FOLLOWING HANS BLIX'S devastating report and President Bush's compelling State of the Union address, Saddam Hussein looks more and more like a dead man walking. In all likelihood, Baghdad will be liberated by April. This may turn out to be one of those hinge moments in history— events like the storming of the Bastille or the fall of the Berlin Wall— after which everything is different. If the occupation goes well (admittedly a big if), it may mark the moment when the powerful antibiotic known as democracy was introduced into the diseased environment of the Middle East, and began to transform the region for the better. For the United States, this represents perhaps the last, best chance to do what it has singularly failed to do since World War II— to provide the Middle East with effective imperial oversight. It is not entirely America's fault, but our mismanagement and misconceptions have allowed a backward, once insignificant region to become arguably the main threat to the security of the United States and the entire West.
In centuries past, the wild and unruly passions of the Islamic world were kept within tight confines by firm, often ruthless imperial authority, mainly Ottoman, but, starting in the late 19th century, increasingly British and French. These distant masters did not always rule wisely or well, but they generally prevented the region from menacing the security of the outside world. When the pirates of the Barbary Coast (as Europeans called North Africa) could not be dealt with by the payment of ransom, the new American republic, and then the Europeans, took matters into their own hands. Ultimately, Algiers, Tripoli, Morocco, and Tunis were colonized, and thus ended their piratical threat. When a group of Egyptian army officers led by an early-day Nasser named Arabi Pasha tried to seize power in 1882, the British occupied the country, and wound up administering it from behind the scenes for decades to come. When a fanatical Islamic sect led by a self-proclaimed Mahdi (or messiah) took over the Sudan, and threatened to spread its extremist violence throughout the Islamic world, Gen. Horatio Herbert Kitchener snuffed out the movement in a hail of gunfire at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. When a pro-Nazi regime took power in Baghdad in 1941, the British intervened to topple the offending dictator, Rashid Ali.
Strong medicine, that. And no longer considered acceptable in today's post-colonial world. As America slowly took over Britain's oversight role after 1945, Washington tried self-consciously to carve out a different style of leadership, one that was meant to distinguish the virtuous Americans from the grasping, greedy imperialists who had come before. America wanted to show that it sympathized with the Arabs, Persians, and Muslims, had no designs on their lands or oil wealth, and would not even choose sides in their struggle to eradicate the nascent state of Israel. Unfortunately America showed something else— that we were weak, and could be attacked, economically and physically and rhetorically, with impunity. That we were a paper tiger— or, to use Osama bin Laden's metaphor, a "weak horse." "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse," the leader of al Qaeda has said, "by nature they will like the strong horse." It is no wonder that America today has so few real friends in the region. Why would anyone ride alongside a weak horse?
This may seem an odd statement to make, since America is often accused of being a bully, in the Mideast as elsewhere. Yet the record shows precious little bullying— indeed not enough. Note that the last time the United States played a pivotal role in a Mideast change of government (if one overlooks Bill Clinton's campaign against Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel's 1999 election) was in 1953, when the CIA, along with Britain's MI6, helped to depose Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Considering how many violently anti-American regimes have existed in the Middle East since World War II, America's failure to overthrow more of them is a testament to our passivity and forbearance.
This is not to suggest that the U.S. record in the Mideast during the past 50 years has been exclusively weak and pusillanimous. There have been occasional flashes of principle and infrequent displays of strength. Some of the more prominent include: Truman's ultimatum that forced the Soviets to evacuate Iran in 1946 and his decision two years later to override all his foreign policy advisers by recognizing Israel; Eisenhower's dispatch of Marines to support the Lebanese government in 1958; Nixon and Kissinger's backing of Israel with emergency arms shipments during the 1973 Yom Kippur War; Reagan's bombing of Libya in 1986 and protection of Gulf shipping from Iranian attacks in 1987-88; and, most recently, George H.W. Bush's resounding victory in the Persian Gulf War of 1991. All these actions are very much to America's credit, and have done much to serve U.S. interests in the region.
