Among those who direct American foreign policy, there is near unanimity that the collapse of communism represents a kind of zero hour. The end of the Cold War so transformed the geopolitical landscape as to render the present era historically discontinuous from the epoch that preceded it. Policy makers contend that America’s mission abroad has had to change to keep pace with these new circumstances.

For more than four decades, American intervention around the world was justified by the need to contain international communism. Containment proved to be a versatile and protean doctrine: It could be applied anywhere and tailored to almost any context. In the Middle East, Soviet expansionism was cited as the rationale behind the 1957 Eisenhower doctrine (which authorized backing for conservative rulers such as King Hussein of Jordan and Camille Chamoun of Lebanon, who were besieged by domestic opponents), and for adventures as varied as the overthrow of the Mossadeq government in Iran in 1953, support for Israel in the 1967 and 1973 wars, and the arming of US proxies in the Gulf. It hardly mattered that containment was singularly ill-suited to the specificities of the region. (The Arab states proved to be nearly impervious to Moscow’s ideological appeal.) What did matter was Americans’ willingness to accept it as a sufficient justification for their government’s machinations.

The sudden disappearance of the Soviet Union compelled the Bush and Clinton administrations to ponder new rationalizations for future interventions abroad. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake voiced the emerging consensus among the foreign policy elite when he wrote, “[T]he successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies.” [1] Commercial and economic considerations and the promotion of democracy, he suggested, would henceforth replace military and political factors in guiding foreign policy.

The collapse of the Soviet empire has indeed wrought substantial changes in the Middle East. As Simon Bromley and Georges Corm point out in this issue, Moscow’s departure from the world stage has considerably freed the United States to impose its will across the region. States that resist the Pax Americana face economic and political isolation and no longer have a superpower sponsor to turn to for support. Those who persist in challenging Washington’s diktat can, as always, expect to feel the sting of American military might.

Yet no radical break with the past has occurred in US foreign policy toward the Middle East. What is remarkable is the degree of continuity in Washington’s objectives in the region during and after the Cold War. Although circumstances have compelled policy makers to replace containment with a patchwork of contradictory and internally incoherent “doctrines,” the chief purpose of the new guidelines — like their Cold War-era counterparts — is to obscure the actual motives of US intervention, which remain largely unchanged.

The twin pillars of American policy since the 1991 Gulf war have been the doctrine of dual containment of Iran and Iraq, and support for the now-moribund Arab-Israeli “peace process.” In each case, the new policy conceals a surprising continuity with the perennial project of US interventionism: to secure the maximum possible advantage for American capital as it seeks access to markets and resources abroad. In the developing world, this project has necessitated creating and preserving a political environment friendly to the operation of international capital. To accomplish this, the US-led bloc has had to construct and defend an authoritarian order to resist challenges to its domination, while maintaining Israel’s military edge over the collective might of Arab armies. (The promotion of democracy — a central tenet of Lake’s vision — was never a goal of US policy in the Middle East, nor is it now.) It is true that the imperatives of globalization and the transnationalization of capital have altered to some degree the form and methods of US intervention. But all available evidence indicates that, whatever doctrine is in favor in the post-Cold War Middle East, the fundamental goals have not changed.

The contributors to this issue of Middle East Report address the complex interaction between the professed and the unstated goals of US activism in the Middle East. Steve Niva discusses the conundrum posed by Islam. Although some policy makers cling to the notion of an eternal “clash of civilizations,” he notes that pragmatists in the Clinton administration have realized that a policy based on a “clash” with Islam is potentially counter-productive to the globalizing mission of US capital. Sam Husseini traces the media’s role in manufacturing consent around foreign policy goals. Using the Gulf mobilization in February as a case study, he finds that under certain circumstances — when Washington’s goals are incoherent or contradictory — activists can compel the media to present a more nuanced and honest picture of the true motives behind US intervention. Georges Corm and Volker Perthes offer views of US foreign policy from abroad, where a clearer understanding of the consequences of American actions is often more readily available.

