IN making judgments on the Middle East, or considering its problems or its reactions or its leaders, we must bear in mind that the "Middle East" is not a clearly defined geographical term; it exists chiefly in the minds of diplomats and its content on any particular occasion is determined by the particular problem under consideration. About a year ago The New York Times published four maps of the Middle East as defined by Secretary Dulles, the British Foreign Office, and two leading dictionaries. Each one of them encompassed a different area; in none did the borders coincide. For when you approach the Middle East in political, geographic or sociological terms you quickly discover that the area dissolves into its separate units, each marked by strong individuality.

It is also well to remember that there is no major issue on which the Middle East takes a single and unified view. In the Syrian crisis, Iran and Turkey have stood on one side, while the Arab world has stood on the other. The Israeli issue stirs scarcely a ripple of interest in Iran or Afghanistan. Certainly the incursions of the Soviet Union do not elicit a unified response. Even within the Arab world itself, there are a variety of reactions; part adheres to the Baghdad Pact, part does not. Yet situations such as the Syrian crisis can suddenly bring forth something like pan-Arabism, and people who were squabbling a few months before rally behind the façade of Arab unity.

Another hazard in dealing with the Middle East is that the constant and unrelenting rush of the headlines tends to focus our attention on the immediate flow of political events. The recent Syrian crisis is a good example of this. We have had it treated and explained almost exclusively in terms of Russian ambitions. There is of course no doubt that Russia is using Syria to force her way into the Middle East and to exert certain diplomatic pressures on the Western world. And yet to understand the Syrian crisis adequately we would have to go back to the creation of Israel; behind that to the giving up of the sanjak of Alexandretta in 1939 by the French Mandatory Power to the Turks; behind that to the short-lived Arab Kingdom in Damascus after World War I, with Faisal at its head; and back of that to the decades of repression of Arab nationalism at the hands of Imperial Turkey. If there were no Russia threatening the Middle East, if Israel had not been created, if the United States had not refused Egypt the loan for the High Dam, the area would still be in turmoil. And therefore until we look at the more basic issues--"what lies under what lies under," as the psychologist said--we are not prepared to deal with the area.

The significant point here is that what appear to be basic issues from the standpoint of the United States may be far from basic from the standpoint of the Middle East. There is therefore a sharp clash in the priorities with which the two sides approach the current situation. Further, even when these priorities are identical the content of them often differs. For example, in recent months there has been a good deal of interest in the application of international law to the free use of the Suez Canal and freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aqaba. But international law represents largely the practice of the Western world in its diplomatic relationships; yet we approach the Middle East with the assumption that this body of Western experience has a universal validity. The fact is that the Muslim world in mediæval times developed its own "international law" and had its own principles of diplomacy. It divided the world into the Abode of Islam (Dar el-Islam) and the Abode of War (Dar el-Harb), and upon this division set up its view of international relations. When we talk to the Muslim world about "international law," then, we use terms which do not always have the same history and meaning for them as for us.

Let us now examine the basic issues, or priorities, first as the West sees them, and then as I believe the East sees them, in order to find out at what points there are differences and at what points there are similarities.


Certainly the most embracing and fundamental objective of the United States is to keep Soviet Russia out of the area. Whether this means Russian military occupation, as in Azerbaijan after the end of the Second World War; or some form of alliance between the Soviet Union and one of the states of the area, as at the moment in Syria; or Soviet penetration like that in Egypt--in all such instances we are equally resolute in our determination to prevent Russian incursions in the Middle East. Indeed, it was this basic issue that first changed America's historic interest in the Middle East to a positive responsibility. The change took place with the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine, in which we undertook to arm a Middle Eastern country and to strengthen its defenses against an outside Power.

We have clothed our objective in terms of defending people from Communism. The Eisenhower Doctrine, which I believe to have been meant as a direct warning to Russia that we were prepared to oppose military action by military action, is actually phrased in terms of keeping the Middle East free from a Communist threat and from no other. We recognize, of course, the subterfuge in this, because the problem of Russia in the Middle East is far older than Communism and far older than our interest in the area. For we have inherited the task which Britain carried in the nineteenth century, when she fought three wars-- one in Russia and two in Afghanistan--to check the Russian advance. One reason why our policy in the Middle East often has little local appeal is that the Middle East knows enough history to recognize that we are seeking not merely to prevent the spread of Communism, but to hold the Middle East as a preserve of the free world against the encroachment of Russian power.

