The origins of 'linkage'In this part of the world, the term 'linkage' is usually used to refer to the notion that resolving the Israeli -
I can hardly help but recognize the central role that U.S. Middle East policy has given to the belief that, from the Persian Gulf all the way to Western North Africa, a region encompassing many thousands of tribes and clans, dozens of languages and dialects, ethnicities and religious confessions, the Arab-Israeli issue is the key factor in determining the happiness of over 300 million Arabs and an additional 1.3 billion Muslims outside of the Arabic-speaking regions. Where does such an extraordinary idea come from? The answer is the Arabs—who might be expected, in the U.S. view of the world, to give us an honest account of what is bothering them. However, this would ignore the fact that interested parties do not always disclose the entire truth of their situation, especially when they have a stake in doing otherwise.Of course, the Obama administration is currently using linkage to argue that if only Israel was more accommodating to the 'Palestinians,' it would be much easier to resolve Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Smith rips that theory to shreds.
In all relations, intimate as well as international, the goal is to convince the other side to see the world in the way that you have chosen for them to see it. As Zionist immigration started to pick up in the 1920s and 1930s, long before the United States was even a factor in the Middle East, Arab rulers explained to the British that the creation of a Jewish state would cause deep anger among the Islamic umma, or community. The notion that all Muslims could feel strongly about one particular issue that did not touch on them directly was not necessarily false, but neither was it invariably true. Religious affiliation is only one form of identity in the region, where tribal and clan loyalty often trump everything else: It tests credulity that, say, the Saud clan of the Nejd on the Arabian peninsula was more concerned with protecting wealthy Jerusalem families than with defeating its own local adversaries, such as the Hashemites.
Linkage is the narrative the Arab rulers—specially Ibn Saud, the Hashemites who ruled Iraq and Transjordan, and the Egyptian monarchy—used to compete with each other to represent the Palestinian file to the British, a privilege that would enhance the winner’s power and prestige at the expense of his rivals. If the Saudis, say, owned the right to speak for the Arabs of the Palestinian mandate, then the British would have to go through the Saudi king to win concessions, a path that the British would need to pave with gold and concessions of their own to the Saudis. The competition for the role was stiff.
In the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, many of the British Foreign Office’s bureaucrats were, following in the footsteps of T.E. Lawrence, obsessed with the notion of a great and unified Arab nation. But even as the Foreign Office’s advice to Whitehall was largely based on sentimental, or irrational, grounds, London was not entirely foggy-headed. Recognizing that war with Germany was on the horizon, the Brits did not wish to risk their position in the Levant or energy sources in the Gulf by pushing the Arabs over to the Nazis. After the war, with the Brits losing their holdings and discovering that they were incapable of continuing to balance the Jews and the Arabs, the American moment in the Middle East began in earnest. The U.S. Department of State inherited the Foreign Office’s Arab nationalist inclinations and with it the idea of linkage. President Harry S. Truman’s Secretary of State Gen. George Marshall was the first in a long line of American military men reaching up to the present who subscribed to the idea that U.S. support for the Zionist state would antagonize the world’s Muslim population. Marshall was a proponent of hard linkage who not only warned the president against recognizing Israel, but also threatened to vote against him if he did so.
So, how did Washington manage to navigate these dangerous shoals, balancing not only the Arabs and Israel, but also a large segment of its own foreign-policy establishment that was suspicious, if not downright hostile, to the Jewish state? An even neater stunt than convincing the other side to accept your perspective is to turn their idols upside down—that is, to take their worldview and use it against them. This is exactly the trick that Washington accomplished in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the energy crisis. Henry Kissinger’s State Department began exploiting the Arab narrative for the United States’ own benefit: The United States told the Arabs that it, too, believed in linkage, and that if they wanted anything from Israel, they’d have to come through the United States to get it. The Arabs were happy to go along for the ride, especially the Saudis, who wanted to avoid a repeat of the oil embargo that OPEC imposed on the United States for siding with Israel.
Those who say they see through the myth of linkage note that the Palestinian issue can’t be that important because in fact the Arabs don’t really care about the Palestinians and just use them as a political football for their own benefit. That’s both true and not true, but what’s more instructive is that the Palestinians have caused a lot of trouble in the region for their Arab brethren. Palestinian refugees started civil wars in Jordan and Lebanon and sided with Iraq when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. If, like me, you see the region in terms of an Arab civil war, then these Palestinian uprisings are simply evidence of how one group has fought its rivals for power. But if you see the Middle East in terms of linkage, you would argue this proves your circular logic: If the Palestinian issue was resolved these wars never would have happened in the first place.
Indeed, the American position in the Middle East is founded on the idea that Arab regimes are incapable of defending themselves against anyone. Washington made sure these regimes can’t defeat Israel; the United States protected the Saudis from the Soviets and then from Saddam, when the American presence in the desert made the Saudis vulnerable to their own domestic opposition in the form of Osama Bin Laden. What the Saudis want now is to be protected against the Islamic Republic of Iran, but they can’t say that publicly any more than they can explain that the myth of linkage was always more about intra-Arab politics than it was about the fate of the Palestinians.Read the whole thing.
Nor apparently can the Americans admit that linkage was just a strategic instrument that leveraged the Arab narrative to the advantage of the United States. The further U.S. policymaking gets from the origins of the myth, the more magical and enticing it has become. The myth of linkage has grown to such legendary proportions at this point that it is the extent of the current White House’s Middle East policy. We have no other strategy to stop the Iranian nuclear program but linkage. Movement on the peace process, the Obama Administration believes, will get the Arab regimes to help us with Iran. The problem is that the Arabs will not help us with Iran. They want us to deal with Iran ourselves, but if we keep forcing the issue of linkage they have no choice but to go along with the ruse that everything is linked to the Arab-Israeli crisis. After all, it’s their narrative, and they can’t disown it now.
In reality, the reason the Obama Administration, Gates, and Petraeus are pushing linkage into overdrive is that there is no Iran strategy, and nothing—not even linkage—is going to stop the Iranians. They are telling the Arabs that they are going to do what they can about the Palestinian question, because they are not going to do anything about Iran. That’s the Arabs’ consolation prize for being an American ally. What a cruel joke fate has played at the expense of Arabs, who have been talking out of both sides of their mouth about the Palestinians and linkage for almost a century, a myth that came to link the fate of the Americans to that of the Arabs, and theirs to ours. Since we have no other policy than a magic trick, the Arabs have no choice but to pretend to believe it’s real.
P.S. I'd still love to get a review copy of the book.