George Ball on the Middle East

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the situation seemed urgent. American representatives had shown King Fahd and his Saudi advisers communications intercepts which indicated that Iraq might he intending to continue its predatory sweep to the Saudi oil fields. Since the Saudis by themselves would not be able to stop them, the King reluctantly decided to invite American help. That help was provided, but initially with only a limited objective: to protect Saudi Arabia and avoid what could become a dangerous monopoly of the world’s oil resources.

As the situation evolved in further discussions at the UN Security Council, the objective of intervention was gradually reformulated. No longer was it a question simply of defending the Saudis. The crass lexicon of power politics gave way to a more abstract and thus nobler level of justification: the need now was to halt ‘aggression’ as that term is employed in the United Nations Charter. This new purpose found expression in 12 far-reaching resolutions which the Security Council adopted in the following few weeks. The first confirmed that Iraq’s move against Kuwait had indeed constituted an ‘aggression’ – a finding which made available the enforcement machinery outlined in Chapter Seven of the UN Charter. As a first step in activating that machinery, the Council authorised a trade and financial embargo against Iraq.

Anxious to build emotional support for his policies, the President undertook to demonise Saddam Hussein, while also personalising the conflict to such an extent that it looked like a slanging match between a cartoon figure named Saddam and another named Bush. At the same time Secretary of State Baker, with his instinctive concern for domestic political approval, publicly stated that the purpose of American intervention was simply ‘jobs’.

Mindful of the need to persuade the voters to support the huge troop deployments he apparently already had in mind, the President seemed to feel it essential to generate in them a virulent hatred of the opposition. That effort led many thoughtful Americans to question whether a democracy could ever conduct a limited war. If it was necessary to indulge in hyperbolic denunciations so as to get the people to fight, a leader, carried away by his own rhetoric, might easily end up going far beyond his original objectives in order to justify his vituperation. Sure enough, it soon appeared from what Bush was implying that America dared not content itself with anything other than the death of Saddam Hussein, or at least his removal from power. That inspired a futile and demeaning press discussion as to whether the Government ought to modify its settled policy forbidding the assassination of other nations’ leaders.

Although passionate fulmination is the enemy of legality, it was finally called to the President’s attention that all the Security Council had authorised was the enforcement of its resolutions: for the Council to sanction any action to change the Iraqi leadership would represent interference in internal affairs of a kind firmly excluded by the Charter. At the same time the reaction to the President’s demagogic statements was so adverse that he hastened to restore the case for America’s involvement to a higher plane by reverting to the vital need to halt ‘aggression’.

Despite this new higher tone, the issue of oil continued to intrude in the public discussion. Although oil was something all Americans could understand, its significance as an issue ultimately depended on the prejudices of the individual interpreter. On the one hand, oil gave a grubby reality to America’s decisions; on the other, it detracted from the purity of the American intention.

Questions of motivation apart, the events that led to the war were unambiguous. To enforce the trade and financial embargo, the Bush Administration organised a formidable coalition of both Arab and Western powers. Many hoped – and even assumed – that the President would thereafter try one by one to exhaust the whole list of non-violent measures set out in the United Nations Charter before resorting to military force. They also assumed that when he promised to move the nations to ‘a new world order’ he intended to use the UN machinery to shape his grand design.

Rumblings from the White House soon revealed a shift towards unilateralism. By November, the President began to express doubts that an economic embargo alone would secure full compliance with the Council’s resolutions. Instead, he implied, the Coalition should back its economic enforcement efforts with the threat of military intervention, and his actions made it clear that he considered a visible deployment of military might essential to give credibility to that threat. As soon as the Security Council authorised its members to use ‘all necessary means’ to achieve the enforcement of its resolutions, he ordered a doubling of America’s already huge deployment. This immediately complicated the issue. In the view of military leaders, a deployment of roughly half a million men and women rendered the system of rotating military personnel impracticable. Yet to retain such a huge complement of men and women under desert conditions for the indefinite period required to test the full efficiency of economic sanctions would, they felt, impose too much hardship. Since the feasibility of alternative strategies has now been made moot by the rapid conclusion of the war, that contentious issue can be left for future scholars. Yet victory need not preclude an honestly-faced regret that the experts were denied the chance to test the effectiveness of enforcement measures in a situation almost ideally designed for their use.

Similarly, the fact that the strategy finally adopted largely achieved its purpose should not discourage us from reflecting on the consequences of America’s national impatience, which prevented us from testing the potential of Article 43 of the Charter. This provides for the creation of a true United Nations force flying the blue flag and operating through an international chain of command. By failing to avail ourselves of that provision we created at least the appearance of a Pax Americana, since it was the United States rather than the Security Council which took the key decisions.

