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US Middle Power Plays

by Robert Jensen And Rahul Mahajan

For all the talk of a “special relationship” between the United States and Israel, it’s clear that for American policymakers there’s nothing particularly special about their support for Israel or rejection of Palestinian rights.

For all the talk in Washington about peace in the Middle East, it’s clear that American policymakers are not much concerned about peace.

Instead, the primary aim of U.S. policy in the Middle East is U.S. dominance over the region and its oil resources, through support for regimes that play our game and through our ever-increasing military presence.

To the degree that U.S. policymakers believe backing Israeli conquest and aggression in Palestine advances U.S. long-term business interests, support for Israel continues. To the degree that peace helps solidify U.S. control, peace is acceptable.

But U.S. policy is driven neither by unquestioned support for Israel nor concern for people’s suffering in conflicts. Any hope for real peace requires getting past this rhetoric to the reality of U.S. policy.

That reality is clear: The central principle of every U.S. administration since the end of World War II has been that the resources of the region do not truly belong to the people of the region, but instead exist for the benefit of Americans.

It is not simply a question of who owns the oil, but who controls the flow of oil and oil profits. Even if the United States were energy self-sufficient, U.S. elites would seek to dominate the Middle East for the leverage it brings in world affairs, especially over the economies of our primary competitors (Europe and Japan), which are more heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil.

One component of this policy is support for the oil-rich countries, such as Saudi Arabia. Saudi rulers take their cut of the profits, channeling what remains into investments in the West and the purchase of U.S. weapons. In exchange, Saudi Arabia — a monarchy that could not exist independently — gets U.S. protection.

In this system, Israel is a key pillar of U.S. strategy. Especially after its impressive military victory over the Arab states in 1967, Israel was a hammer that was used to smash Arab nationalism, which could have upset the system of weak, fragmented client regimes that the United States favors. Israel serves as a local cop on the beat, in the terminology of the Nixon Doctrine, and an integral part of the U.S. military-intelligence complex in that part of the world. These roles became especially important after the Iranian revolution in 1979, when the U.S. lost its other main base in the region.

Israel also serves as a convenient foil for the United States. Even though the United States has exercised tremendous, repressive control over the region, until recently the brunt of Arab anger was always borne by Israel, with the United States representing itself to the Arabs as a friend. The U.S.-backed Arab regimes use this foil as well, diverting the anger of the so-called “Arab street” away from those states’ corruption and despotism, to Israel.

This analysis is often rebuffed by pointing to the frequent tensions between the United States and countries in the region, including allies. How is it that these nations are our clients when they seem so unruly?

This simply reflects the complexity of maintaining control in such a volatile region. It is common practice for empires to set up client regimes in a region and then play them off each other, which not surprisingly produces tension, especially when the governments are not representative of their people. That’s what U.S. diplomatic and military officials are paid to do — manage the tensions, always keeping an eye on the ultimate goal.

U.S. control — not peace — is that goal. That is why policymakers were happy to see Iraq and Iran at war throughout the 1980s and gave various kinds of covert support to both sides. Never mind the millions killed — it kept the two regional powers at each other’s throats, and hence weakened.

In Palestine, if the United States were serious about promoting peace it would have long ago joined the international consensus for a political settlement built on a viable state for the Palestinians and security for Israel. Instead, it has long blocked that consensus, such as when it vetoed a 1976 U.N. Security Council resolution that offered something much like the Saudi plan being touted today as a solution.

U.S. leaders don’t mind peace, so long as it is within a system that doesn’t threaten U.S. control. Yes, a Middle East in a constant state of tension — either engaged in war or on the verge of war — has been dangerous. But that’s a price the United States has been willing to pay.

These points are crucial to answering the claim that U.S. leaders simply do Israel’s bidding. Of course there are well-organized and well-funded groups in the United States lobbying very effectively for Israel. And of course U.S. politicians feel pressure from vocal constituents who support Israel.

But those domestic political realities alone do not drive U.S. financial and diplomatic support that allows Israel to continue to defy international law in its 35-year military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has skillfully used the “war on terrorism” banner to expand further the level of violence against Palestinians that the United States will accept, and the expressions of reflexive support for Israel in Congress have never been stronger.

But in the end, the U.S. policymakers shape foreign policy to benefit U.S. elite economic interests, not those of another country.

The inevitable conclusion to draw from this is that United States cannot be a positive force in the Middle East without a fundamental shift in goals: The United States must replace its quest for control with a commitment to peace AND justice, under international law.

Never has it been more crucial that Americans understand this. While Israel steps up the violence in Palestine, the Bush administration plots a war on Iraq. U.S. officials tell us Iraq presents a grave threat to the world, though other nations (including Kuwait) don’t feel threatened and all the world (save Israel and the always-loyal Tony Blair) rejects the U.S. plans.

It’s not that other countries support Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, but that they see that a war on Iraq will deepen U.S. control over the region at the expense of the Iraqi people. As U.S. officials talk about bringing democracy and freedom to Iraq, they search for an Iraqi general who can be trusted to follow U.S. orders if put in charge. All this after more than a decade of economic sanctions — demanded by the United States, largely to break Iraqi control of its own oil — that have killed a half-million Iraqi children (according to a comprehensive UNICEF study).

The more the United States overplays its hand in the Middle East, the more the rest of the world sees clearly U.S. intentions. The question is, can we the American people see the same, and demand of our government a policy geared toward justice not domination.

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas and author of Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream. Rahul Mahajan serves on the National Board of Peace Action and is author of The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism. Both are members of the Nowar Collective.

They can be reached at



Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, fall 2015). Robert Jensen can be reached at and his articles can be found online at To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Notes. [1] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), p. 106. [2] Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). [3] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, edited and with a revised translation by Susan McReynolds Oddo (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011), p. 55.

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