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Europeans coined the term “Middle East” at a time when their global dominance defined political geography. In the perspective of the western edge of the Eurasian landmass, the “Near East” was Christian/Slavic Europe. Beyond that lay the “Middle East” of the Ottoman Empire (including Arabia), Egypt, and Persia, and the “Far East” of China, Japan and the lands of South-East Asia. India was not usually included in the Far East, because it was … well, India.
When the center of global power shifted to the United States in the decades after World War II, a politically neutral terminology came into use, with Asia’s sub-regions referenced by the points of the compass. However, the term “Middle East” continued in use because it had assumed an altogether new meaning by then; it had become the region where the rage and bitterness of the Arab-Zionist confrontation in Palestine washed into the larger world of Islam, carrying with them the politics of petroleum and the Cold War. It was more a state of mind and political culture than a geographic area. Over the last century, its raw anger and recurring crises have repeatedly destabilized the international order and threatened the peace and security of the rest of the world. This is an account of how that came to be.
From time immemorial, the Middle East has been the center where the trade of Africa, Asia and Europe converged. Traders brought there the spices, muslin, steel and diamonds of India, the ceramics and silk of China, the ivory and gold of Africa, the tin and wine of Europe, and slaves from every region. From the eastern coast of the Mediterranean goods went across the sea in Phoenician boats and, much later, in the flat-bottomed craft of Genoese and Venetian merchants to consumers across all of Europe.
The spread of Islam along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean in the 7th Century changed the dynamics of trade: Venetian merchants negotiated a monopoly with the new rulers and put up the price of Asian products throughout Europe. As the palates of the European elite had by then become accustomed to hiding the unavoidable gaminess of their meat with spices from India, the inflation was widely felt, and it contributed to the animosity that developed between the worlds of Islam and Christendom.
Islam and Christendom
The confrontation of Mediterranean Islam and European Christianity has been a constant factor in the history of the last 1300 years, and it is necessary here to look briefly at its essentials. In the century after the death of Mohammad in 632, Arab armies took Jerusalem, defeated the Persian Empire, pushed Byzantine power out of Syria, and occupied Egypt. Islamic power subsequently extended along both the northern and southern rims of the Mediterranean, and even jumped from Africa into the Iberian Peninsula. Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, causing the exodus of educated monks to centers all across Europe that lit the fuse of the European Renaissance. In the next two centuries, Islam intruded deep into Europe and its expansion did not stop until the 1683 battle of Vienna. That centuries-long struggle, which included the Crusades (1075-1272), defined European cultural identity and the region’s external economic interests.
Early in their long encounter, Europeans decided that Islam was a satanic religion. They saw the Prophet Muhammad as a warlord who had spread Islam to his own people with violence. After his death, the fratricide continued. Fellow Muslims assassinated Omar, Muhammad’s successor (Caliph) in 644. The second Caliph, Othman, a man of 80, was stoned to death in 656. Differences over who should be his successor led to the murder of Ali and his two sons in 661, giving rise to the “party of Ali,” the Shi’ah, who thereafter existed in a deeply troubled relationship with the majority Sunni.
After the Crusades failed to break the Muslim dam on the trade route to India, European merchants began looking actively for new ways to get there. Niccolò and Maffeo Polo tried the northern land route and ended up in China, at the Mongol court of Kublai Khan. Their nephew Marco made the same journey but instead of returning as he had gone, sailed east, stopping in India on his way to the Mediterranean. His account of the journey gave Columbus the idea that sailing west would bring him to India.
Meanwhile, Prince Henry “the Navigator” of Portugal, inspired by the mention by Herodotus of a Phoenician ship that had once sailed around Africa, explored a southern sea route to India. These efforts to outflank the Islamic world began the era of European exploration and expansion. It coincided with the ebb of Muslim power, first from Iberia and then from Slavic Eastern Europe.
As the trade between Europe and Asia flowed around them, Ottoman Turkey, Arabia and Persia, became less vibrant, less wealthy and less open. The decline accelerated as European sea power drove Arab traders and shipping out of the Indian Ocean. By the early 20th century, European Powers surrounded the Islamic world: there was Russia to the north, French and British forces in the Mediterranean and in the Indian Ocean. The geopolitical framework of the present was in place.