Unfortunately America's record of failure is more glaring, starting with the Suez Crisis, continuing in the run-up to the Six Day War, the oil crisis of the 1970s, the Iranian revolution, subsequent terrorist attacks against the United States by radical Islamists, and the failure to depose Saddam Hussein. A broad generalization may stretch the truth but not break it: America was strong in resisting Soviet designs on the region but weak in the face of Arab nationalism and Islamic extremism. Indeed, the United States usually sought to make common cause with Arabs and Persians against the Soviet Union. This may have been a sound short-term strategy— it did contribute to the defeat of the Evil Empire— but its unintended long-term consequence has been to leave behind a poisonous legacy of anti-Americanism, despotism, and corruption that poses a stark challenge to the 21st-century world.
THE PATTERN of American weakness was set early on, during the 1956 Suez Crisis, which serves as a kind of template for everything the United States has done wrong in the region for the past several decades. In the immediate run-up to the crisis, the United States tried unsuccessfully to court Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had emerged as the leader of the group of Egyptian army officers that overthrew King Farouk in 1952. President Eisenhower thought he could lure Nasser to the Western camp by offering him support, such as loans to build the Aswan Dam, which would supply most of his country's electricity. But Nasser spurned the West by taking a prominent role at the Bandung Conference of nonaligned nations and by extending diplomatic recognition to the People's Republic of China. His radio station, the Voice of the Arabs, blared out a daily stream of vituperation against the West and its friends in the region, while Nasser's agents tried to subvert these "lackeys of imperialism." Like most dictators, Nasser gave top priority to getting his hands on copious stockpiles of weapons. When Washington, not wanting to fuel a regional arms race, refused to provide them, he turned to the Soviet bloc.
In 1955 the Kremlin agreed, through its Czech puppets, to supply Nasser with an awesome array of weaponry including 200 jet airplanes and 100 tanks. This would have tilted the regional balance of power sharply against Israel, which possessed only 20 jet aircraft of its own. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion asked Washington to guarantee Israel's security and supply it with weapons to counter the growing Egyptian threat. Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, refused. Their policy was centered on the Alpha Project, one of countless American attempts to broker peace between Israel and its enemies. In their pursuit of this chimerical goal, Eisenhower and Dulles decided that Israel would get no security assistance from the United States until a full settlement had been reached with the Arabs.
Such a settlement is still elusive almost 50 years later, but in the meantime Israel faced a pressing danger. The Israel Defense Forces estimated that Czech weapons would begin flowing to Egypt by November 1955, and that it would take six to eight months for the Egyptians to assimilate the inflow. Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan calculated that Egypt would be ready to attack Israel by late spring 1956. Already the danger loomed; Nasser was sponsoring guerrilla raids into Israel, blockading the southern Israeli port of Eilat, and not allowing Israeli shipping access to the Suez Canal.
Since Washington would not help, Israel turned to states that would— first France and then Britain. They had their own beef with Nasser, who on July 26, 1956, nationalized the Suez Canal Company. The canal, which was owned (and had been built) by an Anglo-French consortium, was the transit point for two-thirds of Europe's oil supplies. Neither London nor Paris was willing to cede control of this vital waterway to a power-mad dictator who was increasingly allied with the Communist bloc. Since Washington was not interested in helping its closest allies, they got together with Israel, and in the secret Protocol of Sèvres, agreed on a joint operation to seize the canal and overthrow Nasser.
The plan began to unfold on October 29, 1956, when Israeli forces moved into the Sinai desert, effortlessly overrunning Egyptian positions. France and Britain issued an ultimatum calling on both sides to stop fighting and pull back 10 miles from the canal. Israel agreed, but Egypt didn't, and on October 31, Anglo-French forces began bombing Egyptian military positions. A few days later, on November 5, they occupied Port Said, which controlled the Mediterranean entrance to the canal, with little resistance. Nasser responded by scuttling old ships filled with cement to block the canal. His allies in Damascus sabotaged the oil pipeline linking Iraq to the Mediterranean, thus interrupting a major source of Europe's oil supplies. Saudi Arabia embargoed oil shipments to France and Britain, and acts of sabotage shut down Kuwait's supply system.
