Wednesday, October 14, 2009

America and the Middle East: Part 1 Bunker Hill to Pearl Harbor

Pluto commented a little while ago about how quiet it's been around here.

Pluto: It's quiet. It's...TOO quiet.

Y'all've seen the movie enough to know what happens then - all hell breaks loose.

So here's my installment of hell.

I wrote these way back in August of 2006 over at Graphic Firing Table. If you overlook the breezy style (and I LIKE the breezy style - if you want solemn history, there's tons of textbooks you can read) the crux of the biscuit is that three years ago I wrote what I still believe: that all the thrashing about in the Middle East and southwest Asia isn't going to get us out of the fundamental trap we've put ourselves in with the act of recognition in 1948. It just ain't gonna happen. And why I feel all "talked out" about a lot of the Middle East politics and strategy and tactics we've been talking about since the old Intel Dump days.

Plus I just liked these and felt they deserved another airing other than burial in the deep recesses of the old GFT.

So - without further ado, here's "America and the Middle East", a four-part series.

(from Graphic Firing Table, August 16, 2006)

Since this is such a huge subject, I’ve broken it into installments. This one, the first, is my rumination on U.S.-Middle East policy from 1776 to 1940. The second will cover the history of Americans in the Middle East from 1941 to 2006. I’ve already discussed the difficult propinquity of Israel and the Arab M.E., but I wanted to dissect U.S./Israeli/Arab policies in a single posting. And, finally, I wanted to take a look at what I feel are rational goals for the U.S. to seek in the Middle East, where we stand towards attaining them, what the likelihood of their attainment might be given our present policies, and what alternatives might be there for consideration.


So from 1776 - Bunker Hill - to 1941 - Pearl Harbor - was the pure-D, stomp-down riding-the-short-bus-simplest part of the whole nut roll to write.

Word up: our country just didn’t HAVE a Middle East policy until the beginning of the Second World War. None. Squat. Nada. As far as the sandy Arab parts of the world, we knew like a Dominican nun knows about Wesson Oil parties. Didn’t know, didn’t care to know. Besides, we had other stuff to worry about for about eighty years. Revolution, angry Canadians, hostile former owners, floods, famine, free silver, angry Mexicans, Fifty-four-Fourty or Fight, freesoilers, slavestaters, the Missouri Compromise, John C. Fremont and then, by God, the Civil War broke out.

Well, okay then.

So we DID have a teeny little run in with some Arabs during Jefferson’s administration:

President Jefferson: “Well, Robert, what have we here?”

Secretary of the Navy Smith: “Dispatches, Mister President. Our expeditionary force to the Dey of Tripoli. General Eaton and Captain Hull appear to have fought a smart action at Derna, you see, sir.

Pres. Jefferson: “I see. Hmm. Very good. Your Marine fellow O’Bannon writes well, there, regarding his actions in raising our flag over the harbor.”

Sect’y. Smith: “Ahem. The Marines appear to think highly of him, yes.”

Pres. Jefferson: “Indeed. One question, Robert.”

Sect’y. Smith: “Sir?”

Pres. Jefferson: “What the deuce is a “haji”?

Sect’y. Smith: “That would be a “dune coon”, sir."

Pres. Jefferson: “A what?”

Sect’y. Smith: “How our troops refer to the natives, sir. Oh, or a “sand nigger”.

Pres. Jefferson: “Oh. Quite.”

Obviously, a young nation with an enormous frontier, a tiny military force and a relatively miniscule overseas trade had no real need to pay attention to the peregrinations of whatever tribe or tribes wandered the then-worthless wastes of the Arabian Peninsula. Any American attention on the Middle East in the period between the Revolution and the First World War would have been on the “Holy Land”, then a wholly-owned subsidiary of the creaky Ottoman Empire and of no real significance other than a romantic tourist destination.

