Under the Reagan administration, the United States has waged “the second Cold War” with particular forcefulness in the Middle East. Washington has moved combat forces into the region repeatedly since 1981: to engage first Libyan warplanes over the Gulf of Sidra, then Lebanese militias and Syrian forces outside Beirut, and most recently Iranian air and naval patrols in the Persian Gulf. These military operations have accompanied political steps that have moved the US away from an emphasis on close relations with “moderate” Arab regimes in favor of closer strategic ties with Israel. From the administration’s perspective, such policies have provided a coherence to American relations with this part of the world that was lacking during the Carter years. But these policies have also helped create a situation in the Middle East even more dangerous than the one the Carter administration faced in the late 1970s.

Two broad trends in the contemporary international economic order have influenced the shape of recent US policy toward the Middle East. The first involves the relative position of US commerce in regional markets. The US found itself in a relatively good balance of trade position in this area during the late 1970s, but was unable to increase its share of the expanding regional market for industrial imports. The second trend involves changes in the demand for Middle East oil in the industrial countries. Imports from the region into the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries rose significantly during the late 1970s, making stability in this part of the world a major priority for US economic planners. These two conditions characterized the US economic stake in the region when the Reagan administration took office in January 1981.

At that point, US exports to the Middle East were growing at a relatively constant rate, while the rate of increase in imports from the region fluctuated in relation to the level of petroleum imports into a US market that was both shrinking in size and subject to increased government intervention to reduce dependence on Middle East suppliers. But two factors indicated an underlying weakness in the US position in this region relative to its major commercial competitors. First, the US share of Middle East markets remained stagnant at 19 percent between 1977 and 1980. Second, the rate of increase in US exports to the Middle East lagged behind that of each of Washington’s major rivals except Japan 1979, the rate of increase in US imports from the region — oil — dropped significantly, putting this country in a much stronger balance of trade position. But this was also true for most of the other OECD countries.

These trends helped prompt the new administration to adopt a more assertive stance toward the Middle East, in order to enhance the US position in the region at the expense of Western Europe and Japan. [1] One component of this strategy was to promote US military sales to as many Middle Eastern governments as possible. [2] In this way, the notion of a “strategic consensus” was intimately connected to the administration’s commitment to US trade expansion. By 1982, this aggressive support for US exports and deep involvement in the security plans of its regional allies was beginning to pay off, as US exports to the region increased at a faster rate than that for the OECD countries as a whole. After 1982, however, the US market share leveled off again, while Japanese exports recovered dramatically. Some of this leveling off may have represented a form of discrete retaliation for US support for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. But the trend seems to be more closely associated with the cutbacks that were instituted by the major oil exporting states as a consequence of the drop in oil sales and revenues after 1982.

Policy Tenets

Changes in the international economic order have provided the general impetus for a more active US orientation toward the Middle East during the 1980s. The particular form that this orientation has taken since 1981 has largely been a function of the Reagan administration’s peculiar approach to regional affairs. This approach is rooted in four basic premises, reflecting the administration’s general view of foreign relations. For the Reagan administration:

  • Soviet expansionism constitutes the primary threat to peace and stability in this part of the world;
  • The US must attempt to combat this threat by mobilizing an anti-Soviet coalition in the region that, is as broadly based as possible;
  • An active and direct American military, presence must supplement any regional anti-Soviet coalition; and
  • Some combination of open trade and investment, indigenous private enterprise and “residual” American assistance offers the most effective solution to economic problems here as in the rest of the world.

Each of these tenets has been a feature of current US dealings with the Middle East.

From its very first months in office, the Reagan administration has maintained that the USSR is carrying out a program of global expansionism. For this administration, “The Soviet Union is the key factor in most of the world’s disputes, because it either initiates conflict and subversion, or exploits troubles at the expense of the West. The United States must, in coping with regional affairs, give priority to removing or neutralizing the mischief caused by Moscow and its proxies.” [3]

On August 5, 1981, for instance, President Reagan welcomed Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat to Washington with the observation that “our mutual concern for the regional stability of the Middle East is a timely matter for discussion. External threats and foreign-inspired subversion menace independence. As we both know, the only beneficiary of violence, chaos and blind hatred will be our adversaries.” [4]

