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Sowing Crisis

The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East

by Rashid Khalidi

Hardcover, 308 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $25.95 |


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The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East
Rashid Khalidi

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Book Summary

In his new book, Rashid Khalidi dissects the crucial dynamics of power in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union as it played out in the Middle East, compellingly arguing that the intense rivalry between the U.S. and the USSR in the region set the stage for the tragic conflicts that have followed in its long wake.

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Excerpt: Sowing Crisis


The period that is always most difficult of access is the one that is just within living memory. Not yet written down, its primary sources often still inaccessible, it is at the disposal of fallible mem­ory and prejudice. No generation is ever fair to its parents. —Rosemary Hill

For nearly half a century, the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union created a glacial divide that loomed over international relations. Its icy tentacles extended across the globe, with often devastating effects. The Cold War provoked a high degree of polarization, as states and political parties aligned themselves with the two superpowers in virtu­ally every region of the world, exacerbating and aggravating pre­existing local conflicts or producing new ones, and envenoming the political atmosphere in numerous countries. Once it became a full-blown ideological and great-power confrontation in the wake of World War II, the East-West division dominated de­liberations at the newly established United Nations and became the main focal point of international affairs. Its chill was felt in the domestic politics not only of the United States and the Soviet Union but of countries the world over.

The Cold War did not begin immediately after World War II, although precisely when it did start is a subject of some dis­pute. Former British prime minister Winston Churchill’s famous observation, in a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946, that "from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent," is often seen as a decisive indication that the Cold War was already under way by that point, less than a year after the war’s end. Historians, however, cite various key events from 1945 until 1947 as marking the end of the World War II al­liance between the Western powers and the Soviet Union and the beginning of a cold war between them. It is clear, for example, that Churchill and some of President Harry S. Truman’s advisors were much more hostile toward the Soviets than were others, or than President Franklin D. Roosevelt apparently had been. It is also clear that over time, political circumstances changed, as did the views of decision makers on the Anglo-American side. Although Soviet decision-making was more opaque, it appears as if similar differences regarding American intentions may have existed in the minds of Joseph Stalin and the small circle of advisors around him. Once the Cold War had started in earnest, however, it rapidly came to constitute the central axis of world affairs, and any such differences of opinion as may have existed on either side lost most of their importance.

We now know that this rivalry had been presaged by deep wartime suspicions and devious maneuvering among the Allies at the height of the colossal joint effort against Nazi Germany during World War II. In the case of those wary old adversaries Churchill and Stalin, antagonism to each other’s system was of very long standing. Beyond the crucial questions of the post­war future of Germany, Central Europe, and the Balkans, the concerns of the Soviets and the Western powers extended into the Middle East and the adjacent regions south of the USSR, whence Britain had launched its repeated interventions to crush the Bolshevik regime during the four-year Russian Civil War after the 1917 revolution. It is unlikely that either Churchill or Stalin, both of whom were central figures in this earliest phase of the East-West rivalry, ever fully forgot the impact of that deadly struggle. In some measure, these intense early experiences can be said to have shaped each one’s view of the other side. Indeed, Churchill’s entire career shows that he was always profoundly anticommunist, while Stalin’s long-standing obsession with Britain as an imperialist power, notably in the Middle East, at times seemed to override his strong concerns about the growing role there of the United States in the early phases of the Cold War. Meanwhile, to complete this triangular picture, American policymakers, less experienced in international affairs than their British counterparts, often tended to be influ­enced by the latter’s deep concerns about the spread of commu­nism in the Middle East (which they often conflated with nationalism and anticolonialism). At the same time, the United States was for many years frequently at odds with Britain in different parts of the region, until their simmering differences in approach exploded during the 1956 Suez War, when the United States openly opposed Britain and its French and Israeli allies. This sub rosa rivalry between the two Western powers is an underappreciated aspect of the early years of the post–World War II era.