A looming oil shortage could have been averted with continued military action by Israel, France, and Britain to open the canal and overthrow Nasser. The inept Egyptian armed forces posed little obstacle. But the allies could not cope with the overwhelming pressure brought by President Eisenhower, who didn't want to "get the Arabs sore at all of us" and who was eager to paint the United States as opposed to imperialism, whether conducted by the Soviet Union in Hungary or by France and Britain in Egypt. There was little Washington could or would do to force the Soviet Union to disgorge Hungary, but America had plenty of leverage with its allies, and didn't hesitate to use it.
Ike began by pushing a resolution through the United Nations demanding the British, Israeli, and French troops withdraw immediately. When Britain balked, Eisenhower tightened the economic screws. The crisis was causing a run on sterling and a major depletion of Britain's scant oil reserves, which, if allowed to continue, would lead to an economic meltdown. The United States had contingency plans to provide loans and emergency oil supplies to Britain, but Eisenhower refused to activate them as long as British troops remained in Egypt. He wanted to force the British and French "to work out their own oil problem— to boil in their own oil, so to speak." Faced with unremitting pressure from their most powerful benefactor, Britain, France, and Israel had no choice but to withdraw.
British prime minister Anthony Eden complained in his memoirs, with considerable justice, "In recent years the United States has sometimes failed to put its weight behind its friends, in the hope of being popular with their foes." At first this cynical gambit— precisely what the United States often accuses its European allies of doing— seemed to pay dividends. U.N. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge reported to Eisenhower that he was deluged with support from Third World countries— and not just from their diplomats. Even U.N. busboys, typists, and elevator operators, Lodge crowed, "have been offering their congratulations." But the outpourings of support quickly faded, to be replaced by the same sullen resentment, envy, and hatred that had once been directed against the British and the French.
The immediate impact of the Suez Crisis was to give a major impetus to Nasser in his grandiose plans to unite the entire Arab world under his tyrannical rule. He was seen as the first Arab in hundreds of years to have defeated the forces of Christendom. Britain, France, and America were perceived to be on the run. Pro-Western rulers were deemed to be puppets ripe for elimination.
In the spring of 1957, Nasserite army officers tried, and failed, to overthrow King Hussein of Jordan. Arab nationalists were more successful in Iraq, where the Hashemite royal family was murdered in a 1958 coup d'état. That same year Egypt and Syria combined to form the United Arab Republic, which received substantial military support from the USSR. Eisenhower sensed, too late, the Nasserite danger, and proclaimed the Eisenhower Doctrine to help friendly Middle Eastern regimes. In 1958, as part of this doctrine, he landed 15,000 Marines in Beirut to stabilize the Christian government against a Muslim uprising. But while this may have helped keep Lebanon out of Nasserite hands, it did not discourage Nasser from further adventurism. In 1962 he dispatched 50,000 troops to Yemen, where they became embroiled in a civil war against the Saudi-backed monarchy.
A few years later Nasser turned his attention back to the "Zionist entity." Following the 1956 war, the United States had forced Israel to disgorge its territorial gains in the Sinai. To assuage Israel's security concerns, a U.N. peacekeeping force was inserted into the area. On May 16, 1967, Nasser asked the U.N. to remove its troops, and Secretary General U Thant cravenly complied. Nothing now stood in the way of Egyptian troops, who massed near Israel's border. Five days later, Nasser announced that he was closing the Straits of Tiran, thus keeping Israeli shipping out of the Gulf of Aqaba, its only outlet to the Red Sea. This was a blatant violation of international law. But although President Johnson declared Nasser's action illegal, he did not order the U.S. Navy to run the blockade and preserve the freedom of the seas— as Eisenhower had pledged ten years before that America would do if the straits were ever closed. Johnson counseled Levi Eshkol not to take matters into his own hands, either, but the Israeli prime minister decided he had no choice. On June5, Israel launched a series of lightning strikes against its neighbors that delivered a resounding victory in just six days. This was the second straight Arab-Israeli war that the United States had failed to prevent by not offering firm support to Israel beforehand. By jollying Nasser along, Washington had only encouraged his far-flung designs.