From Rollback to Dual Containment

The doctrine of dual containment was first introduced in 1993, two years after the allied victory in the Gulf war. Conventional balance-of-power theory had held that the region’s natural leaders, Iraq and Iran, should be pitted against one another to prevent either from becoming dominant and jeopardizing the flow of oil to the West. By choosing to isolate both nations, however, the Bush administration committed itself to an ambitious program requiring an expanded US military and political presence in the Gulf. Dual containment had two immediate consequences, both of which contradicted the president’s putative vision for a “new world order”: US military force had to be deployed in the Gulf for an extended period to maintain constant pressure against Iran and Iraq; and Saudi Arabia — heretofore a second-tier proxy behind Washington’s ally of the moment — had to be transformed, along with its Gulf neighbors, into a credible military counterweight in its own right. Thus, military force remained as necessary under the new dispensation as it was before.

The results have been dramatic. In the three years following the end of the Gulf war, new weapons acquisitions by the Gulf states (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE) exceeded those of Iran by nearly 30 to one. [2] Saudi Arabia has emerged as the world’s leading arms purchaser, acquiring weapons systems worth $36.4 billion from the United States alone between 1994 and 1997. [3] (Many of these sales are, of course, financed by loans from American banks.) The number of American troops based in the region has swelled to 20,000; US taxpayers spend a staggering $50 billion annually to maintain and equip them. [4] Cooperation between the domestic intelligence services of the US and Saudi Arabia has reached unprecedented levels, particularly following the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. The US Fifth Fleet is now permanently based in Bahrain. Moreover, the Pentagon announced in 1997 that it was anticipating 20-50 years of deployment of US troops in the Gulf. [5] The goal of this mobilization has been in part to protect the flow of petroleum by intimidating nations that challenge Washington’s prerogative to set the terms of trade in the oil market. [6] The maintenance of military expenditures in the region as the Soviet threat vanished is further evidence that, although superpower rivals may come and go, the thirst for oil is eternal.

It would be erroneous, however, to conclude that maintaining the flow of oil at prices favorable to US interests is the sole purpose behind US military mobilization. Of equal significance is Washington’s desire to augment the integration of the American and Gulf states’ economies. Profits from the sale of petroleum products are increasingly recycled back to the US through arms purchases, as well as through the bank loans such purchases enable.

Dual containment was premised on the notion that “rogue states” posed the greatest threat to the West following the Soviet collapse. The priority given to containing the rogue states (whose ranks are rarely enumerated publicly, but presumed to include Iran, Iraq, Libya, Cuba, North Korea and, on occasion, Syria and Sudan) supposedly reflects Washington’s growing concern about human rights, terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The threat posed by the rogues is hardly imaginary: nearly all of them have chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs and all have poor human rights records. It is clear, however, that their rogue status reflects not the magnitude of their crimes, but the extent of their dissent from US policy. By any rational standard, nations like Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt should also be listed among the rogues. Israel’s failure to ratify the Nonproliferation Treaty and the 1972 biological and toxic weapons convention, which Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia have all signed, merits no mention in the Defense Department’s annual listing of WMD violators. [7] Nor does Egypt’s failure to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. The bleak climate for human rights in these countries is also ignored. What sets them apart, of course, is their continuing usefulness as regional proxies and enforcers of Washington’s strategic objectives.

