The effect on the Middle East of dramatic changes in the Soviet bloc and the international political balance can be symbolized by an aphorism: in the 1980s it seemed plausible that the Soviet Union might invade a disintegrating Iran; in the 1990s it seems conceivable that Iran might take over defecting portions of a crumbling U.S.S.R.

The remarkable revision of fortune and collapse of long-held premises necessitates rethinking the nature of Middle East politics and U.S. policy toward that most troubled of regions. For radicals, particularly Syria, Libya and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the changes signify the defection of their most important ally. Yet the more conspicuous metamorphosis in Europe only bolsters ongoing, indigenous changes that must now be factored into U.S. perceptions and policy.

The blows to the Arab world's most cherished ideas are particularly striking. Pan-Arab nationalism has weakened as states take on their own characteristics and as regimes explicitly seek their own interests. The nationalist dictatorships that took power in the 1950s and 1960s drew much of their economic and structural framework from the discredited Soviet model. The oil boom of the 1970s is largely a memory, and economic prospects in the Middle East are now generally poor. And not only did the Arabs fail to destroy Israel, the attempt proved exceptionally costly and the Jewish state became more entrenched. As a result, Arab states have relegated the Arab-Israeli conflict, in reality, to low priority.


Western views of the Middle East are still largely based on the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s, when Arab military regimes intoxicated followers with visions of victory, renaissance, revenge and incipient unity. Egypt's Gamal Abd al-Nasser, posing as the hero destined to unite all Arabs, had followers in every country. Imitators took power in Syria, Iraq and eventually Libya, and seemed poised to rule across the region.

But since each country saw itself as a candidate to lead, the Arab world split into quarreling blocs. A cold war erupted between radical and conservative Arabs. Among ideologies, there was a battle between Nasserism, Baathism, communism and monarchy. Within states, communal groups struggled for preeminence: Alawites, Druzes and Sunni Muslims in Syria; Christians and Muslims in Lebanon; Sunni and Shiite Muslims and non-Arab Kurds in Iraq.

The pressures of the inter-Arab battle led Egypt and Syria to blunder into the 1967 war. To protect their credentials, the Arab losers-both radicals and monarchists-refused talks, much less peace, with Israel. This intransigence left Israel holding the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and Sinai. After Nasser's death in 1970, no leader held such wide appeal. Quarrels among states, backed either by Moscow or Washington, intensified.

Nasser's successor, Anwar al-Sadat, tried to break the inter-Arab and Arab-Israeli deadlocks by attacking Israel in 1973 in conjunction with Syria. At first the improved Arab military performance, temporary unity and rising oil prices seemed to herald a new age.

But these hopes were soon dashed. Each year brought a new catastrophe: Lebanon's civil war in 1975; Syrian intervention and Syria-PLO fighting in 1976; Sadat's flight to Jerusalem to make peace with Israel in 1977; the signing of the Camp David accords in 1978; Iranian fundamentalists' seizure of power in 1979; the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980; and Israel's destruction of Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981.

Then 1982 brought a triple crisis. In retrospect it seems the watershed year for Middle East politics, as three major upheavals laid the foundation for a new era. First, in February, the Syrian regime murdered between 10,000 and 30,000 of its citizens in an attempt to wipe out Islamic fundamentalists in the city of Hama. The myth of the heroic and united radical nationalist state had been drowned in blood.

Second, in June, Lebanon's bloody seven-year-old civil war entered a new stage with the Israeli army defeating Syrian forces and the PLO. Neither the other Arab states nor the Soviet Union responded significantly. Lebanese Christians cooperated with Israel; many Shiites in the south welcomed the removal of the oppressive PLO presence. The PLO'S second-ranking leader, Abu Iyad, accused conservative Arabs of being accomplices to the attack, and at a mass meeting another PLO leader, Khalid al-Hasan, condemned Syria for not fighting hard enough and for failing to attack Israel through the Golan Heights.

The experience shattered any remaining presumption of Arab unity and activism against Israel, of support for the PLO and the reliability of Moscow as an ally. In Israel heavy combat losses and unmet political goals provoked serious debate about alternatives to the endless contest. In the PLO the debacle showed a serious erosion of Arab support-Syria helped foment a split in 1983-and began a long, slow process of questioning whether a compromise settlement with Israel was possible, preferable and necessary.

