, a TWA jet en route from Tel Aviv to New York was destroyed in midair by a bomb planted in its cargo hold, killing all eighty-eight passengers. Islamic radicalism smoldered and fumed throughout the region, fanned by the Arabs’ failure to vanquish Israel militarily and by the dominance of dictatorial regimes, some of them sustained by America. Attaining interim truces in such an environment, much less a pax Americana, would require not just realism but ethics and imagination as well. Those qualities, precisely, distinguished Ford’s successor, the most faith-guided and fantasy-infused president to date.

Deacons, Doyens, and Shahs

Peanut farmer, Annapolis-trained submariner, governor of Georgia—Jimmy Carter had consummated several careers before becoming America’s thirty-ninth president. Throughout, though, Carter remained a believing Christian, a Baptist deacon, and a daily reader of the Bible. “I want the fullness of Christ in my life more than I want anything—even politics,” he confessed. That piety persisted after Carter entered the White House in January 1977. Like Woodrow Wilson, he dreamed of establishing a “fellowship of faith” in international relations and of pursuing a humanitarian policy overseas. His apostolic approach to foreign affairs often proved peculiar to world leaders, even those who shared his righteousness. “After a couple of hours with President Carter, I had the feeling that two religious leaders were conversing,” recalled Pope John Paul II.

Carter’s religious fervor was also evident in his almost obsessive focus on the Middle East. The area contained the Holy Land, which had always been a source of passion for the new president, and the State of Israel, support for which he regarded as a “significant moral principle.” Such views remained exceedingly popular among the evangelical Christians whose congregations now surpassed those of mainline Protestant churches in size and political influence. Restorationism was resurgent and so was the notion, once pervasive in colonial America, of Islam as a tool of the anti-Christ. But Carter dissented from these tenets in his criticism of Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza and his sympathy for the Palestinians’ plight. In contrast to Nixon and Kissinger, who addressed the conflict purely on the plane of power, Carter sought to reconcile the belligerents on the basis of their common devoutness. “The blood of Abraham…still flows in the veins of Arab, Jew, and Christian,” Carter avowed. “The spilled blood in the Holy Land still cries out to God—an anguished cry for peace.”19

In response to that lamentation, Carter relinquished the monopoly over Middle East peacemaking meticulously built by the preceding administration. He invited the Soviets to join him in hosting another international peace conference and declared his intention to seek Israel’s withdrawal from all of the occupied territories. Most surprisingly Carter pledged to realize “legitimate Palestinian rights”—a euphemism for creating a Palestinian state—and to negotiate with the PLO once it accepted Resolution 242.

These measures hardly endeared Carter to evangelical leaders who, in widely circulated advertisements, stated, “The time has come for evangelical Christians to affirm their belief in biblical prophecy and Israel’s divine right to the land.” The president’s positions also antagonized Menachem Begin, the commander of the Irgun militia in 1948, head of the right-wing Likud party, and now Israel’s newly elected prime minister. But while alienating evangelicals and many Israelis, Carter failed to impress Sadat. The Egyptian ruler was appalled by Carter’s willingness once again to subject the peace process to Soviet, Syrian, and PLO whims and by his apparent reluctance to arm-twist the Israelis. Instead of waiting for a change in Washington’s policies, Sadat opened direct secret channels to Begin. The outcome of these talks was broadcast to the world on November 19, 1977, when Sadat, illuminated by hundreds of flashbulbs, stepped onto the tarmac at Tel Aviv’s airport and became the first Arab leader to visit the Jewish state.

The United States had almost no part in that historic event, nor was it involved in the ensuing treaty discussions between Begin and Sadat. The talks quickly became deadlocked, however, and both sides concluded that progress toward peace was unattainable without American mediation at the highest level. Carter consequently becam  arbitrated the Algeciras conference in 1906 to engage personally in Middle East mediation and the first to style himself a “full partner” with Arabs and Israelis, seeking a common ground.

The task of locating that median, however, proved grueling. Sadat demanded that the Israelis vacate all of the occupied territories and provide for Palestinian self-determination. Begin would not hear of conceding the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan and insisted on retaining Israeli positions in Sinai as well. Carter almost unreservedly accepted the Egyptian position and assiduously rejected Israel’s. Especially galling for Carter were the Israeli settlements that had proliferated in the occupied territories. “We all felt that the Egyptian leader had gone out on a limb in order to promote peace in the region and that Begin was busily sawing the limb off,” remembered Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. But beyond policy differences, the president evinced a personal aversion to Begin’s abrasiveness and the rough-and-tumble of Israeli democracy. He preferred the courtly Sadat, who, regularly reelected by more than 95 percent of his citizens, was unrestrained in his decision making—another exemplar of the noble, unfettered nomad. “There was also a bit of hero worship,” Brzezinski added, recalling how Carter told Sadat, “You are probably the most admired statesman in the United States.”

