Posted on April 10, 1995 in Washington Watch
Not only Saudis and Egyptians, but Arabs in general, are expressing deep concern about what is being described as a campaign against Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the West.
There are a great many theories as to the origins of this campaign and what forces are behind it. Some have suggested conspiracy theories bordering on the wild and fantastic. While one must be cautious about accepting such conjectures, it is nevertheless important to both recognize the reality of the problem and examine it.
Even a casual reader of Western newspapers and news magazines can see the frequency with which these two countries are the targets of negative articles. There are common themes running through all of the recent articles of this type: the argument that neither country is politically stable and that the West can therefore not be assured about its relationship with either state. In other words, these articles are seeking to sow doubt regarding the trustworthiness of both Saudi Arabia and Egypt as long-term U.S. allies. These articles as a whole then become an important consideration as policy makers assess overall U.S. geopolitical strategic planning in the future Middle East.
Some Arab analysts have speculated that the source of these stories is the U.S. Administration itself and that there is, in effect, an official U.S. campaign underway to punish Egypt and Saudi Arabia because (it is alleged) they have been less than enthusiastic supporters of the peace process and the normalization of relations with Israel.
I believe that this is an incorrect understanding of what is happening. There is indeed a campaign of sorts underway; however, it began much earlier than the start of the current peace process. It began not because Egypt and Saudi Arabia were cool to U.S. initiatives but precisely because the opposite has been true.
The source of this campaign is not the U.S. Administration. Rather, it can be traced to a disinformation campaign inspired by pro-Israel institutions, and it feeds on a tradition of anti-Arab biases. The campaign was designed to create a public climate that is skeptical of the stability and trustworthiness of both Egypt and Saudi Arabia in order to weaken the U.S. bilateral relationship with both countries.
The campaign goes back to the Shamir era in Israel and was born of his frustration and fear of the growing closeness of the U.S.-Saudi and U.S.-Egyptian relationships during and after the Gulf War.
In the first place, Israel resented being locked out of the international coalition that forced Iraq from Kuwait. Israel later came to resent the U.S. pressure to alter some of its traditional positions in order to move the region toward a comprehensive peace.
It was then-President Bush’s conclusion (articulated best in his March 1991 speech at the conclusion of the Gulf War) that with the end of the Cold War and the conclusion of the Gulf War that the U.S. could not longer afford a cumbersome two-track Middle east policy; and that the countries of the Middle East were ready to engage in the search for a comprehensive peace as a part of the new world order. But, in order to achieve that, a comprehensive peace had to be based on the well-known formula of exchanging land for peace. Shamir and Israeli policy makers knew that this new Middle East order would ultimately endanger the “special and exclusive relationship” between Israel and the U.S.
In the face of these changing realities and pressure, Shamir erupted in a fit of anger. In an interview with an Israeli newspaper during the Gulf War Shamir displayed his contempt for the emerging U.S.-Arab alliance. Expressing his irritation at the U.S.’ use of the term “ally” to describe its relationship with the Arab countries in the coalition, Shamir said that it must be made clear to the U.S. that Israel was the only U.S. ally in the Middle East.
Speaking of Saudi Arabia, Shamir said, “The U.S. needs Israel. The U.S. does not need Saudi Arabia. It is Saudi Arabia that needs the U.S.” He went on to describe his belief that the Kingdom was a burden and an unstable country that would be of no use to the U.S. in the long-term.
A new book focusing on the activities of Shamir’s Defense Minister (and former Ambassador to Washington), Moshe Arens, describes how Arens was given the task of disrupting the emerging U.S.-Arab partnership. Fearing Egypt the most, Arens set out to create friction between the U.S. and its Arab friend. It is clear that Shamir was not ready for what he perceived as Israel’s surrender of its hegemonic role over U.S. ties in the region.
While the government changed in Israel from Likud to Labor, the Israeli policy which defines itself as the exclusive U.S. ally in the Middle East, as the center through which all U.S. ties must be made or broken, remains in place. While more some states seem to be accepting these rules, Egypt and Saudi Arabia do not and so, it appears, the Shamir-Arens efforts to discredit these two states and weaken their ties with the U.S. continues.
In the U.S., pro-Israel institutions have promoted this Israeli strategy by generating books and articles developing and elaborating these themes. Two recent books on Saudi Arabia, for example, are clearly designed to spread the perception that the Kingdom is increasingly unstable and therefore not a dependable ally. One is entitled The Economy of Saudi Arabia: Troubled Present, Grim Future. This book, written by an Israeli who has never visited the Kingdom, presents a series of half-truths and dated analysis to conclude that the chances of Saudi economy sustaining itself are slim. More telling is the other book, After King Fahd published by the well-known pro-Israel think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This book concludes that succession in Saudi Arabia “could greatly affect the closeness of ties with the U.S.” and that, therefore, “U.S. policy makers should take steps to prepare for any number of possible outcomes.”
In a widely publicized paper on Egypt, the same pro-Israel group offers the view that the Egyptian role in the Middle East is being eclipsed and somewhat marginalized, and that it should no longer be looked at as an essential component of U.S. strategic policy planning.
The pro-Israel groups know that policy is a function of both politics (money and votes in elections) and the ability to shape a debate by creating a dominant idea which policy makers must take into account. Publishing a few books and articles on Saudi Arabia and Egypt are not enough by themselves, however. But these works become part of the broader public discourse when their ideas are adopted by policy analysts and opinion makers in the U.S. media.