Third, in July of 1982, Iran's army culminated a series of victories in its war with Iraq by crossing the border and advancing to within a few miles of Baghdad. Beyond the threat from these victories lay the specter of Islamic fundamentalist revolution as an alternative to Arab nationalism and as a menace to all existing regimes. The Gulf war outstripped the Arab-Israeli conflict in immediacy. In reversals almost as remarkable as Mikhail Gorbachev's retreat from Eastern Europe, Iraq courted the United States, Kuwait asked for U.S. protection for its tankers, and the Gulf states welcomed a U.S. naval presence in their midst.

For the Arabs, the panorama of the 1980s could hardly have been more gloomy: Egypt was at peace with Israel and severed from the Arabs; Lebanon was facing endless bloodshed and collapse, as the Arab League stood by in impotence; Libya and Syria were supporting Iran in war against the fellow Arab state of Iraq. King Hussein of Jordan complained at the 1985 Arab summit: "How can we make progress when there is disintegration instead of congregation, regionalism instead of Pan-Arab solidarity, plotting instead of harmony, hegemony instead of fraternization, destruction instead of construction, and the placing of obstacles instead of their removal?" An Arab writer grimly concluded: "It is difficult to find two neighboring countries which have amicable relationships."

Riches that had seemed infinite shrank as oil prices fell, surpluses were spent, and the dollar declined in value. Higher prices forced Western nations to conserve oil, switch to alternate fuels and find new sources. The petroleum-exporters' need for money tended to push production up and prices down. While in fiscal year 1980-81 the Saudis had a $33.6-billion budget surplus, from 1986 to 1988 their annual deficit ranged from $14 billion to $20 billion. The government's foreign assets fell from a high of $145 billion in 1982 to $63 billion at the end of 1988, of which at least half was in uncollectible loans to Iraq and others.

The most significant growth of local nationalism was in Iraq. After seizing power in 1968, the Iraqi Baath Party divided Arabs into a progressive camp, naturally led by Iraq, and a reactionary camp led by Saudi Arabia. Arab unity was to be imposed by revolution, and Baghdad openly strove to destabilize the Arab monarchies. "It is our duty," said Iraq's then president, Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, "to liberate the Arab people everywhere. . . . We should ignite the Arab revolution in every Arab land."

This line was gradually replaced by a growing Iraqi-centered nationalism and accommodation with conservative Arab states. In 1975 President Saddam Hussein spoke of the need to achieve a balance between Iraq's interest and that of a united Arab homeland. In 1979 he went further, saying that the Arab homeland was still an unfulfilled goal, while Iraq was an existing reality. In addition, Hussein warned, Iraq had to prevent the Shiite majority and Kurdish minority from turning toward Iran by melding them-using concessions and brutal force, respectively-into the Iraqi nation. War with Iran necessitated and augmented the building of an explicitly Iraqi patriotism.

Iraq's wartime financial and political needs also required rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab monarchies. Baghdad became closely allied with "reactionary" Jordan and led the way in returning "traitorous" Egypt to the Arab ranks. Although pledging never to restore diplomatic relations with the United States as long as Washington supported Israel, Iraq did so anyway.

Baghdad's policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict took a parallel course. In the early 1970s, it proclaimed, "The Palestine issue is the core and essence of all the slogans and aims of the Arab revolution." A decade later, the same leaders openly put their own country first. Pan-Arabism was a dream for the future; Iraq was the reality of the present. The Palestine problem had to wait; Iraq, which had "liberated" its own land in war, told Syria "and the owners of Palestine" to do the same.

If Pan-Arabism and the old style of regional political framework was fading in the 1970s and 1980s, the Islamic fundamentalist alternative never attained its expected triumphs. The Iranian Revolution-like the French, Russian and Cuban revolutions before-spawned many imitators in ideology and strategy but only rare successes. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's direct appeal did not extend far among Arabs.

Radical fundamentalists assassinated Sadat in 1981 but were unable to develop a united or growing movement in Egypt. Repression crushed their colleagues in Iraq and Syria. Similar groups became engaged in the fighting between Lebanese Shiites and Palestinians, but they seemed unable to seize power in their own communities, let alone in the countries where they lived. A major reason for this gap between expectation and reality was the distinction between Islam's popularity among the masses and their rejection of radical fundamentalism as its proper incarnation. Most Muslims were satisfied by reforming laws or changing their own lifestyles. Each regime had to take Islam into account, constraining its maneuvering room, but each appeared able to manage or even exploit the issue in its own interest.

