10 Things to Know about U.S. Policy in the Middle East
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
1. The United States has played a major role in the militarization of the region.
The Middle East is the destination of the majority of American arms exports, creating enormous profits for weapons manufacturers and contributing greatly to the militarization of this already overly-militarized region. Despite promises of restraint, U.S. arms transfers to the region have topped $60 billion since the Gulf War. Arms sales are an important component of building political alliances between the U.S. and Middle Eastern countries, particularly with the military leadership of recipient countries. There is a strategic benefit for the U.S. in having U.S.-manufactured systems on the ground in the event of a direct U.S. military intervention. Arms sales are also a means of supporting military industries faced with declining demand in Western countries.
To link arms transfers with a given country's human rights record would lead to the probable loss of tens of billions of dollars in annual sales for American weapons manufacturers, which are among the most powerful special interest groups in Washington. This may help explain why the United States has ignored the fact that UN Security Council resolution 687, which the U.S. has cited as justification for its military responses to Iraqs possible rearmament, also calls for region-wide disarmament efforts, something the United States has rejected.
The U.S. justifies the nearly $3 billion in annual military aid to Israel on the grounds of protecting that country from its Arab neighbors, even though the United States supplies 80 percent of the arms to these Arab states. The 1978 Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt was in many ways more like a tripartite military pact than a peace agreement in that it has resulted in more than $5 billion is annual U.S. arms transfers to those two countries. U.S. weapons have been used repeatedly in attacks against civilians by Israel, Turkey and other countries. It is not surprising that terrorist movements have arisen in a region where so many states maintain their power influence through force of arms.
2. The U.S. maintains an ongoing military presence in the Middle East.
The United States maintains an ongoing military presence in the Middle East, including longstanding military bases in Turkey, a strong naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean and Arabian Sea, as well as large numbers of troops on the Arabian Peninsula since the Gulf War. Most Persian Gulf Arabs and their leaders felt threatened after Iraqs seizure of Kuwait and were grateful for the strong U.S. leadership in the 1991 war against Saddam Hussein's regime and for UN resolutions designed to curb Iraq's capability to produce weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, there is an enormous amount of cynicism regarding U.S. motives in waging that war. Gulf Arabs, and even some of their rulers, cannot shake the sense that the war was not fought for international law, self-determination and human rights, as the senior Bush administration claimed, but rather to protect U.S. access to oil and to enable the U.S. to gain a strategic toehold in the region.
The ongoing U.S. air strikes against Iraq have not garnered much support from the international community, including Iraq's neighbors, who would presumably be most threatened by an Iraqi capability of producing weapons of mass destruction. In light of Washingtons tolerance -- and even quiet support -- of Iraqs powerful military machine in the 1980s, the United States' exaggerated claims of an imminent Iraqi military threat in 1998, after Iraqs military infrastructure was largely destroyed in the Gulf War, simply lack credibility. Nor have such recent air strikes eliminated or reduced the countrys capability to produce weapons of mass destruction, particularly the most plausible threat of biological weapons.
Furthermore, only the United Nations Security Council has the prerogative to authorize military responses to violations of its resolutions; no single member state can do so unilaterally without explicit permission. Many Arabs object to the U.S. policy of opposing efforts by Arabs states to produce weapons of mass destruction, while tolerating Israels sizable nuclear arsenal and bringing U.S. nuclear weapons into Middle Eastern waters as well as rejecting calls for the creation of a nuclear-free zone in the region.
In a part of the world which has been repeatedly conquered by outside powers of the centuries, this ongoing U.S. military presence has created an increasing amount of resentment. Indeed, the stronger the U.S. military role has become in the region in recent decades, the less safe U.S. interests have become.
3. There has been an enormous humanitarian toll resulting from U.S. policy toward Iraq.
Iraq still has not recovered from the 1991 war, during which it was on the receiving end of the heaviest bombing in world history, destroying much of the countrys civilian infrastructure. The U.S. has insisted on maintaining strict sanctions against Iraq to force compliance with international demands to dismantle any capability of producing weapons of mass destruction. In addition, the U.S. hopes that such sanctions will lead to the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime. However, Washingtons policy of enforcing strict sanctions against Iraq appears to have had the ironic effect of strengthening Saddams regime. With as many as 5,000 people, mostly children, dying from malnutrition and preventable diseases every month as a result of the sanctions, the humanitarian crisis has led to worldwide demands -- even from some of Iraqs historic enemies -- to relax the sanctions. Furthermore, as they are now more dependent than ever on the government for their survival, the Iraqi people are even less likely to risk open defiance.
Unlike the reaction to sanctions imposed prior to the war, Iraqi popular resentment over their suffering lays the blame squarely on the United States, not the totalitarian regime, whose ill-fated conquest of Kuwait led to the economic collapse of this once-prosperous country. In addition, Iraq's middle class, which would most likely have formed the political force capable of overthrowing Saddams regime, has been reduced to penury. It is not surprising that most of Iraqs opposition movements oppose the U.S. policy of ongoing punitive sanctions and air strikes.