A month later, the president ended his first meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on a similar note, pledging that the US would continue to “work together with you and with our other friends in the region to counter Soviet aggression and to strengthen the security of all the countries in the area.” [5] In remarks to newspaper editors on October 16, 1981, Reagan ventured that the Saudi ruling family was as concerned about the threat to the Middle East by the Soviet Union as, I think, we are. They have seen those puppet governments installed around them with the proxy troops and so forth…. They’ve seen the ease with which the Kuwait oil installations were bombed…. But I think they want to be a part of the West. They associate more with our views and our philosophy. [6] At a February 1982 news conference, the president was asked if there were any effective steps that the US could take to halt the arms buildup in the Middle East. “Yes,” he answered, “and that is to continue the policy we’ve been following, which is to try and carry on where Camp David left off and bring about a peace in the Middle East. And then the only basis for armaments in all of them would be against the external threat that could be posed by someone such as the Soviet Union.” [7]

In December 1983, an interviewer asked Reagan if he still considered the USSR as “the source of evil” in the world. “Yes,” he replied, “because you have to look at the impact on what we were just talking about, with Lebanon. There they are with thousands of military advisers and technicians and so forth in Syria. And they are the ones that seek, whether it’s out of paranoia on their part — and, believe me, everyone’s an enemy, and so they have to be aggressive — or whether it is the Marxist- Leninist theory — more than a theory, commitment — that was handed them, and that was that they must support uprisings wherever they take place in the world to bring about a one-world Communist state. Now, no Russian leader has ever refuted that…. Every Russian leader up to Andropov, at some time or other, has publicly restated his commitment to world conquest, world communizing.” [8]

From the administration’s point of view, the most effective way to counter Soviet expansionism in the Middle East is to form a broad anti-Soviet coalition in the region among governments friendly to the West. Mobilizing pro-Western countries into such a coalition required that the administration substantially increase the levels of military and economic aid provided to friendly Middle Eastern regimes and draw up security arrangements with those most important to US interests. By the end of 1981, the Pentagon had carried out joint military exercises with the Egyptian armed forces, initialed a strategic cooperation agreement with Israel and proposed to Congress an increase of more than 325 percent in Foreign Military Sales agreements to Middle Eastern countries. Egypt’s defense minister, ‘Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala, expressed the tenor of the prevailing atmosphere when he characterized Operation Bright Star as a “rehearsal for a possible joint operation” in the Persian Gulf. [9]

Perhaps the most noteworthy of these efforts to improve strategic coordination in the region involved the permanent deployment of sophisticated radar aircraft in the Arabian Peninsula. During its first months in office, the administration proposed and pushed through Congress the sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia. Since then, AWACS and similar aircraft have been sent to Egypt at least three times. Most recently modern radar planes have been requested by the Pakistani air force. These transfers, along with the construction of joint training and supply facilities in Egypt and Oman and the upgrading of airfields in Turkey, have greatly improved the potential for military cooperation. They have thereby laid the material foundation for “strategic consensus.” In this aspect of the administration’s approach to the Middle East, the most variable element has been the role of Israel. In fact, what most clearly demarcates the different phases of US policy over the last four years has been the administration’s increasingly explicit reliance on Israel as its military surrogate in the eastern Mediterranean. This, in turn, has changed considerably the administration’s definition of the most effective possible regional alliance, and restricted Saudi Arabia’s envisaged role to preserving the status quo in the Arab states of the Gulf.

This administration has, from the beginning, assumed that military assistance and advisers would, in the end, be insufficient to protect US interests in the region. American military forces started taking an active role in policing the Middle East during the administration’s first year in office. Warplanes of the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet engaged Libyan aircraft over the Gulf of Sidra in August 1981. Three months later, American units — including the Eighty-Second Airborne Division — joined troops from France, the Netherlands, Italy and the United Kingdom in a multinational force to supervise the Sinai withdrawal terms of the Camp David agreements.

This trend became much more pronounced in the administration’s second year. In August 1982, US Marines landed in Lebanon to oversee the Israeli expulsion of Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas from Beirut, and returned in late September to help “restore Lebanese government authority.” Beginning in the fall of 1983, US naval and air units increased their level of participation in this conflict by shelling positions of Lebanese and Syrian forces around Beirut airport, first in retaliation for strikes against Marine positions and then in direct support of the Lebanese army.