Conflicts between Persians and Arabs, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and Iranians and Iraqis prevailed over the commonality of Islam. Radical fundamentalists also remained largely on the defensive in confronting the onslaught of modernization and Westernization. Even in Iran they seem barely to have contained the appeal of movies, gender equality, consumerism, love songs, fashions, changes in sexual mores, preference for foreign goods, science, instant gratification, secular education and Western economic methods.

Part of the problem is the radical fundamentalists' inability to create an alternative form of governance and development, to separate technology from social structure and to couple economic progress with international isolation. Such debates deadlocked Tehran's postwar policy. And though "moderates" in Iran were restrained by their pragmatic recognition of domestic political realities, the ideologues were clearly losing ground in the battle over the country's future course. While originally presenting itself as a means for unity, revolutionary fundamentalism-like Pan-Arabism and the radical nationalism represented by the military regimes-became just another source of contention.


For the Arab-Israeli struggle as well, the 1980s challenged long-held assumptions. Experience had shown Arab leaders that they were unable to destroy Israel. Such efforts were dangerously costly; other priorities competed for attention. Yet ideology, rivalries between states and the insecurity of governments also made it extraordinarily difficult to take the steps necessary to end the conflict. The result was deadlock. The Arab-Israeli conflict has often seemed in Arab rhetoric and Western perception to be the overwhelming, even sole, regional problem. Yet it was not so much the cause as a highly visible manifestation of internal Arab struggles over identity, the path of economic development, power, internecine strife and anti-Western resentments. By portraying the issue as the prime mover of Middle East history, Arab rulers and intellectuals avoided having to reexamine a set of premises that did not accord with reality, a refusal now being rendered far more difficult by regional developments and the Cold War's end.

There was indeed something for everyone in the idea that the Arab-Israeli conflict was the region's central, overwhelming feature. Conservative Arabs argued that the conflict necessitated subordinating internal disputes, and used it to divert their people's attention from problems at home. They explained that their allies in the West were deluded by the Zionists but might still be won over for the Arab cause. Leftist Arabs and fundamentalists insisted that winning the struggle required overthrowing incumbent regimes, and that only Israel's destruction would make possible the Arab world's revolutionary transformation. They further claimed that Israel's existence proved the West to be an irredeemable enemy.

A stream of Western conservatism could deny that the Arabs had any other grievance against the West. Hence bilateral relations might allegedly be vastly improved at Israel's expense and at little cost to their own countries. Western radicals could portray the conflict as a revolutionary cause to be supported. The issue furnished another way to strike against their own countries, caricaturing Israel as a Western creation.

Yet these predictions and prescriptions were almost always proven false. In fact, U.S. regional influence increased and Soviet leverage declined well before President Gorbachev instituted his reforms. In the final analysis, the close U.S.-Israeli relationship actually reinforced the Arab states' need to reach an understanding with the United States. Israel forced Egypt, Syria and Jordan to proscribe direct cross-border terrorist attacks. The Arab states were deterred from conventional military assault by Israel's ability to defeat them.

Military losses, widening inter-Arab disputes and differences with the PLO were factors attenuating the Arab-Israeli conflict on a state level in the 1980s. Egypt, exhausted from squandering limited resources, made peace. Other regimes were forced to be more cautious. In particular, Syria sought to avoid a war in which it would be isolated in single combat with Israel.

Indeed Syria is the most notable Arab loser from the changing regional picture. As if Syria's domestic problems, economic difficulties, Lebanese imbroglio and regional political isolation were not bad enough, it is also the Arab state most dependent on Soviet support. Egypt's potential power comes from its size, high degree of internal integration and U.S. patronage; Iraq, on the other hand, has oil wealth. But Damascus' main strategic asset was its status as the leading Soviet client in the Middle East.

