When the news broke last year that Egypt was to receive arms from the Soviet bloc the comment of one British observer with long experience of the Middle East was simply “At last!” What he found surprising was not that the rulers of the Soviet Union had in 1955 moved to upset the precarious balance of forces in the Middle East, but that they had not done so before. The explanation of their delay in exploiting such obvious opportunities for mischief is probably to be found partly in preoccupations elsewhere, and partly in developments within the Middle East which have created a new situation there during the last twelve months.

There was, of course, an initial Soviet attempt to break through into the Middle East just after the end of the Second World War, when Russia failed to withdraw her occupation troops from Persia by the date agreed on with America and Britain, and protected a separatist revolt in Persian Azerbaijan. This first move was a fiasco, for Persia appealed to the United Nations; America and Britain made a firm stand on the agreement; Russia climbed down, and the revolt collapsed as soon as the Russian troops were taken out of the country. Russia’s unwillingness on this occasion to go through with the original policy after it had run into strong opposition may be attributed primarily to the priority accorded to European commitments; Russian control in Eastern Europe was still at that time far from being consolidated, and it would have been imprudent to force a showdown with the Western powers over Persia in clear breach of treaty obligations when these powers appeared so acquiescent in the westward extension of the Soviet empire.

When tensions later developed in Europe over the Berlin blockade and the secession of Yugoslavia, Russia had her hands full in that quarter. Then in 1950 the storm center shifted to the Far East and Russian policy had to take account of a possible spread of the Korean War. Only after positions had been more or less stabilized both in Europe and in the Far East could Moscow concentrate its attention on the affairs of the Middle East. And by that time the possibilities for effective action without the direct use of force had become greater than they had ever been before. With the emergence of Colonel Nasser as dictator of Egypt, an opportunity was presented such as had not existed in the days of King Farouk, or even as long as the national revolution was under the leadership of General Naguib.

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At no period since the original Bolshevik revolution has Communist subversive activity been successful in either Turkey or Persia. The Turkey of Kemal Ataturk was for years in relations of quasi-alliance with Russia—for it was the Western victors of the First World War, and not Bolshevik Russia, which tried to impose on Turkey the Treaty of Sèvres. And there was a disposition in Turkey to draw parallels between the Soviet and Kemalist regimes as modernizing and anti-imperialist movements. But the strong and intensely nationalist government of Kemal would not tolerate any Communist activity inside Turkey, and memories of two centuries of conflicts and wars with Russia made the Turks vigilant for any signs of a revival of Czarist imperialism. The Soviet attempt to intimidate Turkey in 1940 only aroused Turkish antagonism, which was intensified when Moscow demanded joint control of the Straits in 1946. American support under the Truman Doctrine enabled Turkey to resist a pressure that might otherwise have been overwhelming, and later on Turkey together with Greece joined NATO, thus extending the defensive organization of the “Atlantic” countries to the Eastern Mediterranean and the highlands of Ararat.

Even with these alliances, however, and the military aid forthcoming from the United States to strengthen her national defenses, Turkey remained in a highly exposed and vulnerable strategic position. For in addition to a frontier with the Soviet Union to the northeast, another with Bulgaria to the northwest, and a dangerous proximity to Russian bases in the Crimea across the Black Sea, she had long boundaries to the east and southeast with Persia, Iraq, and Syria—weak neutral countries which might in the event of war be coerced into joining Russia or giving free passage to Russian armies. Hence the Turkish anxiety for a pact which would prolong the NATO defense system eastward and make allies of at least Persia and Iraq. It was Turkish diplomacy that took the initiative in the negotiations that led to the Baghdad Pact.

Persia has long been, and still is, superficially much more vulnerable to Communist penetration than Turkey. Persia has not undergone any such thoroughgoing modernist transformation as the Kemalist revolution in Turkey, and its social structure has remained relatively “feudal,” with extremes of wealth and poverty admirably suited to the needs of revolutionary propaganda. But the Persians, like the Turks, had long memories of past Russian pressures and conquests, and their nationalism was at least as much anti-Russian as anti-Western.

The Persian move to expropriate the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was preceded by a refusal to grant Russia an oil concession in northern Persia, and even during the height of the conflict with Britain the Persians were careful to avoid bidding for Russian support. The British on their side refrained from using force at Abadan, and when the dispute was finally settled by negotiation, the Persians became convinced that there was no longer any threat from Britain to their political or economic independence. On the other hand, the alarming activities of the Persian Communists (the Tudeh party), together with the presence of Russian military power on two land frontiers, disposed the Persian government to seek reinforcement of its security, and the way was open for a pact uniting Turkey, Iraq, Persia, Pakistan, and Britain in a defensive alliance.

