Trading Places: America and Europe in the Middle East

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

June 1, 2005

See if this story sounds familiar. A Western Great Power, long responsible for security in the Middle East, gets increasingly impatient with the hardline position taken by nationalist leaders in Iran. Decades of historical baggage weigh heavily on both sides, and the Iranians deeply resent the way the Great Power had supported its corrupt former leaders and exercised influence over their internal affairs. In turn, the Great Power resents the challenge to its global leadership posed by the Tehran regime and begins to prepare plans for the use of military force. With the main protagonists refusing all direct diplomatic contact and heading toward a confrontation, the Great Power’s nervous allies dispatch negotiators to Tehran to try to defuse the dispute and offer a compromise. The Great Power denounces the compromise as appeasement and dusts off the military plans. The West is deeply split on how to handle yet another challenge in the Persian Gulf and a major showdown looms.

The time and place? No, not America, Iran and Europe today, but the 1951 clash between the United Kingdom and the Mohammad Mosaddeq regime in Iran, with the United States in the role of mediator. In 1951, the issue at hand was not an incipient Iranian nuclear programme but Mosaddeq’s plan to nationalise the Iranian oil industry. The Truman administration, sympathetic to Iran’s claim that it deserved more control over its own resources, feared that Britain’s hard line would push Iran in an even more anti-Western direction and worried about an intra-Western crisis at a time when a common enemy required unity. Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, thought British plans to invade Iran were crazy—surely London understood the nationalist backlash the use of military force would provoke throughout the Muslim world—and begged Churchill to back off and accept negotiations. The British, in turn, were furious with the Americans for what they considered appeasement of a regime that could not be reasoned with, and refused to give an inch. The British rejected all compromise and finally persuaded the Americans to support ‘regime change’ with a 1953 coup as an alternative to a British invasion.

Today the tables have turned. It is now America and Iran that are headed towards confrontation while the British and other Europeans step in to offer compromise solutions and plead for dialogue. History never repeats itself exactly. But what does it tell us about the Middle East, and about America and Europe, that in a very similar Iran crisis 50 years ago, Americans and Europeans played precisely opposite roles from the ones they are playing today? Would Americans and Europeans understand the Middle East—and each other—better if they were more aware that for most of the twentieth century, on a wide range of issues, from Iraq to Iran to Algeria and Egypt, the shoe was on the other foot? Could Americans learn something by better appreciating the fact that many of their dilemmas in the Middle East are eerily reminiscent of those faced by the British and French before them? The history is relevant, because when it comes to thinking about and dealing with the Middle East over the past hundred years, America and Europe have traded places. Not all that long ago, Europeans were confident, interventionist and militaristic, while Americans were compromisers who insisted on applying international law and working with the United Nations.

Contrary to claims sometimes made on both sides, the story of the US– European role reversal in the Middle East does not demonstrate the moral superiority of one side or the other but rather underscores the degree to which a nation’s policies and perspectives inevitably derive from its relative power, global responsibilities and history. In the Middle East today, the Americans are merely walking in the footsteps of Europeans who, when they were the world’s great powers, also felt it necessary to use force to try to reshape the region. This does not mean that the Americans are now destined to relive Europe’s fate, but it does mean that Americans would be wise to consider it. Indeed, by studying Europe’s efforts to stabilise and develop the Middle East in the last century, Americans today can perhaps avoid the errors—the imperial temptations, the overconfidence, the wishful thinking, the over-reliance on military force and the lack of legitimacy—that doomed those efforts to failure.