The end of the Iran-Iraq War confronts Syria again with a powerful enemy in Iraq. Syria's structural relationship to the Arab-Israeli conflict-its posture as paladin of Arab nationalism and ambition to dominate the Palestinians-makes it hard for Damascus to change policy. Furthermore, if Israel were accepted as a normal regional power, it would more likely cooperate with Syria's rivals-Jordan and Egypt-and Damascus would be reduced to a second-rate power. A Palestinian state would look for support to Syria's enemies, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan. In short, Syrian obstructionism and hawkishness against peacemaking efforts have been logical given its choices.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is a weak, wealthy country that cultivates a timid political style to avoid offending fellow Arab states and to try buying off potential threats. Protection from radicals requires lavish aid and extreme rhetoric. Simultaneously, however, Saudi weakness dictates restraint and good relations with the United States, the kingdom's protector.

"We wish to exterminate Israel once and for all," a Saudi-backed newspaper proclaimed in 1985. "We call upon all those who are capable of heroic actions to become martyrs and to sacrifice their own lives." Yet the regime is certainly not willing to risk martyring itself, particularly as long as its oil fields are targets for Israeli reprisal. While saying that its major enemy is Israel, Saudi Arabia gave priority to dealing with the Iranian threat, contributing shrinking amounts of money to the PLO and confrontation states.

In fact all the Arab states bordering Israel have reached some form of modus vivendi with it, though each case is different. Egypt is at peace, albeit a cold one. Syrian troops do not enter southern Lebanon, minding Israel's warning that crossing the "red line" will bring retaliation. Syria encourages terrorism against Israel from south Lebanon but allows none through its own front in the Golan Heights. Jordan's de facto cooperation ranges from mosquito control along the Jordan River to secret meetings between King Hussein and Israeli leaders. The Lebanese Druze and Shiite Amal groups are Syrian clients who also maintain liaison with Israel and limit armed PLO presence in their jurisdictions.

Thus Arab regimes have shifted policy, but the change has generally been away from belligerent militancy to relative disengagement camouflaged by heated rhetoric. Arab leaders are less willing to take the expensive chance of making war but are equally wary of political risks in actively seeking peace.

Still there has been broader recognition than ever before of the need to make a historic compromise. "No problem that has endured as long, has cost as many lives, and has engendered as much distrust, hatred, and discord as the Arab-Israeli conflict can have a cost-free solution," warned Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan.1 His brother, King Hussein, asked the PLO, "How long shall we heed those among us who say: leave it to future generations? . . . What makes them believe that the circumstances of future generations will be more conducive?"

These attitudes, in turn, forced the PLO to rethink traditional positions and seek negotiations. Fear of abandonment by Arab states, demands for progress from their own people in the occupied territories, concern that the intifada might collapse and frustration at their lack of material success moved PLO leaders toward reevaluation.

The peace process, despite its slow pace and many detours, has reached the most promising point in history. The Israeli government's peace plan, President Hosni Mubarak's proposal and Secretary of State James Baker's suggestions have hammered out a basic procedure for negotiations. Any success will require the Arab states, as well as the Palestinians, to make peace with Israel-which is understandably concerned that the Arab states may yet renew warfare and has doubts about the PLO's intentions. The end of the Cold War forces some Arab leaders to rethink their policy on the issue and examine their traditional notion that time is on their side. It also makes it easier for the United States to urge Arab rulers to make a historic compromise.


Events in Europe have also altered the Middle East situation and U.S. interests there in other ways. Two emerging global questions have a special reflection in the area.

First, will modernizing Third World states, impelled by their own nationalism, seek regional hegemony in a post-Cold War era? Nowhere is the answer more likely to be yes than in the Middle East. Obviously the withdrawal of Soviet support undermines dependent radical regimes, most notably Syria and Libya, but it has much less effect on those with their own resource base-Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Iran. While it would make good sense for regional governments to pay more attention to development and reducing military spending, Iraq's example is a reminder that this need not happen. After all, what country would be more likely to follow a pacific, inward-looking, military program than one that has just completed a terrible eight-year war? Yet Baghdad has maintained its huge army and continued its crash program to develop nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

Similarly the Arab states' high military spending was not simply a function of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It also soaked up young men who otherwise would have been unemployed and troublesome, provided security against both internal threats and the aggression of fellow Arab states or of Iran, and kept happy a politically powerful military establishment. The fact that the region's countries-with the exception of Iraq-are reaching the limit of their resources means that the arms race may level off, but the situation there will continue to be dangerous. As European history demonstrates, the passage from universalist philosophies to nation-state patriotism does not necessarily make for peace and stability. Europe's great wars and imperial expansion took place in the age of national integration and identification with individual countries.