The United States likewise did little to forestall Egypt's next attempt to wipe Israel off the map, which occurred during the Yom Kippur holiday in 1973. But at least the Nixon administration, to its great credit, rushed emergency deliveries of arms to Israel when it appeared that the Jewish state stood on the brink of annihilation. Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, hoped to maintain a public stance of neutrality by hiding these arms shipments from the Arab states. But the ruse fell apart when foul weather delayed some giant C-5A transport planes laden with U.S. military supplies. They were supposed to land in Israel under cover of darkness; instead they descended in the middle of the day on October 14, their insignia clear for all to see. Before long America was embroiled in its next Middle East crisis— this one centered on the oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf.
Just as the United States had done a poor job of assuming Britain's imperial role in Egypt, so now it did an equally poor job in the Gulf.
PRIME MINISTER HAROLD WILSON announced in 1968 that Britain was withdrawing from its military commitments "east of Suez." The Pax Britannica was defunct, the Pax Americana did not yet exist. The small Gulf states— Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and what would become the United Arab Emirates— were on their own. Deprived, against their will, of British protection, the sheikhs had to make common cause with their large, dangerous neighbors. It is perhaps no coincidence that within two years of the final British pullout in 1971, these Gulf states were presenting a major challenge to the West. The British pullout had left a power vacuum that the United States, embroiled in Vietnam and, before long, Watergate, was unable to fill. Instead President Nixon outsourced the protection of the Gulf to America's great friends, the shah of Iran and the king of Saudi Arabia, who became two of the world's biggest buyers of U.S. arms. Nixon saw them as "Twin Pillars" of stability in the region, but they were also twin pillars of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
OPEC, formed in 1960, had little success in controlling oil prices, because non-OPEC oil reserves, especially in the United States, had produced a lot of excess capacity. But by the early 1970s, fast economic growth in Japan, Western Europe, and the United States had strained oil stocks. Now there was little give in the market, leaving the oil-producing states maximum leverage to raise prices.
The OPEC countries were ready to seize the moment, having already nationalized their oil industries. Oil fields across the world had been developed at great risk and expense by Western oil companies. At the stroke of a pen, various dictators in effect stole these assets— and heard nary a peep of protest from Washington. The trend had begun in Mexico in the 1930s and spread to the Middle East in 1951, when Prime Minister Mossadegh crafted, and the shah signed, a law nationalizing Iran's oil industry. All British oil company employees were summarily booted out of the country.
This decision, which occurred amid turmoil and violence (a previous, anti-nationalization prime minister had been assassinated by Islamic terrorists), caused great consternation in London, since a British company (Anglo-Iranian, forerunner of British Petroleum) held the Iranian oil concession. But Washington nixed Prime Minister Clement Atlee's plans for military intervention to take back Anglo-Iranian's refineries. The United States got involved in toppling Mossadegh by covert means only when efforts to work out a diplomatic solution had gotten nowhere, and it appeared that "Mossy's" chaotic rule might provide an opening for Tudeh, as the Iranian Communist party was known. The combined CIA-MI6 operation (code-named Ajax, and run by Kermit Roosevelt) wouldn't have worked had it not been for declining popular support for Mossadegh and a resurgence of backing for the shah, who, under Iran's constitution, was well within his rights to sack his prime minister.
But the return of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to real power did not result in the privatization of the Iranian oil industry. The shah did sign a contract with a multinational consortium of oil companies (including Anglo-Iranian) to manage Iran's production, but his government retained ownership. As Daniel Yergin recounts in his invaluable history "The Prize," this helped establish the principle that oil assets would not be privately held, a principle that other states enthusiastically applied in the years ahead. By the mid-1970s, Algeria, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Venezuela had nationalized their oil industries, usually offering the previous owners a pittance in compensation. This was not just a financial loss for the West; it turned into a major strategic problem, for it created the "oil weapon" that OPEC wielded with great gusto.