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The line of containment of the Soviet empire established by NATO in Europe was thus extended eastward into the middle of Asia, and the new security system appeared at the outset to have provided a substantial addition to the defensive strength of the free world. There was, however, a vital difference between the Baghdad Pact and the older organization of NATO. Unlike NATO, the new league was not buttressed by the power and moral support of the United States.

Logically, the policy which led the United States first to protect Greece and Turkey under the Truman Doctrine and then to participate in the collective defense of Western Europe, and also in a series of similar defensive pacts in Southeast Asia and the Far East, should have implied completion of the line by endorsement of a pact to cover the Middle East as well. But American policy in the Middle East was something apart, unrelated to American policy in the rest of the world.

Traditionally, the Middle East had been outside the range of American foreign policy; there had not been any important American interest in the area. But by 1955 the United States had acquired a stake in the Middle East which, instead of strengthening her over-all position in world politics, rendered her subject to an unlimited blackmail by the most backward and benighted state in Asia. An American-owned oil industry sprang up in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, and in connection with it there was the leased air base at Dhahran. These concessions held by favor of the Saudi king made it the cardinal principle of American Middle Eastern policy to avoid giving offense in any way to that august ruler.

This meant in practice that America must not get on the wrong side of any one of his three ruling hatreds-hatred of the rival dynasty reigning in Iraq, hatred of Britain as a protector of minor principalities of Arabia whose territories he coveted, and hatred of Israel in the common cause of the Arab world. The United States must not, therefore, join the Baghdad Pact of which both Iraq and Britain were members, and must not guarantee Israel against a war of revanche by the Arab League.

In the summer of last year, however, this paralysis of American policy in the Middle East did not seem likely to have tragic consequences because neither the Baghdad Pact countries nor Israel appeared to be in any immediate danger. The threat of a major war was considered to have receded, and though it was extremely risky for Britain to undertake commitments of alliance with so exposed and vulnerable a country as Persia except in partnership with the United States, it might be hoped that Russia would be deterred from any move against Persia by the possibility that America would in the end be involved if Britain were at war, even without a specific underwriting of the Baghdad Pact. Israel likewise seemed reasonably secure against serious attack—as distinct from the guerrilla raids of the fedayeen—because the limitation of arms supplies to the Middle East under the Tripartite Pact on Palestine prevented the Arab states from acquiring an equipment of modern weapons sufficient for the launching of an aggressive war with any prospect of success.

But this situation afforded Moscow an opportunity which it boldly grasped. Without making war or even fomenting a Communist insurrection, Russia was able to transform the political situation in the Middle East and win for herself a predominant influence in the rear of the Baghdad Pact defensive line merely by offering arms to the uncommitted Arab states, and in the first place to Egypt. Both America and Britain seem to have been taken entirely by surprise by this move, yet it was always an obvious possibility, given a Russian desire to create disturbance in the area. An embargo can only be fully effective if the power or powers applying it have a monopoly, and the West had no monopoly of surplus armaments.

The consequence of a supplementary supply of arms to Egypt, and even of the mere prospect of such a supply, could only be to give Colonel Nasser a new freedom of action to pursue his aims. These ran parallel to the policies of Saudi Arabia, but the overriding purpose was different. For Egypt, as for Saudia, the enemies were Britain, Iraq, and Israel (with the addition of France), but all local issues were subordinated to the supreme aim of Egyptian leadership in the Arab world. Nasser’s personal power in Egypt was to be the basis of a policy of arousing and exploiting the forces of pan-Arab nationalism in order to create a federation under Egyptian supremacy, with elimination of all residues of Western colonialism, from Morocco to the Persian Gulf. And success in this policy was to confirm Nasser’s dictatorship in his own country.

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This grand design determined the lines of the Egyptian political offensive. Iraq was attacked, not because of the dynastic alignment which made her hateful to the Saudis, but as being the only other Arab state which could dispute with Egypt the leadership of the Arab world, and because she had defied Egyptian authority by entering into a pact with non-Arab nations without Cairo’s consent. Britain was attacked, not so much because of her remaining imperial possessions and protectorates in Arabia (though the termination of these was part of the pan-Arab program), as because of the challenge to Egyptian ascendancy involved in the special British relations with Iraq and Jordan.

Finally, Israel was the target of the new Egyptian revisionism, not merely because of Egypt’s own anti-Israeli emotions or in the hope of wiping out the disgrace of defeat in the previous Palestine war, but above all, because to stand forth as champion of the anti-Israeli cause seemed the best way to command the allegiance of the whole Arab world and (with the assistance of intensive radio propaganda) to draw the masses of the Arab countries into Cairo’s orbit even against the wishes of their respective governments. Even Iraq, for all her resentment of Egyptian tutelage, was susceptible to the pull from Cairo when the question of Palestine was involved, so that aggravation of the tension with Israel was also a means of breaking Iraq away from the solidarity of the Baghdad Pact.

