Middle East: The history

How US clout in the Arab world sank so low

RARELY, if ever, since President Truman hastened to recognize the new state of Israel in 1948, have American prestige and leverage been lower in the Middle East.

The seeming weakness of US muscle perceived by its friends and allies in the area comes from years of disuse.

How did this happen? History has some answers.

First, American inconsistency and indecision. In 1944, eager to bar the German and Japanese enemies from Arabia's rich oil supplies, President Roosevelt met with Saudi Arabian King Abdelazziz ibn Saud aboard the US Navy cruiser Quincy.

A kind of gentleman's agreement denied access to the Arabian Peninsula's oil to the enemy Axis and guaranteed it to the United States. Roosevelt told the Saudi king that the US, without consulting Arab states, would brook no changes in the status of British-mandated Palestine.

Jewish and Arab terrorists and guerrillas soon drove out the British by killing British soldiers. They killed each other, too. Much of world Jewry fervently welcomed the new Israel as a haven from the Holocaust. But Israel was born in conflict with its own Palestinian Arabs, about 300,000 of whom fled or were ejected, and in fighting the ill-equipped external Arab armies. Israel was swiftly recognized, first by Moscow, then by Washington.

For a time, US administrations supported Israel at a distance. Its main helper in the 1950s (once the brief support of the Soviet bloc dried up) was France, from which it purchased secrets and materials it needed to become an undeclared nuclear power.

The lowest point of the fluctuating Israeli influence on the US came with President Eisenhower. After the US pressured Israel's British and French allies to withdraw from Egyptian territory in their unsuccessful 1956 war to seize the Suez Canal, Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion, refused to pull Israeli forces out of their new conquests in Sinai and Gaza, as the UN Security Council had ordered.

So Eisenhower, in January 1957, threatened American Jewish leaders and lobbyists with withdrawal of tax-free Israel bond sales and other crucial privileges. Mr. Ben-Gurion reversed himself and withdrew. Respect for the US was high throughout the area, even in Israel.

It sank after President Johnson in 1967 chose to challenge neither an Israeli attack on the US Navy's intelligence ship Liberty, nor the rapid Israeli conquests of territory in Egypt, Syria, and Jordan which followed. President Carter reached an Egyptian-Israeli settlement with the Camp David peace accords, after the Arab-Israel war of 1973. An Arab oil embargo hit Americans with rocketing prices. Massive US military aid rescued an Israel under heavy pressure from the Egyptian and Syrian armies.

Egypt was the first Arab nation to recognize Israel. Subsequent events also offered hope: Israel's first hesitant recognition of limited autonomy for its Palestinian subjects and Jordanian King Hussein's peace treaty with Israel, in 1994. There was US input in both cases.

US-Mideast relations dipped sharply in 1984. President Reagan first sent, then withdrew, a US peacekeeping force in Lebanon. Israeli forces were directed by then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to destroy Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon. They drove both out, after US mediation. But nearly 250 US marines and some of the CIA's best Mideast operatives were killed by truck bombs in Beirut. This terrorism was the work of Shi'ite Arab militants, controlled by the successful clerical Muslim revolutionaries in Iran, who had taken US hostages both there and in Lebanon.

In 1979-89, Presidents Carter and Reagan waged the war to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan, hastening the Soviet Union's breakup. Thousands of young, extremist, and perennially anti-Communist Muslims volunteered for the CIA's victorious proxy war. This delighted Muslim extremist forces – giving rise to Osama bin Laden and his global terrorist group, Al Qaeda, which then went home to destabilize Arab regimes and societies, and eventually to attack the US.

Respect for Washington rose briefly in most Arab states when the first President Bush, in 1991, built an international coalition to end Iraq's seizure of Kuwait and its crucial oilfields. After successful conclusion of the Gulf War, Bush revived the Arab-Israel peace process.

US influence waxed momentarily strong, too, after the point in 1993, when this reporter flew with other newsmen in Arafat's plane from Tunis to Washington. We saw him sign peace with Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres at the White House, President Clinton presiding.

A Jewish extremist assassinated Rabin some time after his handshake with Arafat and his recognition of the PLO as legitimate representative of the Palestinians, a recognition Arafat yielded to Israel's Rabin government in 1993. Similarly, Muslim extremists killed Egypt's President Anwar Sadat in 1981, after Sadat's peace with Israel. Both murders dealt heavy blows to America's status as a Mideast peace broker.

The Bush team today, in its belated peace efforts, faces not only a weakened Arafat and destroyed remnants of his Palestinian Authority. It also confronts a defiant Mr. Sharon, supported by an Israeli populace embittered by violence.

US diplomatic success requires winning back support and respect of Muslims and many others around the world. If America is again to be an effective peacemaker, it must show unrelenting impartiality. So far, this quality has been meager. The crisis and the road to lasting peace require much more homework for Bush. They also need courage of the sort Secretary of State Colin Powell has displayed in his tardy – but, one hopes, effective – shuttle diplomacy.

• John K. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent in the Middle East, is the author of 'Payback, America's Long War in the Middle East' and other books on the region.

Mideast timeline

1944 Saudi king guarantees the US access to Arabian Peninsula's oil.

1948 President Truman recognizes the new state of Israel.

1956-57 Britain, France, Israel try to seize Suez Canal. Israel refuses UN resolution to pull out of new conquests in Sinai and Gaza. President Eisenhower threatens financial sanctions against Israel, which withdraws troops. US gains respect in Mideast.

1967 Six-Day War. Israel strikes Arab neighbors and captures East Jerusalem, West Bank, Sinai, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights. US does not rebuke Israel. Kuwait and Iraq suspend oil shipments to US.

1973-79 After a new Mideast war, an Arab oil embargo hits US. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat makes peace bid with Israel. President Carter brokers a settlement. Egypt become first Arab state to recognize Israel.

1979-89 Presidents Carter and Reagan use Muslim proxies to expel Soviets from Afghanistan; Muslim extremists strengthened.

1981 Muslim extremists kill Egyptian President Sadat.

1982-83 Israel invades Lebanon; expels PLO. Terrorists kill nearly 250 US marines in Beirut. Reagan withdraws US force. Iranian- and Syrian-backed guerrillas begin violence against Israeli occupation. Israelis withdraw in 2000.

1991 Following Gulf War, first President Bush revives Arab-Israel peace process.

1993 Israeli and Palestinian leaders sign historic peace document at White House.

1994 Jordan and Israel sign peace treaty, with US input.

2000 New Arab-Israel peace talks at Camp David break down; Palestinians begin new uprising against Israeli occupation.

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