The Arab World
With India under its control, Britain began nibbling away at the Ottoman periphery along the Arabian Sea. In 1839, it took the pirate stronghold of Aden, the strategically located outpost on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, and made it a coaling station for ships. There was no effective response from an increasingly lethargic Istanbul. By the end of the 19th century, Britain had bribed or bullied into subsidiary relationships a string of other small sheikhdoms along the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. Istanbul tried to protect its distant flanks by approving a German plan to build a railway down to the Persian Gulf, but Britain blocked the project by signing an agreement with the sheikhdom of Kuwait, the intended terminus of the line. Ottoman demarches and military deployments in Basra (the province to which Kuwait belonged), did little good.
The British then began supporting Arab insurrections against Ottoman rule. They put on their payroll Sayyid Husayn bin Ali (1854-1931), the Emir of Mecca, descendant of the Prophet and leader of the prestigious Hashemite clan. During the First World War Sharif Husayn, pursuing his dream of becoming “King of the Arabs,” (see below), led a British-supported Arab Revolt against the Ottoman, and his son, Faisal (1883-1933), briefly occupied Damascus.
The Wahhabi Saudis
Meanwhile, Britain also had in its pay young Abdul Aziz Al Saud (1876-1953), scion of a clan that once ruled Riyadh, reduced by misfortune to robbing caravans out of Kuwait. With British support, he took Riyadh and pushed Ottoman power out of most of southern Arabia. As the Saud family’s power grew, so did that of its narrow Wahhabi creed — named after its intolerant founder, the desert preacher Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792). The Saudi conquest of Mecca and Medina in 1925 vastly amplified Wahhabi influence, and a 1945 deal under which the United States agreed to protect the kingdom in exchange for preferred access to its rich oil resources, created a religious-political power center that became a poisonous influence in the region and then across the world.
The Muslim Brotherhood
Wahhabi influence made itself felt through a number of secretive networks and arrangements, the most important of which was the Muslim Brotherhood (jamiat al-Ikhwan al-muslimun, literally Society of Muslim Brothers). Its founder was Hassan al Banna (1906-1949), a 21-year old teacher of Arabic newly appointed to a school in Ismailiyya, the capital of Egypt’s British-occupied Canal Zone. The Suez Canal Company had its headquarters there and funded the building of the first Muslim Brotherhood mosque in Ismailiyya in 1930. British support supposedly accounted for al Banna’s spectacular success in growing The Brotherhood into the most pervasive organization in the Arab world, providing London with allies as it jockeyed to establish control of a region newly freed from Ottoman rule.
As a university student in Cairo al Banna had come under the pan-Islamist ideas of Jemal ud Din al-Afghani (1839-1897), and The Brotherhood made it is mission to propagate what came to be known as "pure" Salafist Islam. Things did not work out that way. Al Banna was a great fan of Adolf Hitler, and as the Nazi leader rose to power, the young teacher in Egypt inundated him with letters offering cooperation. Finally, the Nazis took notice. Hoping to build a fifth column in Muslim countries under British rule, the Germans began funding The Brotherhood in the 1930s.
One of the men it cultivated was Muhammad Amin al-Husseini (1895-1974), a Muslim Brother in Jerusalem with excellent connections. Al-Husseini was sentenced to ten years imprisonment for inciting the 1920 attacks on Jews praying at the Western Wall, but “escaped” custody and went into exile for a year. When he returned, the British (then in charge of Palestine under a League of Nations mandate), rewarded him with the religious post of “Grand Mufti” of Jerusalem, and the newly minted job of President of the Supreme Muslim Council. They gave him wide ranging influence and powers of patronage.
Thus positioned, Al Husseini led the campaign against Jewish immigration into Palestine, organizing major anti-Jewish riots in 1929. Finding such violence ineffective, he concluded that the solution was to wipe out the source of the migrants, the Jewish population in Europe, a project Hitler had taken in hand. To help in that effort Al Husseini went to Germany during the Second World War and organized an international section of Hitler’s vicious Schutzstaffel (SS), the Handzar Muslim Division, based in Croatia.