Carter’s devotion to peace for peace’s sake, not as a vehicle for sidelining the Soviets, and his affection for Sadat converged at Camp David in September 1978. He had summoned Israeli and Egyptian leaders to the presidential retreat in a final, intensive effort to forge a compromise between them. Shuttling now between bungalows rather than capitals, Carter threatened Begin with a cutoff of American aid to Israel and cajoled Sadat with promises of augmented support. The combination of admonishments and largesse proved fruitful, producing two interlocking treaties collectively called the Camp David Accords. In the first of these, establishing peace between Israel and Egypt, Israel consented to withdraw completely from Sinai in exchange for normal ties with Egypt, including an end to anti-Israel incitement in the Egyptian press. The United States served as guarantor of the agreement by maintaining observers on the Egypt-Israeli border and by providing billions of dollars of aid annually to both countries. The second accord furnished a framework for peace between Israel and the other Arab countries and a solution for the Palestinian problem. A five-year period of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza would be followed by talks on the territories’ final status, potentially leading to statehood.

The three-way handshake with which Begin, Sadat, and Carter sealed their agreement on the White House lawn in March 1979 became the emblem of America’s preeminence in Middle East peace-making and the high-water mark that later presidents would aspire to match. “The Camp David Accords had now become almost like the Bible,” Carter commented, but he alone seemed to regard those texts as scripture. Israel agreed to grant autonomy to the Palestinian residents of the territories but not to the land, which it continued to stake out with settlements. The Egyptians never normalized relations with Israel or ended incitement against it—and Jews in general—in state-controlled media. Most of the Arab world, meanwhile, led by Syria, Iraq, and Libya, denounced the treaty as treasonous and declared a total boycott of Egypt. Arafat also rebuffed the autonomy scheme and called for Sadat’s assassination. No less adamant in their damning of the accords were the Islamic radicals whose influence was burgeoning throughout the Middle East. While watching a military parade in Cairo on the eighth anniversary of the October War in 1981, e the first president since Teddy Roosevelt Death to the Pharoah!” as they raked his breathless body with bullets.20


CARTER HAD come to the Middle East committed to Christian and American ideals but, apart from one dazzling moment on the White House lawn, was unable to realize any of them. Rather, the region remained a maelstrom of inter-Arab tensions and Cold War stress, of friction between Arabs and Israelis and rising fundamentalist opposition to insecure despotic regimes. The turbulent state of the Middle East in the 1970s might have dispelled any enduring illusions about the area, certainly the sexual aura with which Westerners had long endowed it. But myth once again proved more durable than reality, especially among the Hollywood doyens of mythmaking.

One of the most persistent of those reveries, that of the free-ranging Arab who absconds with a fair-skinned Western maid, again captivated audiences in 1975. The Wind and the Lion boasted of being based on a true story: the kidnapping of Ion Perdicaris by the Berber chieftain Raisuli seventy years earlier. But dramatic tension could not be served by the sight of Raisuli, played by the perennially virile Sean Connery, decamping with a plump and balding businessman of sixty-four, and so the film transmuted Ion Perdicaris into Eden Perdicaris, fetchingly portrayed by Candice Bergen. The movie took further license with history when it depicted Teddy Roosevelt dispatching U.S. Marines to Morocco in order to rescue Perdicaris, but not before romance blooms between her and the red-blooded Raisuli.

The image of the Middle East as a realm of dark and limitless sexuality also inspired one of the most popular American songs of the 1970s—“Midnight at the Oasis,” sung by a sultry Maria Muldaur. The theme was the same as that of The Sheik of Araby of fifty years earlier, only the seducer this time had become a seductress. “You won’t need no harem, honey, when I’m by your side,” she cooed, “And you won’t need no camel, no, no, when I take you for a ride.” Yet not even the entertainment industry could remain impervious to the upheaval convulsing the Middle East. Americans of the 1970s, much like their forebears two hundred years earlier, were not only titillated by phantasms about the region but also unnerved by its threats. In the suspense thriller Black Sunday (1977), Hollywood for the first time spotlighted the subject of Palestinian terrorism. A master bomber named Muhammad Fasil (played by Bekim Fehmiu, a Bosnian) sought revenge against the American-Israel alliance by blowing up the Goodyear blimp over the Superbowl. Though the plot was foiled in the last minute by Israeli agents, the idea of Middle Eastern extremists committing mass murder on American soil had been seeded in the public’s imagination.

