Politics & Policy

How We Got Here

A Turkish tank overlooks the nearby Syrian city of Kobani. (Getty)
Making sense of the Middle East landscape

The entire kaleidoscope of countries and movements between Libya and Turkey and Pakistan and Yemen is perhaps more complicated than ever. This is an attempt to review how we got to where we are.

At the start of the Cold War, the Arab countries were almost unanimous in considering the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine the last straw in a sequence of humiliations starting from their expulsion from France in the eighth century. After secular officers led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser seized control of the Egyptian government and evicted the picturesquely dissolute King Farouk in 1952, the Soviet Union promoted Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalism, especially after the United States under President Dwight D. Eisenhower pulled its promised assistance to the ambitious Aswan Dam project, Nasser seized the Suez Canal, and the British and French pre-positioned forces in Cyprus and encouraged an Israeli invasion of Sinai. The Anglo-French, in one of the most insane enterprises in the history of either country (a vast competition), tried to assume the role of “peace-keepers” while invading Egypt to “separate the combatants” at the Suez Canal, where the Israeli army had swiftly arrived.

It was a dreadful fiasco. In 1958, after Egypt and Syria purported to merge in the United Arab Republic, Nasser’s supporters staged a coup in Baghdad as Jordan and Iraq were also attempting to merge, which would have submerged the Palestinian majority in Jordan. The putschists massacred the entire Iraqi royal family in the manner of the Bolsheviks slaying the Romanovs, and killed the long-serving prime minister, Nuri al-Said, as he attempted to escape disguised as a woman (but wearing men’s shoes). His corpse was dragged through the streets behind an automobile for several days.

The smashing Israeli victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 caused King Hussein of Jordan to hand over authority for the Palestinian cause to Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, and after Nasser died in 1970 and was replaced by Anwar Sadat, a new cleavage developed in the Arab world between those who would compromise with Israel and those who pursued the destruction of the Jewish State. In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which was also, like that six years before, unleashed by Egypt, the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal and breached the Bar Lev Line, and appeared to be at Israel’s throat. President Richard Nixon effectively supplied the Israelis a new air force and Ariel Sharon turned the tide, but Nixon and Henry Kissinger intervened to arrange a cease-fire that preserved the Egyptians’ belief that they had acquitted themselves adequately to make peace with Israel. Eventually, in 1978, they did so, at Camp David, with the skilled mediation of President Jimmy Carter. Sadat had expelled the Russians from Egypt in 1974.

Nixon and Brezhnev were contemplating a comprehensive regional settlement when the Watergate controversy distracted Nixon’s ability to pursue one. Thereafter, the Soviet Union did not really have sufficient influence to be a valid co-contractant, and, in 1979, Carter was complicit in forcing out the shah of Iran, and that key country became a violently anti-Western theocracy. Nixon had been correct that the Russians would be easier to deal with than all the countries and factions that were going to emerge after the involuntary departure of the Russians from the region.

Saudi Arabia was a joint venture between the House of Saud and the leaders of the jihadist Wahhabi sect, which left the royal family alone in exchange for a large chunk of oil revenues to finance militant Islamist teaching and infiltration and insurgent activity around the world. Unofficial terrorism arose to surpass in violence and scope the antics of the terrorism-supporting powers. In a pattern set by the U.S. Marine-barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983, all through the 1990s the Clinton administration underreacted to terrorist attacks, on Khobar Towers, on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and on the USS Cole — which, along with intelligence failures, effectively produced the outrages of 9/11. Most official response to 9/11 in the Middle East, apart from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (which had been expertly evicted from Kuwait in the First Gulf War by the first President Bush and his strong team and allies in 1991), was pro-American. But much of the Arab masses were energized and enthused by the suicide attackers’ massacre of (mainly) American innocents. The Americans and their allies overthrew the government of Afghanistan; drove the offending terror network, al-Qaeda, and its leader, Osama bin Laden, out of Afghanistan; and eventually caught and summarily executed bin Laden in Pakistan, where much American aid was rerouted into the anti-West Haqqani Taliban in Afghanistan. The Americans and their allies were undoubtedly effective in harassing and killing al-Qaeda leaders.