At the end of the war the British arrested many members of The Brotherhood for war crimes, but there were no prosecutions; instead, they became part of various post war machinations. Meanwhile, the Grand Mufti, charged with war crimes by Yugoslavia, once again “escaped” custody, this time in France, and surfaced in Egypt. He never returned to Palestine, but a nephew, Yassir Arafat (1929-2004), founded Fatah, the largest component of the Palestine Liberation Organization formed in 1964.
Al Husseini’s exploits with the Nazis were only one aspect of the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities; its main part remained pro-British, welcoming into its fold the socially prominent Abdel-Rahman Azzam, who was reputed to have worked for British Intelligence in Libya after World War II, maneuvering to put Sayyid Idriss on the throne. (King Idriss was dethroned in 1969 by another British protégé, Muammar Ghaddafi, who enjoyed London’s support until, American pressure disguised as “the Arab Spring” forced its withdrawal.)
After World War II, Abdel-Rahman Azzam became Secretary-General of the League of Arab States. In November 1954 a Muslim Brother tried to assassinate Prime Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, as he was speaking at an event celebrating the negotiated departure of British forces from the Suez Canal Zone. In the massive crackdown that followed, the operational command of the Brotherhood moved to London and Geneva. It has remained there ever since while the “General Guide” – there have been seven successors of al Banna – remained in Egypt.
In the same period, the Arab Nazis working for the British served as a counterweight to the region’s Soviet funded communists, operating out of Saudi Arabia to broaden the network of Wahhabi religious schools in the Middle East and throughout Asia and Africa. Over the next few decades the network spread to some 70 countries, creating the infrastructure for generating “Islamic outrage” and mounting violent attacks on “enemies of Islam” whenever that was deemed necessary. In 1973 Salem Azzam (a relative of Abdel-Rahman), was made Secretary-General of the London-based Islamic Council of Europe, from which has issued such documents as the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights and the Model Islamic State Constitution.
Drivers of “Islamic Terrorism”
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood entered the big leagues. With the backing of the intelligence agencies of Britain, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States, and Osama bin Laden as local overseer, the Brotherhood drew on the terrorist organizations it had spawned over the preceding two decades to support the Afghan Mujaheddin. After the Soviet withdrawal a decade later, the apparatus created for the Afghan resistance became al Qaeda with a new mission: expanding “extremist Islam” into the resource-rich states of Central Asia that had emerged from the breakup of the USSR.
In the coverage of this whole train of events, mass media attention focused almost entirely on the down and dirty terrorists who murder and maim; there has been virtually no coverage of the other reality of modern “Islamic terrorism,” its state sponsorship and the elite support networks of bankers, princes and policy makers. Another characteristic of media coverage has been the transformation of the “heroic” Mujaheddin into satanic terrorists after the 9/11 attacks, and their tendency to disappear from view when attacking developing countries.
A mountain of evidence makes clear that corrupt and unscrupulous elites manipulate religious feelings to drive “Islamic terrorism.” They do so by providing a cynical narrative rich in passionate religiosity to motivate the wretched foot soldiers to maim and kill themselves in what they believe is a divine mission. The 1988 Covenant of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Organization in Gaza, is an illustrative example. It heaps praise on the Muslim Brotherhood as “a universal organization … characterized by its deep understanding, accurate comprehension and its complete embrace of all Islamic concepts of all aspects of life, culture, creed, politics, economics, education, society, justice and judgment, the spreading of Islam, education, art, information, science of the occult and conversion to Islam.”
The document declares that all of Palestine is “consecrated” for the use of Muslims until Judgment Day, when “Moslems fight and kill the Jews.” On that day, “when the Jew seeks to hide behind stones and trees, the stones and trees will say ‘O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him’.” Such raw hatred of Jews has never been a feature of traditional Islamic or Arabic culture; it was a European and particularly Nazi transplant. It is one of those karmic ironies rife in history that Israel encouraged and might even have financed Hamas in its early days as a counterweight to the Yasser Arafat’s secular Fatah.
The Nazis provided the anti-Jewish ideology but British policy ensured that it found fertile ground. That policy had three incompatible aims:
King of the Arabs: The first aim involved arming and bankrolling Sharif Husayn of Mecca to disrupt and undermine the Ottoman Empire. Early in the First World War, he asked for British support for an Arab revolt aimed at making him king of a “Sharifian” realm that included the Arabian Peninsula (except Aden), Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.