The United States was not directly a target for Nasserite animosity, for unlike Britain, she had neither territorial holdings in Arab countries nor membership in the Baghdad Pact. But indirectly, the United States was also an enemy because under the Tripartite Pact on Palestine she was committed to preventing Egypt from becoming strong enough to attack Israel. For the attainment of the desired superiority over Israel, Nasser could only look to a power which had no interest in maintaining peace in the Middle East, but on the contrary aimed at producing tension and crisis. Such a power was at hand, ready to provide arms of the most modern type and technicians to give training in their use, hostile to just those states with which Egypt was at enmity, and not a party to the Tripartite Pact. Thus the Moscow-Cairo axis came into being.

There was only one adequate counter-move for the Tripartite Pact powers in response to the Russian arming of Egypt. This was for them to make explicit and definite the responsibility which they had already undertaken to preserve the armistice in Palestine, and to warn Egypt without ambiguity that any serious armed attack on Israel would automatically mean for Egypt war with America, Britain, and France. In addition to such a commitment for keeping the peace by their own power, or even without it, it was the plain duty of the Tripartite Pact powers, in accordance with the principles on which they had agreed to act, to provide Israel with enough arms to balance those which the Arabs were obtaining from Russia and thus enable Israel on her own to deter the Arab states from aggression or defend herself effectively if attacked.

But instead of tackling the situation with resolution and in concert with one another, the Western powers began to run away from the crisis as soon as it arose. The American government found it could not reinforce the Tripartite Pact or supply arms to Israel because this would be displeasing to the Saudi king and might endanger Aramco oil and the Dhahran air base. The British government was no less alarmed at the prospect that Egyptian displeasure would upset the recently concluded agreement on the Suez Canal and increase the Egyptian opposition to the Baghdad Pact.

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It was in an ill-considered attempt to resolve the Arab-Israeli crisis and at the same time to placate Egypt that Sir Anthony Eden made his disastrous Mansion House speech on November 9th of last year, when he advocated a territorial settlement based on a “compromise” between the armistice line and the superseded United Nations partition line of 1947—in return for which he apparently hoped that the Arab states would be graciously pleased to terminate their “state of war” against Israel. As Israel naturally refused to enter into any negotiation on the basis of large-scale territorial cessions, the only effect of this move was to make matters worse, for the Egyptians were now convinced that they could go ahead without risk of British or American intervention, and that the paying course of action would be to step up political pressure and prepare for war.

As the situation deteriorated, both American and British official publicity began to dwell on the dangers of an “arms race” as a reason for not supplying arms to Israel. The arguments put forward were curiously reminiscent of those used by appeasers in the days of the Spanish civil war, when it was held that in order to avoid a conflict among the great powers, Britain and France should respond to the Italo-German arming of Franco by withholding arms from the Spanish Republic. There was the difference, however, that the Axis powers in 1936 at least pretended to adhere to the Non-intervention Agreement, whereas Russia has openly rejected all appeals for halting the flow of arms to Nasserite Egypt.

The attempts to win the heart of Nasser with gifts and promises have continued. The anti-British coup d’état in Jordan, brought about by Egyptian intrigue and propaganda, only strengthened the British determination to be reconciled with Egypt at all costs; while Mr. Dulles was busy explaining to Senators—not indeed very convincingly—why the policy principle of strengthening nations threatened with attack by, or with the help of, Communist states did not apply to Israel.

The situation would nevertheless have become distinctly embarrassing for British and American statesmen had it not been that there was always a way out, a perfectly respectable exit from national responsibilities. There was the United Nations. Let the Security Council, with its built-in veto, take charge of the matter: then there would be no need for the United States or Britain to do anything. Neither Egypt nor Saudi Arabia would be able to object to the jurisdiction of the world organization in their dispute with Israel, and Israel would be safeguarded against attack—provided, of course, that Russia did not use the veto to block any action by the Security Council in the event of war. Russia has now delighted all her admirers and won golden opinions everywhere by supporting the reference of the Palestine problem to the Security Council, which is exactly what it was the aim of her policy to bring about, since it means that nothing can be done without Russia’s consent and cooperation. Russia strives to become the arbiter of Middle Eastern affairs by first arming aggressive forces and then offering her services as peacemaker and mediator.

Afraid to take the only steps which can decisively stop the drift towards war in the Middle East, and yet unwilling simply to connive at an Arab attack on Israel, the American and British governments have been plunging ever deeper into an incoherent muddle of contradictory actions which bring them no nearer to a solution of their troubles. It was reported that at the recent NATO conference the Greek Foreign Minister twice asked for guidance on a Czech request for permission to fly Czech-built aircraft across Greece to Egypt, and, receiving no answer from the American or British representatives, indicated that he took their silence as consent. Thus NATO, which exists to contain Soviet expansion, is prepared to facilitate Soviet aggression by proxy in the Middle East.

