Courtesy Reuters

LAST fall's Suez crisis restored the Middle East to proper perspective in the war offices of the world. The strategic importance of this crossroads between continents and its relationship to the world conflict were again emphasized by the clash of arms in an area where man first raised sword to man. Oil, trade routes, geography and terrain, faith and ideology, all contribute to the strategic importance of the Middle East.

The Middle East oil fields, stretching in a great arc from Iran and Iraq around the Persian Gulf, comprise collectively the largest known petroleum deposits, approximating about two-thirds of the oil reserve of the free world. Access to this oil and use of it at reasonable prices cannot be termed "vital" to the United States. Western Hemisphere sources can supply United States needs, though costs would undoubtedly increase if the West were denied Middle East oil. For limited periods even Western Europe can get along without the "black gold" of Kuwait, Bahrein, Iran and Iraq. This was demonstrated during the past winter when alternative sources of supply and new routes were utilized. The Suez Canal was closed intermittently during World War II and would probably be closed during any future war. NATO's strategic planning cannot count upon use of Middle Eastern oil in another war and Western Europe--with United States help-- can probably fight without it. During limited periods of emergency the Western world can live without Middle East oil, and this fact is perhaps the strongest answer to political blackmail from any quarter.

Nevertheless the oil of the Middle East is a major economic factor in the well-being of Western Europe. Despite the development of nuclear power, Western Europe's needs for oil will increase steeply for at least the next 20 years--and probably for the next half century. There is today no foreseeable substitute for oil as a source of power; nuclear energy may supplement but will not replace it. Middle East oil, provided the Mediterranean route remains open, is the cheapest oil source available to Western Europe; over any long-term period it is well-nigh indispensable to the industry and economy of Western Europe and it is therefore a major factor in the cold war. Furthermore, the oil fields mean much financially to several of our principal Allies, especially the United Kingdom. The revenues received by Great Britain from her holdings in Iraq, Kuwait and elsewhere help materially to sustain the sterling bloc.

The other factors that give the Middle East its vast importance are too well known to need elaboration. The area is a highly important communications hub. It is a land bridge between three continents, and the Nile Valley and the Moslem lands of North Africa are gateways to the great undeveloped continent of Africa. Global air routes from Europe to the Far East cross the Middle East, and oil pipelines seam the deserts. Radio communications --so crucial today in the struggle between truth and falsehood-- focus in Egypt, Israel, Beirut and Cyprus. The Middle East, then, is a key area in trade routes, communications and transportation.

Geography also endows it with importance. The Turkish Dardanelles control the debouchment of Soviet submarines or surface ships into the Mediterranean. The chains of rugged mountains backed up by hundreds of miles of desert, extending from the Caucasus to the Himalayas, provide major obstacles to any land invasion of the area from the Soviet Union. And available bases like those at Dhahran in Saudi Arabia, at Adana in Turkey, at Habbaniyah in Iraq, and in Cyprus, as well as the aircraft carriers of the U. S. Sixth Fleet, are closer to the Soviet Union's south central area--the site of many of its important industrial and military facilities--than any others. Conversely Soviet control of bases in Egypt and Syria would neutralize the present Western geographic and base advantage in the area.

The political and psychological significance of the Middle East is a major part of its strategic importance. It is a symbolic and emotional area; here are centered the shrines of three of the world's great religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The Pan-Arab, Pan-Islam movement is centered in the Middle East and its influence extends westward to Morocco, deep into Africa, eastward to India. Here, too, Zionism has made a lodestar of international Jewry, and since its creation this Jewish state has influenced the foreign policy of many of the nations of the world.

The strategic importance of the Middle East must, however, be measured against the yardstick of the global situation. In a simplified and geopolitical sense the world conflict between Soviet Russia and the Communist nations on the one hand and the United States and its Allies on the other is a struggle between "heartland" and "rimlands." Soviet Russia and her satellites and allies occupy the great interior land mass of Eurasia; the Western Powers control, in general, the coastal areas. These rimlands hem in and more or less surround the great Communist land empire. A breakout by Communism to the high seas would be a strategic defeat of the first magnitude for the non-Communist world; it might, in fact, ultimately spell its doom. This is why the conquest of China by the Communists was much more than a battle lost in the struggle for the world; it put most of the eastern coast of Asia under the red banner of Communism. In the Pacific this conquest is somewhat--though not entirely--neutralized by the emplacement of United States power on the island chain extending from the Aleutians to the Philippines. These islands hem in the coast of Asia; nowhere, except at Petropavlovsk on Kamchatka, does Soviet Russia have a port fronting upon the high seas. In the Atlantic, the British Isles and Iceland provide offshore bases to back up Allied positions in Western Europe. But in the eastern Mediterranean the Allies hold no such important island bases, except Cyprus, which is torn by revolt. And in the vast area of the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean there are no important island bases available to the West except Madagascar and the Maldive Islands, both of them too far from the Middle East rimlands to be of much strategic usefulness.