In 1915, after British military reversals in the Dardanelles, the deal was energetically pursued, and accepted by London’s envoy in Cairo, Henry McMahon. In in a 24 October letter he told Husayn the British government would support postwar Arab independence with some reservations relevant to the interests of France in the region and territories that were not entirely Arab. He described the areas “not entirely Arab” rather vaguely as the “districts of Mersin and Alexandretta, and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo.” Husayn took that to mean that Palestine would be part of his independent kingdom, a claim that Arab spokesmen have repeatedly asserted since then. On the strength of that understanding Husayn launched the “Arab revolt” in June 1916, and in October, declared himself “King of the Arabs.”
Sykes-Picot Deal: However, even as McMahon was promising independence to the Arabs another British diplomat, Mark Sykes, was negotiating with Georges Picot, the French consul in Beirut, on how their countries and Russia should share Ottoman territories after the war. They agreed that Britain would get southern Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, a coastal area now part of Saudi Arabia, and Haifa in what is now northern Israel; France would get Armenia, Syria, Lebanon, parts of Turkey, and northern Iraq; and Russia would get Constantinople, the Bosporus Strait, and most of four Turkish provinces along its border.
The British wanted control of Palestine, but as France considered it part of Syria, they agreed to make it an international “condominium.” As historian Kamal Salibi noted in A House of Many Mansions (I. B. Taurius, 1988), the Allies felt no need to consult the Arab population of the Ottoman provinces, for unlike Europe, there were no strong nationalist fissures: they “set out to reorganize them into states, redrawing the political map of the Arab world in the manner which they thought suited them best.”
The United States chose not to participate in the British-French deal. As Michael J. Cohen noted in The Origins and Evolution of the Arab-Zionist Conflict (University of California Press, 1987), it “abdicated any further role in the new European order after the summer of 1919. … In April 1920, in the small Italian town of San Remo, Britain and France divided the Middle East into mandates while the American ambassador read his newspaper in the garden.”
A Homeland for the Jews: While the Husayn and Sykes-Picot talks were in progress, British diplomats were entertaining yet another claim, that of the Zionist movement for a Jewish State in Palestine. Zionism was the brainchild of Theodore Herzl (1860-1904), the author of Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), published in Vienna in l896, and convener of the first Zionist Congress the next year in Basle, Switzerland. The idea of escape from the harsh and varied oppressions of Europe to a long-lost but unquestionable homeland of the Jews proved widely popular. However, there was a strong body of dissent: many affluent and assimilated Jews of Western Europe saw that it would give rise to accusations of divided loyalty. However, the Zionist enthusiasm in the poor Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and Russia did find wealthy backers, among them the Rothschild family in London. They were financiers with global reach, and had done the British State considerable service. Most notably the Rothschilds had arranged for the gold to pay Wellington’s army at the Battle of Waterloo and lent £4 million at short notice and without surety so that Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli could snap up the shares of the Suez Canal Company when the insolvent Khedive of Egypt put them up for sale.
Gratitude from the British State came in the form of a confidential one-page letter that British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour sent by messenger to Walter Rothschild in nearby Piccadilly on 2 November 1917. It said: “Dear Lord Rothschild, I have much pleasure in conveying to you on behalf of His Majesty's Government the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations, which has been submitted to and approved by the Cabinet: ‘His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’ I should be grateful if you would bring this Declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.” That ambiguous letter contained an important caveat about the rights of non-Jewish communities, and promised only a “national home,” not a State; but the Zionists considered their cause well served.
Perfidious Albion: Even after the new Soviet Union exposed the Sykes-Picot Pact and the complaints of the Arabs made clear the extent of British perfidy, the fact that the world’s most powerful government had stepped into their corner was cause for Zionist celebration. They were right, for when the League of Nations awarded the “Mandate” for Palestine to the British in 1922 it made no mention of the need to promote the welfare of the people of the territory. The Mandate resolution also made a very substantial change in the promise of the Balfour Declaration. It did not repeat the wording of the pledge “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Instead, it said, “while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced, [the Mandatory Power] shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage, in co-operation with the Jewish agency referred to in Article 4, settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes.” Such immigration would have been impossible under the language of the Balfour Declaration.