These countervailing images of the Middle East, one romantic and the other brutally real, once again coexisted in the American mind. But a fundamental schism in the interpretation of Middle Eastern cultures and politics was also surfacing in universities. Two eminent scholars were offering antithetical views of the region, one radical and unexceptionally sympathetic and the other traditional and fault-finding.

Edward Said, an Arab Christian raised in Cairo and Jerusalem, attended Princeton and Harvard before receiving a professorship in English at Columbia. Handsome, articulate, and musically gifted, he gained prominence as a literary critic and a spokesman for Palestinian rights. Then, in 1978, Said departed from literature and politics and published Orientalism, an assault on the traditional academic interpretations of the Middle East. Unable “to discover any period in European or American history…in which Islam was…thought about outside a framework created by passion, prejudice and political interests,” he accused Western scholars of inventing a place they called the Middle East, a culturally inferior and politically hostile “other.” By dissecting and analyzing this region, Said asserted, these experts rendered it more easily conquerable by the West.

As history, Said’s thesis was difficult to sustain—Edward Salisbury, America’s first professor of Arabic in 1841, was hardly an imperialist—yet Orientalism served to expose the biases that had long marred Western writing about the Middle East, as exemplified by the works of Melville, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton. The manifesto also appealed to a generation of American academicians who, in reaction to the Vietnam fiasco and the West’s exploitation of developing countries, had grown skeptical of their own civilization’s virtue. They agreed with Said that the field of Middle Eastern studies was little more than an ancillary to colonialism and that the only authentic Middle East scholar was one who remained “engaged and sympathetic…to the Islamic world” and who “identified…wholeheartedly with the Arabs.” Those failing to meet these criteria were dismissed as Orientalists, beginning with the Orientalist par excellence, Bernard Lewis.

A British-born Jew, Lewis immigrated to America and joined the faculty of Near Eastern studies at Princeton, where he occupied the chair named for the missionary-minded philanthropist Cleveland Dodge. He authored numerous works on Ottoman history and the emergence of the Arab world, becoming one of the nation’s foremost authorities on Middle Eastern affairs. In contrast to Said, though, who imputed most Middle Eastern deficiencies to the West, the genteel and eloquent Lewis indicted the region for creating its own malaise and blaming it on Europe and America. “Compared with its millennial rival, Christendom, the world of Islam had become poor, weak, and ignorant,” he wrote. The United States bore no responsibility for those failures, Lewis contended, though it could help rectify them by supplanting Middle Eastern tyrannies with American-style republics.

Such allegations were, for Said, the epitome of Orientalist disdain. He accused Lewis of positing “willful political assertions in the form of scholarly arguments” and of hiding “beneath the umbrella of academic respectability” his true identity as “lobbyist and a propagandist.” The fact that Lewis was outspoken in his support of Israel—the apotheosis, according to Said, of Western imperialism—further discredited his views. Lewis countered by characterizing Orientalism as a tragedy that “takes a genuine problem…and reduces it to the level of political polemic and personal abuse.”21

A debate on the disparate ways of perceiving the Middle East had unfolded on American campuses and from there radiated into society at large. One position held that the construction of clinics and universities and the construing of myths were merely precursors to conquest and that, to purge themselves of such evils, Americans had to distance themselves from the legacy of European and Israeli imperialism and abstain from demonstrations of power. But another school maintained that Americans had enriched the area with their visions and beliefs and could further enhance it with their might, by liberating the Middle East from despotism.

Jimmy Carter tried to take a middle road between these divergent paths. He expressed empathy for the Middle Eastern peoples and eschewed the use of force. Yet he insisted that American principles could rectify many of the region’s shortcomings, while American strength—diplomatic and financial—would redress some of its most irresolvable conflicts. His approach, though, brought only momentary success in Arab-Israeli mediation and elsewhere failed entirely. And in no country was that failure more glaringly registered than in Iran.