Long before Bolshevism came to power in Russia, Tsarist governments had expansionist ambitions and dreamed of a warm-water port on the Persian Gulf. This dream is not dead; it will almost certainly become more and more lifelike as Soviet Russia expands her economy, builds up her merchant marine and becomes an exporting nation. Moreover, a successful Soviet drive to the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean might mean, in a strategic sense, ultimate victory in the struggle for the world. Communism already holds China and northern Viet Nam; it is threatening Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, South Viet Nam, Malaya and Indonesia. Communist successes in Southeast Asia would mean that India was outflanked. A companion Communist success via Afghanistan, already to some degree under Moscow's influence, or via Iran or other Middle Eastern lands, would outflank India to the west. Who could doubt, then, the ultimate fate of Pakistan and India itself? If the teeming subcontinent goes Red, along with all the Middle Eastern area adjoining it, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization is outdone. What then would be the fate of the peninsula called Europe?

This vision of apocalypse--unlikely though it may be--nevertheless symbolizes the threat of Communist expansion in the Middle East. The future complexion of the world may well depend upon what happens in that vast arc of ocean extending from Aden to Singapore. Yet it is there that the power of the United States and its Allies is weakest--is, in fact, in a military sense almost non-existent. SEATO and NATO, loosely linked by the Baghdad Pact Powers, meet somewhat amorphously in Pakistan--the eastern flank of the Baghdad Pact, the western flank of SEATO. But Pakistan, beset with political and economic difficulties and not strong militarily, is feuding with India over Kashmir, is in any case geographically divided and separated by neutralist India from her SEATO allies.

The global system of rimland security which the United States has built provides one tremendous strategic advantage. It offers bases for strategic air power to operate close to the Soviet heartland and--except for the gap between Karachi and Thailand-- it rings that heartland. Soviet Russia has no bases in the Western Hemisphere. This advantage obviously is reduced if Communism is able to seize the rimlands around the Eurasian continent. And the Middle East, a great vacuum of power, offers a route to the Indian Ocean rimlands which, if seized, would irretrievably breach the West's security ring and would isolate India.

But the Middle East has strategic importance in a narrower sense than in this global context. It is, in the first place, the extension of NATO's flank, with Turkey as the eastern anchor and the weak states of Iran and Iraq providing a link with Pakistan. This southern flank of NATO is of key significance strategically since the Mediterranean-Black Sea-Middle East offers an approach by sea or air to central Russia. The Mediterranean outflanks the strong Soviet positions in the Eastern European satellites and in western Russia. Aircraft operating from Middle East bases or from the Sixth Fleet are within easy range (without inflight refueling) of the Dardanelles, the Caucasian oil fields, the Black Sea nexus of military installations and the Don-Volga-southern Urals industrial complex. Moreover, the Mediterranean provides the only route by which Turkey, flank guard of NATO, could be supplied and reinforced in case of war. And, so long as the Mediterranean and Middle East are held by the West, the great undeveloped continent of Africa is protected by space and time from Communist conquest. So, too, our "back-up" military bases in North Africa are safeguarded. On the other hand a Communist success in the Middle East--either in cold war or hot--would have inevitable repercussions upon Africa.

It may be argued, of course, that the Mediterranean could not be used by the West in case of actual war. This is quite possible, though any appraisal must be qualified by definition of the kind of war fought. In an all-out nuclear war, the U. S. Sixth Fleet-- and in fact all the American bases--must be considered expendable. The strategic success or failure of the Sixth Fleet in the eastern Mediterranean would not be judged by whether or not it was sunk--it would almost certainly be sunk--but by whether or not it had accomplished its mission of bombing Soviet objectives with nuclear weapons before it was wiped out. In a limited or non-nuclear war one of the tests of our power would be maintenance of supply lines to Turkey. This would be a difficult task, though in less than an all-out war not an impossible one. Plans for over-the-beach supply routes in case such ports as Iskenderun were demolished have been made, and Turkish roads, railroads and military pipelines have been improved.

