Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958–1960, Near East Region; Iraq; Iran; Arabian Peninsula, Volume XII
14. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern, South Asian, and African Affairs (Rountree) to Secretary of State Dulles 0
- Assessment of Current Situation in the Near East
On March 13, the National Security Council discussed the Near Eastern situation.1 Following this meeting and a discussion with Governor Herter, it was considered desirable for NEA, in consultation with CIA and Defense, to prepare an assessment of the current situation in that area (Tab E).2 We now forward this assessment for your consideration and for possible discussion with the President. Defense and CIA have concurred.
The assessment consists of:
- A summary (Tab A).
- Conclusions and Recommendations (Tab B).
- Political, Economic and Military Actions in Progress or Under Active Consideration to Meet U.S. Policy Objectives in the Middle East (Tab C).
- Estimate of Situation (Tab D).3
- That you review the attached assessment of the situation in the Near East.
- That you consider discussing it with the President.
[Tab A] 4
ASSESSMENT OF CURRENT SITUATION IN THE NEAR EAST
1. Impact of Recent Events
The relative calm which existed in the area just prior to the emergence of the United Arab Republic and the Arab Federation has been rudely broken. Intra-Arab tensions and rivalries have reached a new peak. Iraqi officials have publicly attacked the UAR, and King Saud’s name has become associated with a plot to detach Syria from Egyptian control. Nasser has strongly attacked the pro-Western regimes, concentrating on the Arab Federation and Saudi Arabia, and has attempted to assert Egyptian sovereignty over a border area long administered by the Sudan. From the latter effort he has temporarily backed away in the face of Sudanese determination to resist. Nasser’s constant references to the eventual overthrow of pro-Western Arab leaders in the area can only be interpreted as an invitation for assassination and civil commotion. He has made some of the usual speeches about the ultimate redemption of the Palestine homeland, but it seems clear at this stage that his primary targets are Arabs rather than Israel.
This conduct of Nasser’s is the more disturbing because he is at a pinnacle of popularity. The appeal of Arab unity has thus far served to minimize and play down the difficulties and strains involved in the absorption of Syrian sovereignty by Egypt. Nasser continues to represent the answer to the prayers of many Arabs, particularly urban elements, who have for so long suffered economic, social, political, and psychological frustrations. There is no pro-Western Arab leader who can begin to match his popular appeal. It seems possible, however, that Nasser’s drive for domination will engender problems and obstacles which will slow down this drive.
The impact of these events in the Arab countries of the area has been strong. Israel seems to be taking them most calmly, confident in her defense capability, and aware that so long as there is serious internecine strife among the Arabs their ability to threaten Israel is reduced. King Saud, one of Nasser’s major targets, has thus far reacted in a confused and ineffective manner, [3 lines of source text not declassified]. There is no doubt that King Saud has suffered a serious loss of prestige and that respect for him both in the area and in his own country has declined. The withdrawal from Saudi Arabia by Nasser of about 250 Egyptian military advisers and technicians indicates that a patching up of the [Page 50] Saud–Nasser quarrel will not be easily achieved. While the loss of this technical personnel is a serious matter for Saudi Arabia, through it Nasser is deprived of an avenue of subversion.
[2 lines of source text not declassified] However, there is in some quarters a wait-and-see attitude toward the Arab Federation based on hopes of economic opportunity in Iraq. While Nasser can and is contributing to a major internal security problem in Jordan, the situation is at present under control and it seems clear that an effort to overthrow the regime will, as has for some time been the case, require something more, either: 1) the assassination of King Hussein, or 2) a shift in allegiance of major elements in the Jordan Army. There is, of course, another aspect in the picture, that a breakdown of authority in Jordan would almost inevitably cause Israel to react. Whether this is an inhibiting factor on Nasser is not known.
Iraq has managed to maintain internal security and appears to maintain its capabilities in this regard. At the same time, Nuri’s return to power served to point up to the Iraqis their isolation from the main currents of Arab nationalism and the identification of their regime with policies and pro-Western connections which have little popular appeal. The possibility of Jordan’s becoming a financial burden on Iraq has served to dim the luster of the Arab Federation. Ruling circles in Iraq are displaying nervousness as to the future.
Lebanon is also highly nervous. Nasser’s popularity has served to accentuate Moslem-Christian differences. Nasser’s policies have also been seized upon as a rallying point by Lebanese politicians eager to prevent President Chamoun’s re-election.
