Middle East: the flaws of a military strategy

The United States is about to return to a geomilitary or strategic concept for its Middle East policy. The approach has a certain logic, and it fits the temper of the times. Mr. Reagan has long held a strategic view of international affairs. Of late, the Soviets have been acting up, and the election was won at least partially upon the contention that our military strength has not kept pace with the demands that leadership of the Western democracies places on the US. Particularly salient is the necessity to protect the oil supplies in the Persian Gulf.

But danger awaits those who tread this path. It is as if we are about to retrogress to 1954 when Mr. Dulles with his strategic thinking, Baghdad Pact, and subsequent Eisenhower doctrine precipitated political convulsions among Arabs, embittered Egypt and Syria against the US, contributed to the overthrow of a friendly regime in Iraq, and opened the area to unbridled Soviet penetration. What befell the US between 1954 and 1960 under geomilitary policy could happen again.

In difficult times we sometimes resort to geomilitary thinking because it is vivid. It requires only the visual perception of moving pieces across a checkerboard and the mental ability to project a few movies ahead. With military units in hand there is the exhilaration of action -- the sense that we are doing something. It entails little subtlety in the exercise of power.

But why should the geomilitary approach be associated with disaster? The problem is that it centers attention on American interests and the necessity to protect these against Soviet transgressions. Since the Tripartite Declaration of 1950, when the US, France, and Britain futilely attempted to limit arms proliferation in the Middle East, Arab leaders have been telling us that they intend to determine their own destiny. The interests of the great powers as conceived in Washington or Moscow have not been accepted for a long time as an appropriate basis for Middle East politics. Perhaps Arab leaders don't always succeed in achieving their formulations of how the world should be configured politically. But they have managed, by and large, to deny us our strategic purposes when these constitute an affront to their own aspirations.

From an Arab perspective, a strategic orientation carries an American temptation to minimize Arab political objectives associated not just with Palestinian self-determination, but also with Jerusalem and the occupied territory in the Golan Heights.Other things become more important. Despite Sadat's efforts to put on the best face possible, even he has misgivings over the prospect of the US delaying a resolution of the Palestinian problem by focusing on other matters. As for the Saudis, whatever their fear of Khomeini or the Soviets, they cannot follow us all the way down this path. IT would be too damaging to vital regional relationships.

The Arabs can also be expected to view any overriding military emphasis with suspicion because of what it says about power. A policy that relies heavily upon military considerations is highly complementary to our (and the Israelis') power -- which, a rank materialist might say, comes from the barrel of a gun. Arabs, on the other hand, possess a power measured in oil supplies and bank balances. An annual surplus of $50 billion, such as the Saudis possess, can no longer be viewed as money. It is power -- naked power. There is only the question of when the Saudis might use it.

Any American strategic perception supposes that this power does not exist, or at least that the Arabs will be so enthralled by our military process and so grateful for the protection it brings that they will continue to accept F-15 airplanes as the quid pro quo for abandoning long-standing national purposes. Actually, the day is coming when they will expect us to soften on the issues of the Arab/Israeli standoff. It is just not reasonable to suppose that the Arabs will always play by our rules when they themselves have the wherewithal to insist on an entirely different game. Geomilitary considerations cannot be ignored, but neither can they supersede the necessity to show due regard for Arab sensitivities.

The strategic concept does, of course, have its purpose. It precludes the necessity of our thinking about the distasteful realities of the Middle East. It mitigates tensions between the US and Israel over differences that come to the surface when we do face the Middle East situation squarely and in its totality. But we should remember that alien military power seldom has lasting influence on the politics of a people, such as the Arabs, who are bent on changing their world. Vietnam, and even Iran, s hould have taught us that much.

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