Our second major objective--or priority--in the area derives from the first. We are convinced that in so crucial an area neutrality is impossible and that therefore the Middle East must be aligned with the free world. Our reason for insisting that the Middle East cannot be neutral is that neutrality implies either isolation from world affairs or equality of treatment between opposing Powers. Isolation is impossible in the Middle East; therefore if the Middle East is to adopt positive neutralism, it must extend equal treatment to the Soviet Union and ourselves. But equality of treatment clashes with our first objective, for it brings Russia into the area. This has been the problem in Syria. The relationship between Russia and Syria is not basically different from our relationship and privileges in Saudi Arabia or Iran, where we have supplied arms, obtained airfields and provided economic support. But we are not prepared to admit that the principle upon which we act in these two countries can be applied by Syria because this runs contrary to our first and irrevocable commitment to keep Russia out of the area.

Our third priority, I believe, is the State of Israel. Until the ill-fated military action of last year, Israel represented a higher priority for the United States than for our European allies. Since the Suez expedition, however, France and Great Britain feel a larger identity of interest with Israel and are perhaps prepared to give it a higher priority. To us, Israel represents our oldest direct interest in the area. Before the Truman Doctrine--indeed, before the emergence of the State of Israel--Congress went on record as being favorably inclined toward the plan envisioned by the Balfour Declaration. And during the intervening period of isolation we expressed in such ways as we could an interest and concern for the success of this experiment. The continuance of Israel as an independent state certainly represents a basic foreign policy commitment of the United States, partly because it rests upon action by the United Nations and partly because it is a national obligation which we have voluntarily undertaken.

A further reason why Israel represents a priority is because it is the major interest of important groups of American citizens. Never before in our history has a foreign country stood in the same relation to the United States as does Israel. This is partly because Israel conceives herself to be uniquely related to a particular world-wide community. And since important leadership and support of that community resides in this country, the ties between the United States and Israel are strong.

Yet there is another standpoint from which Israel is not a priority. Clearly, the impasse between Israel and the Arab world is one of the major barriers to our successful exercise of influence in the area. If any other small country were a similar barrier in a critical area of the world, we would probably be prepared to act with considerable vigor to resolve the situation and gain for ourselves badly needed good will. This is not to suggest that the survival of Israel is at issue, for, as I said above, we have a foreign policy commitment to that effect. But there are certain moves which could be made to alleviate the tension. I believe the refugee problem might be settled and that many incidents could be avoided by a minor correction of the present, war-set borders. The difficulty is that measures such as these would have to be taken partly at the expense of Israel, and this is inhibited by our commitments to Israel. Thus our own basic objectives--our own priorities--are in sharp conflict with each other, making a consistent and effective policy in the Arab world almost impossible to achieve.

Finally, there are some who would say that a high priority in the Middle East is economic and social development. Our initial program of economic and social development was partly based on humanitarian impulses, but underlying it was the conviction that through such development we could bypass political questions. We reasoned that the basic cause of instability in the Middle East lay in the incredibly low living standard of 85 percent of the population; if we could raise the living standard we would get at the basic cause of the trouble and perhaps the political problems would become less pressing and so their solution could be postponed.

Although our analysis of the basic character of the problem was valid, our conclusion that by this means we could escape the necessity of making difficult political decisions was quickly proved false. Moreover, we early found that we had to use our aid program for political ends, and it therefore ceased to be devoted solely to economic development and became a facet of our anti-Russian foreign policy. In Iran, American aid was a crash program at the time of Mossadegh's fall and the beginning of the Zahedi régime. It was entirely unrealistic of Congress, in reviewing the Iran program, to rule out any consideration of its political effect, for this was precisely its purpose. On the other hand, when we ran into political difficulties with Egypt we stopped our economic aid program as a way of applying political pressure--even going so far as to halt CARE shipments of surplus food which had been providing supplementary meals for village children. Under such circumstances it would seem that our economic program, while still a priority, has taken second place in the face of the political issues confronting us.