In 1973 the Arab members of OPEC announced an embargo on oil shipments to the United States and the Netherlands to punish America for its support of Israel. This produced an immediate shock in America, with lines snaking around the block at many gas stations— when gas was available at all. Two ironies made this especially humiliating: The Gulf states were cutting off oil shipments to the U.S. Navy, which protected them; and the embargo had to be carried out by American companies, which still ran many oil fields under contract to the exporting states. Painful as it was, the selective embargo did not work very well. Oil is a fungible commodity, and America and the Netherlands were able to buy most of what they needed from other sources. Realizing that the embargo was failing, OPEC abandoned it in 1974.
But the oil cartel, led by the shah, was more successful in its attempts to ratchet up prices by ratcheting down production: Prices spiked from $3 a barrel in 1970 to a whopping $30 a barrel in 1980. As oil prices went up, the U.S. economy went down, afflicted by a horrible combination of stagnation and inflation that came to be known as "stagflation." These economic woes were exacerbated by the ham-handed U.S. government response, which under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter primarily consisted of government-imposed rationing, price controls, and a "windfall profits" tax that interfered with the functioning of the market. But there was no question that the primary culprits were to be found around a meeting table in Vienna. OPEC held the Western economy hostage.
Rather pitifully, Washington pleaded with its friends in the region to exert their influence to bring down prices, but the Twin Pillars, the Saudi king and the shah, usually turned a deaf ear to American entreaties. "There are some people who thought— and perhaps some who still think— that I am a toy in the Americans' hands," the shah said in 1975. "Why would I accept to be a toy? There are reasons for our power which will make us stronger, so why would we be content to be someone else's catspaw?" Odd talk coming from a man whose survival— like that of the Saudi royal family— depended, in the final instance, on American military protection. But the shah and the Saudis were more eager to appease nationalist and Islamic radicals who called for a united Arab front against the "Zionist oppressors" and "Western imperialists." The cost of crossing the extremists was too great; the Saudis got a taste of what they could expect when, in the spring of 1973, terrorists attacked one of their refineries and pipelines. The royal family decided to buy off the extremists, even if it meant offending Washington. But then they did not especially fear the wrath of the Americans. They figured— rightly, as it turned out— that the United States would do little to undermine their governments because it feared that the alternative, whether Nasserite or fundamentalist, would be worse.
Just as the OPEC potentates expected, the United States submitted supinely to economic blackmail. The U.S. government made no attempt to take back by force the oil fields confiscated by various Middle Eastern despots. Washington did not even try to prosecute OPEC for blatant violations of antitrust law, as it has done with other overseas cartels such as De Beers. Doing so might have required legislation to lift the "sovereign immunity" provision that protects foreign governments, under most circumstances, from being sued in U.S. courts. This would have been perfectly possible for Congress to do— if any administration had pushed for such legislation. But none did. Numerous bills to allow OPEC to be sued have died in Congress, the most recent being legislation sponsored in 2001 by Rep. Ben Gilman. The result is that De Beers executives are afraid to visit the United States for fear of being arrested or served with legal papers. But OPEC sheikhs, who rig the price of a commodity far more important than diamonds, are able to come to the United States whenever they desire access to physicians, chefs, or prostitutes superior to those available in the Arab world. They also feel free to keep vast amounts of money in the U.S. financial system without fear of having their assets frozen.
By the 1980s, the oil crisis had passed, having inflicted great damage on the economies of the West. Saudi Arabia, with the largest oil reserves in the world, earned Washington's gratitude for moderating prices, much as a local Mafia boss might earn the gratitude of a bodega owner whose shop he refrained from destroying. But the Saudi pressure on fellow OPEC states not to raise prices too high, while presented to credulous Washington policymakers as a great favor to America, was in reality self-serving: Riyadh was afraid that if it priced its oil out of the market the result would be a slackening of demand and the development of alternative energy sources. That is precisely what happened during the 1970s oil crisis, which made it profitable for Britain and Norway to extract high-cost oil from the North Sea.