In the Sudan alone have pro-Western, ant-Egyptian elements made a good popular showing. The success of Prime Minister Khalil and his Umma party at the polls portends that the Sudan will continue to pursue a policy of jealous safeguarding of its sovereignty from Egyptian influence. However, Nasser’s set-back in the Sudan seems certain to sting him to new attempts at subversion and penetration.
2. Possibilities for the Future
The above paints a gloomy picture so far as the outlook for pro-Western interests is concerned. There is rampant in the area a force of radical Arab nationalism inimical to our interests and which the United States has limited capacity to control. The present prospects of successful indigenous resistance to it are poor. An analysis of present United States and Western assets in the area does not in itself give confidence that we can hope, in the framework of present commitments and policies, to stem the tide. The question we face is whether the present force of Nasser can be contained until it has been blunted by obstacles created by itself or placed in its path, and the long-term interest of the area and [Page 51] its peoples in close relations with the West can be reasserted. Increased efforts, both on our part, and by our friends in the area are required, but the United States capacity to be effective, already limited by circumstances in the area, is further weakened by United States association with Israel and the Western position on problems of intense interest to the Arab world, such as Algeria.
3. Conclusions and Recommendations
- Nasser is currently riding the crest of his popularity and is widely identified in the area as the leader of Arab unity and nationalism against Western imperialism.
- Nasser can be expected to adopt a flexible policy when confronted by determined local resistance.
- It would seem unrealistic to believe we could reach a full understanding with Nasser. However, certain of our remaining restrictions toward the UAR, in such fields as exports, cultural exchanges, CARE, et cetera may have outlived their usefulness. Their gradual relaxation might have beneficial results.
- We must stiffen the spines of friendly countries in the area through military and economic assistance. We should encourage them to collaborate in resisting Nasser’s expansionism.
- We should avoid at present any move which would publicly indicate our opposition to Nasser as this would alienate his widespread following.
- We should avoid any use of military force unless we were committed to such action by the Tripartite Declaration, the Eisenhower Doctrine, or current commitments to friendly countries in the area.
- While continuing to provide staunch and continuing support to our friends in the area, we should at the moment seek to avoid, insofar as possible, further dramatic and overt United States intervention in defense of a particular pro-West regime, as this has political repercussions unfavorable to the regime in question.
- We should work closely with the United Kingdom where appropriate.
- Control of the Near East by radical nationalism of the Nasser brand would be inimical to United States interests.
- The current success of Nasser has reduced or neutralized many of the assets which the United States could formerly count on in the Middle East, and the United States is not now in a position to influence decisively, in a manner consistent with United States interests, the trend of [Page 52] events in the area. At the same time Nasser is not totally invulnerable and in his ambitions he may create future problems for himself. We must be alert to the possibilities of developing new assets which may reside in such an eventuality.
- The United States should seek to assist its friends in the area to make the necessary adjustments from their present conservative regimes to meet the needs of constructive nationalism.
- Given the situation in the area, United States policy should seek as far as possible to avoid becoming inextricably identified with and attached to specific individuals.
- United States and Western capabilities in the area are and will continue to be greatly handicapped in their efforts to contain radical nationalism by our relationship with Israel and the policy differences we have with the Arabs with respect to Algeria, Tunisia, Buraimi, and the Gulf of Aqaba. Modification of United States policy in the above problems, to be most effective, should be made against a background of internal economic and political reforms in the friendly Near East states of a character which would generate popular support for moderate alternatives to Nasser.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
A. Short Term
- Nasser is currently riding the crest of his popularity and is identified almost unanimously throughout the United Arab Republic and to a considerable degree among certain elements in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, and the North African states as the leader of Arab unity and nationalism in the struggle against Western imperialism.
- Nasser can be expected to adopt a flexible policy when confronted by determined local resistance, as was most recently evidenced by the alteration of his tactics in connection with the recent Sudan frontier incident.
- It would seem unrealistic to believe we could reach a full understanding with Nasser. However, we consider that certain of our remaining [Page 53] restrictions toward the United Arab Republic, such as those pertaining to exports, cultural exchanges, and the activities of voluntary agencies, may have outlived their usefulness and that their gradual relaxation might have beneficial results.