IN SPITE of his avowals to promote freedom and democracy throughout the world, Carter overlooked the pervasive human rights abuses committed by friendly Middle Eastern states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Few regimes were as systematically oppressive of their own populations, however, and more ardently allied with the United States, than Iran. Since his reinstatement by the CIA’s anti-Mossadegh coup in 1953, the shah had proven to be fiercely anti-Soviet but also ruthless toward any Iranians he considered disloyal. His secret service, Savak, tortured and executed thousands. The Carter administration nevertheless continued its predecessors’ policy of propping up the shah politically, indulging his sumptuous lifestyle, and equipping him with cutting-edge arms. Feted in Teheran on December 31, 1977, Carter toasted Iran as an “island of stability” in the Middle East and lauded its leader for his wisdom, sensitivity, and insight.

Carter’s support for the shah remained undiluted throughout 1978, even as a popular revolt fermented against him. Finally, on January 16, 1979, the monarch was compelled to flee the country and two weeks later the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the grim-faced Shi’ite imam who had inspired the rebellion from abroad, returned triumphantly to Teheran. “Our relations with the United States are the relations of the oppressed with the oppressor, the relations of the plundered with the plunderer,” Khomeini proclaimed. His words induced near ecstasy among his innumerable supporters, none of whom seemed to have remembered America’s role in assuring Iran’s independence after World War II. They surged through the streets chanting “Death to the Three Spreaders of Corruption, Sadat, Carter, and Begin!” and “Death to the Great Satan,” meaning the United States.

Much like previous presidents, Carter was confounded by the appearance of a popular Middle Eastern leader who, though never enamored of the Soviets, showed scant affection for the West. He was further confused by the refusal of a religious man like Khomeini to respect even the most basic civic rights. “It’s almost impossible to deal with a crazy man,” Carter wrote. Despairing of chances of negotiating with the newly declared Islamic republic, the president permitted the shah, now sick with cancer, to receive medical treatment in United States. The gesture appeared noble to most Americans, the least Carter could do for an exiled and ailing ally, but Iranians were incensed by this display of hospitality to a tyrant, a fugitive they considered a war criminal.

On November 4, 1979, hundreds of Iranian students shouting “Allahuakbar” and waving laminated photographs of Khomeini vaulted over the walls of the U.S. embassy compound in Teheran. They smashed into the chancery and residence buildings and captured sixty-six Americans—diplomats, administrative staff, Marine guards, and CIA officials. “We will teach you about God,” one of the students ranted. “We will teach the CIA not to interfere with our country.” In exchange for freeing the prisoners, the kidnappers demanded the shah’s extradition and the transfer of his American holdings to Iran. They also insisted that the president apologize for a long list of American crimes against the Iranian people, beginning with the overthrow of Mossadegh.

The Iranian hostage crisis, as it came to be known, confronted Carter with a dilemma no less daunting than that which plagued Thomas Jefferson two hundred years earlier. The president could either try to reason with the piratical regime and purchase the hostages’ release or forgo negotiations and fight. In a Jeffersonian manner, Carter first attempted to establish back channels to the inimical Middle Eastern government. “The people of the United States desire to have relations with Iran based on equality, mutual respect and friendship,” he attested, and approved of the establishment of a UN commission to investigate America’s iniquities against Iran. But Khomeini rejected these tokens, boasting how the Iranian revolution had “undermined the political, economic, and strategic hegemony of America in the region.” Weary of this bad faith, the president finally resorted to power. He severed ties with Teheran, froze its American assets, and prohibited the import of Iranian oil into the United States. Proposals for imposing a broader boycott on Iran failed to gain international support, however, even from the Europeans.

The American hostages remained in Iranian custody, meanwhile, held in primitive conditions where they were frequently interrogated and occasionally threatened with execution. Force alone, it seemed, would restore their freedom. Carter considered many options, from destroying refineries and mining Iranian harbors to dropping an atomic bomb on Teheran. He ultimately decided on a rescue operation no less daring than William Eaton’s trans-desert assault against Tripoli in 1805. Helicopter-borne commandos would fly into Teheran, retake the U.S. compound, and escape with the liberated captives.