Is the United States equipped to serve as the policeman or nanny of the world as the notion of a Pax Americana implies? In the Middle East especially, it does not have a free hand to shape policies of its own. It has become politically encircled by Israel, and as a result of powerful pressures from Jewish-American organisations (supported by non-Jewish evangelical Zionists) obediently follows policies made in Jerusalem. The United States both lavishes financial subsidies on Israel and dutifully fights off any censure of the political offences with which Israel might be charged in international bodies such as the UN. For example, of the 69 vetoes that America, as a permanent member of the Security Council, has ever cast, 29 have been designed to block resolutions that might even obliquely have challenged some action of Israel’s – and on each of these 29 occasions the United States has acted on its own.

The central and most emotionally-charged issue in Israel’s dispute with the Arabs is the ‘Palestinian problem’ – the consequence of Israel’s efforts to absorb the West Bank and Gaza Strip, overrun by its army in the Six-Day War of 1967. Although the American press has assiduously distinguished the Israeli seizure of those lands from Iraq’s recent annexing of Kuwait, on the grounds that the Israeli seizure was merely an episode in a defensive war for its national existence, it is a distinction supported only by myth. Though the war was primarily fought against Egypt, experts seriously question whether Nasser would in fact have begun it at a time when he had 75,000 of his best forces embroiled in a fight between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In any event, former Prime Minister Menachem Begin would seem to have put an end to the myth when he stated that the Six-Day War was not a ‘war of survival’ but a ‘war of choice ... Nasser did not attack us: we attacked him.’

There would seem to be no doubt therefore that under the United Nations Charter Israel should return those territories to the Palestinians, and that was the view which the Security Council expressed in Resolution 242 in 1968. Unfortunately, the Israelis managed to get Resolution 242 worded in such a vague way that they have been able ever since to claim either that it did not apply to them or that they had already complied with it when they ceded a few thousand square miles of sand to Egypt in the Camp David Accords.

Still, the West Bank and Gaza Strip today contain more than a million and a half Palestinians who, under international law and the rules of the United Nations, are clearly entitled to create their own national state, just as Israel was permitted to do. Unhappily they have been persistently denied this right; and the Israeli Army continues to manage their lives under quite outrageous conditions. Palestinian residents have frequently been kept in what amounts to house arrest, their schools and universities have periodically been shut down (the universities have been closed for three years), and the Army has deported any Arab leaders who showed promise of leadership.

Finally, in violation of the Geneva Conventions, the Israelis have slowly but insidiously tried to establish squatters’ rights (which they coyly refer to as ‘new facts’) by installing Israeli settlers in both the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip. By 1988 they had taken over more than 53 per cent of the land area and 93 per cent of the water supply of the West Bank. In Gaza they had pre-empted one-third of the land and 80 per cent of the water for the exclusive use of 2500 Israeli settlers at the expense of 600,000 Palestinians.

Given America’s long and largely futile concern with this festering conflict. Mr Bush probably spoke with conviction when, in his 6 March speech to Congress, he asserted that peace between Israel and the Arabs must be

grounded in United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of territory for peace. This principle must be elaborated to provide for Israel’s security and recognition, and at the same time for legitimate Palestinians political rights. Anything else would fail the twin tests of fairness and security. The time has come to put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. I guarantee you.

‘No one.’ he added, ‘will work harder for a stable peace in the region than we will.’ These words, spoken by a President whose domestic political approval was as high as any President’s had ever been, seemed especially significant because, in referring to Resolution 242 and its principle of exchanging territory for peace, the President was directly rebuking Prime Minister Shamir and those members of his Government who were re-stating what they had already repeatedly said: that Israel would never yield a single square foot of the occupied areas, and that faced with a choice between continued war and giving up those areas for peace, they would prefer war.

Any informed prediction as to the outcome of President Bush’s promise must necessarily be pessimistic. If, as Lloyd George charged in 1909, the House of Lords was ‘Mr Balfour’s Poodle’, the American Congress is today Israel’s spaniel. I doubt that any progress will ever be made unless the Security Council arranges some form of international conference in which the views of the Soviet Union and other members of the Council can he made effective.

What is now clear beyond any doubt is that America lacks the political will to handle the problem by itself. Equally clear is the fact that the United States is very far from having all the potential instruments of pressure in its control. It is notable, for example, that Israel depends for far more of its export earnings on trade with the European Community nations than with the United States. Moreover, in 1989, while the United States did no more than talk piously about the need for Israel to re-open the secondary schools in the West Bank, the European Community took direct action, cutting off Israeli trade in several key areas until the schools were re-opened.

Another reason not to accept the President’s optimistic promises at face value is that similar promises have been made many times in the past with no appreciable result. On the other hand, there have been a number of critical changes in the last year and a half, and we would do well to ask ourselves to what extent the prospects for peace have been affected by the rough coincidence of three recent events: the successful conclusion of the Gulf War, the precarious end of the Cold War and the influx of a million Soviet Jews into Israel.

