What hope for the West in the Middle East?

September 13 1958

What hope for the West in the Middle East?

September 13 1958

What hope for the West in the Middle East?

Enroute from BAGHDAD THE QUESTIONS people ask of a traveler from the Middle East are sensible and apparently simple: What exactly was the Western alliance trying to do, when U. S. Marines landed in Lebanon and British paratroopers in Jordan with French warships anchored off Beirut? What was their objective, and did they achieve it or not? Is the threat of war greater or less as a result of the summer’s operations?

The traveler feels rather stupid not being able to answer such elementary and straightforward enquiries. His consolation is that when he put the same questions to men on the spot, men in a position to know if anyone does, they couldn’t answer either.

Very little, BLAIR FRASER concludes after weeks in the world’s hottest spots

The cold hard fact is that we have no friends in the Arab world

By intervening with troops, the Americans and British have strengthened the “enemy”

The Russians have been cleverer than we at spotting the winning side

Everyone in Jordan who can read and write, and many who cannot, are against King Hussein and all that he stands for

The West’s best hope of remaining on terms with the new Arab nationalism is through the channels of trade

On our first day back in Beirut after the American landing, half a dozen reporters were invited aboard the U. S. flagship Taconic for a tour by helicopter of the Marines’ beachhead positions. As we sat in the wardroom waiting our turn a U. S. Navy press and information officer sat down beside us.

‘‘Well, gentlemen,” he said genially, “what do you want to know about the Sixth Fleet?”

We had only one question, we told him. and that a very simple one: “What are you doing here?”

“1 should think that’s obvious,” the PIO replied.

No. it wasn’t obvious. The Marines had been summoned without the knowledge or consent of the Lebanese Army commander, and for a few hours there was some doubt whether the Lebanese Army would let them land w ithout a fight. Now the Lebanese Army was standing still around an area held by nationalist rebels, and the Marines were standing still behind the Lebanese Army.

Our question was, against whom were the Marines deployed? Who was the enemy? Which armed force was in charge at the Beirut airport, where U. S. Marines and the Lebanese Army were both standing guard? Who gave orders to whom? What was the liaison, if any, between American and Lebanese forces?

The PIO looked at his fingernails for a minute and then said: “I don't w'ant to split hairs with you, but the Marines are under navy command only w'hile afloat. I am a Navy PIO, and the Marines are ashore. You’ll have to put those questions to someone else.”

In Amman, Jordan, when we put the same questions to a British PIO a few days later, his answer was more succinct: “We’re here with orders to sit on the airport, and that’s all.”

Did he mean that if a coup were attempted against King Hussein’s government, the British force would not interfere?

“That’s a political, not a military question.”

But surely it was part of his orders, one way or the other?

“Don’t you tell me what my orders are,” said the British major. Our relations thereafter were somewhat cool.

Privately, though, the British were much more explicit about their mission in Jordan than the Americans have been about Lebanon. The British were there, they said, to protect the young king and his ministers from a murderous coup like the one in Iraq, and for no other purpose. They had no plans for invading Iraq, no plans for resuming the quasi-occupation of Jordan that they maintained in the days of General Glubb, no plans at all in fact except to help the king keep order. They would continued on page 79

What hope for the West in the Middle East? continued from page 17

Some believe the majority of Jordan’s regular officer corps is in jail . . . plus hundreds of civilians

go as soon as they were asked to do so, or as soon as the danger was over.

Of the danger itself, in Jordan, they had no doubt. The cry for help had come to London on the night of July 16. at the very moment when the House of Commons was debating the American landing and Labor MPs were demanding a pledge that Britain would not land in Jordan. King Hussein telephoned about six p.m., British time, to say an Iraqistyle coup was about to be launched and that he was in dire peril. The British government promised him an answer before morning.

Meanwhile, without waiting for the British reply. King Hussein went ahead with “security measures" to frustrate the coup—that is, he clapped a number of dissident army officers into jail, and fired some others. Just how many Jordanian officers are now in jail is a secret, though some people believe it’s a majority of the regular officer corps. Hundreds of civilians, including some fairly prominent political figures, are also believed to be held in the grim grey prison that rises out of the desert some thirty miles east of the end of the railway at Ma'an.

