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American Foreign Policy in the Middle East:

Designed to Create Enemies, Not Friends

By Hassan El-Najjar 

Al-Jazeerah, January 24, 2002

First presented in a radio program, on October 28, 2001 [1]



Since September 11, 2001, American media, particularly major TV networks, newspapers and magazines, have been busy trying to cover the American government response and how the American people are coping with the tragedy. During the first week, most of them tried to answer the question, “why do they hate us?” However, they did not continue in that direction because it would lead them to a review of the American foreign policy in the Middle East. And if they did that, they may end up criticizing or blaming that policy for what happened. Moreover, such a review may implicate the media because of their biased coverage of the Middle Eastern problems. That is why they have concentrated on the government response that they call, “America strikes back.”


This article attempts to answer that dodged question. However, in no way, the reckless and biased American foreign policy justifies for victims to victimize others, particularly innocent civilians. The fatal mistake that has led to this foreign policy fiasco has been compromising a major principle the founding fathers insisted upon, that is, maintaining a system of checks and balances in government. Only then, bias would be minimum and conflict of interests would be avoided. But successive administrations have recklessly compromised that principle, Since the 1960s. This was evident in dealing with the Middle East, particularly concerning the Palestinian problem, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iraqi-Kuwaiti crisis, and the Afghani tragedy. In each administration, pro-Israel experts would be appointed to major decision-making positions in the National Security Council, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and other major government agencies. These appointments have never been counterbalanced with appointment of an equal number of Arab and Muslim Americans in the same departments. Had this happened, the system of checks and balances would be in place, and we would have a fair and balanced foreign policy in the Middle East. However, in the absence of that, the pro-Israel experts kept recommending policies that only serve Israeli aggressive policies, and consequently harming Arabs and Muslims, particularly Palestinians. The end outcome has been the continuously rising anti-American sentiments in that region of the world.


As a start, I would like to say that Arabs and Muslims do not hate America. They complain about American foreign policy that has resulted in harming them for decades. In fact, Arabs and Muslims admire core American values of cultural diversity, tolerance, freedom, democracy, religiosity, devotion for work, accessible higher education, and emphasis on science and technology. This admiration is evident in the millions of Arabs and Muslims who immigrated to the United States. Like their fellow Americans, they have been living in big cities and small towns, and working hard to achieve their American dream.


American involvement in the Palestinian Problem and the Arab-Israeli Conflict


Before I talk about the Palestinian problem, I would like to start with an issue of special importance. Some Americans believe that they have a religious duty to support Israel, because Almighty God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, Isaac, Jacob (Israel) and their descendants, as mentioned in the Book of Genesis. I would like to tell those that they do not have any religious obligation to support the state of Israel in its aggression against the Palestinian people. This is based on purely religious terms. First, that promise had been fulfilled. Abraham and his descendants lived in the land of Canaan, as God promised them. Moreover, the Canaanites followed Abraham and the Prophets, and intermarried with their descendants. Second, when Jesus Christ preached his message, he first preached it to the descendants of the Israelites, who followed him. Then about 600 years later, when the Prophet Muhammed delivered the message of Islam to humanity, these Christians (descendants of the Israelites) followed him and became Muslims. They have been living on that land for thousands of years, until now. Consequently, those who are now known as Palestinians (Muslims and Christians) are likely to be the physical descendants of the ancient Israelites, just like some Jews are. As a result, nobody should be under an obligation to support Israel just on that basis. Finally, the Israelis have not been fair with the Palestinians. They took their lands, homes, villages, and cities by force. Moreover, they have refused for more than half a century to compensate or allow them to return. But how did the Palestinian problem happen? This question can be answered by giving a historical background for the problem.


Historical Background


The Palestinian problem started when European Zionists held their first conference in Basle, Switzerland, in 1897. At that conference, they decided to establish their own nation-state in the Middle East, influenced by the wave of nationalism that swept the European continent by then. They tried to get an approval for their project from the Ottoman Sultan, who was the ruler of that part of the world, but he refused to cooperate with them. Then, they turned to the British, who agreed to adopt the Zionist project, in return for receiving Zionist assistance during World War I. In 1917, the British Foreign Minister, Balfour, issued his infamous declaration, in which the British government promised to help establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Between 1917 and 1948 (the period of the British occupation of Palestine), the British government enabled hundreds of thousands of European Jews to enter Palestine illegally and allowed them to establish their armed forces. On May 14, 1948, Britain withdrew from the country after fulfilling its promise, and Israel was declared the following day.


