The State Department’s Miscomprehension and Failure in the Middle East

Wrong about nearly everything from 1948 to today.

According to Yoram Ettinger, a former Israeli ambassador, the State Department has a disturbing record of miscomprehension and failure in the Middle East. His report on this record is here:

The US State Department has long assumed that generous diplomatic and financial gestures can convince the volatile Middle East to abandon anti-Western ideologies and adopt Western values like peaceful coexistence, good faith negotiation, democracy and human rights. However, the State Department’s well-intentioned policy has fueled Middle East violence, generating tailwinds to rogue entities and headwinds to the US and its Arab allies.

For example:

The State Department welcomed the turbulence on the Arab Street that erupted in 2010 and is still raging from the Persian Gulf to northwest Africa as “the Arab Spring,” a “Facebook and youth revolution” and a “march for peace and democracy.” However, as evidenced by Middle East reality, it has been another tectonic Arab Tsunami, not an Arab Spring.

The “Arab Spring,” for which there were such high hopes, has led to the replacement of one set of despots by others, or by ongoing civil wars and chaos. There are three ongoing civil wars in Arab states — in Libya, Yemen, and Syria — that have resulted in more than fourteen million people who either have fled their countries or been internally displaced. Vast destruction has also resulted: in Syria alone, it is estimated that nearly $370 billion will be needed to put the country back into the condition it was in before the civil war began in 2011. In Egypt, Mubarak’s despotic rule was overthrown. But the election that followed did not bring a democrat to power. Instead, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, was elected. His rule was brief; an anti-MB coup took place, and Morsi was replaced by another military man and despot, in the mold of Hosni Mubarak – General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

In Iraq, the removal of Saddam Hussein, and the long war that followed to suppress his loyalists and to establish what the Americans hoped would be a proudly purple-thumbed democracy, instead resulted in a constantly teetering quasi-democratic polity, threatened from within by constant conflicts over power among the three main groups – Sunni Arabs, Shi’a Arabs, and Kurds. Yemen has since 2015 been convulsed in a civil war between the Shia Houthis, backed by Iran, and the national government of Sunni Arabs, backed by Saudi Arabia and, for some years, by the UAE as well. In Tunisia, previous democratic hopes have been dashed ever since July 25, 2021, when the President dissolved the legislature and decided to rule by decree, making Tunisia again the authoritarian state it had been under the massively corrupt Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, before the “Arab Spring” bloomed and caused him to flee, suitcases full of cash, to exile in Saudi Arabia.

The State Department’s policy on Iran since 1979 has favored the diplomatic option, assuming that a financial and diplomatic bonanza could entice the ayatollahs to be good-faith negotiators amenable to peaceful coexistence with their Arab Sunni neighbors. It was also hoped that such a windfall would convince the mullahs to desist from their anti-US regional and global proliferation of terrorism and drug trafficking and to abandon their repressive, fanatical and megalomaniacal 1,400-year-old ideology. However, this policy has bolstered the ayatollahs’ anti-US rogue strategy, reinforcing their collaboration with anti-US governments, terror organizations and drug traffickers in Latin America, posing a lethal threat to every pro-US Arab regime and letting down most Iranians, who want regime change in Tehran.

The Americans tried to come to some understanding with the regime of Khomeini and his successor as Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Even after the seizure of the American Embassy in 1979, the State Department counseled the use of diplomacy alone. In the end, after 444 days of captivity, the Americans were released – not because of the State Department’s diplomacy, had worked but because Ronald Reagan had just been elected President and the Iranians were fearful of his likely use of force. The Iranians understood that they were no longer dealing with Jimmy Carter, and they let the hostages go free.

The State Department was also a key engine behind the US-led NATO military offensive that toppled Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, notwithstanding his dismantling of Libya’s nuclear and chemical warfare infrastructure and fervent war on Islamic terrorism. The toppling of Qaddafi transformed Libya into an uncontrollable platform for civil wars and anti-US global Islamic terrorism.

The State Department was eager to cheer on the revolt against Qaddafi, even though he had done as promised and dismantled his nuclear and chemical warfare infrastructure. He was also an enemy of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood, for the Islamists threatened his rule. Qaddafi warned the Americans that if he were overthrown, chaos would follow in Libya, as indeed it has. A civil war has been going on in the decade since his death, between rival groups: the forces led by General Khalifa Haftar in the east are still fighting the forces of the GNC (General National Congress) in the west, despite the ceasefire that was signed on October 30, 2020. That civil war has drastically cut Libya’s oil production, thus helping to raise the world price of oil and, obviously, the price to the American consumer. None of this was taken into account by the State Department, which thought that Qaddafi’s departure would usher in something like a peaceful democratic regime. That was never in the cards.

Until the eruption of the civil war in Syria, the State Department considered the ruthless anti-US dictator Bashar Assad a potential reformer due to his background as an ophthalmologist in London, president of the Syrian Internet Association and marriage to a British-born woman. However, the civil war has resulted in over 500,000 casualties, seven million refugees and a similar number of domestically displaced people.