Hussein said, and the British believe, that he couldn't have made his “security measures” stick if he and his enemies had not known that help was coming. Presumably he meant that otherwise the army woud have rebelled against the arrests. But he took it for granted that the British would not fail him. and he was right. The answer came through at dawn on the Thursday morning, and the paratroops were landing within hours after that. If their mission was to keep order in Jordan, they succeeded.

The lieutenant was shot

If the American Marines had the same objective in Lebanon, they failed. The disorder was as bad after they arrived as before.

On the fourth morning after the landing in Beirut I rang up the very nice and helpful young lieutenant at police headquarters who was trying to get me a curfew pass. He said he hadn’t been able to do it yet, but if I would come up to his office he would start me through the routine. I said I’d be there in ten minutes, and I was.

When I arrived they had just carried the lieutenant out on a stretcher, and a little brown man with a large bucket was mopping the blood off the floor—I had to step over it to get my passport off the desk. Between my telephone call and my arrival there had been a burst of firing outside, and the lieutenant had gone out to see what was happening. A sniper had creased his forehead—they thought then that his left eye had been shot out, but it turned out that the eye was not touched and he will recover with nothing worse than a deep scar beside the temple.

This incident took place at 10.3(1 in the morning at police headquarters, the very centre of internal security in Beirut. The rear courtyard was swarming with soldiers, tanks, armored cars, mortars and machine guns, and there was as much rushing to and fro as in a disturbed ant hill. But nobody moved against the Basta, the Moslem quarter that was under rebel control and administration, and from which the sniper's bullet had come.

Neither American nor Lebanese forces made the slightest attempt to put down and disarm these forces which, from behind absurdly flimsy defenses, were firing on the government’s security headquarters in broad daylight.

But if nobody could tell exactly what the U. S. Marines were doing in Lebanon, at least there was nothing to keep them there—no serious obstacle to their leaving at any time. The British in Jordan had a more easily definable purpose, but

they couldn't say when or how it would be accomplished. When, if ever, would King Hussein cease to be in danger from his own people?

The official line in Jordan, accepted by the official British, is that the Jordanian

Opponents say: “A king who thinks he needs protection against his own people is no king”

people are divided politically as well as geographically by the Jordan River. On the west bank are the Palestinians, half a million of them refugees who sit in UN-supported camps brooding about their wrongs and their lost homes. On the east bank and beyond are the “real” people of Jordan, the Bedouin and the villagers not far removed from Bedouin, the “unspoiled” dwellers in the desert who are still more or less what they were a thousand years ago. The Palestinians on the west bank are “city Arabs,” opposed to King Hussein and the whole Hashemite dynasty. But the faithful Bedouin, according to the official line, are still loyal to their beloved king.

It’s hard to see how anyone can really believe this, after what happened in Iraq. Exactly the same thing used to be said there—the tribesmen were supposed to be faithful to the other Hashemite king, Faisal II, and his Prime Minister Nuri Sa’id. Yet when Faisal was shot and Nuri beaten to death by the mob, not a finger nor even a voice was raised to defend or avenge them.

But even without the example of Iraq, it’s obvious that the official line in Jordan must be poppycock. If King Hussein really had the loyalty of half his people he would need no help from outside, for “his” half of the people includes the army, the famous Arab Legion long touted as the strongest fighting force in the Middle East (not counting, of course, the Turks or the Israeli).

In fact it is clear that King Hussein needed protection against his own Jordanian Army. In Jordan as in Iraq, the army is the indispensable instrument of rebellion. If the army were loyal, rebellion would be impossible. Conversely if rebellion is a real threat, the army must have gone over to the rebel side.

These plainly evident facts give weight to the arguments of the opposition in Jordan, who say the whole notion of “loyal" Bedouin is obsolete. The desert retainers on whom the king relies, they say, are merely old-style sheiks who go to the king for money and usually get it. The sheiks themselves no longer command any real fealty from their people, any more than do their opposite numbers in Iraq who now are calling on the new government to protect them against their own serfs. Opposition spokesmen admit that the ordinary private or NCO in the Arab Legion would probably obey orders like any other soldier, but they say the best and ablest of the men who give the orders, the cream of the officer corps, have openly or secretly joined the nationalist opposition.

They say that everyone in Jordan who can read and write, and a great many who cannot, are against the Hashemite kingdom and all that it stands for. The visitor can find no reason to doubt this contention. He has trouble finding anyone except foreigners, or the most abject of official spokesmen, to speak in the government’s favor.