Intensive training for the mission began immediately and lasted many months, during which time America’s position in the Middle East continued to deteriorate. The closing weeks of 1979 saw a radical Wahhabi uprising in Saudi Arabia; hundreds were killed in an attempt to seize the Grand Mosque in Mecca. In Iraq, a bullish Soviet-backed dictator named Saddam Hussein grabbed power in a blood-soaked coup and proceeded to liquidate his rivals. Most stressful of all for the administration, however, was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The presence of hordes of Soviet soldiers and multitudes of tanks along the Middle East’s borders revived Truman’s nightmare of a Red Army takeover of Dhahran and other petroleum lodes. “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America,” Carter combatively informed Congress, warning that such attempts would be “repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” An American president had once again declared a doctrine on the Middle East, but its impact on events now seemed negligible. A pincer of pro-Soviet and radical Islamic forces continued to close on America’s interests in the area, while American hostages languished in captivity.

The sole hope for ameliorating this situation was Operation Eagle Claw, the raid to release the American prisoners, launched on the night of April 24, 1980. Landing in the Iranian desert, Delta Force and Ranger troops prepared to refuel their Sea Stallion helicopters for the flight to Teheran. But caught in a sudden sandstorm, two of the choppers broke down and a third crashed into a C-130 cargo plane, igniting a ball of flame that consumed both aircraft. Seven helicopters were left behind, some containing highly classified documents, along with the scorched corpses of eight American servicemen.22 Iranian authorities exhibited some of the bodies at a press conference, evoking another image from the Barbary Wars—of the pasha of Tripoli displaying the remains of U.S. sailors killed by the Intrepid’s explosion. That atrocity

spurred Jefferson to enter his second term determined to defeat the pirates with the help of Stephen Decatur and other stalwart warriors. But there would be no Decatur for Jimmy Carter, nor was there a second term.

The dust churned up by American helicopters fleeing Iran and by the Soviet tanks subduing Afghanistan obscured the glimmer of Carter’s contributions to Arab-Israeli peace. Voters in the 1980 presidential elections were less impressed by his faith-inspired policies than by the perils of appearing to project weakness in the Middle East. Fittingly, Carter’s last act in office was to negotiate an end to the hostage crisis. His method no longer recalled Jefferson’s, though, but rather that of John Adams. Using Algeria, the former pirate state, as a go-between, he offered to pay the modern form of tribute by unfreezing Iranian bank accounts in the United States and indemnifying Iran from future lawsuits by the prisoners. Temporarily pacified, the Iranians ended their captives’ 444-day incarceration—roughly one hundred days shorter than the imprisonment of Captain Bainbridge and the Philadelphia’s crew in Tripoli, but no less traumatic for Americans.

THE CONCLUSION of the hostage crisis represented the closing of a chapter in America’s postwar relations with the Middle East. Throughout the preceding thirty years, the United States had tussled with the twin menaces of Soviet aggression and nationalist agitation in the area, navigating perilously between the two. Successive administrations sought to cast America as the champion of anticolonialism and at times even sided with native leaders in their struggles with Britain and France. But many people in the Middle East saw little difference between the Soviet Union and the United States, which, in their eyes, had superseded Europe as the ultimate imperialist power. America’s support for the Jewish state further alienated the Arabs, especially after 1967, when the United States ceased viewing Israel as a liability in the Cold War and began embracing it as an asset. The attempts of every president, starting with Truman, to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute tended to tarnish, rather than burnish, America’s image in the area.

Decision makers in Washington nevertheless persisted in their peacemaking efforts throughout the period after 1980, all the while supporting an often-recalcitrant Israel. The United States still sought a balance between maintaining its hegemony in the Middle East and preserving its essential values. Yet the nature of the threat to American interests was changing. Neither the Ba’athist-style dictators nor the customary kings had succeeded in raising the region’s peoples from their political and economic malaise. On the contrary, the manifestations of backwardness, oppression, and military incompetence had only multiplied under both radical and conservative regimes. But now a resurgent movement rose to tap into the resentment generated by three hundred years of Muslim humiliation by the West, the suffering inflicted by autocratic Middle Eastern regimes, and the effrontery caused by a lax and impertinent modernity. Starting in 1979, Islamic extremism superseded socialist nationalism and conservative monarchism as the Middle East’s most dynamic political force and the paramount challenger to American supremacy in the area. The Cold War coalition with Europe meanwhile continued to dissolve, leaving the United States increasingly unaided in confronting this new and implacable foe. Two hundred years after the Tripolitan envoy ‘Abd al-Rahman lectured Jefferson and Adams on the Islamic injunction to fight “all Nations who should not have acknowledged [the Muslims’] authority,” America would again fight holy warriors alone.

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