The main virtue of the rogue state doctrine from the administration’s perspective is that it provides a new pretext to “contain” the same countries whose sovereign rights the US routinely violated during the Cold War. The fact that three of the five rogue states are Middle East oil producers, and that two in particular — Iran and Iraq — are clearly the main targets of the doctrine, points to the continuing centrality of oil in American strategic calculations. Iraq’s transgression — invading Kuwait in order to boost oil profits to pay off debts from its war with Iran — flagrantly violated the rules set by the US and Saudi Arabia to maintain price stability. Iraq’s crime will not soon be forgotten. Moreover, the embargo on Iraqi oil has provided a windfall for regional producers. Saudi Arabia alone is estimated to have earned more than $100 billion as a result. As one oil expert told the Associated Press, “Saudi Arabia would like the embargo on Iraqi oil maintained as long as possible.” [8] (US banks, which hold tens of billions of dollars in outstanding Saudi loans, are also deeply concerned about maintaining Saudi profit levels.) The economic collapse in Asia, on which the oil — producing states had placed much hope for future sales, has further increased the necessity of keeping Iraqi oil off-line and thereby forestalling a glut in the market.

The brutal sanctions imposed by the US on Iraq are tantamount to a permanent blockade. Because the US has shown little inclination to lift the sanctions, the purpose behind them must be to marginalize Iraq permanently, rather than induce a change in behavior. As Martin Indyk said in his 1993 speech outlining the dual containment policy, “[T]he current regime in Iraq is a criminal regime, beyond the pale of international society and, in our judgment, irredeemable.” [9] Iraq’s confrontation with Washington in February of this year was motivated at least in part by Saddam Hussein’s desire to force the international community to specify how Iraq could bring itself into compliance with UN Security Council resolutions. Iraqis frequently express fear that the sanctions will not be lifted regardless of what their leadership does.

The isolation of Iran, by contrast, is far weaker. Although the administration imposed sanctions in 1996 on foreign companies investing more than $40 million in Iran and forced the cancellation of a lucrative contract between Conoco and the oil ministry, there is considerable business pressure to lift the embargo. [10] Iran’s test on July 22 of medium-range missiles acquired from North Korea provoked a sharp rebuke from the Clinton administration, but the evidence suggests that the US-Iranian relationship may not be adversely affected. Secretary of State Albright has gone out of her way to support the new president, Mohammad Khatami, in his rivalry with Iran’s religious leader, Ali Khamenei. As Michael Klare points out in this issue, the rapprochement with Iran exposes the inadequacies of the rogue state doctrine, and policymakers may eventually have to discard it.

Israel, Palestine and the “Peace Process”

The Palestinian-Israeli “peace process” is over. The seductive promise of Oslo has been revealed to be a cruel hoax, a “dying succubus,” in Edward Said’s phrase. As one observer wrote: “The Oslo process…is less a negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians than an internal Israeli debate about how much territory, authority and sovereignty to offer the Palestinians.” [11] It has become clear since last September that, without increased pressure from Washington, the Netanyahu government will continue to stake out a maximalist claim to territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. (Gaza is rarely mentioned these days, leaving the impression that Israel regards further withdrawals or “redeployments” of its troops as unnecessary.) Settlement activity continues unabated, as do land seizures, house demolitions, curfews, acts of random violence and the steady, grinding impoverishment of the Palestinian majority. Remarkably, Binyamin Netanyahu’s government has flagrantly violated the terms of the accord while managing to preserve the illusion that “peace” is still possible. What accounts, then, for the Clinton administration’s tenacious insistence that the interests of the United States, and of the people of the region, are best served by this transparent charade?

Phyllis Bennis and Khaled Mansour examine the 50-year history of relations between the two countries and find that the strategic interests of the United States have corresponded neatly with Israel’s territorial ambitions for many decades. Ever since Israel proved its prowess in the 1967 Six-Day War, it has been immensely valuable to the US as a “proxy that can fight.” [12] Israel provided the front-line troops for the battle against Arab nationalist movements and regimes, whose nationalization programs and advocacy of autarky and import-substitution were anathema to the American business elite. Thus it was thanks largely to rational self-interest that support for Israel became a central tenet of US policy in the region.

