Ambassador James Akins Discusses American Middle East Policy at Al-Hewar Center 

“After 9-11 Americans asked themselves ‘Why do they hate us?’” said former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Akins at a discussion hosted by Al-Hewar Center on January 29; “and we answered immediately, ‘it is because we are so good; we are rich and tolerant and free and open.’  The answer was wrong, of course.  Throughout the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century, the United States was venerated throughout the Middle East as the land of Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln and, especially, Woodrow Wilson.  We were seen as the only non-imperial great power – and all through this time we were ‘rich, tolerant, free and open.’  No, we are hated now,” he said, “NOT because of our principles, but because we are seen as having betrayed these principles in the Middle East.”

The Arabs have a record of religious tolerance which is not equaled or even approached by any European country, said Akins.  There was certainly nothing like the Inquisition in the Arab world and nothing remotely like the Russian and Polish pogroms and the Holocaust. Indeed, in 1492 when the Muslims and Jews were expelled from Spain, the Jews went to the Arab countries, not to Europe.

But this benign picture of the US changed with our support of the partition of Palestine and the expulsion of Palestinians from much of the new state of Israel, said Akins, who spent 20 years in the Foreign Service, culminating as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia under President Nixon. Akins presented his “Perspectives on American Foreign Policy in the Middle East” at Al-Hewar Center, a discussion forum in metropolitan Washington.  He was introduced by Mr. Mazhar Samman, President of the National US-Arab Chamber of Commerce, who also moderated the ensuing discussion between Akins and the audience.

So the Middle East conflict is barely half a century old, yet most American Presidents insist that it would be difficult to bring peace to a region that has been in such turmoil for “hundreds” or “thousands” of years, Akins lamented.

The Arabs lost faith in the United States when, in their eyes, we betrayed the principles upon which our republic and democracy were founded, said Akins, starting with the partition of Palestine and then the formation of Israel. They wonder why they are paying the price for crimes against Jews committed by Russians and Poles and finally the Germans, but certainly not by Arabs.

He noted that the State Department initially opposed the formation of Israel, but the decision was ultimately made at the White House by President Truman, who later insisted that there had been no Arabs banging on his doors in protest.

The Palestinians were originally granted about 40% of mandate Palestine, but they fought the Jewish settlers and when the war was over, they had 22%. Some 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from the lands captured by Jews. The myth that they were urged by Arab governments to leave and then return with the conquering Arab leaders has been totally debunked by historians, including Israelis, said Akins. Nevertheless, it is still widely believed and quoted in many quarters.

With the exception of President Eisenhower, who ordered Israel, France and Britain out of Egypt when they invaded the Suez in 1956, American Presidents rarely confront Israel, even in the most egregious circumstances, such as the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, which left 37 Americans dead and the ship floundering in the sea without power for two days.

As a diplomat, Akins served in Beirut and Kuwait, and was then assigned to Baghdad in 1961, shortly after the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown in 1958. He was there when the Baathi coup overtook the pro-Russian regime of Abdul Karim Kassem in 1963. He noted that he had studied the Baath party and was impressed with the original group of Iraqi Baathis (which did not include Saddam Hussein). However, even they did not make good on their promise to hold free democratic elections, and there has never been a real election in Iraq since, he noted.

The Baath party was transformed further when Saddam Hussein took over, and, indeed, bears very little relationship to the principles of the founding members of the party, said Akins.

Turning to the Golan Heights, Akins noted that the United Nations investigated about 1,000 incidents of border skirmishes. Only 10 of them were found to have been caused by the Syrians, another 20 were ambiguous, and all of the rest were found to have been caused by Israelis.  Yet the majority of people still believe that the Syrians were firing upon innocent Israeli peasants from the Golan, thus justifying Israel’s invasion and continued occupation of that fertile and strategic land. In his diaries, Moshe Dayan confirmed the UN investigations and said that one of the worst mistakes of his life was to yield to the pressure of the settlers who lusted after the waters and the rich lands of the Golan Heights.