The Mediterranean-Middle Eastern flank, therefore, gives NATO a tremendous advantage in the form of an outflanking approach to the Soviet heartland. In all-out nuclear war this advantage might be utilized for only a few short hours, but perhaps they would be vital ones. In a limited war, this position offers so many strategic assets that it would justify intensive efforts to hold and protect it.

In the strategic context Turkey occupies a dominant position in the Middle East. She is a Moslem but not an Arab nation. She is of Asia yet turns towards Europe. She is one flank of NATO and another flank of the Baghdad Pact Powers. She has more military power than any other state in the area. And geographically her land forces and air bases obstruct any Soviet drive toward the Persian Gulf; her guns and mines and soldiers and ships guard the Dardanelles and her territory provides a link, though a tenuous one, with Greece. Further, in a political sense, she thrusts a strongly anti-Communist wedge squarely between Soviet Russia and leftist-inclined Syria and thus damps the ardor of extremist Syrian politicians.

Unfortunately, Turkey's strength is not equal to her importance. She has a rugged, fairly primitive army with the will to fight. Her economy is strained, her political system rigid. She is relatively isolated; her staff has little knowledge of logistics; she is exposed to attack from north, east and west, and she has little air power.

All of the northern tier states have terrain suitable for ground defense. The high and tortuous ramparts of the Caucasus, the Zagros and the Elburz chains backed up by waterless regions offer major difficulties to invading ground troops. Turkey and the other Middle Eastern states are not highly industrialized areas; there are relatively few good urban or industrial targets for air attack. Those in Western Europe are so much more important that it is likely the major Soviet effort would be made against them. There are some major exceptions to this generalization. A nuclear or a conventional bombardment of Istanbul might create such confusion and panic as to "unhinge" any Turkish defense west of the Dardanelles. But this area is indefensible in any case against a major Soviet assault; Turkish pride rather than pragmatic strategy dictates the maintenance of large forces in European Turkey.

The oil refineries and oil fields of the area might appear to offer tempting prizes either for seizure or destruction. Soviet airborne troops could be easily transported above the forbidding ramparts of desert and mountain to descend upon such key areas as Kirkuk or Kuwait. There is little force in the Middle East today capable of meeting such a thrust; the oil fields and refineries are virtually unprotected against vertical envelopment or bombing. Yet such attacks would not appear to be--in the larger context of world strategy--of much significance. For if general war comes the West must reckon in any case without the use of the oil of the Middle East for the duration of the war. The Russians very clearly can destroy the refineries and fields or deny the use of the oil to the West. Conversely, they could not use it. They have today no pipelines to transport Middle East oil to Russia and our air power could destroy the oil fields if they fell into Soviet hands,[i] or could, at least, prevent the transportation of oil to Russia. In case of general war the oil of the Middle East would probably be denied to everyone.

But to conjure up the prospect of all-out general war between the Communist nations and the West involving the Middle East is to envisage, in this writer's opinion, the least likely possibility. Even a large war involving that area but still short of being universal seems unlikely. But they are possibilities and ones against which we must guard. This is why land and sea bases for our nuclear bombers in the area of the Middle East, the eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Sea are highly important to our global concept of nuclear deterrence. The more bases we have, the more scattered they are and the closer they are to Soviet Russia, the less likely the chances of nuclear war. But the prospect of such a war seems the least probable of the many risks we face in the Middle East, even in the years to come when Soviet medium-range missiles based on Russian territory will be able to reach any base available to the United States in the Middle East.

The prospect of actual Soviet attack with conventional forces by Soviet troops in the Middle East also seems improbable for two reasons. The terrain difficulties are enormous; the distances and supply problems are great. And the commitments of the United States under NATO, SEATO and the Eisenhower Doctrine--not to mention the presence of our forces in the area, including the Sixth Fleet, air personnel at Dhahran and in Turkey, and large missions in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan--would almost certainly mean our involvement if Soviet forces themselves attacked any Middle Eastern state. And this would expose Soviet Russia to the threat of nuclear bombardment.

