Historian Salim Yaqub says instability in the Middle East can be traced back to economic stagnation, authoritarian leaders, widespread frustration among the people, and a long history of Western intervention.
“It’s difficult to point to any one of those factors as being the main one,” Yaqub told KGOU’s World Views. “But I think the fact that they have all occurred more or less simultaneously has put that whole region in an impossible situation.”
Yaqub, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, says the Obama administration generally sat on the sidelines and dealt with crises in the Middle East with a degree of uncertainty. The United States wanted Bashar al-Assad removed from power in Syria, he says, but feared a power vacuum that would allow ISIS to spread further. Obama also remained noncommittal over supporting forces that were opposing Assad. Yaqub says the Trump administration, on the other hand, has not clearly articulated its foreign policy.
Yaqub, whose books include Imperfect Strangers: Americans, Arabs, and U.S.–Middle East Relations in the 1970s, says a long tradition of foreign intervention, primarily from the West, adds to the region’s instability. The second U.S. war with Iraq that began in 2003 destabilized the regime and led to worsened relations between the U.S. and Iran, Yaqub said. The first war between the U.S. and Iraq in 1990-1991 was very damaging to Iraq and helped lead to the rise of al Qaeda.
“The fact that Osama bin Laden was able to point to the sanctions against Iraq along with a number of other issues that were generating lots of unhappiness and resentment throughout the Arab and Muslim world certainly was a factor in the emergence of al Qaeda as a major force in it in that period,” Yaqub said.
Following the Gulf War, President George Bush worked with the Soviet Union to create the Madrid Conference in 1991, which eventually led to the Oslo Accords. Oslo brought direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. And even though Israel did not completely endorse it, the U.S. prodded the Israelis toward the notion of an independent Palestine.
“The very idea of establishing an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, which was something that the Palestinians and the Arab states and much of the international community had demanded for decades but that the United States and Israel had resisted, finally the United States and Israel were coming around to that idea,” Yaqub said.
But Yaqub says the way in which the peace process unfolded after 1993 subverted the parties from reaching a settlement. In particular, he says there was never a meeting to hash out what the ultimate outcome should look like. The parties did not reach a mutual understanding of how much land Israel would withdraw from. Instead, there was a protracted series of negotiations.
“While these negotiations were taking place, Israel continued to expand the settler population and continued to take up other measures that precluded the possibility of a genuinely independent Palestinian state from emerging in the future,” Yaqub said.
The administration of President Bill Clinton failed to pressure Israel into stopping settlements in the occupied areas and did not make the final outcome clear, Yaqub said.
“There were things that the Palestinians did, too, that were detrimental and they were rightfully criticized for that,” Yaqub said. “But the ability of the Israelis to continue settling the territory and ... other actions that undermined the possibility of a Palestinian state, I think was fatal.”
Yaqub doesn’t think the process looks promising for the Palestinians today, and he says the United States is not in a position to bring the parties together.
“I would say, frankly, it’s out of a failure of the United States to grapple with the fact of the occupation and what it has done to the Palestinian territories, and its failure to grapple with the impact of settler activity and settler expansion in the occupied territories,” Yaqub said.
Now, among Arab nations, Yaqub says the Syrian civil war and Iran’s rising profile in the Middle East have overtaken concerns about the Palestinians.
“There is a greater willingness on the part of other actors in the Arab world to wash their hands of the Palestine issue and to essentially let it slide and not concern themselves with it,” Yaqub said.
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Joshua Landis: Salim Yaqub. Welcome to Norman campus of the University of Oklahoma.
Salim Yaqub: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.
Landis: Now you've written on the Eisenhower Doctrine in the 1970s U.S. Arab relations. Are there similarities between the 1950s, the beginnings of the Cold War, and what you see in the Middle East today?
