By Barry Rubin
Let’s examine claims from the radical academia currently hegemonic in North America and Europe. What is fascinating is that a well-informed observer can easily demolish such claims. That’s precisely why such people are not being trained today and those who do exist must be discredited or ignored to keep students (and the general public) relatively ignorant.
To paraphrase George Santayana’s famous statement, those who fail to learn from history make fun of those who do.
I know that the situation has become far worse in recent years, having vivid memories of how my two main Middle East studies professors—both Arabs, both anti-Israel, and one of them a self-professed Marxist—had contempt for Edward Said and the then new, radical approach to the subject. At one graduate seminar, the students–every single one of them hostile to Israel but not, as today is often the case, toward America–literally broke up in laughter pointing out the fallacies in Said’s Orientalism. Today, no one would dare talk that way, it would be almost heresy.
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Let me now take a single example of the radical approach so common today and briefly explain how off-base it is. I won’t provide detailed documentation here but could easily do so.
The question is: Who in the Middle East was the tool of imperialism? Most likely the professors and their students, at least their graduate student acolytes, would respond: Israel. Not at all.
–Before and During World War One era. It can be easily documented that the French subsidized and encouraged Arab nationalism before the war and during it the British took over, sponsoring the Arab nationalist revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Before the war, Islamism was sponsored by the Ottoman Empire in order to keep control over the region and battle Arab nationalism. For their part, the Germans sided with the Ottomans and encouraged Islamism.
What about Zionism? The British did not issue the Balfour Declaration, supporting a Jewish national home, because they saw Zionism as a useful tool in their long-term Middle East policy. In fact, they were interested in the wartime mobilizing Jewish support elsewhere, specifically to get American Jews to support the United States entering the war on Britain’s side and Russian Jews in keeping that country in the war. Both efforts did not have much effect. At any rate, long-term British policy always saw maximizing Arab support as its priority.
While having promised Jews a national home, British policy soon turned away from supporting Zionism and certainly from backing a Jewish state, even by the early 1920s, realizing that having the Arabs as clients was a far more valuable prize. It was through local Arab elites that the British built their imperial position in the region. The French toyed a bit with Arab nationalism as a way to undermine British rule but also backed Arab elites. The new Soviet Union actually sponsored Islamism for several years as a way of undermining both British and French in the region.
The only exception was T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and a few other visionaries who thought that both Arab nationalism and Zionism could co-exist under British sponsorship. That concept didn’t last very long and had no policy influence beyond the early 1920s at most.
–Before and During World War Two
Realizing that it needed Arab support to fight in the coming war, the British followed an appeasement policy that was quite willing to sacrifice the Jews for Arab help—or at least non-interference—in the battle. If the Arab side had cooperated with these pre-war plans, Arab Palestine might have emerged in 1948, with the Jews driven out or massacred shortly after.
Instead, the radical Arabs—both nationalists and Islamists—made a deal with the Axis. Germany and Italy supported these forces in order to destroy the British and French position in the region, just as the Germans had done in World War One.
While the British worked with the Zionists during the war on common endeavors, there was never any notion that a Jewish state would aid British interests in the region. Quite the opposite. The British focused on moderate Egyptian and Iraqi politicians plus the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
–After World War Two
The British quickly sought to use moderate Arab forces to ensure their position. That’s why they were the real founders of the Arab League. The Zionists fought the British. The United States supported partition of the Palestine mandate and the creation of Israel but with no strategy of using Israel as a tool in Middle East policy. Indeed, the United States had no ambitions in the region at the time. Israel was largely ignored by the United States during its first two decades of existence.
The sole exception to the general pattern emerging was that the French did cooperate with Israel during several years of the 1950s, and the British for a briefer period at that time, to counter a radical Egyptian government (the Suez Affair of 1956) but in the British case that period lasted for a few months and ended decisively before the end of the year.
The U.S. government at first adapted the too-clever-by-half attitude that it could use the Arab armies as a modernizing force that would be simultaneously anti-Communist and opposed to the corrupt old system. Then it thought perhaps Islamism would make a useful anti-Communist force. It helped stage a coup (or counter-coup) in Iran when it feared–with reason–that the Communists were becoming too strong. Mostly, though, it tried to use Iran, Turkey, and some moderate Arab forces (but not Israel) to counter the pro-Soviet Arab camp.