The earliest American involvement in the Palestinian problem was in 1917, when President Wilson endorsed the Balfour declaration and was actually one of its “draftsmen.” In 1945, President Roosevelt objected to allowing 300,000 European Jewish refugees to go to Palestine, prudently anticipating the problem. However, His successor, President Truman, adopted the Zionist project as his and pressured the British Prime Minister to allow them to enter Palestine. In 1947, the United States used its influence to pass the United Nations “partition” Resolution 181, which gave 54 percent of Palestine to about half a million of illegal Jewish immigrants, on the expense of the 1.3 million Palestinians who lost their villages, cities, and lands as a result.[ii] When Israel was declared in 1948, the United States was the first country to recognize it, within eleven minutes.[iii] Palestinians did not accept that unfair partition and resisted it, particularly after receiving assistance from the neighboring Arab states. The war resulted in the Arab defeat, and about a million of the Palestinians became refugees.


Israel could have solved the Palestinian problem from the beginning by complying with the United Nations resolutions, particularly Resolution 194, which called for the repatriation and compensation of the Palestinian refugees. However, Israel refused to allow them to return to their lands after the war. Instead, it passed the Law of Return that allows only Jews to come to Israel and become Israeli citizens.


The Palestinians were devastated, their country became divided into three parts. The biggest part became known as Israel. The West Bank became part of Jordan, and Gaza Strip became under the Egyptian administration. For the following half a century, Israel terrorized the entire Middle East through the successive wars it launched against all its Arab neighbors. This could have not happened without media biased coverage and military and financial support from the West in general, and the United States in particular.  In 1951, Israeli agents attacked with bombs the areas where Iraqi Jews lived in Baghdad, in order to force them to immigrate to Israel. Other Israeli agents attacked the British and American embassies and other places in Egypt, in an attempt to damage the Egyptian relations with Britain and the U.S.[iv]


In 1956, Israel participated in the Suez Campaign together with Britain and France against Egypt, occupying the Sinai Peninsula and the Palestinian Gaza Strip. President Eisenhower ordered the three aggressors to withdraw, and they did. This was the only time an American president was courageous enough to stand against the Israeli expansionist policies.


Between 1956 and 1967, Israel prepared for its third war against its Arab neighbors. This time, it depended on the air supremacy provided by the French Mirage jets and intelligence from the American Navy ship, “Liberty.” During the 1967 War, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip, the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and the Syrian Golan Heights. The United Nations Security Council issued Resolution 242, calling for the Israeli withdrawal and solution for the refugee problem. This was confirmed in Resolution 338. However, Israel has not observed these resolutions and continued behaving as it is above international law. It launched its fourth and fifth wars, this time against Lebanon, in 1978 and 1982. These two wars resulted in the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon, which continued until May 2000, when Israel was forced to withdraw as a result of the effective Lebanese resistance.


Successive American administrations never pressured Israel to withdraw from the Arab occupied territories. Instead, Israel has been rewarded by huge amounts of financial and military aid ever since, that reach about $4 billion a year. Realizing that Israel enjoy immunity from applying international law, Palestinians revolted for about five years between 1987 and 1993, in what became known as the first Uprising (intifadha). People watched on TV all over the world, including the Middle East, how Israeli soldiers killed, maimed, and broke bones of Palestinian children, who demonstrated against the Israeli occupation. Even the pro-Israel American TV networks could not ignore the Israeli atrocities against the civilian Palestinian population. Blood bath scenes from the massacres in Al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem and Al-Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron troubled the whole world, including Arabs and Muslims.


These scenes could not move the Bush and the Clinton administrations to pressure Israel to withdraw from the Arab occupied territories. All what President Bush could achieve was holding the Madrid Conference in response to the criticism that was raised against his administration of following a double-standard policy in international relations. While he did not tolerate the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait for more than five months, all what he did to address the problem of the Israeli occupation of the Arab territories was bringing Arabs and Israelis to the negotiation table.


