Agents and Structures in the Middle East

Michael Doran argues that Chuck Hagel’s admiration for Dwight Eisenhower’s handling of the 1956 Suez Crisis is misplaced. This is, Doran continues, because Eisenhower’s smack-down of Britain, France, and Israel had worse consequences for the Middle East and American interests than a more forceful policy against Egyptian President Nasser might have.

He then extends the logic of this lesson to imply that today Hagel stands for harsher treatment of Israel, particularly for imposing on it to resolve the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. This connects to Jeffrey Goldberg’s own argument that “linkage” (that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the root of all problems in the region, and that solving it will end the threats to American interests there) seems to be an Obama Administration misconception.

I agree that linkage is the wrong assumption on which to approach the Middle East. It should be obvious by now that plenty of other problems—internal fights between communities within the Arab countries, inter-Arab and inter-Muslim rivalry and contests for regional leadership—that don’t rely on Israel to continue.

But this doesn’t mean there aren’t connections between some problems in the region, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In their arguments, Doran and Goldberg represent one side of a perennial debate in Political Science—the agent-structure problem. They assume that the Arab states and Palestinians are independent agents, who choose to drag Israel into their problems, but who also have the choice to leave it out. By virtue of doing the former, then, the United States must—it follows—adopt the position that Israel doesn’t matter because it’s being utilized as a matter of choice for strategic or tactical reasons.

That Israel is used as such is certainly true: During the heyday of Arab authoritarianism, the conflict was used by the regimes to justify shifting the focus from domestic reform to fend off the Zionist threat, to clamp down on domestic dissent, to rationalize a bloated bureaucracy, including domestic security agencies, and as a stick with which to beat other Arab states.

But at the same time, larger structural forces have long been at play in the region that bring Israel into the equation even apart from conscious Arab decisions. One such structure is the network of inter-actor relationships in the region, including outside powers like the US, which conditions how actors act, sometimes pushing them into decisions.

The Middle East as a regional system means that Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab states, Turkey, and Iran are all inter-connected through their regional politics. What happens in one area has ripple effects in the other. The lines that connect one actor to another criss-cross each other until it looks like a spider web of links.

This applies to American policy in the region, as well. Doran suggests that Eisenhower’s implicit protection of Nasser had dire consequences: it led to a deeper Soviet penetration of the region, and it enhanced Nasser’s regional and international standing.

But there’s no evidence that this wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Nasser’s own regional ambitions would have led to a direct clash with Washington anyway, given the American preoccupation with the Cold War and the desire to see locals as allies or enemies. Egypt’s rivalry with Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan would likely have pushed some states into the Soviet camp and some into the American camp for their own purposes anyway.

Moreover, when Ike pressed the British, French, and Israelis at Suez, he wasn’t just concerned with Egypt: he was driven by larger processes as well. He had other—which is not to say more important, but just competing—interests at the time of the Suez crisis. This included the expansion of the Cold War, and the Hungarian uprising and crisis that overlapped with the Suez war. Eisenhower was angry at his allies because he wasn’t consulted, but primarily because he was trying to manage American interests at the global level. His concern was that the attack on Egypt undermined his effort to castigate and push back against the Soviets for their invasion of Hungary at the same time.

And what was the alternative? To let the British, French, and Israelis undermine Nasser so that he was eventually replaced? Who would have replaced him? The evidence of foreign countries intervening to shape the politics of a state has, over the years, demonstrated time and again that it hardly works. Rather, it leads to breakdowns of traditional networks upon which the polity is built, suffering for the citizens, and regional instability, threatening other countries. If the Israeli experience in Lebanon isn’t the clearest example of this, I don’t know what else is.

Doran’s argument contains other misperceptions that can be attributed to emphasizing agents over structures. He contends that Eisenhower’s action put the final nail in the coffin of the British Empire. Maybe, but the end of empire was already there—at best, the empire would have dragged on a little longer. The structural conditions for its demise were already playing out. Opinion in Britain and in its possessions was turning against it, while resistance and national liberation movements were already mobilizing against British authority. The financial crisis London faced after World War Two and the loss of India had made the end inevitable. Nothing Ike would have done would have saved it, and it’s even arguable that prolonging the empire would have led to more suffering as Britain fought longer to keep its possessions.

Doran’s take on Ike provides an early representation of the American conundrum in how to deal with the Arab Awakening today. I buy the argument that Washington can contribute to the stabilization of Egypt without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But at the same time, it is clear that removing this festering conflict would undermine many of the arguments anti-Israel groups use to support their militant positions; would free up American attention and resources to help stabilize other countries; and more. It won’t end all the other conflicts—Saudi Arabia and Iran will still remain rivals, for example—but that’s not a reason not to push for a settlement.

(For the record, I’m not trying to resolve the agent-structure debate here. Just noting the difficulty in separating them under certain conditions.)