The Missing Link

Andrea Akova

The reality is that no unit – be it cell or nation – exists in this world without affecting or being affected by events outside its parameters. That we live in a global economy is a matter of fact. With the explosive rate of technological advances, we can be instantly aware of events taking place in the most distant corner of the world. Furthermore, the dismantling of the Soviet apparatus has sealed the prophecy of the great Democracy and American hegemony is the recipe of the day. In this "global village," ephemeral motivations make it increasingly difficult to designate clear boundaries and their consequential connections. Hence, the linking of issues is natural and inevitable. What is interesting, is the proclivity to accept some claims to linkage and to dismiss others. And since acceptance and dismissal are subjective matters, then it would be reasonable to assume that both have the same weight.

The plight of the Kurds is a perfect example of the labyrinth we call the Middle East. Is it possible to dispute that the Gulf War gave hopes of independence to Iraqi Kurds; who then rebelled and were ruthlessly crushed; which led to a refugee crisis in neighboring countries; and in countries like Turkey, this exasperated existing domestic schisms which were characterized as human rights violations; which were in turn utilized by the European community as a barrier for EU entry, and by the United States as a carrot stick for enhanced cooperation with Israel; that resulted in increased military cooperation with Israel; and consequently brought on the criticism of Islamic nations…? [And this example began with a marginal group!].

When the United States was waging war in Vietnam, a loud and clear-cut debate was taking place at the home front regarding U.S. disentanglement from the War. The opponents were raising the theory of domino effect that predicted the collapse of many countries in Southeast Asia. In other words, the experts saw a linkage between various countries that differed from each other in many ways but were exposed to the same danger. Furthermore, the American campaign attached democracy and human rights conditions to its economic assistance or trade privileges. Although these are two different realms, the linkage for Americans was obvious for they improve social and economic conditions in tandem. Again, "dual containment" was fervently pursued against Iraq and Iran, two countries that differ radically from each other, except they were both categorized by U.S. policy makers as rogue and terror-sponsoring states.

In previous days, the American imperium spoke more freely of defending its national interests and candidly on its methods. We can observe the crosscurrent between U.S. politics and oil in the case of American covert intervention which overturned the Guatemalan takeover of United Fruit’s holdings [1950s] and Iran’s nationalization of AIOC [1953].

When a clear national interest was thought to be at stake, as was the case for rubber and oil during the 1920s and oil in Iran in the 1950s, state actors were willing to become extensively involved in specific projects. They used diplomatic and economic pressure and, in Iran, covert force. This made it possible to create a new oil consortium.

Today, the United States, no longer menaced by the Communist power, has felt the need to change the script. It has ascended into the domain of the "superior power" and feels uneasy with the moral duties it implies. In addition, the appearance of alliance must be maintained lest strong powers join to dethrone the new appointee. And so, the United States proceeds in cloaking national interests with ideological tones. Meanwhile, the nationalist expressions of other nations are written off as "linkage arguments" or "conspiracy theories." Here we will examine the discourse of linkage and its implications for American interests in the Middle East.


The 40s and 50s were characterized by independence movements; leading to decades of house cleaning, remodeling, and refinancing that left newly independent countries indebted to former and emerging super powers. The experiments in development failed to alter a steady decline in economic growth and, like every reasonable nation, the countries of the Middle East attempted to assert their interests. As Arab nations sought to take charge of their own destinies and assets, the formation of a Jewish state was to prove a source of regional agitation. Meanwhile the United States and many others had staked the security of the global economy on Arabia’s black gold. It follows then that the territorial interests of Arabs and Jews would be diametrically opposed, and American and Arab economic interests not necessarily mutual. These three parties would henceforth be inextricably connected, in ways far beyond the spoils of land and money.

What emerged, was a tendency among Arab leaders to play and prey upon existing links, for Israel to emphatically reject the existence of such linkage, and for the United Sates to devise altruistic links as disguise for self-serving ones. An in-depth look demonstrates that not only is there linkage, but also that there are various types. The recent escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Iraq provides a lesson on the dangers of unlinking issues that have historical association with one another, whether justifiably or not. Here we will examine why linkage is needed by the Americans and the Arabs, while detrimental to the Israelis.


The question of Israel can never be pronounced without naming a friend or foe, for the moral justification of the state was grounded in the historical persecution of the Jews. To this day, Jews worldwide are convinced of animosity towards them, while uncertain of the loyalty of their allies. After all, the time lapse between the horrific discovery of Nazi concentration camps and Allied intervention was significant and not forgotten. Today, the threats, some actual, some perceived, are accessible to those seeking protection and support: anti-Semitism, Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism. It is a state that despite official recognition, still feels unsure of its world-wide appeal, let alone its regional popularity. There are many reasons for this lack of "security," and the responsibility is to be shared by Jews and Arabs alike. However, that security and statehood are one in the same for this nation, renders Israel prone to sifting through regional events and coming up with a puree of escalated threats. Some threats are real, solid, tangible. The bus explosions that killed many civilians, for example. There are, however, philosophical threats; mainly the concentration of fringe groups within the Islamic community. Such appeals serve well those wishing to be elected and needing the vote of ultra-orthodox in a country where coalition-building is a painful process.