He can see that Jordan is run as a police state of the most timorous kind. The elected government was deposed by the king and many of its leading people jailed without trial, a year ago last spring; since then the little country has been under martial law, with its army kept “loyal” by repeated purges of suspected officers. The censorship is so rigid as to be ridiculous. The royal family and its surrounding clique is unpopular, and the

visitor is told so even by men who hold office under the king and pay lip service to him in public. Fairly or unfairly the king, his mother, his uncle and thenwhole circle are described as ill-behaved and disreputable.

The opposition, on the other hand, includes some of the most respected figures in Jordan, and the visitor can meet them with no trouble at all. I talked to several, some openly dissident but too eminent to be imprisoned, others more or less secretly opposed to the Hashemite kingdom. All agreed that the long-term effect of the British landing would be to unite the country against King Hussein and discredit him irremediably.

“Whether or not the danger was real,” said one, “a king who thinks he needs protection against his own people is no king.”

This is so manifestly true as to need no proof. It also provides a sad rejoinder to the principal argument in favor of the Anglo-American landings—that if the action had not been taken “our friends” in the other Arab countries would have been discouraged and dismayed.

The cold hard fact is that we have no friends in the Arab world. It is even an open question whether we ever did have any, except for a handful of individuals, some of whom have now paid with their lives for their poor judgment in choosing allies. The men in power in most Arab countries, and the men obviously headed for power in the rest, are no friends of ours.

By ill-luck or unwisdom or a mixture of both, the Western powers have aligned themselves against the strongest political force in the Middle East, the drive toward Arab unity. We call it “Arab nationalism” or “Nasserism”—terms that are true enough, though Arabs don’t understand why we think them disparaging.

Some of us even call it communism, because the Russians have been cleverer than we at spotting the winning side in Arab countries, and have given Arab unity their blessing. But in fact it has nothing to do with communism. It is simply the desire of most Arabs, after seven hundred years of living as a subject and divided people, to become once more a nation. The men we chose as allies have been the enemies of this movement, men who for one reason or another wanted to keep the Arabs divided. By that choice we made ourselves its enemies too.

It’s easy for a military force to ignore

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these facts, because the military record of Arab countries is ignominious. Seldom in modern history, and not often since the time of the Crusades, has an Arab army stood fast against an equal number of armed men. When one Arab force meets another, as in the so-called civil war in the Lebanon, they remind the onlooker of what Bertrand Russell said about Chinese warlords in the 1920s: “Both sides run away, and the victory rests with the side that first discovers the flight of the other.”

But as Britain and the U. S. have found out in Jordan and the Lebanon, trying 10 resolve a political situation by military means is like trying to eliminate mosquiloes with a shotgun. The Marines and the paratroops met no physical resistance, ¡but their political effect was not to weaken but to strengthen the “enemy.” Indeed, the question now facing the Western world is whether anything at all can i>e done to close the abyss between it and the winning side in the Arab couniries, or whether the breach is irreparable.

"There is still hope”

I put that question to an Arab nationalist in Jerusalem, the wisest and gentlest man I met in the Middle East, a man whose personal record in the war against Israel is heroic, and who served in three covernments before he was ousted by King Hussein last year. Did he think there was any hope of a reconciliation between the Arab world and the West?

“Yes, I believe there is still hope,” he said. “It will not be easy, and it grows more difficult with every day that passes, but I believe it can still be done—for two reasons.

“One is that most of the men who lead the movement toward Arab unity have personal ties with the West that they cannot break. They are not Marxists, whatever you may think; in the main they are western-type liberal reformers. They speak English or French as a second language, and often very nearly as a mother tongue. They went to Western universities, they have Western modes of thought. Don’t forget what happened in India, where there was also a lot of bitterness against Britain as an occupying power. Once the British withdrew. the bitterness vanished—India had no sooner escaped from the British Empire than she joined the British Commonwealth. The same kind of change could happen here.

“The other reason for hope is a more practical one. All of our wealth is in oil, and for oil we must have a market. The only market in sight is the West— the Soviet Union has all the oil she needs at the moment, and no way of taking delivery of ours even if she did want it. We must sell to the West or not at all. We can also buy from the West more easily than anywhere else. If you give us a chance, I believe we shall develop economic ties that will not easily be broken.”