In addition, U.S. officials have stated that sanctions would remain even if Iraq complied with United Nations inspectors, giving the Iraqi regime virtually no incentive to comply. For sanctions to work, there needs to be a promise of relief to counterbalance the suffering; that is, a carrot as well as a stick. Indeed, it was the failure of both the United States and the United Nations to explicitly spell out what was needed in order for sanctions to be lifted that led to Iraq suspending its cooperation with UN weapons inspectors in December 1998.
4. The United States has not been a fair mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For over two decades, the international consensus for peace in the Middle East has involved the withdrawal of Israeli forces to within internationally recognized boundaries in return for security guarantees from Israel's neighbors, the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and some special status for a shared Jerusalem. Over the past 30 years, the Palestine Liberation Organization, under the leadership of Yasir Arafat, has evolved from frequent acts of terrorism and the open call for Israel's destruction to supporting the international consensus for a two-state solution. Most Arab states have made a similar evolution toward favoring just such a peace settlement.
However, the U.S. has traditionally rejected the international consensus and currently takes a position more closely resembling that of Israel's right-wing government: supporting a Jerusalem under largely Israeli sovereignty, encouraging only partial withdrawal from the occupied territories, allowing for the confiscation of Palestinian land and the construction of Jewish-only settlements and rejecting an independent state Palestine outside of Israeli strictures.
The interpretation of autonomy by Israel and the United States has thus far led to only limited Palestinian control of a bare one-fourth of the West Bank in a patchwork arrangement that more resembles American Indian reservations or the infamous Bantustans of apartheid-era South Africa than anything like statehood. The U.S. has repeatedly blamed the Palestinians for the violence of the past year, even though Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other reputable human rights group have noted that the bulk of the violence has come from Israeli occupation forces and settlers.
Throughout the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the U.S. has insisted on the two parties working out a peace agreement among themselves, even though there has always been a gross asymmetry in power between the Palestinians and their Israeli occupiers. The U.S. has blamed the Palestinians for not compromising further, even though they already ceded 78 percent of historic Palestine to the Israelis in the Oslo Accords; the Palestinians now simply demand that the Israelis withdraw their troops and colonists only from lands seized in the 1967, which Israel is required to do under international law.
The U.S.-backed peace proposal by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak at the 2000 talks at Camp David would have allowed Israel to annex large swaths of land in the West Bank, control of most of Arab East Jerusalem and its environs, maintain most of the illegal settlements in a pattern that would have divided the West Bank into non-contiguous cantons, and deny Palestinian refugees the right of return. With the U.S. playing the dual role of the chief mediator of the conflict as well as the chief diplomatic, financial and military backer of Israeli occupation forces, the U.S. goal seems to be more that of Pax Americana than that of a true peace.
5. U.S. support for Israel occupation forces has created enormous resentment throughout the Middle East.
The vast majority of Middle Eastern states and their people have belatedly acknowledged that Israel will continue to exist as part of the region as an independent Jewish state. However, there is enormous resentment at ongoing U.S. diplomatic, financial and military support for Israeli occupation forces and their policies.
The U.S. relationship with Israel is singular. Israel represents only one one-thousandth of the worlds population and has the 16th highest per capita income in the world, yet it receives nearly 40 percent of all U.S. foreign aid. Direct aid to Israel in recent years has exceeded $3.5 billion annually, with an additional $1 billion through other sources, and has been supported almost unanimously in Congress, even by liberal Democrats who normally insist on linking aid to human rights and international law. Although the American public appears to strongly support Israels right to exist and wants the U.S. to be a guarantor of that right, there is growing skepticism regarding the excessive level and unconditional nature of U.S. aid to Israel. Among elected officials, however, there are virtually no calls for a reduction of current aid levels in the foreseeable future, particularly as nearly all U.S. aid to Israel returns to the United States either via purchases of American armaments or as interest payments to U.S. banks for previous loans.
Despite closer American strategic cooperation with the Persian Gulf monarchies since the Gulf War, these governments clearly lack Israel's advantages in terms of political stability, a well-trained military, technological sophistication and the ability to quickly mobilize human and material resources.
Despite serious reservations about Israels treatment of the Palestinians, most individual Americans have a longstanding moral commitment to Israel's survival. Official U.S. government policy supporting successive Israeli governments in recent years, however, appears to be crafted more from a recognition of how Israel supports American strategic interests in the Middle East and beyond. Indeed, 99 percent of all U.S. aid to Israel has been granted since the 1967 war, when Israel proved itself more powerful than any combination of its neighbors and occupied the territories of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and other Arabs. Many Israelis supportive of that country's peace movement believe the United States has repeatedly undermined their efforts to moderate their government's policies, arguing that Israeli security and Palestinian rights are not mutually-exclusive, as the U.S. seems to believe, but mutually dependent on the other.
