Arab Nations, Relations with

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ARAB NATIONS, RELATIONS WITH. The Arab world is today divided into eighteen states plus a proto-state, the Palestinian Authority, but it is united in language, culture, and religion (more than 90 percent Muslim). All of the Arab world, except Morocco, Mauritania, and parts of the Arabian peninsula, was for centuries loosely united in the Ottoman Empire. All of the Arab world, except inner Arabia and northern Yemen, was subsequently divided by European imperial rule.

American relations with this vast Arab world fall into two periods of unequal duration:

  1. From the late eighteenth century until World War II, marked by a few years of sporadic conflict with the Barbary states and then a long period of benign but limited trade and educational/cultural contact.
  2. Slightly more than a half century of a powerful American presence in the area, bringing in its wake all the advantages and liabilities of that status.

With the outbreak of the American Revolution, American shipping no longer had the support of the British navy or the protection granted by British treaties with the states of North Africa—Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco, all but the latter being juridically a part of the Ottoman Empire but independent in fact. American ships were thereafter exposed to Barbary piracy or, more accurately, privateering. Between the years 1776 and 1815, scores of American ships were seized and more than 450 Americans held captive in North Africa, often for many years.

Relations with Morocco were a happier story. Sultan Muhammad of Morocco recognized American independence de facto as early as 1777, and a treaty was signed between Morocco and the United States in 1786—the first ever with an Arab or Middle Eastern state. A few incidents in 1801–1802 aside, this treaty as renewed remains in effect to this day.

Relations with Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli were, however, stormier, and the United States responded in multiple, often inconsistent ways. Congress appropriated money to ransom prisoners and offer tribute, and several different individuals were appointed as emissaries for this purpose. Yet some in the United States sensed that naval power would protect American shipping better than treaties and tribute (or at least insure reasonable treaties and tribute). In 1794, Congress authorized the building of several frigates and smaller ships, and this act marks the beginning of the U.S. Navy.

Warfare with the different Barbary states was interspersed with periods of peace. The line in the Marine Hymn "to the shores of Tripoli" marks the American conflict with Tripoli (Libya) during the years 1801–1805. Over the years the United States paid the Barbary states a total of about 1.5 million dollars (a huge sum in those days when the annual federal budget seldom exceeded 4 million) in cash and gifts (American-built ships were greatly prized). This era of U.S. relations had a more glorious ending for the young American republic: In 1815 a U.S. fleet under the command of Stephen Decatur forced treaties upon Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli that ended privateering against the United States and even imposed indemnity payments.

American relations with the Arab world throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century were limited: American trade continued but at a very low level compared to other world areas. For example, one American ship called at Muscat in Oman between 1855 and 1913. Not surprisingly, that consulate was closed two years later, in 1915. Consulates existed in numerous other cities, but these were very low-pressure postings. Most of the consuls were foreign nationals selected in the absence of available Americans.

The impact of American missionaries on the Middle East throughout these years was greater than that of either American consuls or traders. Protestant missionaries began to arrive early in the nineteenth century. Their converts, with rare exceptions, were not the majority Muslims nor the Jews but members of the different Eastern Christian Churches and not too many of them, either. The missionary impact in education was, however, considerable, creating the American University of Beirut (originally Syrian Protestant College, founded in 1866) and the American University in Cairo, founded in 1919. Although the importance George Antonius in his classic The Arab Awakening (1938) attributed to these few Protestant missionaries in fostering Arab nationalism has been correctly downsized by later scholarship, theirs was a significant role.

Woodrow Wilson's diplomacy, stressing self-determination of nations, provided a great stimulus to nationalist aspirations in the Arab world and well beyond, but his initiatives, for example the fifth and twelfth of his celebrated Fourteen Points, or his sending the King-Crane Commission to Syria in 1919 to determine what kind of postwar settlement the people there wanted, came to naught as America turned to isolationism.

Thereafter, the significant American activity in the Arab world involved oil. The United States, adhering to its venerable Open Door policy, supported private American ventures to capture a share of Middle Eastern oil. Examples include American hard bargaining to secure a one-quarter holding in Iraqi oil in the 1920s, and the creation of the Kuwait Oil Company as a partnership between Gulf Oil and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later Anglo-Iranian, now British Petroleum).

The close American connection with Saudi Arabia may be traced back to the signing of an oil concession in May 1933 between King Ibn Saud and a consortium of American companies destined to become the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO).

World War II inaugurated an era of intensive American involvement in the Arab world continuing to this day. American troops first engaged Nazi forces not in Europe but in North Africa, landing in Morocco and Algeria in November 1942 (Operation Torch, commanded by General Dwight D. Eisenhower) and moving thereafter in a joint Anglo-American campaign that ended with the surrender of 400,000 Axis forces in Tunisia in May 1943. President Roosevelt's meetings with Morocco's King Muhammad V during the 1943 Casablanca Conference and with King ibn Saud in 1945 following the Cairo conference were emblematic of this new American presence, as was the wartime decision to extend lend-lease aid to Saudi Arabia. By the end of the 1940s the United States had become the preeminent Western power in the Middle East, confronting a very old player in Middle Eastern diplomacy, Russia, which had become, as the Soviet Union, the most powerful state ever ruled from Moscow. The 1947 Truman Doctrine was a response to Soviet probes in Greece, Turkey, and Iran. At that time the Arab world lying to the south was seen as securely within the Western camp, but also in turmoil and disaffected by continuing colonial rule. American policy makers viewed their task as simultaneously working toward a new regional order of independent Middle Eastern states that would freely join the Western security network against the Soviet Union.

