Bitter Lake, Bitter Legacy: The Saudi King, Abdul Aziz, guarantees the United States access to Arabia's almost limitless oil reserves and, in return, President Franklin Roosevelt guarantees the Saudi monarchy's security. The photograph was taken aboard the USS Quincy, moored in the Great Bitter Lake, on 14 February 1945. The so-called "Quincy Agreement" set the course of US policy in the Middle East for the next 70 years.
THE QUESTION CONFRONTING the Democratic Party when it next takes control of the White House will, simply, be: “What now?” The next Democratic President will likely enter office with the two most powerful Islamic nations in the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia, locked in a nuclear arms race. Faced with the prospect of two bitter foes acquiring the means to wipe it off the face of the earth, Israel (which already possesses its own nuclear arsenal) will be screaming at the new Democratic administration to: “Do something – or we will!” Doing something will be unavoidable – but what is it that the United States should do?
On his way home from the Yalta Conference aboard the USS Quincy, in February 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt paused briefly in the Great Bitter Lake (half-way along the Suez Canal) to meet with Abdul Aziz, King of Saudi Arabia. In many respects this meeting on Great Bitter Lake was as important to the world’s future as Roosevelt’s meeting at Yalta with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Arising out of the secret conclave between President and King was the so-called “Quincy Agreement”, by which the United States guaranteed the security of the Saudi monarchy, and the Saudi monarchy guaranteed the United States access to its almost limitless oil reserves.
The tragedy of the Quincy Agreement is that it simply wasn’t necessary. In 1945 the US was the most powerful nation on earth and just a few months away from producing the world’s first nuclear weapons. Under Roosevelt, the Americans had already set in motion the dismantling of the British Empire: a process which would, in the space of two years, force Great Britain to relinquish the “jewel” in its imperial crown – India. That Roosevelt, the Roosevelt of 1940, would not have vouchsafed US protection to the deeply reactionary Saudi dynasty; not when he could have had it swept away by forces dedicated to establishing a modern, secular, democratic republic with just a flick of Uncle Sam’s finger. Unfortunately, that Roosevelt no longer existed. In his place was the gaunt, exhausted figure of the Yalta newsreels: a man barely two months away from death.
It was this dying Roosevelt who resigned himself to preserving not only the Saudi king (and his oil) but also the King of Egypt and the Emperor of Ethiopia. Churchill and the British had convinced him that US strategic interests would be best served by keeping in place every one of the petty kings and potentates that Britain had installed across the Middle East in the aftermath of World War I.
It was a fatal error. For the next seventy years the Americans (aided and abetted at every turn by the British) found themselves obliged to prop-up a corrupt collection of quasi-medieval reactionaries who had set their faces against all the emancipatory forces of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and who were doing everything in their power to advance the most extreme and retrograde interpretations of the Prophet Mohammed’s religious teachings.
The alternative course of action: the road not taken; would have seen the full weight of the US thrown behind the secular forces of Middle Eastern nationalism and their quest for cultural and economic independence. Yes, many of these nationalist leaders may have been mildly socialist, like Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran, but no more so that the leaders of Sweden or India. With the encouragement and support of the United States, the Arab and Iranian peoples could have constructed modern, open societies to match the magnificent civilisations of their past. Moderate Islamic democracies, forever beholden to the United States for underwriting their freedom, prosperity and independence.
What actually happened, of course, was that when the aforementioned Mosaddegh attempted to establish just such a government in Iran, the CIA (represented, ironically, by Roosevelt’s son, Kermit) and the British secret service, MI6, colluded in mobilising the reactionary Muslim clergy against him and restored to the Peacock Throne the craven and vicious Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – Iran’s hereditary (and now absolute) ruler.
That this anti-democratic behaviour has remained a constant of US policy in the Middle East is due in no small part to the State of Israel. Born out of the acquisition and, later, the expropriation of Arab properties in the former British mandate of Palestine, Israel’s existence has always constituted a major obstacle to the peaceful evolution of a modern and moderate Middle East.
Had the US and Britain been willing to stand behind secular Arab nationalism and the establishment of democratic governments in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Arabia, the Gulf States and Iran, it is possible that Israel may have felt sufficiently secure to negotiate a lasting modus vivendi between the Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. From 1956 onwards, however, Britain and America were happy to use Israel as a battering ram against Arab nationalism and, at need, the entire Muslim world. A strategy which has positioned Israel as a nuclear-armed obstacle squarely athwart every path to Middle Eastern peace.
How to respond when the next Democratic President of the United States asks: “What now?” Tell her to reverse every policy the United States has followed in the Middle East since the USS Quincy hove-to in the Great Bitter Lake in February 1945. Yes, it’s a little late for such a radical realignment of US policy – but better late than never.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 11 May 2018.