As long as U.S. military, diplomatic and economic support of the Israeli government remains unconditional despite Israel's ongoing violation of human rights, international law and previous agreements with the Palestinians, there is no incentive for the Israeli government to change its policies. The growing Arab resentment that results can only threaten the long-term security interests of both Israel and the United States.
6. The United States has been inconsistent in its enforcement of international law and UN Security Council resolutions.
The U.S. has justified its strict sanctions and ongoing air strikes against Iraq on the grounds of enforcing United Nations Security Council resolutions. In addition, in recent years the United States has successfully pushed the UN Security Council to impose economic sanctions against Libya, Afghanistan and Sudan over extradition disputes, an unprecedented use of the UNs authority. However, the U.S. has blocked sanctions against such Middle East allies as Turkey, Israel and Morocco for their ongoing occupation of neighboring countries, far more egregious violations of international law that directly counter the UN Charter. In recent years, for example, the U.S. has helped block the Security Council from moving forward with a UN-sponsored resolution on the fate of the Moroccan-occupied country of Western Sahara because of the likelihood that the people would vote for independence from Morocco, which invaded the former Spanish colony with U.S. backing in 1975.
Over the past 30 years, the U.S. has used its veto power to protect its ally Israel from censure more than all other members of the Security Council have used their veto power on all other issues combined. This past spring, for example, the U.S. vetoed an otherwise-unanimous resolution which would have dispatched unarmed human rights monitors to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. In addition, the U.S. has launched a vigorous campaign to rescind all previous UN resolutions critical of Israel. Washington has labeled them "anachronistic," even though many of the issues addressed in these resolutions -- human rights violations, illegal settlements, expulsion of dissidents, development of nuclear weapons, the status of Jerusalem,and ongoing military occupation -- are still germane. The White House contends that the 1993 Oslo Accords render these earlier UN resolutions obsolete. However, such resolutions cannot be reversed without the approval of the UN body in question; the U.S. cannot unilaterally discount their relevance. Furthermore, no bilateral agreement (like Oslo) can supersede the authority of the UN Security Council, particularly if one of the two parties (the Palestinians) believe that these resolutions are still binding.
Most observers recognize that one of the major obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace is the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. However, the U.S. has blocked enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions calling for Israel to withdraw its settlements from Palestinian land. These settlements were established in violation of international law, which forbids the colonization of territories seized by military force. In addition, the U.S. has not opposed the expansion of existing settlements and has shown ambivalence regarding the large-scale construction of exclusively Jewish housing developments in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem. Furthermore, the U.S. has secured additional aid for Israel to construct highways connecting these settlements and to provide additional security, thereby reinforcing their permanence. This places the United States in direct violation of UN Security Council resolution 465, which "calls upon all states not to provide Israel with any assistance to be used specifically in connection with settlements in the occupied territories."
7. The United States has supported autocratic regimes in the Middle East.
The growing movement favoring democracy and human rights in the Middle East has not shared the remarkable successes of its counterparts in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia. Most Middle Eastern governments remain autocratic. Despite occasional rhetorical support for greater individual freedoms, the United States has generally not supported tentative Middle Eastern steps toward democratization. Indeed, the United States has reduced -- or maintained at low levels -- its economic, military and diplomatic support to Arab countries that have experienced substantial political liberalization in recent years while increasing support for autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt and Morocco. Jordan, for example, received large-scale U.S. support in the 1970s and 1980s despite widespread repression and authoritarian rule; when it opened up its political system in the early 1990s, the U.S. substantially reduced -- and, for a time, suspended -- foreign aid. Aid to Yemen was cut off within months of the newly unified countrys first democratic election in 1990.
Despite its laudable rhetoric, Washington's real policy regarding human rights in the Middle East is not difficult to infer. It is undeniable that democracy and universally recognized human rights have never been common in the Arab-Islamic world. Yet the tendency in the U.S. to emphasize cultural or religious explanations for this fact serves to minimize other factors that are arguably more salient -- including the legacy of colonialism, high levels of militarization and uneven economic development -- most of which can be linked in part to the policies of Western governments, including the United States. There is a circuitous irony in a U.S. policy that sells arms, and often sends direct military aid, to repressive Middle Eastern regimes that suppress their own people and crush incipient human rights movements, only to then claim that the resulting lack of democracy and human rights is evidence that the people do not want such rights. In reality, these arms transfers and diplomatic and economic support systems play an important role in keeping autocratic Arab regimes in power by strengthening the hand of the state and supporting internal repression. The U.S. then justifies its large-scale military aid to Israel on the grounds that it is "the sole democracy in the Middle East," even though these weapons are used less to defend Israeli democracy than to suppress the Palestinians struggle for self-determination.