Arabs need to understand, said Akins, that that there is no such thing as eternal friendship between nations. Arabs need to change their focus towards mutual interests. As it stands now, the United States does not need to do anything the Arabs ask because the US gets everything it wants from them anyway. Until the Arabs use the leverage that they have, they will continue to be frustrated and surprised by American behavior and policies.

Akins recounted some of the difficulties he faced working under Henry Kissinger as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Akins had a difficult time arranging the initial meeting between Kissinger and King Faisal because the Saudis did not like or trust Kissinger. Akins insisted on attending that meeting, to Kissinger’s chagrin. Akins also believed that it is the duty of an Ambassador, who presumably knows the country where he was serving, to speak out when Washington proposed some action that would be counterproductive and hurt Americans interests.  None of this served to endear Akins to Henry Kissinger.

Akins recounted the incident that finally ended his career and has an eerie connection with current events.  Harper’s Magazine carried an article written by Miles Ignotus (a pseudonym that means “Unknown Soldier”), that put forth the theory that the US could solve all of its economic problems by occupying the Arab oil fields from Kuwait to Dubai, expel all of the Arabs living there, and bring in Texans and Oklahomans to operate the oil fields. To quell the voices of India and other third world countries who might object to this, we would sell oil to them for $1 a barrel. Our economic problems would be solved, our political problems would be solved, and Arab oil would be all ours. If this outrageous proposal had only appeared in Harpers, it would have been dismissed, said Akins, but the appeared exact same concept simultaneously in at least six other major publications, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. It was clear that there had been a deep background press briefing by a government source, said Akins. In these types of briefings, journalists are given information, but they cannot quote the source or even say it came from a government source. They must write the idea as if it were their own.

Thinking that this crazy idea must have come from some nut in the CIA or more probably in the Defense Department, Akins wrote a long dispatch analyzing how catastrophic such a scenario would be. He talked with people at Aramco and determined that it would take at least 2 or 3 years to get oil back into production, assuming that you could move the entire population out without doing further damage to the country, which, of course, was not possible either. Akins determined that that Europe would collapse without oil from the Gulf, and the Russians would be free to march upon Europe unopposed. Akins’ dispatch was sent under low security classification (meaning it could be read by anybody and everybody) to all diplomatic posts.

When he was interviewed on American TV, he stated that the person who put forth this ludicrous idea was either a madman, a criminal, or an agent of the Soviet Union, because the Soviet Union would be the clear winner.  Well it turned out that Henry Kissinger had been the deep background briefer. Although a lot of Akins’ friends thought he had known that Kissinger was involved, he did not know it nor even suspect it. Had he known, he said he would still have discredited the idea, but he would have done it in a more diplomatic way.  About a month after that interview, Akins was fired and there was no left in the administration who could protect him.

President Nixon really was interested in solving the Middle East crisis, said Akins, who believes that Nixon really could have brought peace to the region. But Kissinger’s background machinations and the Watergate scandal prevented him from pursuing the matter. After he had left the Presidency, Nixon told Akins that he had been aware that Kissinger was sabotaging his efforts.

Akins also worked in the Carter presidential campaign in 1976.  He expected George Ball to be named Secretary of State as he was clearly the most qualified man in the country for the job.  However, Carter chose Cyrus Vance instead.  He was a good, honorable man but without Ball’s strength and persuasiveness.  Ball believed until he died that his appointment was vetoed by AIPAC. 

Carter did make some progress on Middle East peace, but made the big mistake of not insisting that Israel stop settlement activity permanently. The Israelis quibbled over the precise meaning of the agreement and decided that settlement activity need only be suspended for 3 months. Carter did not press them on the issue because he did not want to upset the balance for the upcoming elections, which he ended up losing anyway. Akins still has great respect for Jimmy Carter who, as he says, “has been an extraordinary ex-President.”