On the other hand, the American government has explained to its allies that, while itself unwilling to send arms to Israel, it will not object if limited supplies (which might come from America in the first place) were to reach Israel from Canada or France. Thus Mr. Dulles will be able to tell the Saudi Ambassador that America is not arming Israel and that there can be no reason for reprisals against Aramco, but he will have the satisfaction of knowing that Israel is getting some arms and his conscience will be clear if he is accused of promoting a Soviet-Arab aggression.

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In one way and another, indeed by great efforts and at great expense, Israel will probably succeed in obtaining enough weapons of an up-to-date type to put up a not hopeless fight if attacked by a Soviet-equipped Arab League. But such reinforcement of Israel will almost certainly not be sufficient to deter the Arabs from ultimately resorting to the arbitrament of war. The Arab nationalists, as their spokesmen have repeatedly made clear, are not interested in local adjustments of the frontier or in any relief for the refugees which would leave them outside Israel territory. Their objection is to the existence of Israel as an independent state and their purpose is its complete extinction. If they were to accept a settlement which left Israel still in existence, it could only be one which by territorial cessions destroyed the economic and strategic viability of the Israeli state and made the final liquidation only a matter of time.

It follows that Arab tactics must be to wait for the maturing of their new Soviet-created military power, and then to work up a crisis with threats of war in order to extort from Israel, with the endorsement of the great powers, concessions fatal to her national existence. If Israel refused to yield, war would be bound to follow, even if some Arab leaders should think that they could gain their ends without it; for the prestige of the Arab governments, and particularly of Colonel Nasser, would be too deeply committed to make withdrawal possible.

Once war had begun, it would almost certainly prove impossible to localize it. The Security Council, at the mercy of the Russian veto, would be incapable of intervention on Israel’s behalf, but the Western powers, confronted with the harsh reality of Soviet-sponsored aggression in the Middle East, would be driven, if only by the revolt of public opinion in their own countries against policies which had led to such an outcome, to take some kind of action to assist Israel. The story of Korea would be enacted all over again. Early in 1950, official statements in Washington indicated that America would do nothing to protect South Korea if the latter were attacked. But when the North Koreans, encouraged to expect that there would be no foreign intervention, launched their invasion across the frontier, America did intervene, and the sequel was three years of war which threatened at one time to develop into a full-scale struggle of the great power blocs.

The only way to avoid a repetition of what happened in Korea is for the Western powers to reanimate the Tripartite Pact and declare without equivocation that they will automatically be at war with any state launching an offensive in force across the Palestine armistice line. In other words, the only way in which war in the Middle East can definitely be averted is for the Western powers to guarantee the existing frontiers of Israel, and not “agreed frontiers”—the fatal formula which can have no other effect than to encourage the Arabs to a policy of blackmail ending in armed hostilities.

A Nasser is not to be turned aside by moral suasion, but only by the clear realization that the course on which he has embarked—but on which he has not yet gone too far to be able to draw back—will lead him into war not merely with Israel, but with three great powers.

If this certainty were once grasped by Nasser and his allies, they would adapt themselves to it and eventually negotiate with Israel on the basis of the existing frontiers. Russia is not going to fight the Western powers simply in order to enable Egypt to destroy Israel, and the Arab states will not be strong enough by themselves to fight the Western powers plus Israel.

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If, therefore, the Western governments can muster enough courage to tell Nasser that his blackmail has got to stop, and if they can face the temporary increase of unpleasantness in Western-Arab relations that this must involve, war can be ruled out. It cannot be ruled out otherwise. As long as the Arabs think they can wage it against Israel alone without any Western intervention, they will follow the course which must lead to it, and no tours by the Secretary General of the United Nations or talks in the veto-bound Security Council will avail in the long run to avert it. The responsibility lies with the statesmen in Washington, London, and Paris, who have to choose between keeping the peace by a difficult, but necessary, decision and continuing to drift through ambiguity, evasion, and wishful make-believe towards a bloody catastrophe.

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If, therefore, the Western governments can muster enough courage to tell Nasser that his blackmail has got to stop, and if they can face the temporary increase of unpleasantness in Western-Arab relations that this must involve, war can be ruled out. It cannot be ruled out otherwise. As long as the Arabs think they can wage it against Israel alone without any Western intervention, they will follow the course which must lead to it, and no tours by the Secretary General of the United Nations or talks in the veto-hound Security Council will avail in the long run to avert it. The responsibility lies with the statesmen in Washington, London, and Paris, who have to choose between keeping the peace by a difficult, but necessary, decision and continuing to drift through ambiguity, evasion, and wishful make-believe towards a bloody catastrophe.

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