The Cold War and the fears it engendered haunted several generations. It had this impact not only in the United States and the Soviet Union, and in Europe, which at the end of World War II lay battered by combat and virtually prostrate between the victorious armies of the two nascent superpowers. It also had a powerful effect in East and Southeast Asia, notably in Korea and Vietnam, where less than five years after the end of World War II the Cold War soon developed into ferocious hot wars. These were the only such wars directly involving the United States and its allies on the one hand and communist satellites and allies of the Soviet Union on the other. There were also less overt proxy confrontations between the superpowers in Central America and the Caribbean, Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East, all of which were important arenas of super­power rivalry for decades. The first such non-European confrontations between the USSR and the United States and its allies (even before the wars in East and Southeast Asia) transpired in the Middle East. They were to have a special importance, as we shall see.

The Cold War has now been over for nearly two decades. For students of college age today, it is beyond their experience and their memory. If they know anything at all about it, this period is at best a matter of dim, distant history to them. And yet if time seems to fly for those of us who grew up during the Cold War and do remember it, changes in the way people see history progress very slowly. This may be especially true of recent history, about which many of those who have lived through the events in question may have deeply felt views, views that they are reluctant to modify. Thus, a serious rethinking of this crucial and well-defined period of modern world history, free of the Cold War shibboleths and the intense partisanship that distorted so much earlier scholarship, only began slowly. A reluctance to readdress the period has especially afflicted the "winning side," where certain aspects of the orthodox, long-accepted interpretation of the conflict have yet to be challenged. Indeed, the continuing identification of many older Cold War historians with the received truths on "their side" of the now vanished iron curtain has been a hindrance to the writ­ing of balanced, objective history of the Cold War.

Although much good historical work has been done in recent years, particularly on the origins of the Cold War, there is still significant room for further reconsideration of the broad story of this rivalry’s origins, development, and course, and of its effects, especially as considerable new archival documentation on the Soviet side and from other sources has become available since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A new look at the Cold War is particularly timely now that even after the demise of communism and the rise of capitalism in Russia, and the end of the ideological struggle that supposedly undergirded the Cold War, Western relations with Russia in East and central Europe, in the Caucasus, and in the Middle East are once again characterized by considerable friction. This is a perfect example of how one’s vantage point in time makes possible a completely different view of history. After the West’s warm embrace of the first two post-Soviet rulers of Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, and after the triumphalist proclamations of the "End of History," who could have foreseen the emergence of grave differences only a decade later between the United States and Europe, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other, over Iran, energy supplies, the expansion of NATO to countries like Georgia and Ukraine, and missile defenses? All of this should perhaps make us rethink at least some of the conventional views of the causes and motivations of the Cold War. Perhaps ideology was not quite as important as some on both sides made it out to be, and perhaps traditional great-power conflicts of interest over strategic issues and resources, the likes of which continu­ally plagued Russian-Western relations before the Bolshevik Revolution, deserve more attention.

Beyond the need for further rethinking of Cold War history in general, relatively little new research has been done about the central role of this great international rivalry in a number of regional conflicts. This follows on a period, from the late 1950s through the early 1990s, when much scholarship in a variety of fields, much of it policy driven and some of it of uneven quality, was devoted to exploring the impact of the Cold War on these regions. The inquiry into regional impacts of the superpower ri­valry was a branch of an entire field, Sovietology, which grew up in the shadow of the Cold War and has now virtually disap­peared. There has been a similar drop in recent decades in the number of such works in various Cold War–related fields. Iron­ically, this has come just as some distance in time has developed between us and the most dramatic events of the Cold War, and when new archival and other primary sources have been made available, at least in theory making the writing of the history of this period easier. The relative paucity of new scholarly work on this vital era is as true of the Middle East as it is of most of the regions that were deeply marked by the impact of the Cold War rivalry from the 1940s until the 1990s.

These regions, whether Africa, Latin America, South and East Asia, or the Middle East, have been marked further since then by what might be called the ghosts of the Cold War. The most striking example is the blowback of United States’ in­volvement in the Afghan war against the Soviet occupation of that country, but there are many others.13 Understanding these powerful and lingering aftereffects of the Cold War requires going back in time and reassessing that conflict, especially its less-studied final phases. I will seek to explore further on in this book the lingering impact of these Cold War ghosts in the Middle East long after the Soviet Union itself had disappeared and the Cold War was forgotten.