By early 1984, US forces were directly engaged in fighting in the Persian Gulf as well. In late February, a US Navy destroyer launched anti-aircraft missiles against Iranian patrol aircraft. At the end of May, a USAF KC-10 tanker helped Saudi air force jets maintain patrols over the Gulf to head off Iranian retaliation for Iraqi attacks on oil tankers. In early June, the USAF tankers and AWACS assisted the Saudis in shooting down one or two Iranian F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers. US military forces have thus played a frequent and direct combat role in regional conflicts during Reagan’s first term.

This administration has maintained that the economic difficulties facing Middle Eastern countries, like those elsewhere in the world, can be solved through the workings of free trade and private enterprise. Thus Washington has consistently discouraged controls on economic activity. In May 1981, the administration sought to relax those parts of the Corrupt Practices Act that outlawed bribes, as a way of freeing US corporations from “excessive regulations” that kept them uncompetitive in the Third World. [10] Similarly, the administration for a long time ignored loopholes in measures limiting sales to nations such as Iran, as a way of supporting American exports even to hostile foreign markets, and has encouraged US firms to participate in large-scale construction projects regardless of the political orientation of the local regimes benefiting from them.

Moreover, under the Reagan administration the US has emphasized the “conditionality” of loans and aid to debtor countries from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In December 1981, for instance, the IMF granted Sudan further credits only on condition that it devalue its currency to promote exports, reduce the level of state subsidies on various necessities and restrict the overall degree of state control over the country’s economic affairs. Similar policies have been applied in IMF dealings with Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia and Pakistan.

But this has been the most contingent tenet of the administration’s approach to the Middle East. It has been enforced with regard to those countries having least strategic value but has largely been ignored with regard to more important regional partners. Thus Washington has continued to insulate both Egypt and Israel from the rigors of IMF borrowing. And the administration’s fixation on Libya has led it to encourage US oil companies operating there to withdraw.


Phase One: January 1981-June 1982

These four premises have provided the general guidelines for the Reagan administration’s approach to the Middle East, but different combinations among them have in? formed US policy at different times over the last four years. As a result, several distinct phases in US relations with this part of the world can be delineated, each representing a shift in the relative priority accorded these assumptions within policy-making circles in Washington.

During its first 18 months in office, the administration stressed the need for a “strategic consensus” among Middle Eastern regimes opposed to any expansion of Soviet influence in the area. This period also saw the US provoke clashes with Libya, a chief “proxy” of the USSR. It witnessed significantly higher levels of US military and security assistance to a wide range of countries. Overall, these policies substantially raised the stakes of Soviet-American competition in the region. At the same time, they threatened to reduce the status of Israel in American strategic planning, to the position of being only one of several important “strategic assets” in the region.

Initial efforts at constructing this “strategic consensus” were focused on the Persian Gulf. The decision to sell Saudi Arabia advanced fuel tanks for its F-15 fighter-bombers, the AWACS command and control planes and other sophisticated air defense systems was intended to construct an infrastructure for a regional military alliance that would facilitate US military intervention in the region. Although the US has to date been unable to convince the Saudis to grant formal and explicit basing rights for the Rapid Deployment Force (now the Central Command), it does have a considerable military presence today on the Arabian Peninsula, and the Saudis have continued to finance base construction and military purchases far in excess of their own limited needs. Washington has also encouraged Saudi financial and political support for a regional mutual security pact under the rubric of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

At the same time, the US has offered Pakistan more than $3 billion in military and economic aid, including funds for new F-16 fighter-bombers. This offer was made in the context of a major US-Pakistani military agreement that provides American access to the naval base at Gwadar and the air base at Peshawar. [11] The US also extended military cooperation with Turkey to levels well beyond those mandated by both countries’ NATO obligations. By the end of its first year, the administration had designed a variety of programs to augment the capabilities of the Turkish army and enable it to play a greater role in US military planning for southwest Asia.

But in late 1981, in the wake of the assassination of President Sadat and the apparent attempt to overthrow the ruling family in Bahrain, proponents of the “strategic consensus” began to acknowledge publicly that the most serious threats facing the pro-Western regimes of the Gulf were internal. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Oman and Jordan in February 1982 produced joint military cooperation committees to coordinate military operations in and around the Gulf. Secretary of State Alexander Haig simultaneously concluded a similar agreement with King Hassan II of Morocco. The president presaged the new emphasis of “strategic consensus” in October 1981, when he declared that “Saudi Arabia we won’t permit to be an Iran.” [12] “Strategic consensus” was thus defined to include domestic as well as foreign threats to these regimes. This constitutes the Reagan corollary to the Carter Doctrine.