Given the absence of warm neighborly receptions, Israel found it in its interests to implement a policy of negotiating separately versus collectively. The idea was that by dealing with each neighbor independently, Israel would minimize the concessions it would have had to make had it been negotiating with an Arab coalition. The reality facing this new state was one of land acquisition from a non-acquiescent population. While Israel sought to keep its territorial gains, it remained cognizant of the international community’s reluctant support as evidenced by the great number of UN resolutions critical of Israeli policy.

In this case, Israel could do one of two things: Give in to international pressure and comply with UN resolutions. That would mean returning the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and withdrawing from southern Lebanon. Such measures would signify political suicide. After all, politicians in Israel are no different than any other politician seeking election. Beyond elections, such measures would have sown the seeds of conflict and confusion among the ranks of Jews worldwide; threatening Israel’s economic and political support base. So the question was how to maintain the status quo while minimizing international criticism and territorial concessions? Keenly aware that political linkage has a terrible resemblance to Arab unity, Israel would seek to disconnect the issues. To a great extent, Israel was successful in this approach in terms of its dealings with Arab leaders. The Egyptians, Jordanians, and Palestinians all signed agreements. However, on a popular level, no attempt to separate the Israeli-Arab conflict from events in the region can ever hope to succeed. This reality cannot be reduced to power-envy for, despite years of colonization, the French fared much better in the Arab lands on a popular level. Furthermore, the separate agreements, none of which have been fully-implemented, have yet to bring about peace and stability in the region.

Arab States

If security and statehood are synonymous for Israel; for the Arabs, linkage is survival both to the commoner and the coronated. Linkage arguments serve most, if not all, Arab leaders on two fronts: (1) As a diversionary tactic. The United States and Israel have been quick to point out the lack of democracy that exists in the Middle East. After all, this is one of the pillars of the U.S.-Israeli friendship. If Israel for a long-time enjoyed holding the sole title to democracy in the region, one would then assume autocracy plagued the Arab countries to one degree or another. Hence, to latch onto the Peace Process has been for some Arab leaders a "populous pacifier." The Palestinian cause is the orphaned child of pan-Arab nationalism. It is a tool that serves to distract those who are nationally inclined, for citizens that identify with a nation begin to demand more from that state. So, Arab leaders benefit from having a rhetorical enemy, and to their good fortune, Israel is quick to provide the pretext. (2) As a bargaining leverage. Egypt and Jordan played the hard-to-get game just long enough to guarantee annual economic aid packages, not to mention a monthly bonus for King Hussein. Ask for more than you know you can possible receive and you’ll end up with what you wanted to begin with [Arab leaders are not alone in employing this strategy].

The outcry of conspiracy and linkage is perhaps the loudest among the Palestinian people. The fact is over 50% of Palestinians live outside what they believe is their proper homeland. If you are a Palestinian in need of a sympathetic ear, hoping your pleas will ameliorate the conditions of your people, what are your options? Images of hungry children, maimed youth and weeping women did not make the U.S. threaten to bomb Israel and give back some of the land, or at least place sanctions against it. The word is out, and the word is oil. So, the Palestinians have no alternative but to ride on the coattails of petrol politics for an audience with the Americans. So long as they remain displaced throughout the world, al-ghurba [the longing for one’s native land], will push for desperations of linkage. They will not only link their plight to American and Israeli policies, but to the economics and communities of their "host" countries, and the longer the situation persists, the more links are added to the chain.

This is an emotional motivation for linkage. There is an empirical association, however, that concerns Arabs and non-Arabs alike. This is the question of inconsistency in U.S. foreign policy, around the world, but mainly in the Middle East. The case of Serbia/Croatia is a glaring example of a non-compliant aggressor and the U.S./U.N. failure to actively pursue the use of force to halt the prolonged period of genocide and rape that took place in Bosnia. In this case, the international community not only approved, but called for the use of military force. This did not happen, despite Serbian defiance of the international will and their harassment, kidnapping, and even killing of U.N. personnel. The U.S. was not discussing a full-scale air assault. Instead, the debate of the day was whether or not to arm the Bosnians.