The basic strategic problem in the Middle East is not overt Soviet aggression, but covert Soviet infiltration complemented, perhaps, by proxy aggression (as in Indochina and Korea) by some of Soviet Russia's Communist allies. This type of Communist aggression is now familiar to the Western world. Political, cultural, economic and military means are combined to win a foothold in a country ripe for change; indigenous Communists are aided with funds, propaganda, arms and experts. The pattern is always fitted to the local situation; the special discontents of the region, political or economic, are all exploited. This has been the developing pattern in the Middle East, with Egypt, Syria and Jordan the main spots of danger, until in the case of Jordan King Hussein checked the trend by strong counteractions.

In these countries the danger has been and still is of an internal coup aided by external means or of a gradual increase in the influence of local Communists past the point of no return. There is a corollary danger. The exploitation of local revolutions or regional frictions to the point of civil or regional war or widespread riots or disorders offers Communism an opportunity for accelerated military penetration of the countries affected. Soviet "volunteers" or experts could provide a skilled military cadre to stiffen left-wing forces.

In the Middle East these techniques have a fertile field. Two major factors aid Soviet attempts to penetrate the area. One is the tide of Arab nationalism and the emotional desire for Arab unity and greatness. The other is the Arab-Israel enmity. Soviet Russia has exploited both of these with skill. The desire for change, the revolt against colonialism, the impact of oil revenues upon a feudalistic social structure, the emotional volatility of the peoples, fully exploited by the Cairo and Damascus radios and by the powerful Soviet transmitter in Tashkent, all create unrest and keep temperatures at a high point. Russia's frank support of the Arabs against Israel has, more than any other one factor, helped her cause in the area.

The problem of the West is how to counter creeping Communism, internal subversion and conquest by proxy.

Communist influence in the Middle East today is strongest in Egypt and Syria. Yet it would be unwise to discount too greatly leftist sentiment when it is combined with extreme nationalist sentiment as is the case in such a country as Iraq. Iraq for the moment presents a picture of stability; and her oil revenues, the greater part of which is being wisely applied to improve the country's economy, should contribute to keep her on a course of political moderation. But there is no doubt that a vast number-- perhaps a majority--of the population admire Nasser greatly, dislike the Baghdad Pact and would like to see Iraq a firm part of an Arab federation. Iraq's position is important, for as long as she casts her lot with the West the position of Syria as a left-wing or Communist "base" remains precarious. Syria today is surrounded by unfriendly neighbors; there is friction between Damascus and Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad, and Damascus and Ankara. Recently Syrian influence received a severe setback in Jordan. And powerful Israel lies on Syria's southern frontier.

All this means that the first politico-military job of the United States is to help the Arab countries of the Middle East internally, to capitalize upon the very considerable fund of good will that exists for Americans there, and to counter creeping Communism in every legitimate manner. It means, particularly, that a friendly government must be helped to remain in power in Baghdad.

There are numerous ways to accomplish these objectives. We must insist in our policies that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Both Israel and the Arabs have repeatedly defied the United Nations--and have gotten away with it. Our actions in the Suez crisis last fall were strong--and rightly so; they were strong again at the time of the Jordanian crisis. In between they have lacked authority. The first requirement for a sound military defense against creeping Communism in the Middle East is political fairness and justice in all our actions, plus firm and unequivocal policies based on this fairness.

Second, we should not regard either Egypt or Syria as irretrievably lost to the Communist world; this is an over-simplified analysis. The cultural, economic and political penetration in these countries has been pronounced and the military penetration has been considerable. But there are means of countering this form of Communist influence. The Syrian Army, for instance, still has major ties to the French and sizable amounts of U. S. and Western equipment. The Egyptian armed forces have even more substantial psychological and technical ties to the West. The motto of the Egyptian military academy--"Duty, Honor, Country"--is the same as that of West Point, upon which it is, in many ways, patterned. More than 100 officers of the Egyptian armored force have attended our armored school at Fort Knox, Kentucky, in recent years. Throughout the Arab world and particularly in the Arab armed forces there is real eagerness not only for U. S. military equipment but for U. S. military knowledge. This eagerness and these ties should be exploited. Our military schools have a considerable influence in the Middle East and the careful selection of an increased number of Arab officers to study at Fort Knox, Fort Benning, Leavenworth and elsewhere would provide more than military dividends.

This utilization of military means towards a psychological and political end--to check the progress of creeping Communism-- is one of our tasks in the Middle East.