Starting in 2011, the so-called Arab Spring that was imagined by idealistic Westerners to be the dawn of democracy in the Arab world toppled the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and generated a prolonged civil war in Syria. The most dangerous of the Arab extremist movements, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, was elected but so misgoverned the country that it was evicted by the army leaders it had itself installed. After the American withdrawal from Iraq, that state virtually disintegrated, and the Shiite 60 percent majority is now under the influence of the Iranians, which was the last thing sought by the United States when it invaded and disposed-of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The American pursuit of democracy caused the elevation of the terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah in Gaza and Lebanon in free elections (undemocratic governments democratically elected); and Turkey elected a somewhat Islamic government in 2002, which has excoriated Israel and pandered to its former wards and dependents in the Arab world. Iran is in hot pursuit of nuclear weapons, with the result that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt are all clamoring for the U.S. or even Israel to deprive Iran of its nuclear military capability. As al-Qaeda was pounded by the Americans, a new Islamic militant group, the Islamic State (IS), arose in the Sunni 20 percent of Iraq; it has defeated the regular army of Iraq and invaded Syria, and has become a fourth force in the civil war in that country, against Assad, the secular Arab moderates, and the other Islamist factions. The IS calls for theocratic government of the Sunni Arabs, and makes little distinction in the odium in which it holds Jews, Christians, and secular or insufficiently fervent Muslims. In one of the few dividends of the ever-escalating mayhem, no one pays any attention to the Palestinians, and Israel’s cordiality is being sought by former bloodthirsty enemies.

The Turkish government detests Assad so profoundly that it supports IS in Syria, instead of reoccupying the country itself, as it should; the world — including the nearly 2 million Syrian refugees, among whom are almost all its Christians — would welcome such an occupation of Syria. Saudi Arabia is so outraged at Russian and Iranian assistance to Assad and Hezbollah, and so irritated by the Iranian nuclear program, that it is steadily lowering the oil price (Russia and Iran cannot economically sustain an oil price below $70 per barrel). In the shambles of Iraq, the Kurds have effectively seceded from that country, with 20 percent of Iraq’s population and most of its oil, and are leading the battle on the ground against IS and replying to Turkey’s hypocritical support of IS by enflaming Turkey’s 20 million Kurds, who claim to have set up an autonomous zone in southeastern Turkey.

The steady decline of the oil price (assisted by increased American production and declining Chinese imports) has already forced Russia out of Ukraine and, if it does not stop the Iranian nuclear military program, Israel is standing ready for an aerial assault on the program, with broad Arab and even Turkish support. Iran is cooperating with the United States against IS, and it is feared by the Saudis and Israelis that the Obama administration will acquiesce in Iran as a nuclear threshold state, in which case the Republican leaders in Congress will try to legislate against any such understanding. The relatively quiescent International Atomic Energy Agency confirms that Iran is stonewalling inquiries it promised to assist. Because of terrorist attacks in North Sinai by the Muslim Brotherhood in some sort of collusion with IS, Egypt’s military government has declared IS, which still has only about 30,000 members, “a threat to the existence of Egypt.” In these circumstances, Israel is widely expected to attack Iran (with Saudi and Egyptian support), and it is also widely feared in the region that Iran will attack Saudi oil-refining and -shipping capacity to try to reinflate the world oil price. In that scenario, all the countries in the region, including Turkey and Israel, would side with the Saudis, who are trying to shift oil shipments from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea, where they would be less easily impeded. The Middle East might then sort out its own problems somewhat, without more interference from outsiders, who have done little but muddy the waters these 35 years.

It must be admitted that, since the Camp David Accords in 1978 — except for President Reagan’s sale of AWACS reconnaissance aircraft to Saudi Arabia in exchange for a reduced oil price to squeeze the USSR and Iran, and the Gulf War of 2003 — foreign intervention in the Middle East has been an almost complete multinational, multi-partisan failure. Western Europe’s only policy has been to be more favorable to the Arabs and less friendly to Israel than the Americans, and Russia and China have just been irresponsible and rather ineffectual mischief-makers.

Revolutionary movements always move to the left until they can’t be more extreme and there is a reaction. We are there with the Islamic State; and chaos always yields to the quest for order, and we can’t be far from that either. The Middle East may yet struggle to the merciful end of the Obama administration without blowing up. Then either Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush (though neither is a likely candidate for Mount Rushmore), or another contender, could still prevent or destroy the Iranian nuclear program from the air; and force Turkey to choose between expulsion from NATO and the end of EU preferences, and playing a role in calming Syria and Sunni Iraq and accepting an independent Kurdistan. The exhausted and disorganized Arab powers that haven’t already done so might then be so shaken that they will finally recognize the right of Israel to coexist as a Jewish state beside a Palestine with sustainable borders. Either way, to adapt a Polish phrase, “In death there is hope.”

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

Editor’s Note: This article was amended since first posting.


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