- We must stiffen the spines of friendly countries in the area through economic and military assistance. We should also encourage them to collaborate in resisting Nasser’s expansionism.
- We should avoid at present any move which would publicly indicate our direct opposition to Nasser or the United Arab Republic since this would alienate those peoples to whom Nasser today is the personification of all their aspirations.
- We should avoid any use of United States military force, which would irretrievably affect our position in the area, in the eyes of our allies, and in the United Nations unless we were committed to such action by the Tripartite Declaration, by the Eisenhower Doctrine, or by current commitments to friendly countries in the area.
- While continuing to provide staunch support to our friends in the area, we should at the moment seek to avoid insofar as possible, further dramatic and overt United States intervention in defense of a particular pro-West regime, since such actions generate political repercussions unfavorable to the regime in question. The kind of intervention we have in mind is typified by emergency air-lift of military equipment.
- We should work closely in these matters with the United Kingdom where appropriate.
B. Long Term
- The establishment of the United Arab Republic and the charges by Nasser of plots by King Saud against the UAR have given impetus to the advance of radical nationalism in the Middle East and have enhanced the ability which the nationalists have been demonstrating to weaken the positions of the conservative, pro-Western regimes. The current success of Nasser and nationalism have reduced or neutralized many of the assets which the United States formerly could count on in the Middle East. At the same time, in his drive for domination of the area Nasser may well be creating problems which will hinder him in the future and contribute to blunting the force of the current nationalist wave. The United States must be alert to the possibilities of developing new assets which may reside in such an eventuality.
- Unless the conservative regimes can manage to adjust themselves to the nationalist current they may be removed from power as a result of their inability to resist the force of nationalism directed against them, both by Nasser and by domestic nationalist elements. The United States should seek to assist its friends in the area to make the necessary adjustments to meet the requirements of constructive nationalism.
- Given the situation in the area and the likely future advances of nationalism, United States policy should seek as far as possible to avoid becoming inextricably identified with and attached to specific individuals, whose departure from the scene would mean that the whole basis of the United States position in a particular country would disappear overnight.
- Control of the Near East by radical nationalism of the Nasser brand would be inimical to United States interests. Radical nationalism has shown itself entirely willing to facilitate the penetration of the Near East by international Communism and openly proclaims its desire to eradicate Western positions and influence from the area. In a Near East under the control of radical nationalism, Western access to the resources of the area would be in constant jeopardy.
- In addition to the ingredients of success which radical nationalism finds already contained in situations in the area having no connection with the positions and activities of foreign nations, policies of the West such as that of the United States with regard to Israel and that of the United Kingdom and France at Suez have given great impetus to the progress of radical nationalism. The continuation of such policies by the West gives ammunition to the nationalist forces in their increasingly successful fight against the West and the friends of the West in the area, and facilitates the strengthening of the Soviet position in the Middle East. Tab C outlines steps we are taking or are considering with a view to strengthening the United States position in the area and in order to support conservative, pro-West elements, but in our view the effectiveness of these steps is weakened from the start by the handicaps under which United States policy is working in the Middle East. As long as we maintain our close relationship with Israel and continue our extensive aid to that country, and as long as our positions do not move closer to those of the Arabs on Algeria, Tunisia, Buraimi, and the Gulf of Aqaba, we believe that the situation of the United States in the Middle East will continue to deteriorate, and that the effectiveness of the United States in helping its friends in the area will be limited.
To have the greatest chances for success in strengthening friendly governments in the area, modification of United States policy in the above problems should be made against a background of internal economic and political reforms in the friendly Middle East states of a character which would generate popular support for moderate alternatives to Nasser. The United States and the United Kingdom, where appropriate, might consider steps which should be taken to encourage such reforms.
- Source: Department of State, Central Files, 780.00/3–2458. Top Secret. Drafted by Rockwell. A note on the source text indicates that Secretary Dulles saw this memorandum. According to a memorandum from the Director of the Executive Secretariat, Fisher Howe, March 24, this paper was “probably too sensitive for Planning Board general review and that such is not needed in light of CIA and Defense concurrence.” Howe recommended that Secretary Dulles “take it up directly with the President.” (Ibid., 611.80/3–2458)↩
- See Document 13.↩
- Tab E, which was not attached, is a copy of item 3, Document 13.↩
- Tabs C and D are not printed.↩
- Top Secret.↩
- Top Secret.↩