Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Gabriel Kolko, Confronting the Third World: United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1980 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988).

Gabriel Kolko has been a master guide of modern US history for countless students seeking to go beyond official versions and conformist interpretations. From The Triumph of Conservatism (1963) to Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States and the Modern Historical Experience (1986), Kolko’s methodic investigation of US domestic and international politics and foreign policy in the twentieth century has changed our understanding of the foundations of capitalism and the meaning of containment and counterrevolution.

In this latest work, his objective is to explore US policy in the Third World as a whole, expanding and reviving his earlier essay, The Roots of American Foreign Policy (1969). Kolko, more than a taxonomist of US policies, probes the deep structures of policy, especially the interplay of economic forces and their political and military expressions. Here he is especially concerned with the place of “essentially non-material and symbolic considerations that increasingly entered into the United States decision in the Third World after its failure to win the Korean War.”

This ambitious endeavor has produced a text that often reads like a progressive primer for students of US foreign policy. Kolko reexamines the significance of the foreign policy elite’s global economic vision of the post-war world, and shows us the social cost of the policies ultimately pursued. At the same time, the effort to distill the vast record of information and data has forced Kolko to confront considerable problems of conceptualization. Many of these problems are starkly revealed in his analysis of US Middle East policy.

Confronting a new international balance of power immediately after World War II, Kolko argues, the foreign policy elite was moved by “an essentially economic vision of its future role in the Third World” untempered by any appreciation of the social or political realities affecting Third World states. The presumption was that all movements for change were externally — i.e., Soviet — generated. “That radicalizing local and social and economic processes have autonomous origins and subsequently generate a revolutionary opposition was a notion with no serious following in higher circles.”

Washington was nonetheless obsessed with the consequences of social and political conflict throughout the Third World. Maintaining order and stability taxed the capacities of the US to the extent of forcing a reevaluation of strategy and tactics. Out of this reevaluation came an increasing militarization of economic and political policy, reliance on covert actions and the use of Third World proxies. Kolko’s emphasis on the primacy of economic interest in determining Third World policy has been an important corrective to the tendency to explain policy in terms of US-Soviet conflict. But Kolko himself recognizes that there were situations in which Washington policymakers did understand the nature of socioeconomic and political conflicts in the Third World. In most instances such insights failed to become the basis for policy.

National Security Council reports dealing with US policy in the Middle East through 1958, for instance, repeatedly refer to the importance of recognizing self-determination and movements for progressive change, if only to publicly distance the US from its colonial allies and to deny the Soviet Union the advantages of being the exclusive supporters of such policies. “During 1951,” Kolko writes, “State Department Middle East analysts had begun to study this new middle class, and many regarded it as a positive element against the atavistic forces that Britain had sustained for generations.” Yet top policymakers feared that breaking with reactionary regimes might well undermine US interests. The result, Kolko writes, was a convoluted policy that sought to persuade local populations of US support for reform while strengthening official ties with the regimes. Consequent mystification of policy far more effectively fooled the US public than it did people in the Third World.

Operative Doctrine

The mounting pressure of broad global commitments and limited resources and the accelerating pace of revolutionary nationalist change forced policymakers to devise more effective strategies. The increasing reliance on proxies, on covert actions and on overt militarization of policies were all expressions of the effort to maximize policy results in what US strategists perceived as treacherous circumstances.

While containment remained the operative doctrine, counterrevolution was the implicit objective where reform or revolutionary change threatened US interests. In this context one can situate the two approaches — credibility and the domino theory — that Kolko describes as “definitions of the nature of the world, which more than any others, became successive administrations’ most consistent and effective justifications to themselves as well as to the congress, the media, and the public.” Kolko maintains that preoccupation with these notions “subjected US behavior and policies in many areas to new influences that paralleled and sometimes outweighed the more traditional narrower assessments of the economic and political stakes involved in success or failure, action or inaction.”

Yet Kolko himself seems to confuse their explanatory and justificatory value. He relies on credibility as explanation when evidence of rational policy calculations appears thin. At times his reference to credibility implies causal explanation; at other times he means formal rationalization. By invoking credibility as a concept to explain US policy in the Middle East, Kolko ends up propounding a theory of US policy irrationality in a non-rational Arab political environment.

Kolko’s analysis of the Middle East revolves around oil policy (including relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf), developments in Egypt with the emergence of Gamal Abdel Nasser; the Sinai-Suez war of 1956; and US intervention in Lebanon in 1958. With the 1967 war, he turns to the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab conflict, but in an inexplicably abridged fashion. Toward the end of his account, Kolko assesses the failure of US policy in Iran.