These negotiations continued throughout the 1990s, during the two Clinton administrations, without leading to an end to the Israeli occupation. In 1999, President Clinton gave more personal attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (because he finally had some time to think about his job),[v] but in no way he was willing to pressure the Israelis to withdraw from the Palestinian territories. He brought Barak and Arafat to Camp David in an intensive effort to reach a solution. Barak offered withdrawal from most of the Palestinian territories but it was not a good-faith effort. He would not allow the future Palestinian state to have borders with Egypt and Jordan. He would keep Israeli control over roads and settlements between the Palestinian cities, thus dividing the Palestinian entity into Bantustans, not a viable independent state. Finally, he did not want to solve the Palestinian refugee problem, which is the essence of the conflict. The talks failed and the Palestinian people have revolted again, in what has become the second Uprising, since September 28, 2000. This led to the collapse of the Barak government and the coming the extreme right-wing government of Sharon, who won the elections on the platform of defeating the Palestinians, not making peace with them.


The new Bush administration adopted a “hands-off” policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It focused on relations with Russia and China, leaving Sharon with a green light to end the Palestinian Uprising by force. President Bush himself received Sharon in the White House several times, while excluding Arafat, who was never invited to Washington. The Vice President, Dick Chenney, and the Secretary of Defense Rumsfield stated their approval of the measures the Sharon government uses to crush the Uprising, including the use of F-16s, Apache helicopters, and tanks to crush the Intifadha.


This was the atmosphere just before the September 11th tragedy: despair and hopelessness in the Middle East due to the fact that the United States is fully behind the Israeli continuous aggression in the region. This explains the continuously rising anti-American sentiments there. Nevertheless, it is not the indifference of the Bush administration that led to the September 11th attack, as it was apparently planned long before the coming of this administration. However, the Bush administration after September 11th is still not pressuring Israel to withdraw even from the Palestinian cities it reoccupied in October 2000. President Bush and his Secretary of State, Colin Powel, announced their support of a Palestinian state. However, they tracked that back saying that it has to be the result of negotiations, which means that they are not going to pressure Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian territories. So, we are in square one, again.


The 1991 Gulf War


The 1991 Gulf War represented the second major factor that contributed to the rising anti-American sentiments in the Middle East. Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, several Arab leaders succeeded in getting the Iraqi approval to withdraw from Kuwait. However, the Bush administration refused to promise that it would not punish Iraq after withdrawal.


The United States also refused to promise that it would address the Israeli occupation of the Arab territories after the Iraqi withdrawal. The Iraqis were looking for a face-saving reason to withdraw without fighting. However, President Bush insisted on saying that there would be neither “linkage” nor face-saving. By linkage, he meant that the Kuwaiti problem should not be “linked” to the Palestinian problem. In other words, he preferred going to war that would destroy Iraq than giving a promise to address the Israeli occupation of the Arab territories.


Democrats in Congress, led by Senator Sam Nunn, tried to persuade the administration to opt for sanctions, instead of war but in vain. The Soviets tried as hard as they could to resolve the crisis peacefully, through so many peace initiatives, but their efforts were all rejected. Even the Geneva meeting, between Secretary of State James Baker and the Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, was not designed for looking for peace. Rather, it aimed at delivering an ultimatum warning Iraqis not to use unconventional weapons, or Iraq would be devastated by tactical nuclear bombs.


Thus, in about five months, the United States assembled a coalition of 31 countries not just to evict Iraqis from Kuwait, but to destroy Iraq itself and remove its threat to the Israeli military superiority in the region. The War resulted in killing about 150,000 Iraqi soldiers. Iraq has been subjected to an embargo and a system of economic sanctions that contributed to the death of about a million and a half Iraqis, about half a million of whom were children. More than ten years after the War, American and British planes are still patrolling Iraqi skies, bombing military targets, as they deem it necessary.[vi]


But, why did the Bush administration refuse to allow Iraqis to withdraw without punishment? Why was the destruction of Iraq a goal in itself, instead of just evicting the Iraqi troops from Kuwait? Who recommended that path of action and influenced President Bush to adopt the war option instead of responding to the many peace initiatives? The answers for these questions lie again in the lack of checks and balances in high-level positions in government. Pro-Israel experts and officials in the administration were (and still are) the guard dogs for Israel. They insisted on the destruction of Iraq because it would serve the interests of Israel. It has nothing to do with securing the Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait or with any American national interests. There were no Arab and Muslim Americans appointed in various government departments and agencies to counterbalance the influence of pro-Israel experts there. Had this been the case, the crisis could have been resolved without war. Thus, excessive killing and destruction in Iraq, together with the continuation of punishment and suffering of the Iraqi people for more than ten years after the War contributed to the rising anti-American sentiments in the Middle East.