During this first phase of its policy toward the Middle East, the Reagan administration readily rewarded those Middle Eastern governments that joined the “strategic consensus.” In the face of the administration’s growing concern for Saudi Arabia and other key “consensus” partners, though, Israel’s status as the predominant regional ally of the US appeared slightly uncertain by the end of 1981. On one hand, President Reagan had for all practical purposes reversed the US position on settlements in the Occupied Territories, calling them “not illegal,” a move for which the Begin government was particularly grateful. At the same time, Pentagon analysts released Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir at the White House, November 1983. studies quantifying Israel’s strategic value to the US. [13] And the administration’s campaign against “international terrorism” provided the justification for repeated Israeli strikes into Lebanon. But Israel insisted on using this support to disrupt Washington’s expanding military relations with its key Arab allies, as the June 1981 bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor and the July 1981 attack on downtown Beirut illustrated. The resulting tensions were apparent in the negotiations that produced the Memorandum of Understanding signed by Weinberger and Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon in late November 1981. This agreement appeared to set the stage for heightened military collaboration between the two countries, but it involved few real changes in the scope of joint military activities and it therefore failed to satisfy Sharon and other powerful members of the Israeli government.

So by the spring of 1982, the Reagan administration had found that its efforts towards creating a “strategic consensus” had largely failed to produce the desired results. Saudi Arabia continued to eschew any formal subordination to American strategic planning. Internal developments in Egypt and Bahrain brought into question the relevance of military cooperation with the US as a means of preserving the status quo. US provocations against the Qaddafi regime turned out to be largely counterproductive, and only enhanced his political stature in the region. At the same time, US concern for upgrading Arab military capabilities provided Israel with the incentive to undertake a variety of unilateral military and political initiatives. Annexation of the Golan Heights and a harsh crackdown on Palestinian activities in the Occupied Territories represented the Begin-Sharon response to the Reagan administration’s version of “strategic cooperation” as embodied in the November 1981 Memorandum of Understanding. The one more or less unambiguous success for US foreign policy in this period was the nearly complete Israeli withdrawal from Sinai, fulfilling the terms of the Camp David agreements despite Sadat’s assassination.

Phase Two: July 1982-February 1984

Determined to regain the initiative in shaping political affairs in both neighboring countries and the Occupied Territories, Israel launched a full-scale invasion of Lebanon in early June 1982. US diplomatic and material support for Israel, along with its close involvement in the conflict in a way that furthered Israel’s primary interests in Lebanon, marked a new phase in this administration’s Middle East policy. In the summer of 1982, the US began taking a more direct role in trying to dictate the course of regional affairs, particularly in Lebanon. Tactical differences with Israel over both Israeli policy in that country and the “Reagan Plan” of September 1982 assumed high visibility over the following winter, and occasionally obscured the underlying close military and political collaboration between the two countries. By the end of this phase, American forces had been driven out of Lebanon, demonstrating the limits of US military intervention in the area. But, at the same time, the administration had visibly expanded its military collaboration with Israel. The intervention in Lebanon thus marks a distinct and significant phase in the Reagan administration’s approach to the Middle East, and deserves particular scrutiny.

Eight hundred US Marines landed in Beirut initially on August 20, 1982, to supervise the evacuation of PLO guerrillas from the western part of the city. This well-defined mission — to facilitate the movement of Palestinian fighters through Phalangist lines to the port — was completed at the end of the first week of September. Nineteen days later, in the aftermath of the Israeli takeover of West Beirut and the Sabra-Shatila massacres, a larger US force returned ashore, charged with reestablishing security around Beirut airport and helping the new Gemayel regime to consolidate its authority in the southeastern environs of the city. To support it in this substantially enlarged task, the Marines were joined by an armada of warships from the Sixth Fleet that hovered visibly offshore.

Besides permitting the Gemayel government to expand its sector of sovereignty, the deployment of these Marines had additional significance: to accustom the American public to the presence of US ground troops in the Middle East. The Marines encamped around the airport were, moreover, only the most visible component of Washington’s military intervention in Lebanon. Some 100 field-grade US Army and Special Forces officers were training “the most highly motivated” Lebanese army brigades — those with strong Phalangist militia components — as part of a four-stage plan to build the army’s troop strength from 8,000 to 60,000. A substantial portion of the Lebanese government’s budget was earmarked for these new army and security forces, including some $500 million reserved for military equipment purchases from the US. To facilitate increased Lebanese-American military coordination, the US Office of Military Cooperation was working at an operational level and on a daily basis in the bunkers of the Lebanese high command. [14]