Now let us see what are the priorities or basic issues as the Middle East views them. First, only two countries in the area fully share our sense of the threat of Russia to the extent of considering it the priority. These are Turkey and Iran--willing, enthusiastic and coöperative members of the Baghdad Pact. What criticism there is of the Pact in Iran exists not because it is aimed against Russia but because its effectiveness in defending Iran is doubted. Iraq is a member of the Pact, but many Iraqis refer to it as the Nuri Said-Mendaris Pact, indicating that they feel it has an ephemeral quality. And indeed, when the Baghdad Pact was tested in the recent Syrian crisis we saw that Iraq felt constrained to join other Arab nations in backing Syria rather than Turkey.

In much of the rest of the Middle East the Soviet Union occupies a position of priority, but a priority of quite a different kind. Both in government circles and popular opinion, Russia is not seen as posing a threat but as representing an opportunity. She offers the Middle East what appears to be a new chance of sharing in the benefits of the Western world. Charles Malik, the Foreign Minister of Lebanon, has made the point strongly that the Middle East must have a European partner; that throughout modern history, its trade, ideas and political protection have been posited upon a relationship with the European world. Yet during the past five years Europe and the West have become not a partner but a problem in Eastern eyes. This is especially true of the United States, which is now the chief representative of the Western world in the Middle East. Many Arabs, including intelligent and educated ones, feel that it is the United States, not Russia, that is trying to take over the Middle East. And they feel that we are trying to divide the Arab world in cases where we cannot oppose Russia successfully.

The Soviet Union offers the Middle East a new opportunity to relate itself to the Western world. When Western markets cannot use Egyptian cotton, the Iron Curtain countries undertake to buy it. When the Western countries offer economic aid--but with political strings attached--Russia makes a counter-offer without any formal conditions. When the World Bank offers to loan Syria some $30,000,000 for development at 4.75 percent interest, but requiring that the projects be directed by Americans, Russia counters with a larger loan (perhaps $100,000,000) at 2.5 percent and no favors asked, at any rate openly.

And so Russia emerges in Middle Eastern eyes not as a threat but as an opportunity--an opportunity to counterbalance the Western world, to offset our pressure, to check what the Middle East believes to be our imperialism. But surely, it will be said, the Middle East realizes that Russia is more dangerous than the West. The answer in many cases is "No." The East remembers that it was the "free world" Powers that created Israel; it was they who gave the sanjak of Alexandretta to the Turks; it is they who, in Arab eyes, are suppressing freedom and independence in North Africa. Many Middle Easterners are outspoken in saying they do not see any difference between this and the kind of danger presented by the Soviet Union.

What of our second priority--the need to align the Middle East with the West? Do the countries of the area share this objective with us? Here we observe that those which accept alignment with the West are those that have always been at least technically independent. Although Iran was almost taken over by British colonialism at the end of the First World War, she did rally from it and, with Turkey, is now strongly aligned with the West. But when you move away from these old imperial Powers down into the Arab areas long controlled or dominated by foreign Powers, you find that the idea of alignment with the Western world has little, if any, priority. One reason is that these countries do not accept our definition of the Middle East as a "power vacuum." When Britain controlled the area a generation ago, they note, there was no Iraq, Jordan, independent Egypt, Lebanon or Syria. These states refuse to admit that they are a "vacuum." As independent nations they do not consider they can be talked about as though their lands were a howling desert waste waiting to be occupied by Powers from without.

Another reason why parts of the Middle East are not eager to align themselves with the West is that Russia is a little too close--not close enough to teach them as much as Turkey knows, but close enough to convince them that Russia should not be offended. The northern countries, which have done business with the Russians for centuries, harbor no illusions. But further south, where Russian penetration historically has not taken place, there are many illusions as well as fears of the risks involved in joining an alignment against the great northern Power.

Finally, an alignment with the West is not a priority for the simple reason that pan-Arabism takes its place in the Arab mind. The substance of pan-Arabism is not easily defined, but there can be no question that a vague feeling of community is stirring among the Arab peoples. This feeling emerges only under certain circumstances, but a threatened attack on the Arab world such as was allegedly posed against Syria is sure to bring out some sense of unity. Lurking in the minds of many responsible Arab rulers is a dream of the day when the real alignment of the Middle East will come about through a confederation of Arab states.

