30. Paper Prepared in the Department of State1



American policy in the Middle East in the early 1950’s was shaped in the cold war context with the objective of containing the expansion of Soviet power, largely by constructing a barrier of regional military pacts buttressed by military and economic aid. NATO, the Baghdad Pact, and SEATO all overlapped in the Middle East, broadly defined. The Soviet threat was envisioned largely in Korea-style military terms.

Our policy in that period also assumed that decolonization would proceed but that outside powers, principally the U.K and the U.S., could continue to play an effective role in shaping developments there, including organization for defense in which the states of the region would cooperate. The Soviet Union was not admitted to the circle of Middle East powers.

By the late 1950’s we had to recognize that the Soviet Union had leapfrogged the northern-tier barrier, using basically political and economic methods, and had become a Middle East power in fact. At the same time we saw that local forces, of which the strongest was militant Arab nationalism, threatened the ability of the Western powers to control developments. The Western attempt to organize strength in the area against both Soviet influence and radical nationalism led and [Page 77] personified by Nasser came to grief in the crisis of 1958, which brought an end to the pro-Western regime in Iraq and weakened Western influence in Lebanon. We then began to question the usefulness of heavy involvement in local rivalries.

Adopting a more relaxed posture at the end of the 1950’s, we had the pleasure of seeing the Soviets feuding with Arab nationalist leaders and the latter with each other. We gradually reestablished a tolerable relationship with the radical nationalist governments while keeping our ties with the moderate Arabs and continuing to rely on our security arrangements with the non-Arab states of the northern tier. Even the Arab-Israel dispute was relatively quiet, an unexpected benefit for the U.S.

In the early 1960’s, while maintaining this line of policy, we turned to the general theme that economic development, whether the recipients were our military allies or not, provided the best means of stabilizing the area and the best defense, south of the northern tier, against the Soviet threat. That threat was now seen largely in terms of subversion and “wars of national liberation.” We hoped that by playing a major role, largely in economic aid, we could counteract Soviet influence and keep the Middle East countries friendly toward the United States or at least neutral. The program of heavy food assistance to the U.A.R., at the same time that it was getting military and economic aid from Russia, was a symbol of this policy.

The policy faltered, however, when Nasser did not turn inward but revived his attempts to spread his influence throughout the Arab world (notably in Yemen). At the same time he moved closer to the Soviet Union and was increasingly abusive of the United States. U.S.-Egyptian relations came to a low point even before the Arab-Israel war of June 1967, when they were broken. It was the war, too, and not U.S. persuasion or intervention, which shattered Nasser’s ambitions and brought an end to his adventure in Yemen.

These recent events have caused us to question further our ability to control local forces in the area or to attain our objectives through some broad and consistent policy applied to the area as a whole. Neither containment nor development provides the key. We continue to recognize the critical importance of the Middle East to Western Europe and hence to our global position. We continue to have commitments and important interests there. Development remains our concern, as it is the concern of the peoples of the region. But we recognize the need for a redefinition of policy reflecting the manifold realities as we now see them.

The essence of the policy set forth in this paper is that the United States will continue to be active in the Middle East because our interests require it. Our relationship with the USSR in this sensitive area has yet [Page 78] to reach the kind of balance it has achieved in Europe. Local forces, especially in the Arab-Israel zone of conflict, are not wholly within the control of either power. The area is in a period of transition in which local violence and crises will be endemic.

It is recognized that some trends in the past few years have been adverse to the U.S. position, and that we should attempt to check and reverse them. Other trends have been adverse to the Soviet position. The paper that follows outlines a policy of competing with the USSR for influence in the Middle East, recognizing that this contest is taking place primarily on the political level and that the governments and peoples of the region will have much to say about their own future. Thus, the main obstacle to Soviet domination will lie in strengthened local forces of independence, provided the overall U.S.-USSR military balance is maintained.

For American policy the need is for flexibility: to oppose the Soviets while trying over time to convince them of the need for cooperation in order to avert dangers to both; to hold to necessary commitments and interests while taking account of local aspirations; to avoid over-involvement in local politics and disputes peripheral to our main interests while seeking to control those conflicts which could bring on wider war; and to find a sound policy for the Arab-Israel impasse where we labor under the handicap of our own conflicting interests.

It is a policy which calls for political skill and the development of long-term relationships more than for heavy outlays of material resources. We should recognize, however, that certain critical objectives may not be achievable without some provision for expenditure of U.S. resources at relatively high levels either for continuing programs (such as aid to Turkey) or for emergencies.

[Here follows the body of the paper.]

  1. Source: Department of State, NEA/IRG Files 68-29: Lot 70 D 503, U.S. Policy in the Middle East, Final Draft. Secret. No drafting information appears on the memorandum. The paper was prepared by the Interdepartmental Regional Group for Near East and South Asia in the Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs.