U.S. Policy Toward Arab States

by Mitchell Bard


Arabs rarely acknowledge the American role in helping the Arab states achieve independence. President Wilson's stand for self-determination for all nations, and the U.S. entry into World War I, helped cause the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

Most Arabs have always asserted that Middle East policy must be a zero-sum game whereby support for their enemy, Israel, necessarily puts them at a disadvantage. Thus, Arab states have tried to force the United States to choose between support for them and Israel. The U.S. has usually refused to fall into this trap. The fact that the U.S. has a close alliance with Israel while maintaining good relations with several Arab states is proof the two are compatible.

The U.S. has long sought friendly relations with Arab leaders and has, at one time or another, been on good terms with most Arab states. In the 1930s, the discovery of oil led U.S. companies to become closely involved with the Gulf Arabs. In the 1950s, U.S. strategic objectives stimulated an effort to form an alliance with pro-Western Arab states. Countries like Iraq and Libya were friends of the U.S. before radical leaders took over those governments. Egypt, which was hostile toward the U.S. under Nasser, shifted to become America's closest Arab partner under Anwar Sadat.

Since World War II, the U.S. has poured economic and military assistance into the region and today is the principal backer of nations like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt and the Gulf sheikdoms. Although the Arab states blamed the U.S. for their defeats in wars they initiated with Israel, the truth is most of the belligerents had either been given or offered American assistance at some time.

On occasion, the U.S. has appeared to condone Arab aggression against other Arabs. In 1963, for example, the U.S. recognized the puppet regime set up by the Egyptians in Yemen. In 1991, while rolling back Saddam Hussein's aggression in the Gulf, the Bush Administration looked the other way while Syria completed its virtual annexation of Lebanon.

Whereas Israel has only been able to rely on the United States for assistance, the Arab states could always count on a variety of Western countries as well as the Soviet Union and its allies.