What of our third priority, Israel? As we have seen, this is not a priority in the whole area. But in the Arab part of it Israel is most certainly a priority, perhaps the number one priority. The point needs no laboring. Like our own commitment to the independence of Israel, the opposition to Israel is a foreign policy commitment of the various Arab states. That policy does not seek the complete annihilation of Israel, although Arab radio broadcasts to this effect are common and talk of annihilation is often heard. The fact remains that at one time or another within the past four years (especially at the Bandung Conference) the various Arab states have gone on record in favor of United Nations resolutions relating to border questions, the internationalization of Jerusalem and the return of refugees. To what extent they really mean this cannot be known, but formally it represents a foreign policy commitment.

Behind this commitment of the national leaders lies a great deal more, however. The feeling against Israel is a concomitant of the political consciousness of the Arab world. To say that it is universal is not true; but it goes as far as political consciousness goes, which includes the upper and middle-class groups that set policies and provide leadership. Therefore, Israel represents a commitment on which it is practically impossible for Arab governments at the present time to turn their back.

Beneath the obvious reasons for this, I believe, lie two fundamental causes. The first is that Israel is a symbol of the past imperialism of the West. When the fighting broke out over the partition of Palestine it was apparent that the Egyptians were not just fighting the Zionist colonists in Palestine; they were fighting the British Occupation, the French in Syria--and all the long history of Western intrusion in the Middle East. It has been almost impossible to quench this emotion; the Arabs have poured into the Israel issue all the pent-up anti-imperial resentments of generations.

The other fundamental cause for the extent of Arab feeling about Israel is that it violates the deep sense of connection between a people and their home. It is sometimes said that with time the Arabs will forget Israel. But the Jews did not forget Israel after nearly 2,000 years. Is there any reason to believe the Arabs will forget more quickly? Possibly--but in any event there is a deep feeling for the land among the Arabs that will not die for a long time.

Finally, there is the question of social and economic development. This is certainly a priority, but the concept is quite different in the Middle East. In the Western world we think of social and economic development in terms of humanitarianism and of its value in fighting Communism. But from neither standpoint is social and economic development a priority among Eastern nations although there is certainly humanitarian concern among many significant groups. Middle East leaders rather talk about "national development" as a concomitant of nationalism--the necessary condition of independence. Their concern is to reshape government, society--all the institutions which will make the nation strong and free and able to take its place in the world.

As a result, the Middle East has given far more attention to social progress than the West often recognizes. Take education as an example. In Egypt, between independence in 1922 and the Egyptian revolution, the annual state budget for the school system increased more than 1,000 percent; the number of children enrolled increased over 1,300 percent. In Saudi Arabia today there are approximately a thousand schools; five years ago there were less than 40. In Iraq, 70 percent of the oil revenues are set aside for the next seven years as a national development fund. In terms of what they have, many Middle East countries are making very remarkable progress.

But though social and economic development is clearly a priority in the Middle East, it is extremely difficult to implement without a revolution. That is why the Egyptian revolution is so basic and so significant for the whole area. We think of it in terms of Nasser and his military junta, but I believe that in the perspective of history the Egyptian revolution will be to the Middle East what the French Revolution was to Europe. It, too, had its self-seeking leaders, its power cliques, its political nationalism; but it let loose forces that finally changed the pattern of social life in most of Europe. That is what the Egyptian revolution has begun to do in the Middle East and that is why it strikes fire in some form in every country.

We must conclude, then, that on the most crucial issues we and the Middle East are essentially talking about different things. Our difficulty is that, while we have a clearly expressed stake in the Middle East, the Middle East has not found an equally clear stake in us. We are for defense against Russia; they are looking for independence and integrity. We are concerned about alignment; they are concerned about national development. Until, in our sympathies and our foreign policy, we find some way to take account of their basic priorities I doubt if the situation can be greatly improved.

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  • JOHN S. BADEAU, President, Near East Foundation; President, American University in Cairo, 1945-53; author, "The Emergence of Modern Egypt"
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