Success was spotty. The several Arab states or nationalist movements solicited and obtained some American support for decolonization, but many, still fearing an overly heavy Western hand, resisted American-led defensive arrangements. This was especially the case in the 1950s and 1960s under the leadership of Egypt's Nasser. By this time the Soviet Union, in its 1955 arms deal with Egypt, had jumped over the "northern tier" of Greece, Turkey, and Iran and had become directly involved in the Arab world.

Complicating U.S. ties with the Arab world has been American support for Israel, created in 1948. Since then, much American diplomacy in the Arab world can be told in terms of efforts to achieve an Israeli-Arab settlement, with crisis points being the many wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors—1948, the Suez War in 1956, the Six Day war of June 1967, the 1969–1970 war of attrition between Israel and Egypt, the Ramadan/Yom Kippur War of October 1973, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the 2002 Al Aqsa Intifada.

Illustrative of American peace efforts over the entire past century are the Anglo-American efforts to orchestrate an Egyptian-Israeli settlement in the early 1950s, the July 1970 (Secretary of State) Rogers Initiative for an Egyptian-Israeli cease-fire, Secretary of State Kissinger's "shuttle diplomacy" following the October 1973 war, the sustained American diplomacy from 1977 until the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, and the ill-fated efforts by President Clinton in the last weeks of his administration in 2000 to achieve a definitive Israeli-Palestinian settlement. In 2001–2002, amid the vicious cycle of Palestinian suicide bombings and massive Israeli military responses, the assumption on all sides was that the American position would be the decisive factor.

The juxtaposition of the Cold War in the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli confrontation provides the larger framework for explaining American diplomacy in the Arab world between the 1940s and 1990. Two subsequent presidential "doctrines" following that of Truman in 1947 reveal as much. The Eisenhower Doctrine of January 1957 came after the United States had pressured the British, French, and Israelis to withdraw from their invasion of Egypt (the Suez War, 1956). Prompted by the belief that the resulting sharp decline of British and French standing in the area created a "power vacuum," the Eisenhower Doctrine offered support to countries in the area threatened by "international communism."

Most Arab states, however, either supporting or fearing Nasserist neutralism, refused to sign on. Years later, when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provoked fears that their next step might be toward the Persian Gulf, the January 1980 Carter Doctrine took a more unilateralist position: The Persian Gulf region was defined as an area of vital U.S. interest, and any outside intrusion would be resisted by force if necessary. Arab states that have maintained generally good relations with the United States over the past half century include Saudi Arabia and small Arab states of the Gulf along with Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco. All of these, interestingly, have escaped military coups or revolutions.

Other states experiencing military coups offer a different history. Iraq and Libya were both pro-Western before military coups in 1958 and 1969, respectively, and anti-Western thereafter. Algeria started independence in 1962 with a strong Third World neutralist orientation. Syria was something of a shuttlecockin regional politics in the 1940s and 1950s, and then a Soviet client but an unstable state in the 1960s. Starting in 1970, Hafiz al Asad achieved internal stability and Syria thereafter combined close ties to the Soviet Union with a prickly regional independence.

The most significant switch in superpower patrons was in Egypt—from the Nasserist alliance with the Soviets beginning in 1955, and continuing with ups and downs until Sadat in the 1970s achieved a diplomatic revolution by moving Egypt from the Soviet to the American camp and signing a peace treaty with Israel.

America's post-1940s diplomacy in the Arab world has involved both "proxy wars" and direct U.S. military intervention. The former were an important part of all the Arab-Israeli wars, the most acute confrontation being in the October 1973 war, when the United States even issued a nuclear alert in response to the Soviet threat to intervene militarily to save Egypt from defeat. The United States intervened militarily twice in Lebanon, in 1958 and 1982–1983—and then in 1990–1991 sent roughly half a million American troops to lead an international coalition of forces (including Arab armies) mustered to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion.

Since at least the 1960s, internal and regional developments within the Arab world have resulted in the rise of fundamentalist Islamist groups opposed to their own governments, which are seen as corrupt, irreligious, and subservient to the imperialist and infidel United States. Moreover, since the end of the Cold War these diverse xenophobic impulses have been directed almost exclusively at the United States. Thus, to the fundamentalist "Afghan Arabs" (radicals from Arabia and many other Arab countries who fought and trained in Afghanistan from the 1980s on) organized in Al Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 were but one step in their war against infidelity at home and abroad.

The United States at the beginning of the new millennium has pronounced interests in the Arab world, often expressed in the triptych "oil, the open door, and Israel." It has demonstrated the power and the will to intervene, including militarily (the 1990–1991 Gulf War plus bruited plans to move again against Saddam Hussein's Iraq). After the 11 September attacks, it sent troops to Afghanistan in a "War on Terror" to hunt down Al Qaeda extremists. It has adequate to good working relations with most Arab governments, but thereby shares in the often considerable hostility those governments face. All this makes the United States for the foreseeable future the principal outside player in the ongoing Arab and Middle Eastern diplomatic arena. As a result the United States, failing a most unlikely scaling down of U.S. commitments, is caught up in the many unresolved problems confronting this region.


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L. CarlBrown

See alsoIran, Relations with ; Israel, Relations with ; Israeli-Palestinian Peace Accord ; Lebanon, U.S. Landing in ; 9/11 Attack ; Persian Gulf War .

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