Yaqub: I would say in a very broad sense there's a similarity in that you have this region that is seen as vital to U.S. security and prosperity that is in a state of turmoil, and there is concern about the geopolitical orientation of the region, about forces that are perceived to be anti-U.S., extremist, hostile, so forth gaining ascendancy in the region. So in that very general sense there is a similarity but ...
Landis: In in the 50s, of course, it was Nasirism and secular Arab nationalism that was spreading. Eisenhower Doctrine promulgated in order to save Lebanon from going to Nasraist Arab nationalists from the Christian Maronite Lebanese that were very much pro-Western. Today Lebanon is in the hands of Hezbollah. Right. And Iran, the tentacles of a malevolent Iran, as it's described in U.S. news, are spreading through Shiite Iraq, of course, maintaining an Assad regime. And the United States has been supporting Sunni rebels in Syria to overthrow the Assad regime, which is theoretically pro-Iranian, and to keep out Russian influence. Is the United States abandoning the northern Middle East or are we fighting in order to keep it in some kind of American sphere of influence?
Yaqub: Now when you say the northern Middle East what are you referring to?
Landis: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq.
Yaqub: Well it's hard to say what the United States is doing right now because I think the new administration has not articulated its foreign policy clearly in a whole number of areas. So it’s very difficult for me to say exactly what's taking place right now. I mean, I think until recently, which is to say during the Obama administration, there was a real ambivalence and sense of uncertainty about how to how to move and certainly wanting to see the Assad regime in Syria removed from power, but also fearing the consequences of a vacuum in Syria that would allow ISIS to spread even further. And the dithering over whether to support the elements of the Syrian opposition and all that, you know, the red line that was not enforced. I mean you can argue that particular episode both ways. I tend to be more sympathetic to the Obama administration than many of the critics are. But nonetheless, I think the overall impression is of ambivalence, uncertainty and sitting on the sidelines and allowing those regions to unravel. I don't know if there really was much that the United States could have done differently but that certainly is the reality as I see it.
Landis: Why is the region unraveling?
Yaqub: Well that of course is a very difficult and complicated question. I would say there is just a host of issues that have been allowed to fester for for decades. And in an atmosphere of economic stagnation, political authoritarianism and widespread frustration on the part of masses of people, and, you know, added to that and exacerbating it a long, long tradition of foreign intervention, primarily from the West. And so I think it's it's just been so many intractable issues all kind of layered one on the other with so many different actors intervening. Very few of them with clean hands. It's difficult to point to any one of those factors as being the main one. But I think the fact that they have all occurred more or less simultaneously has put that whole region in an impossible situation.
Landis: Let's let's speak about some of those interventions that were destabilizing and led to the present impasse and authoritarian governments that are clinging to power. What are some of the interventions that you've studied that you find particularly that you find particularly difficult or at least left a legacy of harm?
Yaqub: Well I mean this is not something I've studied closely. It's a more recent one but certainly the I would say the Iraq War of the early 2000s has very substantially destabilized the region and created a situation in which, you know, U.S. relations with Iran became more troubled. And, of course rise of ISIS was permitted to occur. So that would be a more recent intervention that definitely has destabilized the region substantially. Similarly you could argue that the first Gulf War, by kind of starting us down the road of a long term confrontation between the United States and Iraq, and of course the sanctions regime that was imposed on Iraq in the period between the first and second Gulf Wars. It was very damaging to Iraq itself but it also had a distorting effect on the politics of the region. It was certainly a factor in the emergence of al-Qaida in the 1990s as a potent force in the region. The fact that Osama bin Laden was able to point to the sanctions against Iraq along with a number of other issues that were generating lots of unhappiness and resentment throughout the Arab and Muslim world certainly was a factor in the emergence of al Qaeda as a major force in it in that period.