But we must also be prepared to halt local aggression, to prevent small regional conflicts from becoming major wars. We cannot do this with atom bombs; they remain in reserve as deterrents. It is significant that at the height of the Jordan crisis, 1,800 United States Marines were given shore leave in Beirut, Lebanon. These forces, plus airborne troops based in the United States, are the kind of military power most useful to put out "brush fires." The Sixth Fleet is not as well equipped for this job--the one it is most likely to have to do--as it should be. The 1,800 Marines comprise a reinforced Marine battalion landing team--a powerful little force, but not large enough for the tasks it might face. It should be strengthened.

In a military sense we face another danger in the area. This danger, stressed and over-emphasized in Britain, is the stockpiling of Soviet arms and equipment in Egypt, Syria and perhaps elsewhere in the Middle East, ready for use by so-called Soviet "volunteers" when desired. There are sizable stocks of Communist equipment in Egypt and Syria and more is being shipped. There are also some hundreds of Soviet technicians in both countries. It is possible to fly men and arms quickly from the Caucasus area into Syria, and thence into Egypt. This danger does, therefore, exist; but it should not be a major one, unless we are blind. Soviet Russia has a contiguous frontier with Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan but not with Syria. In the Middle East, there is no exact parallel to the simple situation of Korea or Indochina; logistic aid and Soviet "volunteers" would have to come, in case of war, by air or sea unless Turkey or Iran or Afghanistan were over-run first. Such supply and reinforcement would be difficult; if it were openly opposed by our air and naval power only a trickle at best of alleged "volunteers" could get through. To counter this threat we need: (a) to intensify our opposition to creeping Communism within Egypt and Syria and other threatened areas of the Middle East; (b) to improve our intelligence in the area; and (c) to erect, probably under the aegis of the Baghdad Pact, a chain of early warning and fighter control radar stations across Iraq and Iran. There is a great gap in our electronic line of "sentinels" in Iraq and Iran; it should be filled.

There are two other para-military needs if we are to develop a satisfactory security posture in the Middle East. One of the primary objectives of Communism is to utilize the nationalist sentiments of the area to deny the West the use of the Suez Canal, to nationalize Western oil holdings in the area and to oust the West from bases in Arab countries. Whether or not these attempts seem likely to succeed, prudence requires the development of alternatives. Both economically and militarily Western dependence in the past upon the Suez Canal was unsound. A supertanker building program should be pressed, supplemented by the construction of new oil pipelines and possibly the development of a route from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Mediterranean. Nationalization attempts can be guarded against or compensated for by a wise oil royalty policy, political, cultural and psychological defenses against creeping Communism, and continued emphasis upon the interdependence of the Arab oil lands and the West. The best alternatives to bases in Arab countries are bases at sea (the carriers and seaplanes of the Sixth Fleet), an expanded base program in Turkey, and retention of Cyprus bases by the British. This little divided island is of very considerable importance in the strategy of deterrence; it also acts as a fire alarm station for the entire Middle East and is of particular importance as a strategic checkmate to a leftist Syria. Retention of British bases in Cyprus is of major importance to security in the area.

Finally, perhaps the most important military requirement of the region is the establishment of a major U.S. command in the Red Sea-Arabian Sea-Persian Gulf-Indian Ocean area. Today, the United States Navy maintains a so-called Middle East Command, but it consists only of a seaplane tender (without seaplanes) showing the flag, and, intermittently, two to four destroyers. The Middle East Command is today under a junior rear admiral. His force has some psychological and political value, but very little military utility--and hence less political importance than a real fighting fleet would have. A small fleet, possibly including one aircraft carrier and a helicopter mother ship with Marines aboard, and a guided missile cruiser plus destroyers-- all knit together by a command and communications ship capable of controlling aircraft--should be established in what is now the vacuum of the Indian Ocean. This command--a job for a vice admiral--should be staffed by Arabic-speaking officers and political advisers specially selected for their knowledge of the area. It should be essentially a command and staff echelon, though capable of immediate small-scale military action without reinforcement.

These requirements may seem major and onerous. But the Eisenhower Doctrine means, in effect, that our frontier is now in the Caucasus. We are involved now in the Middle East for an indefinite future. We must have the strength to oppose the kind of aggression most likely there--Communist infiltration and Communist exploitation of regional conflicts and local wars.

[i] More likely refineries and pipelines and wells would be destroyed by a scorched-earth policy prior to Soviet seizure.

  • HANSON W. BALDWIN, Military Editor of The New York Times; author of "The Price of Power," "Great Mistakes of the War" and "Power and Politics"
  • More By Hanson W. Baldwin