Changing Demographics: In the two decades that followed, Jewish immigration into Palestine accelerated enormously. Britain tamped down on it only after the need for Arab oil and the Second World War rebalanced the relative weights of Jewish and Arab influence in London: there was no danger of Jewish support for Nazi Germany but an Arab swing in that direction would have been disastrous. By then the demographics of the territory had changed significantly, and it has continued to do so ever since. At the beginning of the First World War in 1915, the Jewish population of Palestine was an estimated 55,000, as against an Arab population of over 600,000. In 1948, the Jewish population of the new State of Israel was 806,000. In 2018, Israel had a Jewish population of approximately 6.25 million, and an Arab population of some 1.6 million.
The United Nations Conciliation Commission estimated the number of Palestinian refugees displaced from Israel in 1948 at 726,000; the UN Relief and Works Agency raised that figure subsequently to 957,000 in 1950. In the wake of the 1967 war, another 300,000 Palestinians fled from the West Bank and Gaza, to Jordan (200,000), Syria, Egypt and elsewhere. Some 180,000 of those were first-time refugees, while the rest were 1948 refugees uprooted for the second time.
Creating the West Bank Issue
Faced with increasing violence in Palestine after the war, Britain announced unilaterally that its mandate in Palestine would end on May 14, 1946, and in a final curve ball, separated Transjordan from Palestine and attached it to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. In doing that it laid the groundwork for the current struggle over the West Bank; if Transjordan had remained part of Palestine, it is likely that the United Nations, when it divided the territory in November 1947, would have run the Israeli border along the Jordan River. As it turned out, when the General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state, with Jerusalem under UN trusteeship, it had no choice but to run the Israeli border on the West Bank, creating a strategic nightmare for the country’s defenders.
When Israel declared independence on 14 May 1948, the armies of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt attacked it. The Arab forces were vastly larger than the Israeli force of 25,000, but were without the skills, equipment or leadership to drive home the numerical advantage. The Israeli army had at its core the battle-tested Jewish Brigade of the British Army that Winston Churchill had authorized early in the war. Supporting it were paramilitary and terrorist units that had fought Arabs before the outbreak of war, as well as thousands of Jewish soldiers freshly demobilized from European and North American armies. They were well equipped with surplus military hardware, including artillery and aircraft. When a cease-fire went into effect, the borders of Israel defined by the United Nations remained intact. By the end of 1948, Israeli forces numbering some 80,000 had clear military superiority, cemented further with the development of nuclear weapons in the 1970s (with the assistance of France, according to the Federation of American Scientists).
Things did not go well for Arabs in any of the other ex-Ottoman territories. Husayn never became the “King of the Arabs,” but his three sons, Ali, Faisal and Abdallah, received pieces of Ottoman territory to rule under British and French supervision.
In the French administrated areas (often referred to as “the Levant”), Syria did not gain independence until 1946, when France, weakened by war, finally abandoned its attempts at control. By then it had accommodated the interests of the Maronite Christian community by separating Lebanon from Syria, creating the tensions that resulted in the Muslim-Christian troubles that continue to this day. Over the course of the 20th century Iraq and Syria went from being puppet kingdoms to minority clan-dominated tyrannies under separate wings of the Ba’ath party.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union gained a Mediterranean base in Syria, a power factor that since 2012 has allowed the regime of Bashir al Assad to withstand American pressure for democratic reform. Both Iraq and Syria were officially Nonaligned during the Cold War, and after it ended each played a role in the further evolution of “Islamic extremism.” Syria’s role was small but significant: it became a supporter of the Shi’ah resistance to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 1982, and thus a co-patron with Iran of Hezbollah, the Party of God (see below). Iraq’s role was much bigger; in fact, it ushered in the post-Cold War world.
To understand how Iraq came to play such a role we have to look at the subtext of Saddam Hussein’s career, the salient details of which UPI summed up in a story out of Washington in April 2003 (as a US-led occupation force in Iraq was looking for the deposed President). Based on interviews with “almost a dozen former US diplomats, British scholars and former US intelligence officials” UPI reported that as a 22-year old in 1959, Saddam had been part of a six-man CIA-authorized squad sent to kill Iraqi prime minister General Abd al-Karim Qasim, who had begun to display marked pro Soviet tendencies. The job was “completely botched.” Saddam lost his nerve and fired too soon, killing Qasim’s driver and only wounding Qasim. Meanwhile, he was himself wounded in the leg by a fellow would-be assassin.
