This review first appeared in the Palestine Chronicle on on March 12, 2010. It has been republished with permission from the author.
Three Kings – The Rise of an American Empire in the Middle East After World War II. Lloyd C. Gardner. New Press, N.Y., 2009.
This concisely written and well documented work covers the “Truman Doctrine…the essential rubric under which the United States projected its power globally after World War II…the ideological foundation for the ‘imperial presidency.’” Lloyd Gardner focuses his analysis on the Middle East, although the imperial trends expanded globally through the Americas and on into Asia as the old empires faded and the U.S. took their place. More specifically it is a study of “U.S. maneuvers to replace the British in the region of signal importance, the Middle East.” The signal importance of the region contains two factors: oil, the regional resource that enticed the British into the area in the first place; and ‘international communism’ and the rhetorically inflated fears of a grand international conspiracy to attack and dominate the world.
When I first started my readings on current events as related to 9/11, the attack on Afghanistan and then on Iraq, it soon became clear that Palestine was symbolically at the heart of the problems in the Middle East. Beyond that, it is also at the heart of other problems involving human rights, international law, the U.S. government, and corporate power, among others. The Second World War ended with the violent remainders of various empires imploding on themselves, most significantly the British Empire collapsed in India and the Middle East. Right from the outset, the Palestinian situation was identified as a “major stumbling block” to U.S. imperial ambitions as “Of all the political problems which call for solution in this area the Palestine question is probably the most important and urgent at the present time.”
Unfortunately it remains the most important and urgent – with apologies to the peoples of the occupied countries of Iraq and Afghanistan and the increasing subversive problems in Pakistan – as it represents the worst of U.S. foreign policy dominated by the Israeli state operating outside of the majority of international protocols and laws. Oil of course was the main imperial consideration and the people of Palestine were incidental to that, but the other Arab states were very much involved with the Palestinian problem. Before Truman entered the picture, Roosevelt recognized that Palestine “was the single most dangerous question they faced in trying to secure an American presence in the Middle East after the war.”
Between Israel and oil
Israeli influence was already well under way in Congress, as the 1944 election campaigns of both parties supported the Zionist movement. Regardless of any concerns about Palestine, Roosevelt supported the unrestricted right of Jewish immigration into the region. Later, Truman followed this with his “demand that one hundred thousand refugees be admitted to Palestine,” acknowledging that “a Jewish homeland in Palestine “would command the support of public opinion in the United States.” Counter to this, George Marshall of the State Department “feared a conflict that could spread out, involve the entire Arab world, and jeopardize American oil interests and internal stability of the nearby governments.” Sixty years later and the truth of Marshall’s concerns are obvious.
Saudi influence was the other side of the dilemma. With its vast oil reserves and strategic positioning, the House of Saud required much attention, eventually setting up “the symbiotic relationship forever linking American oil interests to the survival of the Saudi royal house.” Again, sixty years later, the House of Saud survives on U.S. beneficence in spite of its connections to revolutionary insurrection throughout the Middle East and its apparent central role in the events of 9/11.
Palestine, major stumbling block or not, simmered and boiled as it encountered U.S. and global indifference to the plight of the refugees, to the unending occupation, and more importantly as it encountered the oil interests of the west and the irrational fears of international communism.
Between communism and oil
Gardner identifies the fear of communism as an excuse to establish military and corporate ties with the diverse elements in the Middle East. Egypt under Nasser, Iran under Mossadegh, and Iraq increasingly under the influence of the Ba’athists and Hussein are the focus of his main presentation. The political rhetoric and the behind the scenes manipulations are well described by Gardner, reinforcing the perspective that support would be given to whomever as long as that ‘whomever’ remained on the U.S. side.
The long term results are well known – or should be – with the Shah installed as the U.S. puppet in Iran eventually leading to the Islamic revolution and theocratic government in Iran. The misadventures of Hussein are well known, his early CIA and U.S. military and economic support leading to an abrupt about face when he was no longer wanted by the U.S. Egypt was defeated, then stalemated Israel, and is now the nominal democratic puppet of the U.S. absorbing large sums of U.S. aid dollars to maintain the peace with Israel and contain the refugees in Gaza behind a steel curtain.
Communism, once the convenient excuse to establish military ties and try to contain Soviet ‘aggression’, has now been replaced with the fear of terror, a more amorphous and impossible to defeat opposition as long as the occupations of Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan remain. Gardner touches upon the U.S. interest at the time in creating an “Islamic pact” that “because of its heavy religious content…would provide a natural bulwark against communism.” While Gardner does not deal with the modern developments of this idea, the mujahideen insurrection against the Soviets in Afghanistan is a direct descendent of this formulation with the drastic unintended consequences of today’s regional fiasco.
The bomb, refugees, and the Six Day war
Gardner closes off his ideas briefly touching on the Johnson and Kennedy eras which led into the Six Day war. One of the topics touched on is that of the Israeli nuclear efforts at Dimona. Right from the beginning the Israelis established their ambiguity about the presence of nuclear weapons saying “it would not be the first to introduce such weapons into the area, but it would never be the last,” hinting perhaps at first to build or use a bomb, or if someone else obtained it, then “pre-emption was a proper answer.”
At the time of these concerns, the refugees numbered over one million, increasing the difficulty of a commitment to a settlement of the problem. With the Six Day war, the Israelis gained control over all the territory of Palestine, creating an even larger problem with refugees from the Nakba. Similar to other Israeli wars, Gardner hypothesizes that the U.S. gave a “signal” to Israel to come up with an “excuse” for the attack. In another similarity President Johnson “did not insist on an early truce, but delayed applying pressure foe a cease-fire until Israel had achieved its territorial objectives on all Arab fronts: Egypt, Syria and Jordan.”
These two tactics remain at the forefront of Israeli military attacks, with the 2006 attack on Lebanon and the 2008-09 attack on Gaza operating under pretences of terrorist aggression and supported by U.S. silence on the significant abrogation of international law in both cases.
While the main title is used very sparingly as a theme for Gardner’s work, it is appropriate to the manipulations of the U.S. superseding Great Britain as the imperial power in the Middle East, and the unconditional support given to the House of Saud by U.S. political, military, and corporate interests. This is a fact filled examination of the post war era, placed in context of previous actions, making obvious connections to the problems that trouble the Middle East today. For readers looking for a strong political overview of the immediate post war years in the Middle East this work is an excellent volume to begin with.