A clear example of how Israel and its supporters use ideas to shape and change policy can be seen in the campaign against the PLO in the late 1970s.
In the waning years of the Carter Administration, the Jonathan Institute (founded by Benjamin Netanyahu and named after Jonathan Netanyahu, Benjamin’s younger brother who was killed in the Israeli raid in Entebbe), organized a conference in Israel. The purpose of the Conference was to reframe the effort to establish human rights the central issue facing Western democracies (the Carter strategy) and replace it with a focus on terrorism as the major issue of the 1980s.
The Israelis invited to the conference opinion leaders from all over the U.S.: Richard Allen, Joseph Kraft, Arnoud de Borchgrave, Claire Sterling and so many others that the sessions were a virtual “Who’s Who” of conservative American opinion leaders.
After the sessions were completed the Jonathan Institute’s analysts released their study to the international media. Within the next year those who attended the conference proceeded to write popular books and well-read articles developing the themes of the conference. The ideas were propagated everywhere and were uncontested. Before long they became accepted as conventional wisdom.
It became standard practice to use adjectives such as “murderous” and “terrorist” to describe the PLO. A single editorial in The New Republic, for example, used such adjectives over 25 times – the repetition worked and the description stuck.
The campaign succeeded first as an idea and then, with the election of Reagan as President in 1980, it became policy as many attendees of the Jonathan Institute’s conference moved into the foreign policy apparatus of the U.S. government. As a result of this, Israel’s war on the Palestinians went unchecked for 8 years with tens of thousands killed and laws were passed in the U.S. the completely outlawed PLO activity in this country.
The simple fact is Israeli policy makers and their allies in the U.S. are once again waging idea-shaping campaigns. The first is that “Islam is the New Enemy” in the region, and that the Saudi and Egyptian governments are threatened by this enemy and their own internal instability makes them unsuitable as long-term U.S. allies.
The books are being written. Journalists are invited to press conferences to hear reports. Ideas are presented as facts and the journalists write as if they are facts. In the minds of policy makers these ideas can become facts if they are not countered.
The Administration has made efforts to resist and even fight against these campaigns. For example, from the President on down the foreign policy establishment has stated quite clearly that Islam is not the enemy. President Clinton, for example, in a speech before the Jordanian Parliament went to great lengths to oppose this “clash of civilizations” notion.
In the case of the campaign against Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Administration has publicly made it very clear that its relationships with both countries are firm and constant. Despite voices to the contrary, the Clinton Administration has been clear in its long-term commitment to close relations with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
But neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt can take these current assurances for granted.
As Michael Dukakis learned in his ill-fated Presidential campaign in 1988, a negative campaign must be answered. Dukakis, it will be recalled, was defeated by George Bush precisely because he allowed Bush to define him “a weak liberal with no principles.” After Bush ran negative ad after negative ad against Dukakis, the Democrat Dukakis refused to respond , attempting to take the “high road” by not answering what he felt were outrageous accusations. The problem, of course, was that the negatives stayed in the public mind and shaped their ideas of Dukakis. The sad maxim in American politics is “Sling enough mud and some of it will stick.”
The politically relevant facts are those that exist as part of the public perception, not those of objective reality. For policy makers, perception is the sole reality.
Negative campaigns must be responded to directly, immediately and forcefully. The public debate in the U.S. must be taken seriously – when seeds of doubt are planted they must not only be uprooted but replaced by seeds of truth. For Arabs this is especially true because negative campaigns against Arabs are aided by a history of anti-Arab bias.
Look, for example, at the recent anti-Saudi Arabia article in the Economist. While it is true that there are changes underway in Saudi Arabia, the reality in the Kingdom is quite different from that portrayed in the article.
With a certain amount of glee the writer derides the Kingdom as a country that never existed and to which its citizens have no loyalty. Clearly influenced by anti-Arab bias and pro-Israel propaganda, the Economist article is based on the assumption that the Kingdom is bankrupt and that efforts to create fiscal stability will fail and, therefore, the U.S. ought to worry because its ally is not a dependable one.
Clearly, the facts tell another story. Despite deficits the Kingdom is taking measures designed to put its fiscal house in order. Taxation and cuts is spending have more than halved the deficit –something that neither the U.S. nor Israel have been able to do. Clearly, there is some economic and political dislocation, but it is does not have the significance as the effects of a such a strong deficit-cutting move might have led analysts to expect.
As for the author’s almost gleeful reports about instability, a recent visit to Saudi Arabia established a very different reality. Open political discourse and talk of change need not and does not signify that the country is coming apart; it rather signifies that it is coming closer together in a new “social contract.” Clearly, at all levels there is a public investment in the future of the country, which is a sign of strength and not weakness.
But the author of the Economist article is plagued by a deep Arab bias and a little bit of knowledge – a dangerous combination.
The imperative for Saudis and Egyptians and Arabs in general is to take on this campaign and engage fully in confronting it. This must go beyond offering a rebuttle for every negative story – a counter-campaign must be developed as well. If the Israeli vision of political hegemony is to be defeated, then an alternative vision must be presented in the West and the nature of U.S.-Arab bilateral ties must be affirmed as mutually beneficial and as essential if the new Middle East is to emerge and a comprehensive peace is to be established.
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