Superpowers cold-shouldered

The Cold War and the Middle East
May 15, 1998

The cold war dominated world politics during more than four decades following the second world war. The United States and the Soviet Union, the dominant powers after the war, sought to impress each other with their military might, technological advance and political principles to deter each other from pursuing world dominance.

The Middle East, on account of its strategic importance and oil resources has been the object of US-Soviet rivalry and the states of this region were courted by the superpowers which sought to lure them to join their blocs.

Studies on the relationship between the superpowers and local powers in the Middle East have tended, so far, to adopt an "outside in" approach - focusing primarily on the decisive role played by the external powers, while at the same time, playing down the role of local powers which, quite often, were portrayed as having little influence over the great powers and no real control over their own destiny.

The main idea in The Cold War and the Middle East, which is so stimulating though controversial, is for the contributors, all of whom are leading scholars in international relations and Middle Eastern affairs, to concentrate on the local powers and offer an "inside out" view of Middle Eastern politics during the cold war years. The verdict is that the impact of the cold war was "less important in explaining the politics of the Middle East than we have previously been led to believe" and that the "primary impulse for the behaviour of the actors was internal and the cold war was only a secondary factor".

Was it? Take for example the 1967 war, perhaps one of the greatest watersheds in the history of the region. New evidence shows that the spark leading to this short but decisive confrontation was cold-blooded cold war politics. On May 13 1967 the Soviets began spreading rumours that Israel was about to strike at Syria.

It is now widely acknowledged that the Israelis did not mobilise and that the Soviet information was false, intended to stir things up in the Middle East and spark an all-out Arab-Israeli confrontation. In an exclusive interview given a few months ago and published for the first time in The Fifty Years War, Evgeny Pyrlin, head of the Egyptian department in the Soviet foreign ministry when the false Soviet report was released, explained: "We (the Soviets) believed that even if the war was not won by our (Arab) side a war would be to our political advantage." This point becomes clearer in a secret document, also published for the first time, in which a CIA agent reports of his meeting with a KGB agent who explained that: "The USSR (by releasing its false report of Israeli concentration of forces) wanted to create another trouble spot for the US in addition to that already in Vietnam." The rest of the story is well known: the false Soviet report, as Egyptian minister of war Shams el-Din Badran testified, "escalated everything and we became obliged to move the troops to Sinai (to distract the Israelis from attacking the Syrians)". Soon it all got out of hand.

The role of the US in bringing the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement is also under fire in The Cold War and the Middle East. It is claimed that President Anwar Sadat was geared towards peace with Israel and so was Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and therefore, so it is argued, the "naive" President Jimmy Carter had very little to do.

But this argument does not hold water, for while it is true that the ground was well prepared for an Egyptian-Israeli deal, it still needed a USpresident willing to risk his re-election by bringing together the two incompatible leaders Sadat and Begin. And it needed a lot of imagination and creativity to isolate the leaders from the rest of the world in Camp David (Rosalyn Carter's idea), cajole them, threaten them, beg them, bribe them, even block the door physically, as did Carter when Begin and Sadat tried to storm out of the room to leave Camp David.

While willingness and recognition by the local powers of the need to make peace is an important first step towards peace, it is still not enough and the role of a reliable superpower was in the 1970s, as now, crucial.

Similarly unacceptable is the argument that there is not "a single example of the mighty superpower successfully twisting the arm of its small ally". The fact is that the 1991 Madrid Conference, the biggest breakthrough after Camp David, was possible as a result of the 1991 war in the Gulf which boosted the prestige of the US and enabled James Baker, secretary of state in the Bush administration and an extraordinary arm-twister, to bring the parties together. Unable to persuade the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to attend a peace conference, Baker concentrated on President Assad of Syria, playing him against Shamir. "If you accept the American initiative (and come to a peace conference in Madrid)", said Baker to Assad, "then the whole world will stand by Syria and will blame Israel." When Assad said "Yes" Baker went back to Shamir, who, not wanting to appear to be less interested in peace than a Syrian president, agreed to go to Madrid.

If this is not diplomatic arm-twisting then what is?

And this brings us to the story of Oslo. Again it is claimed that the remaining superpower, the US, played only a minor role. True, the US was hardly involved in the negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians in Oslo, but it was up to Washington to accept or reject the deal. When six years earlier secretary of state George Shultz rejected a deal between the Israeli foreign minister and King Hussein of Jordan to convene an international conference ("The London Agreement" April 1987) the agreement collapsed. And all it takes is to read Shimon Peres's memoirs and talk to the people who joined him in a tiny business aircraft to Point Magu to inform Warren Christopher of the Oslo deal to get US approval, to realise that even in the post-cold war era, the remaining superpower - the US - is still holding the cards to war and peace in the Middle East.

This is not to say that politics in the region is made in the Oval Office or the Kremlin, but that the story of superpower/local power relationships in the Middle East is too complex to be analysed from one point of view.

Criticism aside, here is a collection of highly informative articles by leading experts who adopt an unusual, refreshing though highly controversial approach.

Ahron Bregman is the co-author of The Fifty Years War: Israel and the Arabs.

The Cold War and the Middle East

Editor - Yezid Sayigh and Avi Shlaim
ISBN - 0 19 829099 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 303

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