An Iraqi dentist who was Saddam’s handler helped him escape to Beirut, where the CIA paid for his apartment and put him through a brief training course, then helped him get to Cairo. The CIA Station Chief in Cairo Jim Eichelberger and specialist Miles Copeland knew him as a frequent visitor to the US Embassy. Roger Morris, a former National Security Council staffer in the 1970s, was one of the named sources in the UPI story; he confirmed the CIA’s close ties with the Baath Party, of which Saddam became head of intelligence.
After Qasim was killed in a Baath party coup, the CIA provided “machine-gun toting” Iraqi National Guardsmen with lists of suspected communists. Saddam presided over their killing during a party meeting convened at Qasr al-Nehayat, literally, the Palace of the End. Television footage of the meeting shows men being identified and led out for summary execution. After becoming President in 1979, Saddam maintained close ties with the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency. A former Agency official told UPI that during the war with Iran, the CIA regularly provided the Iraqis with battlefield intelligence. Against that background, it is easy to see why Saddam Hussein was aggrieved at what happened after the war.
When the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988, Saddam Hussein’s attitude was that Washington and the other Arab countries in the region owed him for services rendered. However, with the Cold War winding down, Washington did not seem particularly grateful. On the contrary, it encouraged Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates to ignore production quotas set by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and depress the price of oil, reducing Iraq’s revenues at a time when it faced huge reconstruction costs. Efforts to resolve the situation by negotiations got nowhere, so Saddam massed troops on Iraq’s undemarcated border with Kuwait and summoned the American ambassador in Baghdad.
Ambassador April Glaspie, a career diplomat, met with him on 25 July 1990. According to a cable from the US embassy in Baghdad to the National Security Council in Washington, Saddam began the two-hour meeting with a long exposition on the difficulties Iraq had faced in its war with Iran, its hopes of friendship with the United States and concerns that certain circles in the American government were causing problems. After Irangate, he said, suspicions had been raised that the United States “was not happy to see the war end.” Expressing bitterness at American encouragement of Kuwait and the UAE to reduce oil prices, he said that was “economic warfare” which publicly humiliated Iraq; he would have to respond, however “illogical and self-destructive that would prove.”
At that point Saddam broke off the conversation to take a call from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and returned with the news that the Kuwaitis had agreed to a meeting. He assured Glaspie that “nothing will happen during or after the meeting if the Kuwaitis will at last ‘give us some hope’.” The Kuwaitis had told Mubarak that Iraq had advanced 20 miles in front of the “line of patrol” agreed to in 1961; that was not true, for Kuwait had built its oil installations right up to the line of patrol.
In responding to Saddam, Glaspie said that President Bush (the senior) wanted friendship with Iraq, and had “instructed her to broaden and deepen our relations.” According to a partial transcript released by Baghdad, Glaspie said that the United States had “no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” Secretary of State James Baker had directed “official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction” she said. “We hope you can solve this problem using any suitable methods via Klibi or via President Mubarak. All that we hope is that these issues are solved quickly.
To Glaspie’s query about Iraq’s intentions in massing its troops on the Kuwaiti border, there was a foggy reply. Saddam would “assure the Kuwaitis and give them our word that we are not going to do anything until we meet with them. When we meet and when we see that there is hope, then nothing will happen. But if we are unable to find a solution, then it will be natural that Iraq will not accept death, even though wisdom is above everything else.”
As it turned out, wisdom did not prevail. Eight days later, on 2 August 1990, Iraqi troops occupied all of Kuwait. The UN Security Council immediately condemned the action, and in the following weeks, imposed economic sanctions, set a deadline for Iraqi withdrawal, and then authorized the use of armed force to liberate Kuwait. In January 1991 a predominantly United States force (with token representation of other UN members) drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait and annihilated much of it as it fled through the desert. At the time, the swift action by the Security Council was seen as a reflection of the new post Cold War collegiality among the permanent members of the Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States), but in reality it pointed to a new freedom of action for the only remaining Super Power. The United States did not need proxies like Saddam, and it could act without considering the strategic interests of any other major Power; it could control the oil rich Middle East directly. However, Washington did not account for unintended consequences, namely, the negative reaction in Saudi Arabia, its most important Arab ally.