Generations of Washington policymakers have fooled themselves into thinking that Saudi oil revenues could be directed for friendly purposes. This illusion was easy to sustain in the 1980s when the Saudis, for their own theological purposes, bankrolled anti-Soviet mujahedeen in Afghanistan. Again, this was presented by Riyadh as a great favor to Washington, but was actually in the Saudis' interest, since it was designed to court favor with Islamic extremists both at home and abroad. Since September 11, 2001, it has become obvious that significant sums in petrodollars have gone to fund virulently anti-Western madrassas around the world or have found their way into the pockets of outright terrorists like Osama bin Laden, himself a Saudi. This places OPEC's activities— previously seen merely as greed run amok— in a rather more sinister light. The Saudis and the rest weren't just out to make a buck; they were also out, like Nasser before them, to assert Arab and Islamic power at the expense of the West. And successive American administrations— obsessed, understandably, with the Soviet threat— did little to stop them.
BY THE LATE 1970s, Nasserite pan-Arabism was a spent force; Anwar Sadat, Nasser's successor, conceded as much by reaching a peace agreement with Israel. But there now arose a new and even more virulent threat to the United States in the form of Islamism, a violent creed that blended elements of fundamentalist Islam with a power-centered ideology inspired by fascism and communism. The catalyst for its rise was the 1979 Iranian revolution which overthrew America's great friend, the shah. The Carter administration did little to help the shah, hoping thereby to woo support among the revolutionaries. But the hard-liners effectively foreclosed this possibility on November 4, 1979, when they invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
Seventy-nine years earlier, when hordes of fanatical Boxers had invaded the Legation Quarter in Peking, America, Japan, and the leading nations of Europe had dispatched a large expeditionary force to march on the Chinese capital and liberate the besieged diplomats. But Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had no fear of an American army marching on Tehran. "Our youth should be confident that America cannot do a damn thing," he told his followers three days after the embassy takeover. "America is far too impotent to interfere in a military way here. If they could have interfered, they would have retained the shah."
The ayatollah was right. Jimmy Carter contented himself with imposing ineffectual diplomatic and economic sanctions. Only after nearly five months of "America held hostage" did Carter attempt a rescue mission, and the pathetic Eagle Claw expedition had to be aborted on April25, 1980, after two aircraft collided at a rendezvous point code-named Desert One. The president rejected suggestions to invade Iran, or at the very least, bombard or capture its oil facilities and other important targets. This, it was feared, would lead to the hostages' being killed.
Carter's gambit paid off to the extent that all 52 hostages were released alive. But by showing such restraint, Carter ensured that many more Americans would be kidnapped and killed in the future.
Years later, one of the embassy guards, former Marine Sgt. Rodney Sickmann, regretted that he'd been ordered not to fire so much as a tear gas canister at the embassy invaders. "Had we opened fire on them maybe we would only have lasted an hour," he told the New York Times in 2002. But "we could have changed history" by showing that Americans could not be attacked with impunity. Instead the embassy surrender showed that Americans were easy targets. "If you look back, it started in 1979; it's just escalated," Sickmann says.
The escalation occurred first in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In 1979 Islamist radicals briefly seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and in 1981 they assassinated Anwar Sadat. The Levant soon became a major focus of their operations.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Palestine Liberation Organization— a secular organization but one that often cooperated with Islamist groups— used southern Lebanon as a base from which to attack Israel. Israel responded by invading Lebanon in 1982, putting the PLO fighters on the run and trapping them in Beirut. At this point, the United States, as so often in the past, intervened to prevent Israel from winning a complete victory against its sworn enemies. President Reagan pressured Prime Minister Menachem Begin to rein in his troops and let Yasser Arafat and his followers leave Lebanon, preserving them to fight another day. To supervise the evacuation of 8,000 Fatah fighters, the United States, along with France and Italy, landed a small peacekeeping force in Beirut. Though this force was soon evacuated, the three countries decided to send a larger force back after the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps to help the Lebanese government restore some semblance of control over a country torn by civil war. Unfortunately this only increased the number of targets available for Iranian-backed Islamists who were openly waging war on the Great Satan.