The other consideration was the European colonial powers. Mostly the British, whose control of much of North Africa and India made American interest in anything remotely Arabian, well…problematic.

Lord Palmerston: “Just not yours to play with, Yank. Good luck with those redskins, though…”
That was that. The crux of the biscuit. The heart of the matter. America did nothing in the Middle East because we neither wanted to nor could. And that was the whole story, too, through the 19th and right through the first four decades of the 20th Century.

Until, as it changed so much else, the Second World War came along and nothing would ever be the same again.


  1. O'Bannon is of course an interesting figure, and given the coming Marine Corps birthday, a noble image to open a new series of threads even if not so new.

    Allow me my own view . . . might seem a bit round about, but I will get to the ME.

    From a strategic theory perspective, Mao wrote about the nature of Japan's imperialist policy in China and how it presented an existential threat/struggle to the Chinese in the 1930s and 40s. The long-term result of this Japanese policy we saw first in 1949, followed by the Maoist development over the last 60 years as the current PRC: a combination of capitialism and Maoist communism set in motion by a very significant geo-strategc/world political event (the defeat of Japan in 1945).

    The Soviet Union also fought existential conflict in the 1940s, and the result of that victory was Soviet domination of Central and Eastern Europe for 40 years, as well as the status of a Super Power.

    In terms of the political reaction (followed later by the geo-strategic) there is also the Jewish experience of the Holocaust . . .

    Mao saw such levels of emnity, such cycles of violence as producing great energy among the political communities involved in such wars between peoples, allowing for radical political change and transformation.

    It seems that the Neocons attempted to "sell" such a "existential conflict" to the American people, but that has misfired. The question remains as to how the defenders in this "long war" will react over the long-term . . .

  2. When I was in the Corps and they screwed up and finally made me an officer and a not-so-gentleman, I came home with new uniforms and a Mameluke sword. That sword attributed to O'Bannon had been the USMC dress sword since the early 19th century. My children at the time were about 12, 10, and I think 8 years of age. So when I came home with it I told them the story of the sword. To my annoyance and my wife's delight the only question they had about this story was whether and how Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon was related to Elvis. Go figure!

    Jefferson of course had one of the first English-language translations of the Qur'an in his library. After the Minnesota Muslim congressman was sworn in on Jefferson's copy, the rightwing whackos would have you believe that Jefferson only had it because he was researching the criminal side of Islam leading up to your teeny little run-in with the Pasha of Tripoli. In fact, Jefferson had bought that copy of the Qur'an in 1765 while he was studying philosophy, mathematics and metaphysics at William and Mary.

    Love your language Chief, but I think your dune-coons as you call them were more like seagoing wogs than desert rats. And were not most Ottoman sailors of Greek descent instead of Turkish or Arab or Berber?

    The Tripolitano pirates were kidnapping American sailors and selling them into slavery. The US Congress had to their shame voted to pay protection money and John Adams as President went along with it. Jefferson' treasury was broke when he took office so he refused payment. Tripoli then declared war on us. Jefferson was responding. There was no empire building going on.

    In fact, the Americans attempted to restore the true Pasha who had earlier been overthrown by his younger brother. His little brother was too devious though and signed a peace treaty quickly so that effort failed.

    Do not forget Decatur and Eaton.

  3. I think I remember some oil companies doing business in Saudi-Arabia back in the 30's. Americans were welcome at that time because the Arabs didn't see them as a colonial power.

  4. Sven -

    The Saudis tried to get the Brits interested in oil on the peninsula much earlier. But the Brits did not want to spend the money required for exploration and potential dry wells. Besides they had more oil than they could handle in Iran and Iraq.

    So then an American by the name of Crane, a millionaire and retired manufacturer of toilets, visited the kingdom after WW1. He promised King Saud that he would try to gin up some American interest in Saudi mineral rights. That waffled around for a decade or so. But then in the early thirties SoCal, one of the smallest of the American oil companies made a deal for concessions with the king.