In a sense, the Middle East lies at the heart of Kolko’s book. Oil is the essential fuel of industrial nations. Guaranteeing access to oil has been a constant feature of US policy in the region. The matter of access to Middle Eastern oil transformed the Mediterranean into a strategic lake. The primacy of oil rendered US diplomats and analysts sensitive to the transformations occurring in this area whose instability they sought to manage. Anglo-American relations in the period of British imperial decline is the critical relationship whose unraveling and redefinition haunted Washington in the mid-1950s. As with France, whose North African colonial wars determined its aggressive disposition in the Middle East, Washington took measures to sustain its European alliances while carefully undermining their Middle East connections.


Kolko demonstrates that Great Britain, not the Soviet Union, was Washington’s main concern. The Soviet Union entered the picture most frequently as a device to explain and justify US support for right-wing as well as nationalist movements. Declassified documents from this period suggest that Washington generally considered the Soviet factor far less dangerous than domestic instability, rooted in local grievances, as a threat of radical change.

One of Kolko’s constant themes is that Washington remained unpardonably indifferent to local realities. Yet he frequently misinterprets the interplay between the US and local actors. In Iran in 1953, he downplays US manipulation of the Shah, the armed forces and the crowds demanding the ouster of Mossadeq. By contrast, he vastly overemphasizes the US role as an explanation for the political direction of Egyptian politics. US support for Naguib and efforts to capture Nasser’s support are well documented, but US intervention cannot explain the entire Nasserist experiment, pace the claims of ex-CIA agent Miles Copeland.

Kolko’s marginal attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reflects an inadequate appreciation of regional political dynamics, and in particular the forces of Palestinian exile nationalism. Kolko argues that it was primarily after the 1967 war that the US became heavily involved with Israel. Even in 1969, he maintains, Henry Kissinger was hardly interested in the so-called peace process, preferring to see everything as a function of the global cold war. But this is to confuse description of policy for its explanation. However beholden Kissinger was to the global view of US-Soviet conflict and its ramifications in the Middle East, he had a coherent, if unacceptable, interpretation of local developments, including the role of the Palestinian nationalist movement. He understood local politics enough to see how the Palestinian issue was publicly used and privately betrayed by various Arab governments, among them US allies. It was to contain the Palestinian movement and the possible radicalization of the region that he undermined efforts at resolving the Palestinian question.

Kolko’s treatment of US intervention in Lebanon in 1958 reveals the risks of relying overmuch on the explanatory power of credibility. His description of the Lebanese crisis is surprisingly conventional, referring more to sectarian than to social or political factors in the civil war that exploded in 1958. Kolko argues that US intervention represented an exaggerated, perhaps even misdirected, but generally harmless overreaction — a “palpably quixotic undertaking.” But the reports of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1957 and 1958, which Kolko apparently did not consult, reflected a judgment that US interests required a pro-Western regime in Beirut. Other US sources agree that any significant reorientation of power in Lebanon would have an unacceptable impact on the balance of political forces in the region. Washington acted out of a rational calculation of interests, despite opposition to military intervention from US counselors in Beirut. There is plenty of room to argue about the calamitous effect of this move in the long run, but to conclude, as Kolko does, that “credibility was the cause” of US action is to again mistake the justification for the explanation.

The lessons Kolko draws from this episode are no less questionable. “Ultimately, the most important lesson of its Lebanon debacle was that ‘credibility’ as a symbolic mode of calculating its actions indeed had a powerful hold over America’s leaders even in a situation where it knew that political realities preordained any action to be ridiculous or profoundly dangerous.” Any action? Local realities might well have counseled support for a Lebanese opposition committed to restructuring the political system, which would hardly have been ridiculous. That it would have been dangerous to US interests is, one must assume, what Washington believed.

Does Kolko’s dismissal of “any action” as “ridiculous” come from a superficial view of Arab politics rather than an assessment of US policies? His review of US Middle East policies seems overshadowed by a dismal sense of Arab politics as murky, unpredictable and explosive. “No portion of the Third World,” he writes, “was as socially and politically complicated as the vast zone stretching from Iran to the eastern Mediterranean.” Later he refers to Arab nationalism and Islam as “complex, divisive and mercurial [in] nature.” Are nationalism and religion more complex in the Middle East than in the Far East or Central America? Why did the nationalist movements of the Middle East, progressive or reactionary, generate more instability than in other regions. Have not patterns of direct and indirect US intervention, practically amounting to a Monroe Doctrine for the Arab world, contributed as much to turmoil there as the “complex” indigenous movements?

In the opening of this book, Kolko comments on recent events in Iran and the Iran-contra affair. I would hazard the guess that these developments moved Kolko in this unhappy direction. One leaves this important text with the feeling that in his Middle Eastern pages precisely the balance between US imperial politics and local realities, so critical to his interpretations of US Third World policy elsewhere, are out of balance, and that here both parts of this unstable equation remain undeveloped.

How to cite this article:

Irene Gendzier "Containment, Counterrevolution and Credibility," Middle East Report 160 (September/October 1989).