The State Department let itself be fooled by Bashar al-Assad, who did indeed hint at his supposed “reformist” inclinations. Yes, he had studied in England and married an extremely attractive Arab woman who had been born and lived in Great Britain – much was made of her, too, as her husband’s promising partner in modernizing the state. But Bashar Assad provided just as ruthless as his father, Hafez al-Assad, had been. He was determined to maintain rule by the Alawite minority, who constituted only 12% of the population, but had a firm grip on the Syrian military, with its Alawite officer corps. When civil war broke out, however, the State Department supported the rebels. It chose to see only the democratic reformers, and not the Islamists who were also part of the revolt.

The State Department has embraced the anti-US Muslim Brotherhood—the largest Sunni Islamic terror organization with welfare, political and religious branches—while pressuring the pro-US Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt because of their war on Muslim Brotherhood terrorism. The pro-US Arab regimes know that the Muslim Brotherhood aims to topple all national Islamic governments, establish a universal Islamic despotism, promote martyrdom in the service of Allah and force the Western “infidel”—especially the US—to submit. This State Department policy is pushing pro-US Arab regimes closer to China and Russia.

I think Ettinger is simply wrong here. The State Department has not provided any visible signs of “pressuring” Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt to relax their campaigns against the MB. The State Department was greatly relieved when the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was replaced by General Al-Sisi in a coup. Nor have I heard of any attempt by the State Department to convince the UAE and Saudi Arabia to ease up on their “war on Muslim Brotherhood terrorism.” The MB is not only the enemy of Israel and the Arab monarchies; it is violently anti-American. It would make no sense for the State Department to “embrace the Muslim Brotherhood.”

From 1993-2000, the State Department extended the red carpet treatment to the anti-US Yasser Arafat as a messenger of peace, worthy of the Nobel Prize and annual US foreign aid, ignoring his intra-Arab terroristic and treacherous track record, as well as his annihilationist vision, as reflected by his hate education and 1959 and 1964 Fatah and PLO charters. Meanwhile, all pro-US Arab regimes extended the shabby doormat treatment to Arafat.

The State Department did treat Arafat with kid gloves, helped put an acceptable face on a terrorist murderer who received a makeover as a potential “partner for peace” with Israel. But Ettinger should have noted that far more than the State Department, it was President Jimmy Carter who did so much to change Arafat’s image. As early as 1977 Carter had called for a “homeland for the Palestinians.” He secretly coached the Palestinian leader to improve his image, drafted passages for Arafat’s public speeches, and counseled other leaders of the Palestinian uprising in Israeli-occupied territories. Carter was full of messianic delusions, infused with righteousness, and as deeply unsympathetic to the Jewish state as he was enthusiastic about a future Palestinian one.

From their first meeting in 1990, Carter and Arafat “stayed in constant communication.” Carter encouraged the PLO chairman to describe the Palestinian plight to the “world community” in speeches designed “to secure maximum sympathy.” Ettinger leaves all this out, because he is determined to place the blame for American policy follies in the Middle East squarely on the State Department.

From 1980-1990, the US collaborated with the anti-US Saddam Hussein, assuming that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” However, this policy was perceived by Saddam as a green light for the invasion of Kuwait, which led to the Gulf War and the Iraq War, as well as an ongoing civil war in Iraq with nine million refugees and domestically displaced people. This transformed Iraq into a major platform of anti-US regional and global terrorism.

Again, some caveats. The State Department was not, as Ettinger suggests, always wrong. It did support supplying weapons to Iraq in its war with Iran that. lasted from 1980 to 1988. It did not, however, support Saddam Hussein’s Operation Anfal, in which Saddam’s Arab army massacred 182,000 Kurds in Iraq in 1988. It correctly supported President George H. W. Bush’s decision to go to war to undo Saddam Hussein’s invasion and conquest of Kuwait in 1990. The State Department did make a huge mistake in not opposing that tremendous calamity for America, the Iraq War. It ought to have warned the enthusiasts in George W. Bush’s White House that their belief that the Americans would be greeted as “liberators” was crazed, and that the very idea that without Saddam Hussein Iraq could turn into some kind of “light unto the Muslim nations” was simply fantasy.

In 1978-1979, the State Department embraced the anti-US Iranian fanatic Ayatollah Khomeini, suggesting that he was anti-Communist, surrounded by moderate advisors and preoccupied with bringing liberty to Iran—a Gandhi-like Iranian.

I have not seen convincing evidence that the State Department “embraced” Ayatollah Khomeini. Again, it was President Jimmy Carter who had secret communications with Khomeini, and assured him that he, Carter, would prevent the Imperial Iranian Army from interfering to crush the revolt against the Shah.

During the 1950s, the State Department courted the pro-Soviet, anti-US Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who strove to topple pro-US oil-producing Arab regimes at a time when the US was heavily dependent upon Persian Gulf oil.