Sowing Dragon’s Teeth
Operation Desert Storm that liberated Kuwait involved building up a substantial US military presence in Saudi Arabia. After it was over, some 5,000 US troops stayed on in the kingdom, ostensibly to protect against unforeseen circumstances as the UN Security Council set about disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and its longer-range missiles. Although the Saudi government had acquiesced to the posting of the troops, their presence did not sit well with a section of the country’s elite, which included multi-millionaire Osama bin Laden. His family had battened on US business connections for decades, and Osama himself had been an active collaborator in the US-backed fight against the 1979-1988 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, but he was reportedly so angered by the American military presence in Saudi Arabia that he went into exile and declared a jihad on the United States.
Al-Qaeda (the origins of which have already been noted), bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, the USS Cole in October 2000, and the World Trade Center in September 2001. Once again, “extremist Islam” had sprung from dragon’s teeth sown by the West. The pattern was repeated after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States: Saddam Hussein was deposed and killed, but it set off a boom in terrorism within the country and in the region.
A similar phenomenon occurred in Lebanon in 1982 when Israel invaded and occupied southern Lebanon. The Israelis went in to displace PLO combatants who had been conducting attacks across the border, but the Shi’ah resistance led to the formation of Hezbollah (the Party of God), in 1985. From its inception Hezbollah echoed Iran’s call for the elimination of Israel, which it saw, in the words of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, as “an illegal usurper entity … based on falsehood, massacres, and illusions.” Hezbollah viewed the “disappearance of Israel” as the precondition for Middle East peace.
Israel ended its long and troubled occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, leaving behind a situation worse than the one it faced in 1982: Hezbollah was in a much stronger position than PLO combatants had ever been; they were dug in, well supplied, and supported by the local Shia population, Syria and Iran. Despite the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah continued cross-border attacks on the rather tenuous grounds that the Shaaba farms, an area claimed by both Syria and Lebanon, was still under Israeli occupation. One such attack by Hezbollah in July 2006 set off a major Israeli response that involved the bombing of Beirut and the penetration of its troops deep into Lebanese territory. However, unlike 1982, when such action led to the expulsion of PLO combatants from Lebanon, Hezbollah forces continued in place and retained their capacity to continue rocket attacks.
Israel and the Arab States
The last century has been a period of hard-won political success for Israel and repeated disasters and humiliations for the Arab States. In the Arab world, this has created an atmosphere of inchoate bitterness, anger and growing violence. Instead of coolly calculated and strategic policy aimed at protecting their own security, resources, and welfare, the reactions of Arab countries to the challenge posed by Israel has consisted largely of terrorism, war, appeals for support from the global Muslim ummah, and calls for intervention by the “world community.” This has continued long after it has become obvious that every act of terrorism, whether directed at Israel or other countries seen as its supporters, has been counterproductive, inviting retaliation on helpless Arab populations and opening the region up to more foreign manipulation. The ummah has served largely as a Greek chorus to unfolding tragedy; the “world community” has, through the United Nations, provided humanitarian aid and counsel, but little more.
The poverty of the Arab political responses in the Middle East does not reflect inherent lack of capacity: it has been arranged with violence and corruption. The basic use of "extremist Islam" is to mask a manipulation that turns Islam’s passionate followers into their own people's worst enemies. Consequently, progressive leaders had no chance to emerge during the region's passage from centuries of Ottoman rule into the subversive “trusteeship” of Britain and France, and then into the thuggish client state system of the Cold War. The growth of the secretive and violent Muslim Brotherhood under British and Nazi tutelage, the spread of Wahhabism with its nihilistic and reactionary message; and above all, the predominance of leaders unconcerned about the welfare of their people, have all shaped a region coherent and focused only in its hatred of Israel.
More than a full century after Arab and Jewish nationalisms began to collide in the Middle East, one of the wealthiest regions of the world remains one of the most politically backward. With leaders obsessed with the need for violent domination, the region continues to hemorrhage both blood and oil for the benefit of its exploiters. The vision of a free and renascent Arabia and the dream of Israel as a land where Jews could be sheltered and at peace remain distant hopes.