As good sound common sense this was very convincing. The only trouble was that common sense does not always, or even often, prevail in Asia Minor. Europeans in the area are fond of telling a story that is not so much a joke as a parable, the fable of the frog and the scorpion:

A frog and a scorpion met on a bank of the Nile, and the scorpion asked the frog to ferry him across.

“Not much,” said the frog. “If I carry you on my head, you’ll sting me to death.”

"Don’t be silly,” said the scorpion. “If I were to sting you then you would sink

and 1 would drown. That wouldn’t make


So the frog agreed to carry the scorpion across the Nile, and they set out. When they got to the middle of the river the scorpion stung the frog and both began to sink.

“What did you do that for?” said the dying frog to the drowning scorpion. “You said yourself it wouldn’t make sense.”

“Ah,” said the scorpion with his last breath, “but you forget—this is the Middle East.”

It’s not hard to think of examples in which Arab states have behaved like the scorpion—Syria for one, when the pipelines to the Mediterranean were not merely cut but blasted to smithereens after Suez, a reprisal that hurt Syria as much as it hurt anyone else.

But from an Arab point of view, we of the West have also been following a scorpion-type policy in the Middle East for three years.

“We do not understand your hostility to President Nasser,” said my Arab friend in Jerusalem. "You call him dictator and empire-builder. To us an empire-builder is one who tries to put other peoples under foreign rule against their will. Nasser is not trying to put us Arabs under foreign rule, he's trying to liberate us from it. We ourselves want to be united. We are all one people. If we were together we should not be an empire, we should be a nation.

“This seems to us a reasonable goal. Yet you Westerners talk as if it were a crime, and do all you can to keep us from reaching it.”

We went over some of the events that led to the present impasse: the Israeli attack on Gaza in February 1955, and Nasser’s decision that Egypt must arm: his failure to get arms from the West, and his purchase from communist Czechoslovakia: John Foster Dulles’ resolve to punish him by withdrawing, suddenly and publicly, the U. S. offer of help with that tremendous development project, the Aswan dam.

“Of course Dulles had a perfect right to withhold the money,” said my friend. “We admit that. We object to the way it was withheld, the calculated, public rebuff. That was a deliberate insult. Nasser couldn't ignore it. But when he reacted by nationalizing the Suez Canal, Britain and France invaded Egypt.”

Whatever the intended result of the Suez adventure, whatever might have happened if Britain and France had been supported instead of opposed by their allies, there is no doubt of what the result has been in actual fact. Nasser is now the hero and the idol of the entire Arab world. The sole exceptions are a part of the Christian community in the Lebanon, fearful of being engulfed in a Moslem sea, and a handful of old-style sheiks fearful of being dragged into the twentieth century. All the evidence indicates that to every other Arabic-speaking person from the Nile to the Tigris, and perhaps westward to Morocco as well. Nasser is a loved and revered leader.

This doesn't have to mean that if all Arab countries have free choice they will enter immediate and complete political union, as Syria and Egypt have done. Loyalties are strong in the Middle East, probably stronger than those of the thirteen American colonies in 1776 or the four Canadian provinces in 1867. Also, no matter who tries to do it, countries like Saudi Arabia and Yemen cannot be led out of the dark ages overnight. . What Arabs call “the Arab nation” may be no more than an alliance as loose as the British Commonwealth.

But whatever its organization its leader will be Gamal Abdel Nasser, the symbol of Arab unity and Arab defiance of the foreigner.

One of my vivid memories of Baghdad is an incident in the anteroom of a minister’s office—a ragged hanger-on unrolling a huge portrait of Nasser, looking up at me with a stare of unmistakable hatred, and slowly bending to kiss the picture in his hand. That same face in various sizes and poses looks down upon every shop, office and schoolroom, and on millions of squalid homes from Cairo to Baghdad. Nasser's Radio Cairo, pouring out an endless flood of lies and incitements to violence against the West, is the voice Arabs listen to and believe.

To us it is a hostile voice, and Nasser is a hostile figure. This is a fact; it’s idle to argue whether the fact is more his fault than ours.

But it is still more idle to argue whether or not the West should "deal” with Nasser. This is like wondering whether to deal with a scoundrel like Khrushchev, or look instead for some undiscovered heir of the Romanov Czars. The fact is, we have no choice. ★

“Don’t think I’m going to waste an argument on you. I’m waiting until you’re off those tranquilizers!”