The first has had little effect on Israeli thinking: although the provision of antimissile missiles unquestionably saved Israel from substantial loss of life and property damage, it did nothing to induce its government to approach peace with greater flexibility. Events in the Gulf have, however, given the Arabs much to reconsider. Among other things, it effectively destroyed the seductive myth of ‘Arabism’ or the ‘Arab nation’ which Nasser had promoted primarily in order to justify his desire to appeal to the Arab peoples over the heads of their governments.

Although most of the Arab governments – often against the views of a majority of their citizens – gave support to the Coalition, Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and Kuwait lent their vocal approval to Saddam Hussein. In letting passion overcome their political acumen, the Palestinians suffered a self-inflicted wound. They incurred the wrath not only of the West but of other Arabs as well. The Palestinians in Jordan suffered particularly: the incensed Saudis cut off Jordan’s oil allowance, and the United States Congress voted to halt America’s subsidy to Jordan. Such reactions seem more vengeful than reasoned, for Jordan had suffered the most of any non-combatant state. Lying between the Red Sea and Iraq, it not only had to enforce the embargo but was almost overwhelmed by the influx of tens of thousands of poverty-stricken refugees of various Arab nationalities – oil-field workers regurgitated by Kuwait and Iraq. The penalties for the Palestinians’ heterodoxy with regard to the war were heavy, and are continuing in the post-war frenzy. In Kuwait, a number of self-appointed Colonel Passys are systematically slaughtering alleged collaborators.

In the excitement of victory, no one in America or Europe has even tried to understand why Jordan and the Palestinians opted for Saddam Hussein. Yet, without condoning their folly, some effort should be made to understand the state of mind which produced it. Because it is the conventional wisdom of the Middle East that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and Saddam Hussein was doing everything he could to establish himself as Israel’s most implacable enemy, the Palestinians could hardly help but be delighted when they saw Iraq attacking Israel with rockets. Having endured Israel’s bombing raids for years, they were not sorry to see the Israelis paid hack in their own coin. The Palestinian cries of support for Saddam Hussein were the conditioned reflex of a people who for a full generation have been deprived by Israel’s expansionism of any prospect of fulfilling their long-held dream of national independence.

Although momentarily slowed down by the Gulf War, the stream of immigrant Soviet Jews swelling the Israeli population is now resuming. In order to put a halt to the well-established practice among Soviet Jewish emigrants of leaving the Soviet Union with Israeli visas, then switching planes and emigrating to America, the Israelis have used their political muscle in Washington to put a quota on the number allowed into America. This not only disappointed the emigrants but deprived them of the lodging and employment which the United States could have easily provided, while at the same time depriving the American economy of the benefits of their high level of education and technical competence. Israel, on the other hand, has been hard-pressed to accommodate them without serious damage to both its job and its housing markets.

The American Government has taken a hard line on the settling of Soviet Jews in the West Bank, and as a condition of providing Israel with a $400 million loan guarantee for new housing, Bush required a letter from Prime Minister Shamir assuring him that Israel had no plan to build housing for Soviet Jews in the occupied territories. Nevertheless, the Israeli Government’s Housing Ministry, headed by General Sharon, has since issued a report recommending 2100 new housing units for that purpose.

The Middle East is today the most explosive area in the world largely because it harbours more than its share of corrosive discontents – intense and ancient passions, religious rivalries and a mounting wave of fundamentalism. The match that could set light to this flammable mix is the continued rapid flow of advanced weapons into a region which already has a stockpile of military equipment equal in quality and quantity to the totality of that assigned to Nato.

What drives the weapons competition is a perpetual motion machine created in 1967 by Lyndon Johnson when he assured Israel that the United States would at all times guarantee it an advantage in military equipment over any conceivable combination of its Arab neighbours. As might have been expected, that initiated an irreversible process. As soon as Israel receives a new weapon, its Arab neighbours hasten to obtain either improved versions of that weapon or effective defences against it, and there is no limit to the amount of weaponry the United States is prepared to provide free to Israel.

During the past two decades the Israeli lobby has assiduously sought to halt American arms sales to Arab nations or, when that hasn’t worked, effectively to nullify them by heaping restrictions on the use of the weapons. Although in the course of the war America promised Saudi Arabia that it would beef up its military competence by selling it sophisticated arms, it is once again having to face the pro-Israeli lobby, AIPAC. One might have thought that given the help provided by the Saudis in stopping the Iraqi advance, the Israelis would now take a generous line, yet AIPAC continues to play the same old recording. On 19 March, at a meeting called by AIPAC, and attended by just under half the members of the Senate, a lobbying agenda was approved which put special emphasis on blocking arms sales to Arab nations.