The Continuing British Role
Analyses of the situation in the Middle East have been extremely polarized and strident, representing for the most part, statements of politically incompatible viewpoints. What no analyst points out is the continuing British role as money launderer to the rich and corrupt. The general perception that London and Washington are on the same page in the Middle East is one of the large political fallacies that cloud the region’s realities. Britain’s considerable clout reflects the extent to which the regional elites it raised to power in the 20th Century are invested in the global underground economy and London’s unparalleled capacity for devious maneuver.
The United Nations has done little more than note national positions in its own analyses. Its only effort to deal frankly with some of the major regional issues consisted of four regionally focused studies issued between 2002 and 2005 as ancillaries to the Human Development Report. But their frankness had significant shortcomings: they consistently ignored the responsibility of powerful countries outside the region in propping up reactionary and violent regimes that stand in the way of progress.
Efforts to find the Holy Grail of negotiated peace continue to sputter off and on without making the least dent in the dense hatreds of the region. The American role as the primary peacemaker (because of its strong ties to Israel and Saudi Arabia), has suffered from a fundamental conflict of interest until the last few years when shale oil has enabled it to countenance Mid-East political disruptions with equanimity. The “Arab Spring” was the first indication of the new reality. It has been followed in 2017 by the declaration of the "Indo-Pacific" strategy, that has brought a dramatic new reality to Saudi Arabia. However, the British political class has not been passive about the loss to its interests brought about by the impoverishment of a host of client Saudi princes. It would be wise to expect continuing violent power plays; if those do not succeed, we can look forward to the decline of the the extremely subversive and largely unexamined British role in the region.
Muammar Gaddafi, MI-6 and BP
Stark evidence of the venomous British role surfaced after the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2012, when Human Rights Watch beat MI-6 to a trove of secret documents in Tripoli. The documents revealed, as The Guardian in Britain reported, that MI-6 had “rolled the pitch for Tony Blair's bizarre 2004 hug-in” with the fallen dictator by arranging for the kidnapping of exiled opposition leader Abdul Hakim Belhaj. “He was seized in Bangkok, where he and his wife were en route to Britain” The Guardian said. “It's been suggested they were “rendered” via the British colony of Diego Garcia to Tajoura jail in Tripoli. Belhaj spent six years and his wife four-and-a-half months at the tender mercies of Gaddafi 's security boss, Moussa Koussa. Belhaj's pregnant wife was taped like a mummy on a stretcher, and he was systematically tortured.”
The “gift” of Moussa came with “a covering letter from MI-6's Mark Allen, offering Koussa congratulations on 'the safe arrival' of the 'air cargo'.” That “was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years.” The story noted that, “Within two weeks Gaddafi was welcoming a fawning Blair in his famous desert tent and announcing that he would abjure terrorism and set aside his 'planned' weapons of mass destruction.” The deal involved more than the delivery of Belhaj to the torture chamber; Gaddafi also welcomed “British Petroleum's Lord Browne, accompanied by Allen, who switched with full ministerial approval from being an MI-6 officer to a £200,000 special adviser to BP.”
Three years later, Allen reportedly pressed his old boss Jack Straw, “to release Libya's Lockerbie bomber.” Allen was also a senior adviser to “Monitor consultancy, which helped boost Gaddafi’s world image,” and he sat on the Board of the London School of Economics where one of the dictator's sons got a much publicized PhD. “The new Chairman of BP was none other than Sir Peter Sutherland, also chairman of the LSE.”
Those who want to change the bloody realities of the Middle East should note the seamless relationship between BP, MI-6, the LSE and Britain’s political leadership. They are but different faces of a formidable power elite driven by greed and operating without complete lack of moral scruple.
Trump, Hilary Clinton and MI-6
To understand what happened in American politics during the last years of the Obama administration it is necessary to see it as the result of Britain's response to the losses it incurred from the Arab Spring, especially in Libya. A working hypothesis would rest on the following assumptions:
Lawrence: I’m to “assess the situation.”
Brighton: Hmph! Well that won’t be too difficult. The situation's bloody awful.
– Lawrence of Arabia (movie)