In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in support for the communist regime there. The United State found it a golden opportunity to do to the Soviets what they did to Americans in Vietnam.[vii] So, the American government led a concerted effort to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The United States provided financial and military resources to the Afghani fighters, known as the Mujahideen. Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states also provided financial resources, and together with other so-called moderate Arab governments allowed the recruitment of Arab young men to fight in Afghanistan. This was the time when Usama Bin Laden and other Arabs were persuaded to help in the effort of fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan. In addition, Pakistan provided its facilities as training fields and supply centers.


The War lasted from 1979 to 1988. It was a total defeat for the Soviets, just like the American defeat in Vietnam. The Soviets losses were about 15,000 deaths and tens of thousands of injuries. Moreover, the war devastated the Soviet economy and was the final blow that led to the collapse of the entire communist system in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. However, the war also devastated the Afghani people, who lost about one million lives in addition to a huge number of injuries. Then, a civil war started following the Soviet withdrawal and did not end until 1995. The civil war completed the destruction of the country and resulted in that the most fundamentalist group, the Taliban movement, has gained control over the country.


Once the Soviets withdrew in 1988, the American government turned its back to the Afghanis. They did not receive any serious help or any economic assistance, like the Marshal Plan that helped Europeans reconstruct after World War II. The Taliban movement and the Afghan Arabs were left alone thinking about what happened to them. They felt that they were used by the United States to defeat its Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union. They were bitter because they thought that they would be treated better by the United States. In addition, the Afghan Arabs were even more bitter because of the 1991 Gulf War and its consequences. They concluded that the United States was targeting one Muslim country after another destroying some and weakening others. When the war was over, some American troops stayed in the Arabian Peninsula, which they considered an occupation. Moreover, their fighting experience in Afghanistan gave them the confidence to fight against what they consider “corrupt” Arab governments. They also watched on TV how the Israelis kill and injure Palestinians and destroy their houses and farms on daily bases. They concluded that the United States was responsible for the miseries and tragedies of Muslims, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine. The American presence in the Arabian Peninsula meant a direct military occupation and control over the Arab oil resources. For all these reasons, the anti-American sentiments have been on the increase in the Middle East and throughout the Muslim World.


In conclusion, the politics of the Cold War and the absence of checks and balances in various government departments and agencies have led to the adoption of a reckless and biased American foreign policy in the Middle East. In fact, it can be argued that there is no independent American foreign policy in the Middle East. Rather, there is an Israeli aggressive and expansionist policy followed and supported by the United States.


On the wake of September 11th, Americans should demand a serious review of American foreign policy towards Arabs and Muslims. The new policy should reflect the great American values of freedom, democracy, justice, and cultural diversity. It should aim at promoting peace, not war. It should create friends, not enemies. It shouldn’t serve the interests of one ethnic group on the expense of the nation as a whole. It’s time to appoint Arabs and Muslims in the major positions that are close to decision-making. The American dream is so dear not only for Americans but also for all humanity. It should not be allowed to fade away.


Notes and References


[i] This article was presented first during “Understanding Islam,” a radio program broadcasted on October 28, 2001.

[ii] Hassan Elnajjar. 1993. “Planned Emigration: The Palestinian Case.” International Migration Review. Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring).

El-Najjar, Hassan A. 1988. Effects of Planned Change on  Social Organization: A Case Study of a Palestinian Refugee Camp. A Master's Thesis. Athens: The University of Georgia.


[iii] As Vice President Al Gore bragged in front of his Israeli audience, celebrating Israel’s 50th anniversary of independence, in 1998.


[iv] Black, Ian and Benny Morris. 1991. Israel's Secret Wars: A History of Israel's Intelligence Services.New York: Grove Weidenfeld.


[v] During most of his two administration, he was distracted with his scandals and the legal actions against him by Republicans in Congress.


[vi] Hassan El-Najjar. 2001. The Gulf War: Overreaction & Excessiveness. Amazone Press.


[vii] Zbignew Brzezinski, October 2001. Interview with PBS.


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