It was President Eisenhower who rescued Nasser from an embarrassing defeat by pressuring Israel to withdrew its forces from the Sinai in 1957, which it promptly did. Nasser’s pro-Soviet stance did not prevent the State Department Arabists from favoring him. They even abandoned America’s closest allies, Great Britain and France, in their quarrel with Nasser over the nationalization of the Suez Canal. The State Department, however, saw Nasser as a threat only to Israel, the Jewish state that so many of State’s Arabists disliked. It was even willing to overlook Nasser’s links to the Soviet Union.

All of the US State Department’s Israeli-Arab peace proposals were Palestinian-centered, and therefore frustrated by Middle Eastern reality, which has never perceived the Palestinian issue of primary concern, considering Palestinians as a role model of intra-Arab subversion, terrorism and ingratitude.

The State Department insisted that the Palestinians were at the heart of Arab concerns, but the Arab states, despite their pro-Palestinian rhetoric, had and have many other things to worry them, including disaffected populations that are more concerned with massive corruption and mismanagement of their economies. Lip service could be given the Palestinians by other Arabs, but more aid went to the Palestinians from the Western nations than from their fellow Arabs. Yassir Arafat was shunned by Anwar Sadat of Egypt and by the rulers of the Sunni Arab states of the Gulf, and he made himself persona non grata in Jordan by backing the revolt against King Hussein by the Palestinian terror group Black September. It was only with the Abraham Accords, that were reached despite the State Department’s insistent refrain, most famously repeated by John Kerry, that until the Palestinian “problem” was solved, there could be no normalization of ties between Israel and any of the Arab states. Now there is still no “solution” to the Palestinian matter, but four Arab states – the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan – have shown they simply no longer care what the Palestinians want; they have gone ahead to promote their own national interests by forging close ties with the Jewish state.

In 1948, the State Department led the opposition to the establishment of Israel, contending that it would be pro-Soviet and overrun by the expected Arab military invasion. It believed Israel would destabilize the Middle East and threaten the supply of Arab oil….

The State Department’s Arabists in 1948 were famously antisemitic. Led by Loy W. Henderson, they opposed American recognition of the state of Israel; the Secretary of State, George Marshall, though not antisemitic, bought their arguments that such recognition would harm American interests in the Arab oil states.

Both Clark Clifford, Truman’s adviser and strategist, and Truman’s old partner in a Missouri haberdashery, Harry Jacobson, worked on Truman, who was already sympathetic to the Jews of Israel, and despite the State Department opposition, the President recognized Israel. And the sky did not fall. The Arab oil states, especially Saudi Arabia, were just as eager as before to sell oil to the Americans.

In the vast expanse between the NATO countries of Europe and Japan, America’s surest ally is Israel, that punches far above its weight militarily. It has never asked for US troops to help it; the Israelis have always managed to defeat every combination of Arab armies, from the five (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Iraq)that attacked the nascent state of Israel in1948, to the three (Egypt, Syria, Jordan) that tried again ti wipe Israel out in 1967, to the two (Egypt, Syria) that launched a surprise attack on Yom Kippur in 1973.

Israel can be thought of militarily, as Ettinger says, as a “large US aircraft carrier.” Israel’s planes can, in effect, be considered part of America’s armory, akin to the members of NATO. The Americans know they can call on Israeli forces to back them up; they are certainly prepared to collaborate with the US in halting Iran’s nuclear program. When Israel destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, and Syria’s nuclear reactor at Al-Kabir in 2007, it was not only helping destroy threats to itself; it was helping to destroy threats to the entire Western alliance.

The State Department has been wrong — morally and geopolitically – about so much in the Middle East. It was wrong in 1948, when the Department’s Arabists wanted to withhold recognition of the Jewish state. It was wrong in 1957, when it pushed President Eisenhower to pressure Israel to withdraw from the Sinai without exacting any concomitant promise from Nasser to halt fedayeen attacks from the Sinai on Israeli farmers in the Negev. It was wrong for the US not to back the Shah to the hilt in 1978, but instead to fall for Khomeini’s claims of moderation and his insistence that he posed no threat to the Americans. However, blame for this falls more on the terminally naïve President Carter rather than on the State Department. Had Carter been more intelligent, he would have prevented Khomeini’s return to Iran from France. Instead, he not only allowed Khomeini to return, to be greeted by adoring crowds in Tehran, but made sure that the Imperial Iranian Army stood down, and did not suppress the anti-Shah protesters.

It made sense, too, for the State Department to back Iraq in the 1980-1988 war, as a way to prevent Khomeini’s regime, which by then had shown itself to be fanatically anti-American, from defeating Iraq. The idea was to keep the war going, so as to drain both sides of men, money, and materiel, and dampen morale. And it worked: for eight years the two most aggressive regimes in the Middle East were fully occupied with fighting each other. We didn’t have a dog in that fight; our dog was the fight.

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