–The Recent Era
Only after 1970, did the United States start to support Israel as part of the Cold War fight against the USSR and its local Arab allies. During the following decades, American policy also backed a number of Arab states which, for their own survival, also needed to ensure the Soviets and their allies didn’t triumph. At any rate, this was a defensive measure and if you believe that the Cold War struggle against Communism was a Western imperialist action then…you are probably a university professor.
The idea in U.S. policy regarding Israel was that the country effectively combated radical, pro-Soviet clients to prevent the USSR and its allies from taking over the region. Israel was useless, however, regarding the oil-rich Persian Gulf. It is important to stress the point that the United States wanted Israel to defeat pro-Soviet Egypt and Syria. The idea, of course, was to resolve all of the contradictions by brokering an Arab-Israeli peace agreement so the United States could be allies with both sides at once and undercut the appeal or usefulness of the Soviet Union. This was the basis for American policymakers pushing Israel to make more concessions in the hope of achieving peace or at least of easing tensions. In Washington, or at least in the State Department, Israel was viewed as a liability because–parallel to the pre-1948 British view–it made it harder to gain and enjoy total cooperation from Arab clients. From a radical perspective, then, the truth is that Israel impeded rather than furthered “American imperialism.”
A lot more can be written on this subject but historically inasmuch as there was any European or American “imperialism” it made use of Arab political factors along with, at times, Turkey. One major reason why the State Department generally opposed a pro-Israel policy is precisely because it interfered with their perceived need for Arab backing against the USSR and radical forces in the region. While various presidents and White House officials—beginning with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger—saw Israel as a useful ally in the Cold War (that’s when the aid and military sales originated), the goal in that context wasn’t building an empire but defending freedom from expansionist Communism and its allies.
Oh, yes, and the French thought they could use Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 (as they once thought, in 1946, to use Palestine Arab leader and then-recent Nazi collaborator Amin al-Hussaini) to take over Iran and be nice to Paris. In neither case did things work out too well.
Of course, the debate today is so structured as to leave out the fact that local countries can also be imperialistic in that they seek to take over the entire region or most of it. The modern history of the Middle East has been characterized by a battle between Egyptian, Syrian, and Iraqi imperialism seeking to gobble up Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinians, the Gulf monarchies, and each other. Today, the nationalist motives have simply been replaced by an Islamist-driven drive to gain hegemony in the region with Iran and Turkey added to the mix. There’s a long-term dream of reestablishing a caliphate. But the more realistic goal is that of old-fashioned imperialism, hegemony, and creating a sphere of influence for the country and regime involved.
Ironically, the Obama Administration pro-Islamist policy is in the tradition of the view that “more moderate” Arab forces can be used against radical threats. In this case, unfortunately, the purported moderates are “mainstream” Islamist forces like the Muslim Brotherhood who will supposedly combat al-Qaida and other Salafists. The point is that all this cleverness of using radical ideological movements almost always failed or even backfired.
This approach puts Obama into the strange company of a disastrously failed German policy that thought it could manipulate Islamists against the British and French, the French strategy of using radicals against the British and Americans, or the Eisenhower Administration that thought for a few years (1953-1956) it could help radical nationalists—notably Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser—and then Islamists against pro-Soviet leftists. Of course, Nasser soon emerged as the main pro-Soviet leader, just as the Islamists will soon emerge as the main anti-American force in the region.
In fact, we’ve reached the point where–from a radical Arab point of view–one could say that the United States is trying to make Islamism a tool of Western imperialism! After all, isn’t the U.S. government backing a local ideology’s regimes and movements because it [albeit wrongly] believes that this is the best choice to secure its own objectives in the region?
And the Obama Administration has also been trying to do so alongside distancing itself from Israel somewhat. Those two factors matches the classic, historic British and French imperial strategy in the region. This wouldn’t be the first time that a Western country backed a supposed puppet that turned out to be a puppeteer-eating one.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Thirteen of his books can be read and downloaded for free at the website of the GLORIA Center including The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East and The Truth About Syria. His blog is Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.