Washington’s goal during this period was to build up the Lebanese army as a “national” institution, broadening it to include non-Maronite and non-Phalange cadre and officers. The Reagan administration wanted to replicate in Lebanon what the US had helped to achieve in Jordan since the early 1950s: a regime capable of handling both its Palestinian population and its own radical and dissident factions in the manner of King Hussein, and without the need for a continuous US military presence. The administration seemed to believe that the distribution of forces that resulted from the Israeli invasion would allow it several years to accomplish this goal in Lebanon and, at a regional level, to meld a “moderate” coalition of Egypt and Jordan that would negotiate the “autonomy” arrangement with Israel envisaged in the September 1982 Reagan Plan.

But in this case, the balance of political forces favorable to such an outcome swiftly eroded. It was undermined by the unremitting “Phalangization” of the new government and Gemayel’s failure to construct a broad domestic political base, as well as the Israeli-sponsored Phalangist depredations in the Shouf mountains which reinvigorated Druze and Shi‘i opposition. But it was also subverted by Washington’s own high-handed dismissal of any Syrian role, as embodied in the May 17, 1983, Israeli-Lebanese withdrawal agreement, in determining the shape of post-war Lebanese politics. The administration’s later refusal to consider any redrafting of the May 17 agreement put President Gemayel in an increasingly untenable domestic political position. [15] (If the agreement did little for Gemayel, it at least succeeded, in Secretary of State Shultz’s words, in “rearranging Israel’s posture in the world and in the United States.” [16])

Reagan administration officials faced two sharply divergent options as the Lebanese crisis grew steadily more acute. The road not taken would have been some measure of accommodation with Syria and the Lebanese opposition forces. Instead, the US moved to escalate its military support for the Gemayel regime. By September 1983, US warships were shelling Syrian and Druze militia positions outside Beirut, and Marine ground forces were trading artillery and sniper fire with Shi‘i and Druze fighters. In a radio address on October 8, 1983, President Reagan declared that this military intervention was to prevent the Middle East from being “incorporated into the Soviet bloc.” [17] Naval bombardments were complemented by air strikes starting in early December. Two months later, naval and air bombardments of the area around Beirut airport were stepped up following the withdrawal of US ground forces from their former positions there. President Reagan announced on February 7, 1984, that the US would begin providing “naval gunfire and air support against any units firing into greater Beirut from parts of Lebanon controlled by Syria” whether or not this fire was directed at American units. In order to carry out this commitment, the Pentagon ordered the aircraft carrier USS Independence to join the carrier USS John F. Kennedy and the battleship USS New Jersey off the Lebanese coast. On February 8, the New Jersey fired more than 250 16-inch and 300 5-inch shells at Druze and Syrian positions south and east of Beirut. In the end, active military support for the Gemayel government proved ineffective. The attack on the Marine barracks in late October 1983 and the air losses two months later exposed the disarray of Washington’s “Jordanization” plans, and also revealed the absence of domestic political support for stepped-up direct US military involvement.

Consequently, collaboration with Israel took on increasing importance for the Reagan administration in its efforts to hold on in Lebanon. By the fall of 1983, US naval and air forces were coordinating their attacks on Lebanese and Syrian positions with Israeli military commanders. In Washington, State Department officials close to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pushed for greater US support for Israeli military action, to promote Israel’s “deterrent image” which had been “impaired by widespread domestic [Israeli] opposition to the involvement in Lebanon.” [18] This closer alignment with Israel was contested within the administration, but the October 23 attack on the Marines tilted the balance, and this proposal became National Security Decision Directive 111 on October 29. [19]

Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger immediately flew to Jerusalem to draw up a new and improved “strategic accord,” which was signed in Washington on November 29, 1983, during a visit by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Moshe Arens. This understanding proposed “combined US-Israeli military planning, joint exercises and positioning of US military equipment in Israel,” as well as increased levels of grant military assistance to the Israeli armed forces, permission to use American military aid funds for the development of the Israeli-designed and -built Lavi fighter and negotiations toward the creation of a free-trade arrangement between the US and Israeli economies. [20] Unlike the November 1981 agreement, this document would allow Israel, for all practical purposes, to write its own security ticket in return for military help in providing a “modest success” in Lebanon that would allow the withdrawal of the US Marine contingent without too much loss of face. [21]