Yet the end of the Cold War has brought about a reexamination of the strategic partnership. Arab nationalism is no longer a threat to US interests, and the International Monetary Fund’s ability to impose austerity on the economies of the region is virtually unlimited. One would expect, then, that Israel’s diminishing value as a partner might prompt Washington to take a harder line with Netanyahu in his dealings with the Palestinians in the interests of securing regional stability. The reason this is not so, Bennis and Mansour argue, can be explained by the growing influence of non-rational actors — specifically a millenarian movement of Christian conservatives — in the formation of US policy. The Israeli government’s success in nullifying existing agreements without any commensurate cost in security terms or serious reproach from the international community has emboldened the Christian right and its allies in Congress. They argue that a continued alliance with Israel brings greater benefits — both political and spiritual — than would a just settlement of the Palestinian problem. Congressional conservatives, who in decades past were often vulnerable to accusations of anti-Semitism, have realized that demagoguery in defense of Israel will always be rewarded, whereas criticism, no matter how cautiously couched in praise, will always be punished.

The Clinton administration, for its part, has adopted a cautious attitude. For the moment at least, it lacks the political capital to oppose forcefully the burgeoning coalition between evangelical Christians, Congress and the Israeli right wing. The administration is also no doubt aware that the demoralization and disorganization of the Palestinian people will, for the foreseeable future, severely restrict their ability to respond to Israeli aggressions. Thus, there is little pressure on Washington to reconsider its unwavering support of Israel. Moreover, many policymakers view a regional economic order dominated by a conservative, capital-friendly Israeli government as the best long-term prospect for US interests.

As we have seen, during the Cold War era, the formation of US foreign policy was cloaked in mystifying, geopolitical rhetoric. The end of that epoch allows a more candid examination of the nature of US hegemony in the region. Washington now possesses more resources than ever before to enforce its will and to punish those states or movements that seek to “go it alone.” Through its predominant influence in international lending institutions such as the IMF, the US can virtually micromanage the economies of developing nations and inflict draconian penalties for nonconformity. Through its influence in multilateral forums such as the United Nations, it can impose crushing economic sanctions. If such methods fail, Washington can announce unilateral trade embargoes and penalize countries that violate them. Lastly, of course, US military might can be summoned to restore “order.” The lofty promise of a “multipolar” world to replace the bipolar world of the Cold War era was just a mirage. Whatever the future holds for the countries of the region, as well as for the world’s only superpower, it is all too clear that the “era of empire” is still with us.


[1] Anthony Lake, “Confronting Backlash States,” Foreign Affairs 73/2 (March/April 1994).
[2] Richard F. Grimmet, Conventional Arms Transfers to the Third World, 1988-1995 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 1996) p. 53.
[3] Scott Peterson, “For Oil and Allies, US Offers a $50 Billion Solution,” Christian Science Monitor, August 6, 1997, and Tim Weiner, “Russia and France Gain on US Lead in Arms Sales, Study Says,” New York Times, August 4, 1998.
[4] Scott Peterson, op. cit., and F. Gregory Gause, “Arms Supplies and Military Spending in the Gulf,” Middle East Report 204 (July-September 1997).
[5] Peterson.
[6] See Michael Tanzer, “Oil and the Gulf Crisis,” in Beyond the Storm: A Gulf War Reader, Phyllis Bennis and Michael Moushabeck, eds. (Northhampton, MA: Interlink, 1998).
[7] Dana Priest, “US Goes Easy on Allies in Arms Control,” Washington Post, April 14, 1998.
[8] Charles Hanley, “US-Saudi Web Thickens,” Associated Press, April 13, 1997.
[9] F. Gregory Gause, “The Illogic of Dual Containment,” Foreign Affairs 73/2 (March/April 1994).
[10] Lawrence G. Potter, “The Persian Gulf in Transition,” Headline Series, Foreign Policy Association.
[11] Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories (January/February 1998).
[12] See A. F. K. Organski, The $36 Billion Bargain: Strategy and Politics in US Assistance to Israel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).

How to cite this article:

Stephen Hubbell "The Containment Myth," Middle East Report 208 (Fall 1998).

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