Landis: If the United States had not intervened, let me play devil's advocate here for a minute, in 1990, Saddam would have taken Kuwait and kept it. And and that would have presented, of course, a big problem for Saudi Arabia down the road. Because once he had acquired Kuwait, many people suspected he might move on to Saudi Arabia and just lock up the entire Persian Gulf and would have gotten a taste for conquest and unifying the Arab world as he said it should be. There are reasons to believe he might have gone on. To what extent should the United States just step aside and allow Middle Easterners to sort out their own problems and allow the stronger Middle Eastern states to dominate and to, perhaps, suck up some of these smaller states that are that are you know been propped up by the West? Kuwait is a creation of Great Britain and maybe they should just disappear.
Yaqub: OK well that's a very provocative statement.
Landis: Well but you know America shouldn't have stepped in in 1990.
Yaqub: Well, I wasn't necessarily saying that the United States should not have stepped in. I'm saying these are the consequences of the fact that the United States did step in in the manner in which it did. So I would not, and let's just take the case of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. I certainly would not take the position that the United States or the international community in general should have just sat back and done nothing and said you know that's the Middle East. They need to sort out their own problems. We have, we have no, you know, no say in what goes on we have nothing to do to contribute to this to resolving this issue. I think you know in the modern era that's just not a realistic or morally defensible position to take. The international community has to concern itself with conflict wherever it occurs and and bring to bear whatever inducements and pressures can realistically result in the resolution of those conflicts. It's a question of how you do it. The position that you are channeling may be correct that ultimately there was no alternative to the use of some use of force against Iraq in 1991 to ensure that Iraq withdrew from Kuwait. But I do think there were diplomatic alternatives that could have been explored a lot more vigorously than were explored. So, as you recall Saddam Hussein did make this offer that he would look into withdrawing from Kuwait if the Israel's occupation of the territory seized in 1967 came to an end. Certainly there are all kinds of ways in which you could argue that there isn't really that much similarity between the two situations. Nonetheless when we're talking about 1990 this was an occupation that had gone on for over 20 years and it was definitely something that needed to be addressed. I think there could have been a more vigorous effort to try to link those two situations. It's possible that under you know with a more vigorous attempt by the international community, led by the United States, to address the occupation of territory seized in 1967, which is something that should have been done anyway regardless of what was taking place in Kuwait, conceivably there might have been greater willingness on the part of Iraq to accede to some face saving exit from Kuwait. I think that that possibility could have been explored.
Landis: Let's shift to Arab-Israeli conflict. And you brought up this tantalizing question of the possibilities, after 1990, the United States stepped in forcefully. George Bush the father put together a coalition of Arab states, with almost all the Arab states working together to contain Saddam Hussein and to get them out of Kuwait. This was a golden moment that George Bush himself saw and Baker saw and they pushed for the Oslo. They pushed for some kind of peace agreement. Clinton inherited that and pushed forward the Oslo Accords with a two state solution idea, not sticking fast to the 1967 borders of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Gaza that Israel had conquered. But saying that resolution 242, the UN resolution after the 67 war that stated land for peace had to be the basis for these negotiations. Now today that Oslo Accord seems completely moribund and even the two state solution seems rather moribund. Very hard to revive it at this point. Over half a million Israeli settlers in the West Bank. What could have been done in 1990? What should have been done to push that through to a conclusion that would have given the Palestinians a state?
Yaqub: Well, I mean I do think that the first President Bush did make a good start. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, he did work with the Soviet Union, which of course was about to disappear to convene the Madrid meeting in the fall of 1991, which did ultimately lead to Oslo. I mean one of the most promising features of Oslo was of course the fact that finally you had direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. This was something that, you know, had been impossible for the previous quarter century. And certainly there was talk of land for peace. The Israelis didn't completely endorse it, but under U.S. prodding, it moved closer to accepting the notion of a Palestinian state. And so the very idea of establishing an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, which was something that the Palestinians and the Arab states and much of the international community had demanded for decades but that the United States and Israel had resisted, finally the United States and Israel were coming around to that idea. And so that in itself was a major psychological breakthrough and created all kinds of opportunities for resolving the issue. What happened unfortunately was that the manner in which the negotiations unfolded, from 1993 on, really helped to subvert the whole process of reaching a settlement.
