Tracking The Cold War's Legacy In The Middle East

Rashid Khalidi

Author of six books on the Middle East, Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said professor of Arab studies and director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. Alex Levac hide caption

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Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab studies and director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, has been called "the foremost U.S. historian of the modern Middle East" by the Los Angeles Times. He has also been vilified by detractors for being too pro-Palestinian. In his new book, Sowing Crisis, Khalidi looks to the Cold War for insights into current U.S. policy in the Middle East. The "icy tentacles" of the Cold War, Khalidi writes, "extended across the globe, with often devastating effects." And those effects, he says, are still playing out in the Middle East.

As important as post-Sept. 11 fear of terrorism has been in shaping the current American view of the Middle East, Khalidi argues that today's conflicts have their origin in the dynamics that played out between the U.S. and the Soviet Union as they vied for power in the region during the Cold War. Where terrorism is now the one-word rationale for intervention in the Middle East, communism was once the focus of our fears.

As the superpowers fought for dominance in the Middle East, the author argues, they exacerbated regional conflicts and hindered efforts at fostering democracy. Khalidi also examines the role that Arab nations have played in creating and continuing their own problems.

In its review of Sowing Crisis, Publisher's Weekly called it "an important book, essential for anyone concerned about the stability of the Middle East." But The New York Times said the book "often reads like a polemic rather than a work of history." Even so, the Times noted that President Obama might want to read this book, if for no other reason than to be reminded "how very hard it is to make progress in a region where memories are long, and practically everything is blamed on the U.S. (or Israel)."

Whether you agree with him or not, Khalidi, author of six books on the Middle East, is a compelling and distinctive voice, challenging the way we think about this important region.

This discussion of Sowing Crisis with Rashid Khalidi took place on March 5, 2009 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt: 'Sowing Crisis'

'Sowing Crisis'
Sowing Crisis
By Rashid Khalidi
Hardcover, 308 pages
Beacon Press
List price: $25.95

Preface

The Cold War and how it played out in the Middle East have fascinated me for many years. I began researching Soviet policy in the region in the mid-1970s, and soon afterward began teaching about Soviet and American Middle East policy at the American University of Beirut. Things looked quite different from the vantage point of Beirut than they appeared from either Moscow or Washington, or than they did in most of the scholarship on the Cold War. Being on the receiving end of the superpowers' policies and actions imparted to the latter an immediacy and vividness that they may not have otherwise had. At the same time, the realities of the regional situation looked quite different from a local perspective than they may have to superpower policymakers thousands of miles, and often a mental world, away. That was the germ of this book, the disjuncture between superpower and Middle Eastern perspectives, between the "metropolitan" and the "peripheral," and it is also in some ways its justification. In the pages that follow, I examine the superpowers' four-and-a-half-decade-long contest over and in the Middle East, not just in terms of their perspectives and the documents they generated, but of how they affected the region. This book does not purport to be a comprehensive, primary-source-based history of the Cold War in the Middle East, although I was fortunate in being able to rely on valuable archival material unearthed from the old Soviet archives by the Cold War History Project, and from the American archives by the National Security Archive. Based on this and other documentation, the work of other scholars, and earlier research of my own, this book is an extended essay that encompasses my reflections on the Cold War rivalry in the region as much as possible from a perspective different from that of Washington and Moscow, while always

—indeed, perhaps inevitably—trying to take their viewpoints into account.

Although I have been thinking about and researching aspects of this topic for over three decades, when I first began working on this project in earnest a little more than three years ago, it looked as if this period and the attitudes it engendered were a relic of the past. I had hoped that the old passions had cooled enough that I would be able to go beyond the defensive, partisan rhetoric that the Cold War produced on both sides, and that had found its way into much of the previous scholarship on the topic. As I worked on the book I did, however, see both the contemporary relevance of a study of the Cold War in the Middle East and parallels with the current situation. For example, the American-Iranian confrontation in the post–Cold War era resembled nothing so much as a regional version of the Cold War, with an exaggerated emphasis on terrorism taking the place of "international communism" as a bogey, and a "global war on terror" targeting an "axis of evil" standing in for a cold war against an "evil empire."

As I reflect on this topic today, in the waning months of 2008, that parallel may still be valid. Of course, much will depend on how the incoming American president decides to deal with Iran, and how Iran responds, and on whether the war on terror continues to be the centerpiece of the next administration's foreign and security policies, as it was of the Bush administration's. But the relevance of this book today is even greater and more immediate given the sudden upsurge of American-Russian tensions in the wake of the conflict in Georgia, and in light of the broader issue of NATO expansion into the former East bloc, and the stationing of American weapons systems immediately adjacent to the borders of Russia. Listening to voices in Washington and in Moscow after the standoff in Georgia, or to that of Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking immediately after a visit to Tbilisi in September 2008 about Russian actions as an "affront to civilized standards," it almost sounded as if the Cold War had never ended.