Second, will democratic movements challenge existing dictatorships? (The revolutionary slogan of the 1960s was "two, three, many Vietnams"; the motto of the 1990s may be "two, three, many Romanias.") In the Middle East, more than any other part of the world, the answer is likely to be no. Iran and most Arab states are ruled by tough dictatorships armed with modern weapons, state-of-the-art organizational techniques, and the determination to use any amount of force to stay in power. At best some states might follow the Egyptian model of a multiparty system, in which the incumbent leaders always retain control but allow some rights to a permanent opposition. In contrast to Eastern Europe and, to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union, there is no democratic tradition or independently minded middle class currently capable of compelling such a new political direction. Moreover the rulers have proved adept at maintaining their authority. Although the Middle East has a reputation for instability, the last successful coup (outside of the Yemens) was Muammar al-Qaddafi's seizure of power in Libya in 1969.

The disproportionately large younger generation, discredited radical regimes and economic downturns bring the potential for unsteadiness. But even if change occurs, new military coup-makers or radical fundamentalists are likely to emerge as victors. Iran's revolution, Lebanon's civil war, Syria's repression in Hama, Iraq's treatment of the Kurds and the existence of radical fundamentalists as the main opposition forces in several states show that prospects for moderate, nonviolent forces are not promising in the foreseeable future.

The new era's most immediate attribute for Middle East rulers is the Soviet Union's decreasing ability to shape events. Moscow's influence had been, of course, at a historical low point for a decade. Egypt abandoned its alliance with the Soviet Union in the early 1970s, due to Moscow's unwillingness to help Cairo make war and its inability to help make peace with Israel. Baghdad was disgusted with Moscow's refusal to take its side in the war against Iran in the early 1980s, and Soviet impotence further undermined its reputation as an ally during the crisis in Lebanon in 1982.

Gorbachev's new course has important implications for the Arab-Israeli conflict. His retreat from engagement greatly reduces the chance of another Arab-Israeli war. Israel's Foreign Minister Moshe Arens acknowledged, "Syria can no longer embark on military escapades against Israel and enjoy Soviet support." Damascus' weakness also makes it unable to veto an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Gorbachev urged the PLO to move toward negotiations with Israel. Moscow's revised emigration policy strengthens Israel by allowing hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews to go there. Israel has also gained from the Soviet decision to give up its East European satellites, which moved quickly to establish diplomatic relations and economic links with Israel. In addition new East European governments are inhospitable to international terrorists, denying them indispensable training bases and logistical backing.

Loss of Soviet and East European support and the influx of Soviet Jews have created a mood of near-hysteria in the Arab world. Arab leaders and newspapers have made wild claims that these immigrants were moving into the occupied territories-where only a tiny number actually settle. PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat, forgetting his new moderate line, spoke of 3.5 million Israelis already in "occupied Palestine" and claimed the influx would be used to conquer much of the remaining Arab world.

Nevertheless the overall direction of events-albeit slowed by the disarray in Israel's government-is to make a successful peace process more likely. Israel's founding leader and longtime prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, once predicted that the Arabs would accept Israel only when they found themselves unable to destroy it. The history of the last four decades seems to have proven this prophecy, much as it has proven the parallel prediction by George Kennan about the evolution of Soviet behavior when its pugnacity was successfully countered.

This trend, however, also challenges the view of Middle Eastern politics as revolving around the Arab-Israeli conflict. Even some form of negotiated settlement of the issue will not bring a regional "end of history." The state system will still be troubled by conflict and the individual regimes by potential instability. For even if Europe has now decided on its destiny, borders and preferred system, the Middle Eastern peoples and states have reached no such consensus. This means that U.S. policy will face continued challenges in the region.

It is true that a large element of U.S. Middle East policy was set by the framework of the Cold War. The Soviet Union's entrance into energetic engagement in the region-signaled by the 1955 Czech-Egyptian arms deal-and the emergence of pro-Soviet radical regimes were major factors in shaping a U.S. response. The involvement of Washington and Moscow on opposite sides of the Arab-Israeli wars was a motive for activism and a source of tension. Perhaps the last act of this drama was the creation of a U.S. Rapid Deployment Force in the early 1980s to serve as a trip wire if Soviet forces invaded Iran.

