Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Khalidi: Cold War Legacy Continues to Strain Middle East

March 1, 2010

To fully understand the causes of the present political upheaval in the Middle East, one must first examine American and Soviet policy in the region during the Cold War, according to Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University. This struggle between the world’s two superpowers for political and cultural hegemony “created enduring patterns that we are still living with” on both regional and international levels, he said in a recent talk at the Institute.

Khalidi’s recent book, Sowing Crisis: American Dominance and the Cold War in the Middle East, deals with the issues that arose from foreign penetration in the region. In outlining his methodology, Khalidi pointed to a significant lacuna in the historiography of the Cold War. Scholars typically addressed this conflict from the perspective of Washington or Moscow. Few, however, have approached the topic of Cold War politics from the vantage point of the Middle East.

These countries were of interest to the superpowers, in that they boasted expansive energy resources and a strategic location. And yet, the “people writing about the Middle East” in this period generally “knew nothing about the Middle East.” Nor did Soviet and American strategists take into account the complex histories and cultural politics that defined the Middle Eastern nations.

Khalidi’s principle argument focused on the historic continuity of American policy in the Middle East. Each event of the past two decades, he suggested, has in some way been “influenced and shaped by Cold War patterns.”

The most striking example of this causality may be found in the origins of the Taliban regime. During the 1980s, the US brought members of oppositional factions (mujahideen) into Afghanistan to undermine the pro-Soviet government. Once the Democratic Republic fell, these groups vied for control; the Taliban arose out of this power struggle as “the bastard offspring of one of the last phases of the Cold War.”

Moreover, there has been a continuation “of many policies that were supposedly predicated on a powerful Soviet influence in the region.” Following the demise of the Soviet Union, the reconstitution of the Middle East as the “axis of evil” filled the void left by the Communists’ “evil empire.” America could embark upon a new ideological mission in the Middle East by creating a vilified “other” in the public imagination. Polemicists in the Bush administration developed the “brilliant neologism [of] Islamo-fascism” to create this imagery of a Manichean conflict.

Khalidi posited that the present struggle with Iran represents “a new Cold War” to American policymakers. Certain shifts in strategy, however, distinguish the global war on terror from previous military action. America’s presence in the Middle East, for instance, now constitutes the “largest commitment of US forces outside our borders.” This buildup of personnel “metastasized” after the Cold War; troop numbers continue to swell abroad as the military develops its Africa Corps.

In their bid for world domination, both the US and the Soviet Union engaged in wars by proxy in the Middle East. The “small actors,” Khalidi noted, “generally came out much worse [than the larger nations] from the superpower confrontation.” Regional alliances polarized along Cold War lines during the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1960s and ‘70s. In the Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1988, the US and Soviet governments each supplied both governments with military support.

Disenfranchised groups were often victimized when the superpowers upset the existent structure of power relations in the Middle East. The Iraqi Kurds, for instance, “suffered terribly” in the first Gulf War after the Iranian shah rescinded on his offer to finance their insurrection. As the Kurds lost their value as potential combatants, the US curtailed their support for Kurdish autonomy.

The strategic demands of the Cold War, in this case, trumped all efforts to establish democratizing programs in the region. In response to criticism against this sell-out, Henry Kissinger famously commented that “covert action should not be confused with missionary work.” The US did not enter into the Middle Eastern disputes with any ideological agenda, but rather maintained a policy of realpolitik to establish its global hegemony.

Khalidi concluded his lecture by pointing to relevancy of this study to the present day situation in the Middle East: “this is not just a history lesson,” he stressed.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Zak Leonard ‘10

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