Landis: What was that manner?
Yaqub: Well the problem was that there really wasn't ultimately a meeting of the minds over what the ultimate outcome should be. There really was not a mutual understanding over how much territory Israel should withdraw from and what the disposition of a number of issues such as Jerusalem refugees and so forth would be. What instead happened was that you began this protracted series of negotiations, the end result of which remained to be determined. And while these negotiations were taking place, Israel continued to expand the settler population and continued to take up other measures that precluded the possibility of a genuinely independent Palestinian state from emerging in the future.
Landis: Do you think that Clinton could have moved more forcefully to pressure Israel to clarify those borders and to accept a Palestinian state that would be independent on its borders and the West Bank?
Yaqub: Yes I do. I think the Clinton administration failed to make it clearer what the final outcome should be. And it failed to put pressure on Israel to seize the settlement activity. I mean, there were things that the Palestinians did too that were detrimental and they were rightfully criticized for that. But the ability of the Israelis to continue settling the territory and doing other taking other actions that undermined the possibility of a Palestinian state I think was was fatal.
Landis: Salim what's going to happen to the Palestinians today?
Yaqub: Well your guess is as good as mine. I all I can say is that it doesn't look very promising right now at least if we're talking about the the immediate and maybe middle term, the next 10, 15 years. It it just I mean the United States clearly is not in a position to bring the parties to any serious negotiation. And I would say frankly it's out of a failure of the United States to grapple with the fact of the occupation and and what it has done to the Palestinian territories, and its failure to grapple with the impact of settler activity and settler expansion in the in the occupied territories.
Landis: Well certainly settler expansion seems to be going head at full force in the West Bank. There are over two and a half million Palestinians there that are increasingly being pushed aside for these Israeli settlements, a million and a half Palestinians in the Gaza Strip that live in very dire circumstances. This situation, the status quo as it's called in Israel, just goes on and on. And that means more loss of land, more settlers, Palestinians being marginalized. Will Palestinians be complacent? Will there be an attempted uprising? And if there is will Israel push them aside in some way?
Yaqub: Well certainly that's a possibility. I mean so far I mean we've had this pattern for the last 15 years or so of kind of episodic eruptions of violence, largely focused on Gaza. But certainly it's been in the West Bank as well. And the so acts of violence you know Palestinian resistance Israeli, you know, massive Israeli retaliation resulting in you know major humanitarian crises and you know sometimes flurries of diplomatic activity that usually end up in some kind of a cease fire. And then a continuation of the status quo, which is the expanded acceleration of Israel's appropriation.
Landis: And how much how much does America's inability to solve this Arab-Israeli conflict limit U.S. ability to fix problems elsewhere in the Middle East, whether it's in Iraq or Syria or between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
Yaqub: Well I mean I'm a few years ago I would have placed more emphasis on that on the lack in the loss of credibility that the United States has suffered because of its inability to to grapple with the Israel-Palestine issue. I actually don't see it as quite as much of an issue on that front today as I would have seen a few years ago. I mean, I think what's what's taking place and in some ways this is very discouraging is that there is a greater willingness on the part of other actors in the Arab world to wash their hands the Palestine issue and to essentially let it slide and not concern themselves with it, not allow it to interfere with other issues that they have concerns about. And certainly the Syrian civil war, the concern that many Arab countries have about Iran's rising profile in the region. I tend to think that those have trumped, so to speak, concern about the Palestine issue. So I don't think that the failure of the United States to resolve the Israel-Palestine issue is in itself having much of an inhibiting factor on its abilities to address the other issues in the region. There are other factors that are inhibiting it. But I don't think it's the Palestine issue that's that's doing that right now.
Landis: Well Salim Yaqub, it's been a delight talking with you. We've just gotten in some very interesting territory here but we have to bring this to an end. Thank you so much.
Yaqub: Thank you. It was a real pleasure.
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