Yet this is not the whole story. The dangers posed by extremist regimes in Nasser's Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya were intensified, but not created, by the Soviet backing they sometimes enjoyed. The problems of international terrorism, rising oil prices, Lebanon's disintegration, revolutionary Islamic fundamentalism, Iran's revolution and the Iran-Iraq War were relatively independent of Soviet involvement.

A strong argument can be made that local powers that have caused trouble for U.S. policy in Latin America (Cuba, Nicaragua under the Sandinistas), Africa (Ethiopia, Angola), and Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea) are highly reliant on Soviet aid and support. Without Moscow's help, they are likely to become far more timid, collapse or seek Western support as a substitute. The prostration of Marxism-Leninism also undermines their own rulers' legitimacy. These arguments are far less true, however, for the relatively independent Middle East powers with their own national agendas, doctrine and money.


Even if the United States is relatively less interested in the Middle East, Washington will still be more actively concerned with events in that area than in almost any other part of the world. Moreover, even if U.S. policy becomes more domestically oriented, the region will still become the locus of crises demanding a response from Washington.

Aside from the Arab-Israeli peace process, there will be three main priorities for U.S. Middle East policy in the 1990s. First, there is the problem of ambitious, aggressive, radical states that could try to dominate the region, subvert an Arab-Israeli peace settlement, oppose U.S. interests, sponsor terrorism and overthrow U.S. allies. The most important of these is Iraq, with its victory over Iran, huge oil resources, large army and ruthless leadership. But Syria, Libya and Iran could also play this dangerous role. The United States must deter and counter threatening and destabilizing actions by these states.

Second, there is a prospect of internal instability in several states, notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The ousting of these regimes or systems is neither inevitable nor imminent. Yet economic decline, generational change, widespread dissatisfaction and dislocations from modernization could eventually bring severe problems to these countries from radicals or revolutionary fundamentalists. The United States must determine how it will react to impending or successful coups or revolutions in these states. The crisis around the fall of the shah and its aftermath shows that this is not an easy task.

Third, the development of dangerously innovative weapons systems-missile, nuclear, chemical and bacteriological-poses heightened risks for peace and provide new assets for potential regional aggressors. It is easy enough to suggest that the United States and other countries can avoid this problem by preventing these kinds of qualitatively different arms from reaching such regimes, but nonproliferation efforts have been full of holes and, in many cases, are already too late. There are alternative suppliers of technology-China, for example-as well as companies that will assist smuggling for high profit and the growing indigenous capacity of the states themselves.

In dealing with these threats, U.S. policy is sabotaged by one paradox and assisted by another. The negative aspect can be called the "paradox of preference." As the United States begins a process of "standing down" from the long Cold War mobilization, the desire to reduce military spending and global commitments and the demand to pursue a less active Middle East policy are likely to prove powerful. Changes in Europe will preoccupy Washington for years to come: reassessing NATO, helping Eastern Europe establish new economic and political structures, working out a new relationship with the U.S.S.R. If anything the United States has less time to concern itself with Middle East issues.

Politicians naturally desire to avoid risks, and this part of the world has proved costly for the political standing of the last two American presidents. The Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis, the debacle of the U.S. Marines in Lebanon and the secret Iran arms deal, among other factors, make the Middle East seem a dangerous place, to be avoided if possible. Domestic public opinion is likely to second this cautionary note.

To some extent, however, this situation is eased by the "paradox of perception." In the Third World in general and the Middle East in particular, U.S. omnipotence and omnipresence are firmly rooted in the belief systems of leaders and populace alike. This factor is further reinforced by the U.S. triumph in the Cold War and the U.S.S.R.'s inability to be a viable alternative source of backing for regimes. History has shown that even relatively modest displays of U.S. fortitude can have remarkably salutary effects, despite perennial arguments that they will only stir firestorms of regional outrage and anti-Americanism.

For example, it seems clear that the U.S. engagement in the Persian Gulf was a major factor in convincing Iran to end the long war with Iraq. Khomeini finally decided to change his policy lest Iran be brought into collision with Washington. The 1986 U.S. bombing attack on Libya was effective in forcing Qaddafi to back away from terrorism. In practice other Arab states were pleased to see Libya weakened, and other state sponsors of terrorism took notice. U.S. support for the Afghan guerrillas helped force a Soviet withdrawal. The release of two American hostages in the spring of 1990 is another example of the weakness of radical states-Syria and Iran-and their eagerness for better relations with the only remaining superpower.