The latest tensions with Iraq provided the Arabs yet another opportunity to relate their suffering to Israeli non-compliance. Palestinians identified with the Kuwaiti plight, and wished Israel would be held to the same standards as Iraq. Israel protested such efforts on the grounds that Iraq and Israel could not be compared. Though this may be true, such protests are irrelevant since the comparison was not between the two countries, but rather, between two sets of U.N. resolutions. And irrespective of the modus operandi of every set, the fact is that both resolutions are issued to be respected and complied with. Moreover, the distinction between the two countries, Arabs argue, hovers on the degree and not the kind, considering Israel’s seizure of land, use of illegal weapons [cluster bombs and phosphorous shells against Lebanese and Palestinian civilians] and aggressive activities in friendly countries [assassination attempt in Jordan]. When Saddam released chemical weapons on Iranian soldiers and later Iraqi Kurdish civilians, the U.S./U.N. did nothing. That the U.S. has not taken a decisive step to remove Saddam, especially when it had the chance, has indicated to regional, and not so regional, neighbors, that America has hinged its economic interest in the Gulf to Saddam’s staying-power. In retrospect, the American reluctance to exterminate the Arab Hitler underscores an opportunity for weapons sales and access to oil.

United States

Soon after the invasion of Kuwait, world oil prices rose rapidly and stock markets plummeted. "Our jobs, our way of life, our own freedom and the freedom of friendly countries around the world would suffer if control of the world’s great oil reserves fell into the hands of Saddam Hussein." According to Daniel Yergin, the political and economic processes of the 20th Century came to be shaped by oil. "Today, oil is the only commodity whose doings and controversies are to be found regularly not only on the business page but also on the front page." He goes on to state that oil is necessary for every facet of American daily life [fertilizers, transportation, plastics, chemicals]. Thomas McNagher wrote "Oil is the world’s residual energy source; swings in its price affect all energy markets… The political importance of oil derives from the effects of changes, or feared changes, in its price." It is important to note that securing oil supplies would also minimize the ability of other "super powers" to compete for their share of the global pie. Think of a nation like Japan that is heavily reliant on Middle East oil. The last thing pax Americana can tolerate are powerful nations dealing independently with oil-producing states; i.e., France [TOTAL]. France’s role in defusing the U.S.-Iraqi tension, although only temporary, is indicative of this lurking reality.

That the international arms industry thrives on demand from the Middle East is an understatement. Iraq and Saudi Arabia spent over $40 billion dollars each on weapons between 1982 and 1989. Consider that only six Middle Eastern nations account for half of all arms sales in the world. Add to that the fact that U.S. arms sales to the Middle East represent two-thirds of total foreign sales. One might be inclined to believe the future of this industry is dependent on the maintenance of instability in that region. Such an argument is evidenced by American armament of both Iraq and Iran throughout their long war. [It’s ironic the supplier would one day demand the destruction of these dangerous weapons – is this what we call a future’s market?].

No doubt, stories spread quickly and become more creative in societies that retain their communal ties, and the Middle East is one of those great dinosaurs in that respect. But caution must be taken not to disregard plausible explanations that can often be documented and substantiated. A perfect example being the claim that the U.S. was willing to take military action against Iraq partly due to its need to test a new weapon. While most shrugged off this argument, a scholar who is privy to foreign policy circles, remarked this was not far from true. It comes as no surprise that a recent book on U.S. military presence discusses the "Major Uncertainties in U.S. Power Projection Capabilities in the Gulf," and that the discussion reads more like a recommended shopping list for those who can afford the selection.

The position of the United States as the "superior power" is increasingly under challenge. That Russia and France were successful in interjecting the U.S.-Iraq Crisis with their self-interests signify America will come under increased scrutiny by other powers for its lack of uniform policy [of course not necessarily out of altruistic thinking, but for the purpose of gaining a larger market share in the global economy.] A standardization of foreign policy, at least on a humanitarian level, would go a long way to minimize the need for linkage arguments.


Linkage does exist in reality as well as in perception and it does not need to encompass all aspects of the compared situations. The linkage might be a common cause of the issues, a similar technique to address them, or the same principles that inform their solution. Of course, in most cases it is a subjective matter, hence the frequent conflict that arises when considering the linkage issue. In many situations it is difficult to predict concretely whether the cause of a similar malaise is an internal or an external factor or a mixture of both. Likewise, conditionality that links the issues with the objective of achieving a certain outcome, may not produce the expected results. Whatever the nature of the linkage – real, perceived, or contrived – it cannot be ignored or dismissed without grave political consequences. The Middle East is an area that is at the center of global attention, at least because it contains the largest reserves of the commodity that lubricates the engines of progress in the world and will continue to do so for at least another century. Is it not then fair to say that the policies of major powers, vying for influence in the Middle East, are driven by a common interest – oil?

The discourse over the accuracy of linkage theories, serves as an obstacle to utilizing the massive collection of human talent, energy and resources available on working towards a real settlement in the region. It is important to differentiate between linkage and conspiracy theories, lest we condone censorship of the mind. Ignoring the natural ties, though often confrontational, between Arab states, Israel, and consequently the United States, leads to an escalation of tension and limited means for addressing inevitable conflicts. Consequently, a foreign policy that operates on a crisis management mode is likely to be one of crisis creation.

Ms. Akova is a M.A. Candidate in the Middle East Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

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