The settlements are extremely important, said Akins, and they played a big role in Saudi Arabia when he was Ambassador. King Faisal complained about them, and Kissinger blithely dismissed his concerns.  The King was killed shortly after his last meeting with Kissinger.

Ronald Reagan’s election brought about a significant change in the U.S. government. Richard Perle has been quoted as stating at the time that the first task was to rid the State Department of the Arabists. The purge started then, said Akins, and is now essentially complete. Arabic is still being studied by a few, but those specialists who survived, he said, are just like the old Soviet Union specialists. In order not to be suspected of sympathy for the Communists, they became super-anti-Communists. It is the same with the surviving Arabists. They’ve made a point of being more pro-Israel than AIPAC. Even ambassadors to certain Arab Gulf countries see their entire task to be persuading the Arab world to lift the economic boycott against Israel. There is no concern for the country where they are stationed, nor for American interests in the region. It is disturbing, intimated Akins, that their primary task seems to be promoting the interests of a foreign country.

Akins was in the Gulf when the Israelis invaded Lebanon, which was the worst humiliation of the Arabs since the partition of Palestine. At the time, he made several suggestions to the Arabs about what they could do, including making it more difficult for American companies to compete for contracts. This would have had a tremendous effect as American businessmen would have beaten down the doors of their Congressmen demanding policy changes. Although his suggestions were discussed amongst the GCC countries, they were not acted upon because the GCC did not want to “annoy” the Americans. Thus, America has never had to moderate its foreign policy, because it gets everything it wants from the Arabs anyway.

The first President Bush promised that he would devote his full energies to reaching an honorable settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict once the first crisis with Iraq was resolved. Madrid was the beginning of that process, but Bush was not reelected, so we’ll never know if he would have had any success. James Baker stood up to the Israelis during the Bush Administration and it was reported briefly in the world press that Clinton had asked him to be chief American negotiator for the Middle East but that the Israelis had rejected him and therefore his name had been withdrawn. Baker also helped the current President Bush win the election in Florida, which led people to believe that he would be part of this administration, but he seems to have excluded subsequently from the White House, Akins noted.

Nothing that’s gone before could have ever prepared me for George W. Bush, said Akins. He criticized Bush’s out of hand dismissal of Prince Abdullah’s peace plan, which Akins termed “extraordinary”. Before he even presented his plan to America, the Prince convinced the Arab League to accept it, which in itself was an extraordinary act. The plan gave the Israelis everything they said they ever wanted – the ’67 borders and recognition. All Israel had to do was abide by UN resolutions.  But it is clear that Israel wants much more.

Akins noted that a few years ago, the few Israelis who talked about expelling Arabs from Eretz Israel were shunned, now it is talked about openly in the Knesset. But Israel needs the cover of a war to carry out this plan, he said. Until recently, this war did not seem probable because the benefits are so minimal and the dangers so great. However, Ariel Sharon has proven that he gets what he wants. Akins decried the humiliating moment when George Bush ordered Sharon to withdraw from Jenin immediately, and Sharon said no, so instead of doing what any American President should have done, Bush apologized and told Sharon to withdraw at his convenience. Then a week later, he called Sharon a “man of peace”.

Bush is clearly playing into Sharon’s hands, and this war with Iraq will provide the cover that Sharon needs to carry out the evil plan of expelling the Palestinians form the West Bank. While the world is focused on the Gulf, Sharon can wipe out a few villages and cause the rest of the Palestinians to panic and flee across the border, just like in 1947-48 – all without journalists to witness the truth. 

Akins ended with a glimmer of hope that Bush will honor his statement in his State of the Union address that the U.S. would take measures to minimize civilian casualties. “I hope this is true,” said Akins. “500,000 Iraqi babies have died as a result of the sanctions. I don’t want to have another half million added to heaven’s account against us.”

The evening continued with an engaging discussion between Ambassador Akins and the audience.

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