The U.S. demand that the PLO must alter its course if it wanted a dialogue with the United States eventually forced that organization to move in a more moderate direction. The warnings that U.S. support for Israel would destroy its interests in the Arab world were proved wrong and, in addition to other benefits, that special relationship made Washington the dispute's only conceivable mediator. It was Moscow, pursuing a one-sided strategy, that lost influence.

This is not to say that a larger U.S. military presence in the Middle East is necessary or that direct intervention in internal revolutions is desirable. Such steps could be counterproductive and are unlikely to appeal to U.S. leaders. But the judicious use of U.S. diplomatic leverage and political pressure will be all the more vital in the post-Cold War era, precisely to avoid the need for extreme actions and to counter the threats outlined above.

The simple reality is that if the United States does not take a decisive stand to discourage aggressive radical states and prevent the flourishing of new weapons systems-including open threats to use them against U.S. allies-the danger will grow. No matter how loudly they may decry U.S. warnings and criticism, these regimes will have to heed them. One may cite in this context no less an expert than Iraq's Deputy Foreign Minister Nizar Hamdoon: "Aggressors thrive on appeasement. The world learned that at tremendous cost from the Munich agreement of 1938. . . . How could the German generals oppose Hitler once he had proven himself successful? Indeed aggressors are usually clever at putting their demands in a way that seems reasonable." This formula should also apply to U.S. policy toward Iraq's ambitions.

The post-Cold War era's peculiar combination of enhanced U.S. prestige and diminished willingness to engage in foreign policy activism makes a reliance on regional allies all the more important. Their vitality in the regional power competition provides the most effective deterrent to the radicals.

Thus the removal of the Soviet factor actually increases the value of the U.S. special relationship with Israel. The same considerations dictate the growing centrality of the entente between the United States and Egypt. The strength of these two regional allies is the best insurance for deterring radical regimes and shoring up shaky moderate ones. Nuclear and chemical weapons are least likely to be used against those who can defend themselves and who are backed by a U.S. admonition against potential attackers. Such a stance is also necessary to encourage and guarantee any Arab-Israeli peace process.

Another task will be for the United States to define in advance how it would respond to internal upheavals. The precedent of Iran's revolution, with a slow, poorly informed and makeshift U.S. response, is not a promising one. While the government's deliberations should be held most tightly in confidence, there needs to be a public discussion as well to provide alternative perspectives along with a base of potential support for future leaders faced with such a crisis.

An equally problematic issue is over how to ease relations with such states as Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya. Their own nervousness about the disappearance of Soviet support and their desire to obtain Western development aid may incline them in this direction. Yet policymakers must also remember that these radical states are not merely reacting to U.S. policy but are seeking to fulfill their own ambitions, which often clash with U.S. interests.

There is no urgent U.S. need for rapprochement that warrants making concessions. On the contrary, the radicals' weakness gives them the impetus for reducing tensions. Washington can easily afford patience and maintain its demands that radical forces cease sponsoring terrorism, cooperate in reducing the arms race, stop attacking U.S. interests and make peace with Israel in the context of a wider movement toward a negotiated settlement.

An additional consideration is the possibility of U.S.-Soviet cooperation in discouraging aggressive states, instability and arms proliferation. The two powers' parallel interests to avoid escalation and to end the Iran-Iraq War was a useful precedent. While Soviet arms supply policy will be increasingly determined by financial rather than strategic considerations, this obviously does not inhibit the desire to sell state-of-the-art weapons to states that can afford them.

Finally there must be recognition that U.S. Middle East policy has enjoyed a remarkable degree of success in the long run. Despite all the short-run vicissitudes, the United States succeeded in achieving what it set out to do decades ago: U.S. influence has been maintained, a Soviet bid for hegemony has turned back, U.S. commitments to Israel and other allies have been kept, wars and instability have been circumscribed and oil supplies have been preserved. While the United States should be creative in facing the post-Cold War era, the lessons of these accomplishments should be fully appreciated.

1 Hassan Bin Talal, "Jordan's Quest for Peace," Foreign Affairs, Spring 1982, p. 803.

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  • Barry Rubin, a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Foreign Policy Institute, is author of two forthcoming books, Islamic Fundamentalists in Egyptian Politics and Revolution Until Victory? The Politics of the PLO. Copyright (c) 1990 by Barry Rubin.
  • More By Barry Rubin