OpinionMiddle East

Will Biden avoid the mistakes of the past?

Will the new U.S. foreign policy and national security team learn from critical past errors on Iran and the Middle East, or repeat them? At stake is regional and global stability.

Joe Biden and Barack Obama in Springfield, Illinois, Aug. 23, 2008, right after Biden was introduced by Obama as his running mate. Credit: Daniel Schwen via Wikimedia Commons.
Joe Biden and Barack Obama in Springfield, Illinois, Aug. 23, 2008, right after Biden was introduced by Obama as his running mate. Credit: Daniel Schwen via Wikimedia Commons.
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

President Joe Biden’s foreign policy and national security team reflects a resurgence of the U.S. State Department’s worldview. To avoid past mistakes, an examination of this worldview and its track record is thus in order.

In 1948, the State Department-led Washington’s opposition to the recognition of the newly established Jewish state, contending that Israel would be helpless against the expected Arab military assault, would be pro-Soviet, would undermine U.S.-Arab relations, destabilize the Middle East, threaten the U.S. oil supply and cause severe long-term damage to U.S. interests. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Lovett claimed that recognizing the Jewish state prematurely would be “buying a pig in a poke.”

During the 1950s, the United States courted Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, considering him a potential ally and extending non-military aid. Meanwhile, Egypt evolved into a key ally of the USSR, supporting anti-Western elements in Africa, intensifying anti-U.S. sentiments among Arabs and attempting to topple every single pro-U.S. Arab regime.

In 1978-79, the United States betrayed the pro-U.S. shah of Iran, while embracing Ayatollah Khomeini, including intelligence sharing during the initial months of the Khomeini regime, under the assumption that he was controllable and seeking freedom, democracy and positive ties with Washington.

In 1980-1990, the United States collaborated with Saddam Hussein, including intelligence-sharing, supplying dual-use systems and extending $5 billion loan guarantees. The assumption was that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This policy was perceived by Saddam as a green light to invade Kuwait, as documented by the July 25, 1990 meeting between Saddam and the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, April Gillespie, eight days before the invasion, when she asserted (reflecting the position of the State Department) that an invasion of Kuwait was an inter-Arab issue.

Between 1993 and 2000, the U.S. administration hailed PLO chairman Yasser Arafat as a messenger of peace, worthy of the Nobel peace prize and annual U.S. foreign aid, ignoring his annihilationist ambitions, as reflected by his 1959 and 1964 Fatah and PLO charters, hate-education system and intensified terrorism.

In 2009, the United States embraced the anti-U.S. Muslim Brotherhood, ignoring its terrorist nature and defining it as a political, secular entity. Thus, the United States turned a cold shoulder toward pro-U.S. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, paving the road for the Muslim Brotherhood ascension to power in 2012-13, a blow to all pro-U.S. Arab countries.

Until the eruption of the 2011 civil war in Syria, the State Department considered Syrian President Bashar Assad a reformer and a potential moderate due to his background as an ophthalmologist in London and his marriage to a British woman. Similarly, his father, Hafez Assad (“the butcher from Damascus”) was regarded as a man of his word, a credible negotiator, justifying Israel’s giveaway of the strategically critical Golan Heights.

In 2011, the State Department was a key engine behind the U.S.-led NATO military offensive which toppled Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi, notwithstanding his dismantling of Libya’s nuclear infrastructure, fervent war on Islamic terrorism and providing the U.S. with unique counter-terror intelligence. The toppling of Qaddafi transformed Libya into a platform of civil war and global Islamic terrorism.

In 2011, the Washington, D.C., foreign policy and national security establishment welcomed the tectonic eruption of violence on the Arab street as a march toward democracy, peaceful-coexistence, Facebook and youth revolutions—an “Arab Spring.”

However, in reality, it was a ruthless Arab Tsunami, exposing endemic intra-Arab and intra-Muslim terrorism, subversion and violent power struggles—tribal, ethnic, religious, ideological, local and regional.

In 2015, irrespective of Iran’s fanatical, repressive and megalomaniacal ideology and systematic perpetration of war and terrorism, the architects of the Iran nuclear accord provided Iran’s ayatollahs with a $150 billion bonanza. They were guided by the assumption that the ayatollahs were credible partners for negotiation, amenable to peaceful coexistence and influence-sharing with their Arab Sunni neighbors. Moreover, the United States disappointed most Iranians by renouncing a military (regime-change) option against the ruthless and lawless regime in Tehran.

In view of this track record, which highlights a systematic gap between Middle East reality and State Department policy—President Biden’s Middle East team may benefit from the studies of the late professor Elie Kedourie (London School of Economics and Political Science), an iconic Middle East historian whose politically-incorrect books and articles have been vindicated by history.

According to Kedourie (The Chatham House Version): “One of the simplest and yet most effective means known to mankind of keeping in touch with reality is to contrast what people say with what they do. … Alien conventions and unfamiliar speech add to the confusion. … All too often assumptions are not tested on the pulse of experience, they remain mere abstract doctrines, and men are taken up and praised for what they say rather than for what they are.”

In 2021, 10 years following the eruption of the Arab tsunami—and contrary to the expectations of the State Department—the Arab street is still dominated by its intrinsic 1,400-year-old instability, unpredictability, violent intolerance and despotism. Nor has the tsunami reached its peak.

Such a policy failure can be attributed—if one employs professor Kedourie’s theories—to “successive and cumulative manifestations of illusion, misjudgment, maladroitness and failure” (ibid, p. ix).

Will President Biden’s foreign policy and national security team, dealing with Iran’s ayatollahs and the Middle East at large—epicenters of global proliferation of ballistic and nuclear technologies, as well as Islamic terrorism—learn from critical past errors, or repeat them?

At stake is regional and global stability, including the national and homeland security of the United States.

Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

This article was first published by The Ettinger Report.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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