As this rapprochement between the US and Israel continued, the direction of American military assistance to the Middle East also changed. Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Tunisia and the Yemen Arab Republic all received lower amounts of military aid from the US during fiscal year 1983 than they had the previous year. While aid levels to these members of the administration’s original “strategic consensus” were being cut back, large increases were registered in the amount of military aid given to Lebanon and Morocco, as well as to Israel. US military assistance to Turkey and Kuwait remained relatively unchanged. These trends indicate the degree to which the conjunction of direct US military involvement in the region and closer strategic collaboration with Israel reduced the administration’s efforts to strengthen other pro-Western regimes in the area. Arab governments protested this evident tilt in the Reagan administration”s regional priorities, but their protests were quickly dismissed in Washington. As Secretary of State George Shultz remarked during his trip to North Africa in mid-December 1983, these governments should have had no “illusions” about the “strong relationship” existing between the US and Israel. [22]

By the spring of 1984, the US found itself in a substantially different — but no more tenable — position in the Middle East from the one it had occupied in the summer of 1982. Direct military involvement had failed to end the fighting in Lebanon. A “modest success” had never come. Joint exercises with the Egyptian armed forces had become a political liability for the Mubarak regime. Virtually all the Arab governments that the administration had tried to unite into a regional alliance directed against the USSR were now united instead in their criticism of US military collaboration with Israel. Egyptian-Israeli relations had deteriorated to such an extent that the prospects for further negotiations between these two countries on the basis of either the Camp David accords or the Reagan Plan appeared increasingly dim. When the US Marines “redeployed” out of Lebanon in late February 1984, the stage was set for a third phase of Reagan administration policy, one in which the US again attempted to form a coalition of regional partners in the Gulf while simultaneously relying on Israeli military might in the eastern Mediterranean.

Phase Three: Picking Up the Pieces

The US now had some 300,000 troops and an impressive array of weaponry assigned to the new Central Command, poised for “rapid deployment” to the Middle East. But the first US troops engaged in combat since the days of the Vietnam war had just been “redeployed westward,” their mission defeated not by the Soviet Union or its “proxies” but, in National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane’s words, by “religion” and “the extended family.” [23]

A substantially higher level of US military collaboration with Israel was partly the consequence of the administration’s need for Israeli assistance in disengaging from Lebanon. More broadly, however, it reflected the Reagan administration’s judgement that the disadvantages of such collaboration were relatively inconsequential. There had been no dire aftereffects from US support for Israel during the invasion. Nor had the Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, been able to secure Syrian compliance with the US scheme for reconstituting Lebanon after the invasion had been stopped. Consequently, military and economic ties between the US and Israel took on a much higher profile in the summer of 1984. In mid-June, there were joint exercises by units of the US Sixth Fleet and the Israeli armed forces. These exercises represented the first time American units had openly collaborated with the IDF. Even though the operation involved little more than a simulated evacuation of wounded personnel from US Navy ships to an Israeli military hospital, its significance was not lost on Arab observers. [24] In early October, American and Israeli officials held discussions on how best to solve Israel’s domestic economic problems. During the course of these discussions, Secretary of State Shultz and Herbert Stein, former chair of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, urged Israeli officials to end the indexing of prices and wages within their country’s economy and to drop the government’s subsidy on exports. In return, the Reagan administration offered substantial increases in the amount of grant military and economic assistance to the new Peres government.

In this same period, intensified hostilities in the Iran-Iraq war absorbed the administration’s attention. The dismay of Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia with the new US-Israeli strategic accord was soon overshadowed by their alarm over the expanding “tanker war” and the implications of an Iranian victory on the ground. Once again, US policy began to focus on the creation of the political and military framework necessary for “strategic coordination,” this time directed not at the Soviet Union but at Iran. In early April 1984, an American mission traveled to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman in an attempt to persuade the rulers of these countries to allow the US “contingent access to Gulf facilities” in the event of an escalation in the Gulf war. In mid-May, the US publicly offered to provide air cover for shipping in the Gulf, in exchange for bases in adjacent countries. Later that same month, the administration renewed its proposal to sell Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Saudi Arabia. When Congress balked, 400 of these missiles were delivered to the Saudi armed forces under emergency procedures that skirted Congressional approval. Under the same procedures, the administration also dispatched a KC-10 tanker aircraft to the kingdom to assist the Saudi air force in patrolling the Gulf. These moves, along with increased levels of military assistance for Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Pakistan, Turkey and the Yemen Arab Republic, mark a renewed emphasis on constructing a “strategic consensus” of pro-Western regimes in the area.