The death toll mounted fast. On April 18, 1983, a Shiite suicide bomber struck the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, 17 Americans among them, including both the CIA station chief and his deputy. On October 23 of that year, another Shiite suicide bomber hit the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 soldiers. In the face of this attack, the Reagan administration revealed itself to be no more muscular than its Democratic predecessor had been. After the battleship New Jersey hurled a few Volkswagen-sized shells into the hills above Beirut, President Reagan announced that the remaining Marines would be "redeployed" to ships offshore. This sent a loud and clear message to America's enemies: The Americans are weak. Kill a few of them, and you can chase them out of your country.
The image of American impotence was reinforced by the continuing hostage crisis in Lebanon. Having learned in 1979 that taking American hostages pays, the Iranians decided to turn this into a major business. With the complicity of Syria, the Iranians directed their Hezbollah proxies to kidnap and kill a steady stream of Westerners. Among those seized and murdered were William Buckley, the new CIA station chief in Beirut, and Marine Colonel William Higgins, chief of a U.N. peacekeeping force.
It did not require Hercule Poirot to see Iranian fingerprints all over these operations. Many of the kidnap victims were held at the Sheik Abdallah Barracks in the Lebanese town of Baalbek, which had been taken over as a base of operations by uniformed members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Pasdaran. One of the early hostages— David Dodge, acting president of the American University Beirut, who was abducted on July 19, 1982— was transported first to Damascus, and then, from there, to Tehran via Iran Air. He was held in the Iranian capital for six months before being released. None of this was a secret at the time; Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer, recounts in his gripping memoir, "See No Evil," how in October 1984 he visited Baalbek and even saw the barracks where he suspected (rightly, as it turned out) that Buckley and five other Westerners were imprisoned.
Washington's ineffectual response in the face of this aggression boggles the mind. The Reagan administration did briefly bomb Libya in 1986, in response to an attack on a Berlin disco, but these pinprick airstrikes only enraged Muammar Qaddafi, whose agents, in retaliation, destroyed Pan Am flight 103 in 1988, killing 270 people. More significantly, the Reagan administration did not punish Damascus or Tehran, which were bigger sponsors of anti-American terrorism than Tripoli. It did not even dispatch Delta Force to Baalbek to free the captives and kill their kidnappers. Instead it provided the Iranian mullahs with arms in exchange for hostages, making a mockery of America's traditional policy of not dealing with terrorists. This policy was not even very successful on its face: Repeated American deliveries of thousands of missiles induced Iran to release just three hostages.
AMERICA was an equal opportunity appeaser. While trying to buy off Iran, it was also backing Iran's mortal enemy, Iraq, during their war in the 1980s. This was a justifiable realpolitik policy designed to forestall Iranian domination of the Persian Gulf, and included a limited war to protect Kuwaiti tankers from Iranian attacks in 1987-88. As part of this "tanker war," the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger airliner on July 3, 1988. It was an accident, but conspiracy-minded Iranians thought it a deliberate expression of a new get-tough approach by that cowboy Ronald Reagan. Within a month, Tehran had concluded a cease-fire with Iraq— an odd testament to the far-reaching results that even the inadvertent and misguided flexing of American muscle could achieve in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, America continued catering to Saddam Hussein even after the Iran-Iraq War was over. On July 25, 1990, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie had an infamous meeting with Saddam in which she informed the Iraqi dictator that the United States had "no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." Saddam took this as a green light for his invasion of his tiny neighbor, which began a week later. It turned out that his expectation of American acquiescence— based not only on his conversation with Glaspie but also on his reading of events of the previous three decades, going all the way back to Suez in 1956— was not justified. President Bush, with a prompt from Margaret Thatcher, mobilized an impressive coalition to kick Iraq out of Kuwait. Desert Storm turned into one of the most one-sided wars in history.
It was America's shining hour— a victory that might have erased years of failure in the Middle East. Except that Bush refused to follow the logic of military victory to its natural political outcome; he ended the ground war after just 100 hours, while the Republican Guard remained intact and Saddam remained in power. In the cease-fire that followed, General Norman Schwarzkopf unwisely allowed Saddam's forces to fly helicopters over the parts of Iraq they still controlled. Those helicopters helped Saddam slaughter Shiites and Kurds who had risen up against his rule— at American instigation— in great numbers. American prestige instantly plummeted from the heights it had attained just a few weeks before. And no wonder. Here was the mighty American army sitting idle, while nearby rivers ran red with the blood of their allies.