Although it appears from some of the current rhetoric that there are those who would like nothing more than to see the Cold War revived, the ideological thrust on both sides is certainly different today than it was at the height of the twentieth-century superpower confrontation. American critics of Russia speak of the extension of democracy rather than of capitalism and free markets, while Russians defending their country's actions speak in terms of protection of its great-power prerogatives and its security, not of the triumph of communism. So while some elements of American and Russian policy justifications have remained the same, others have clearly changed.

If the Cold War taught us anything, however, it was (or should have been) to look beneath these sorts of statements for other, deeper motivations. One underlying objective in the Middle East for both superpowers during the Cold War, as chapter 2 of this book shows, was access to oil. Another was achieving strategic advantage in this vital region. It is worth asking, as I do in the pages that follow, whether these and other similar motivations may not have been more important throughout the Cold War than they were credited with being at the time, while ideology was perhaps less important than most on both sides of the iron curtain then believed or claimed to believe. The fact that ideology does not explain everything is shown by the persistence of deep differences between Russia and the West over the expansion eastward of NATO to countries like the Baltic republics, the Ukraine, and Georgia. That these issues have arisen long after communism collapsed in eastern Europe, and Russia became a capitalist country awash with millionaires and billionaires, would seem at least in part to validate this line of argument.

And if access to energy resources and strategic positioning played a larger role than is sometimes realized in the Cold War, the American-Russian standoff over Georgia certainly appears to fit the same pattern. Georgia is the only route to the West for central Asia's rich oil and gas deposits which does not pass through Russia. It is a former part of the Soviet Union, and before that, of imperial Russia, and it is part of the sensitive southern belt around the Soviet Union that abuts on the Middle East and that was perceived in Moscow as crucial to Soviet security from World War II onward, as we shall see in the pages that follow. Moreover, just as the Middle East and adjacent regions have always been a crucial arena for the functioning of the international system before and during the Cold War, as I show in chapter 3, so has the Georgian crisis raised system-wide questions. Writing in Le Monde about Russia's recent "demonstration of force," columnist Daniel Vernet stated: "This is a matter of asserting [Russia's] place in the definition of a new world order. The post–Cold War period when the West, and in particular the United States, could try to remodel the international system in [its] image, at best hoping that Russia would accept this, and at worst without paying attention to its interests, is past."

If this book has any impact, I hope that it will be in alerting its readers to some of the damage and the dangers imposed on small countries and vulnerable peoples in the Middle East (as in other regions) by the ill-advised grand designs of great powers situated far away and generally—but not always—insulated from the consequences of their own actions. The Cold War had a potent overriding logic of its own for both sides, which generally took precedence over all other considerations, whether solicitude for the interests of countries and peoples directly affected by the conflict, or even acknowledgment of the realities on the ground where these contradicted fixed ideological imperatives. This Cold War logic often led the superpowers to ride roughshod over these realities, which nevertheless frequently had a way of asserting themselves, whether for the United States in Lebanon in 1983 or for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the

1980s. A similar logic seems to have driven the sole superpower in the wake of the Cold War, with similar consequences, as the United States has discovered to its dismay in Iraq and Afghanistan. We may have seen the same logic at work as the Bush administration wittingly or unwittingly encouraged the volatile Georgian president to provoke Russia, which apparently was waiting to take advantage of just such a provocation. As some

Georgians are ruefully beginning to realize, the cost for Georgia may prove to be great, which I show in these pages was also the case for small Middle Eastern clients of the superpowers throughout the Cold War, and of the United States since then.

This brings me to another theme discussed herein, which is that in the Middle East in the post–Cold War era, and especially over the past eight years, the United States often appeared to be operating in many respects as if the Cold War had never ended.

This was true even before the recent recrudescence of American-Russian tensions in and around the Middle East, as starting in the 1990s the United States built more bases and poured more troops and equipment into the region than at any time since World War II. It is too early to say whether this dynamic will continue now that a new wariness has entered American-Russian relations. But the United States seemed to move almost seamlessly in the Middle East from mobilization against the Soviet Union to a high military profile that eventually found its justification in George W. Bush's global war on terror. It may be that the same dynamic will obtain in light of the new American-Russian tensions over Georgia, and that the Middle East will continue to be a major focus of American strategic attention, albeit now directed at Russia. It is worth noting that in his speech, cited above, Vice President Cheney made a point of stressing that "in the Middle East, Russian arms-dealing has endangered the prospects for peace and freedom in that region," referring in particular to arms sales to Syria and Iran, and to the former channeling some of these weapons "to terrorist fighters in Lebanon and Iraq."

I would venture, on the basis of the experiences of the Cold War and of the post–Cold War era thus far, that whatever happens in American-Russian relations and regarding the war on terror, the Middle East will indeed continue to be a crucially important arena. The history I survey in this book will help to explain why this is so, and will give us all yet another opportunity to determine whether men and women learn anything from history. The signs for the post–Cold War era so far are not entirely encouraging.

Excerpted from Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East by Rashid Khalidi. Copyright © by Rashid Khalidi. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press. All rights reserved.

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