To some extent, the administration’s disposition to intervene militarily in the Gulf war had clearly been chastened by the Lebanon debacle. US naval forces remain positioned in the Arabian Sea, while American surveillance planes are patrolling in the Gulf. The extent of American cooperation with Saudi air defense forces became evident on June 5 when US tanker and radar planes provided both the logistical support and the information that enabled Saudi F-15s to shoot down a pair of Iranian F-4s. [25] But further US military involvement in the fighting has so far failed to materialize. Whether distracted by events in Central America or by the political campaign at home, the administration appears to be taking a less overtly interventionist stance toward Middle Eastern affairs.

Nevertheless, there is every indication that the basic tenets of the Reagan administration’s approach to the Middle East remain more or less what they were four years ago. There is no doubt that the administration continues to see direct American military intervention as a necessary component of its strategy for the region. As in its Central American policies, this administration seems to be working on the assumption that further direct military intervention in the Middle East will be necessary; the key questions are not whether but when and how.

Changes in the structure of US economic relations with the Middle East set the broad parameters within which policies reflecting the Reagan administration’s worldview have been adopted. These are circumstances that will greatly influence the policy choices of any prospective administration. It is not surprising that the positions of Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale differ hardly at all in this respect. Mondale’s major criticism of US policy in the region during the last few years is not that the US intervened militarily in local affairs, but that this intervention was incompetently done. At the same time, the experience of Lebanon has now become a factor in the strategic equation that any administration will have to take into account, and that will likely influence how the US will intervene in the region militarily after 1984. The Middle East today has become polarized along several potentially explosive and mutually contradictory lines, and conflicts that arc across any combination of these could trigger just such an intervention.


[1] See Fred Halliday, The Making of the Second Cold War; James Petras, Capitalist and Socialist Crises.
[2] See Joe Stork and Jim Paul, “Arms Sales and the Militarization of the Middle East,” MERIP Reports 101 (February 1983).
[3] Stanley Hoffmann, “Reagan Abroad,” New York Review of Books, February 4, 1982.
[4] Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, August 10, 1981.
[5] Ibid., September 14, 1981.
[6] Ibid., October 26, 1981.
[7] Ibid., February 22, 1982.
[8] Ibid., December 26, 1983.
[9] Robert O. Freedman, “The Soviet Reaction to the Reagan Middle East Policy: From the Inauguration to the Arab Summit at Fez,” paper presented to the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, Cincinnati, Ohio, March 26, 1982.
[10] Wall Street Journal, May 20, 1981.
[11] Freedman, ld&quo;The Soviet Reaction.”
[12] Wall Street Journal, October 2, 1981.
[13] Joe Stork, “Israel as a Strategic Asset,” MERIP Reports 105 (May 1982).
[14] David Zucchino, “How the US Lends a Strategic Hand in Lebanon,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 23, 1983; Charles Doe, “US Skills Mold New Lebanese Army,” Army Times, May 23, 1983; Michael Collins Dunn, “Rebuilding Lebanon’s Army,” Defense and Foreign Affairs (June 1983).
[15] Eric Rouleau, “How Reagan Put Gemayel’s Head on the Block,” Manchester Guardian Weekly, February 19, 1984.
[16] Wall Street Journal, March 30, 1984.
[17] Los Angeles Times, October 25, 1983.
[18] Middle East Policy Survey, October 14, 1983.
[19] Bernard Gwertzman, “Reagan Turns to Israel,” New York Times Magazine, November 27, 1983.
[20] New York Times, November 30, 1983; Washington Post. November 30, 1983.
[21] Middle East Policy Survey, October 28, 1983.
[22] Wall Street Journal, December 12, 1983.
[23] Washington Post, February 18, 1984. A week earlier, Secretary of Defense Weinberger denied that the Marines had been “withdrawn.” In his version, they were “redeployed two-and-a-half to three miles west.” Washington Post, February 10, 1984.
[24] Washington Post, June 21, 1984.
[25] See Joe Stork and Martha Wenger, “US Ready to Intervene in the Gulf War,” MERIP Reports 125/126 (July-September 1984); New York Times, June 6, 1984.

How to cite this article:

Fred H. Lawson "The Reagan Administration in the Middle East," Middle East Report 128 (November/ December 1984).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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