This inaction in the face of Saddam's provocations would be repeated time and again in the 1990s. Saddam plotted to kill George H.W. Bush in 1993; in retaliation, President Clinton unleashed America's full wrath . . . to flatten an empty intelligence headquarters. The U.S. government hatched a plot to overthrow Saddam in 1995, only to pull out at the last minute, and leave its Kurdish friends to either cut deals with the dictator, flee, or be killed. Saddam stopped cooperating with U.N. weapons inspectors in 1998; in response, the United States and Britain bombed Iraq for all of four days. None of this made an appreciable dent in Saddam's dictatorship. This failure suggested to conspiracy-minded Middle Easterners either that the United States secretly wanted to maintain Saddam in power for some nefarious purpose, or that it feared the Iraqi dictator. Either way, the vacillating U.S. policy on Iraq signaled a fatal lack of seriousness on America's part.
THIS IMPRESSION was reinforced in the 1990s by America's failure to take stern steps against the terrorists who waged war against it. Continuing a campaign that began in 1979, Islamist operatives bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and the USS Cole in 2000. Hezbollah attacked a Saudi National Guard facility in Riyadh in 1995, killing five Americans, and the Khobar Towers barracks in 1996, killing 19 Americans. Al Qaeda also claimed credit for working with local tribesmen to kill 18 American soldiers in Mogadishu in 1993, driving U.S. forces out of Somalia. Daniel Pipes estimates that even before the costliest terrorist strike in history occurred on September 11, 2001, Islamist violence directed at Americans had killed 800 people— "more than killed by any other enemy since the Vietnam War."
Yet, as Pipes notes, "these murders hardly registered." Successive administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, treated them not as an ongoing war but as a matter for the criminal justice system. Bob Woodward's new book, "Bush at War," reveals that during the Clinton administration, a group of Afghan agents hired by the CIA to shadow Osama bin Laden offered to kill the al Qaeda leader. The agency refused to authorize the mission, because it would have violated the executive ban on assassinations.
Such unwarranted restraint demoralized America's friends in the region and emboldened our enemies. Looking at how America was chased out of Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia, bin Laden and his minions thought they saw an explanation for America's inaction: The United States was too weak and decadent to resist the jihadists. "We no longer fear the so-called Great Powers," bin Laden proclaimed in a 2000 recruitment video for al Qaeda.
We believe that America is much weaker than Russia; and our brothers who fought in Somalia told us they were astonished to observe how weak, impotent and cowardly the American soldier is. As soon as eighty [sic] American troops were killed, they fled in the dark as fast as they could, after making a great noise about the new international order. America's nightmares in Vietnam and Lebanon will pale by comparison with the forthcoming victory in al-Hijaz.
Presumably the campaign in Afghanistan disabused al Qaeda of some of these illusions— but not all. The toppling of the Taliban was a good start, but only a start. A bigger test now awaits us in Iraq. America's "friends" in the region fear that American troops will march on Baghdad and install a democratic government, something that would undermine their own grip on power. They couch this fear in the language of "stability"— toppling Saddam, they counsel, would foster "instability" in the region. This is actually the best reason to liberate Iraq. The "stability" of the region produced September 11. There is no guarantee what will come out of post-invasion "instability," but if the United States remains a strong player in the region, it should be considerably better than the status quo antebellum.
Beyond Iraq loom other challenges— especially Syria and Iran, which have been waging undeclared war on the United States for 20 years, but also Saudi Arabia, which has abetted this war even as it has benefited from American protection. It is possible that a U.S. victory in Iraq will intimidate these regimes into better behavior. If not, the United States will have to take more vigorous steps to align our relationships with these countries with our interests and principles. This is a major undertaking, and the necessity for it might have been averted by wiser action years ago, but the long record of U.S. futility in the Middle East now presents us with this defining task.
Contributing editor Max Boot is an Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."