8. U.S. policy has contributed to the rise of radical Islamic governments and movements.
The United States has been greatly concerned in recent years over the rise of radical Islamic movements in the Middle East. Islam, like other religions, can be quite diverse regarding its interpretation of the faith's teachings as they apply to contemporary political issues. There are a number of Islamic-identified parties and movements that seek peaceful coexistence and cooperation with the West and are moderate on economic and social policy. Many Islamist movements and parties have come to represent mainstream pro-democracy and pro-economic justice currents, replacing the discredited Arab socialism and Arab nationalist movements.
There are also some Islamic movements in the Middle East today that are indeed reactionary, violent, misogynist and include a virulently anti-American perspective that is antithetical to perceived American interests. Still others may be more amenable to traditional U.S. interests but reactionary in their approach to social and economic policies, or vice versa.
Such movements have risen to the forefront primarily in countries where there has been a dramatic physical dislocation of the population as a result of war or uneven economic development. Ironically, the United States has often supported policies that have helped spawn such movements, including giving military, diplomatic and economic aid to augment decades of Israeli attacks and occupation policies, which have torn apart Palestinian and Lebanese society, and provoked extremist movements that were unheard of as recently as 20 years ago. The U.S.-led overthrow of the constitutional government in Iran in 1953 and subsequent support for the Shah's brutal dictatorship succeeded in crushing that countrys democratic opposition, resulting in a 1979 revolution led by hard-line Islamic clerics. The United States actually backed extremist Islamic groups in Afghanistan when they were challenging the Soviet Union in the 1980s, including Osama bin Laden and many of his followers. To this day, the United States maintains very close ties with Saudi Arabia, which despite being labeled a "moderate" Arab regime -- adheres to an extremely rigid interpretation of Islam and is among the most repressive regimes in the world.
9. The U.S. promotion of a neo-liberal economic model in the Middle East has not benefitted most people of the region.
Like much of the Third World, the United States has been pushing a neo-liberal economic model of development in the Middle East through such international financial institutions as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. These have included cutbacks in social services, encouragement of foreign investment, lower tariffs, reduced taxes, the elimination of subsidies for farmers and basic foodstuffs as well as ending protection for domestic industry.
While in many cases, this has led to an increase in the overall Gross National Product, it has dramatically increased inequality, with only a minority of the population benefitting. Given the strong social justice ethic in Islam, this growing disparity between the rich and the poor has been particularly offensive to Muslims, whose exposure to Western economic influence has been primarily through witnessing some of the crassest materialism and consumerism from U.S. imports enjoyed by the local elites.
The failure of state-centric socialist experiments in the Arab world have left an ideological vacuum among the poor seeking economic justice which has been filled by certain radical Islamic movements. Neo-liberal economic policies have destroyed traditional economies and turned millions of rural peasants into a new urban underclass populating the teeming slums of such cities as Cairo, Tunis, Casablanca and Teheran. Though policies of free trade and privatization have resulted in increased prosperity for some, far more people have been left behind, providing easy recruits for Islamic activists rallying against corruption, materialism and economic injustice.
10. The U.S. response to Middle Eastern terrorism has thus far been counter-productive.
The September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States has highlighted the threat of terrorism from the Middle East, which has become the country's major national security concern in the post-cold war world. In addition to Osama bin Ladens underground Al-Qaeda movement, which receives virtually no direct support from any government, Washington considers Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Libya to be the primary sources of state-sponsored terrorism and has embarked on an ambitious policy to isolate these regimes in the international community. Syria's status as a supporter of terrorism has ebbed and flowed not so much from an objective measure of its links to terrorist groups as from an assessment of their willingness to cooperate with U.S. policy interests, indicating just how politicized "terrorist" designations can be.
Responding to terrorist threats through large-scale military action has been counter-productive. In 1998, the U.S. bombed a civilian pharmaceutical plant in Sudan under the apparently mistaken belief that it was developing chemical weapons that could be used by these terrorist networks, which led to a wave of anti-Americanism and strengthened that countrys fundamentalist dictatorship. The 1986 bombing of two Libyan cities in response to Libyan support for terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in Europe not only killed scores of civilians, but -- rather than curb Libyan-backed terrorism -- resulted in Libyan agents blowing up a Pan Am airliner over Scotland in retaliation. Military responses generally perpetuate a cycle of violence and revenge. Furthermore, failure to recognize the underlying grievances against U.S. Middle East policy will make it difficult to stop terrorism. While very few Muslims support terrorism -- recognizing it as contrary to the values of Islam -- the concerns articulated by bin Laden and others about the U.S. role in the region have widespread resonance and will likely result in new recruits for terrorist networks unless and until the U.S. changes its policies.
Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He serves as a senior policy analyst and Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project.