All of this puts the Bush Administration in the awkward position of talking out of both sides of its mouth. Though President Bush said on 6 March that ‘it would he tragic if a new arms race were to develop in the Persian Gulf,’ the Administration has made no attempt to conceal its hope that mounting arms exports will help to sustain the American weapon-makers as domestic military sales shrink with new budgetary cuts. Despite this, the Administration has so far proved unwilling to try to persuade Congress to buck the AIPAC lobby.

Still, there are compensations: if AIPAC’S action has seriously penalised the American munitions industry, it has greatly helped the British. The most famous instances of this were the two successive sales of Tornados to the Saudis, one in 1986, the other in 1988 – ‘the arms sale of the century’. The Saudi Government had first sought to buy F15s from the United States, but was forced to turn to Britain after the White House had made it clear that it would not engage in a bruising fight to overcome the opposition of the Israeli lobby: indeed, it even went so far as to provide Saudi Arabia with a letter stating that the Administration would not object if the Saudis chose to buy elsewhere.

No one should cherish any illusions that it will he easy to agree on formal arrangements to curtail arms sales to the Middle East. There is no reason to expect restraint from the purchasing nations: it is a task for the arms-producing countries. Yet the arms trade is so highly lucrative (though providing arms to Israel is highly expensive for the US Treasury) that there is little chance of bringing it under effective control unless the supplying governments all take a strong collective hand. Only when – or if – this happens, and existing arsenals have been cut down to reasonable size, will the Middle East be freed from conflict. The more likely development, however, is an intensification of the current arms race.

On this issue the United States is currently behaving with unseemly hypocrisy. Although it preaches restraint to other supplier nations, it is (if not blocked by AIPAC) at this very moment preparing to make huge Middle East arms transfers of its own. If the United States goes forward with filling all requests, why should the Soviet Union, the European Community or even Brazil or China not find a place in the queue?

In addition to curtailing the flow of conventional weapons into the Middle East, the West should put renewed impetus behind the whole idea of making the area a nuclear-free zone. That idea has been periodically mentioned by the governments of both Israel and Egypt, though we should not take Israel’s proposal too literally. To be sure, Israeli leaders are extremely eager to prevent any Arab neighbour from gaining a nuclear capability, as was clear when they bombed the Osirak reactor in Iraq, but they have not the slightest intention of giving up their own nuclear arsenal or even of acknowledging that they have one. Yet Israel is well-known to have worked for thirty years building nuclear weapons at its Dimona facility south of Jerusalem and is presumed to have produced a hundred or more deliverable weapons. On one point there can be no dispute: a nuclear-free zone can have real meaning only if there are no exceptions for favourite countries.

The situation in the Middle East is now more fluid than ever, and time is of the essence in reaching decisions on several critical problems. What, for example, should be done in the immediate future to assure some measure of stability in Iraq? What agency or nation will take the lead in helping to rebuild the country and to feed its people in the meantime? The answer to the first question is that Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia have already made moves towards undertaking the overall monitoring of Iraq pending a more permanent solution. If present resistance efforts continue, however, and there is a sustained civil conflict, more help will be required than fellow Arab countries can provide. Even so, America should proceed as fast as is prudent to remove the bulk of its troops.

The West should he careful not to encourage the fragmentation of Iraq, given that the country already contains the same kind of competing elements that have made Lebanon such a killing ground. The Kurds in the North have long wished for a nation of their own and the Shiite majority in the South has been increasingly bitter at domination by a dictator who is not merely a Sunni but a Baathist atheist. A further complicating factor is that the Shias are apparently receiving active help from the Iranian fundamentalists. Preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity (even with a weakened Saddam regime) seems a better solution than a group of religion-driven mini-states. But there is no clear role for America in solving that puzzle: the more it intrudes in Arab politics, the less influence it will have.

A wide range of issues remains to be considered and acted on. Though that task could best be undertaken by an international conference, Secretary Baker now states that the idea of such a conference should he discarded because the Israelis would not attend. America therefore opposes such a meeting. Perhaps the most pressing of the Middle East’s longer-term problems is the preservation of the environment and an equitable division of water resources. The financing of these and other necessary measures might he undertaken by creating a development bank, primarily funded by the Arab oil-producing nations.

Although I would like to end on a note of optimism, that would be quite dishonest. On each side domestic politics make effective action almost impossible. Yet the area is so riddled with injustices and discontents that it cannot be make tranquil by anything other than a comprehensive re-ordering. For that, I find no adequate political will in the Middle East or in any Western capital.

An epoch has ended. The Cold War is fading. The momentary explosion in the Gulf has been at least temporarily terminated. The Western powers have shown their ability to mobilise vast forces and act together at a time of crisis. So if we do not act now, God knows when we shall ever act. There is an old political axiom, as sound in politics as in gastronomy, that a soufflé can never be made to rise twice.