Nearing the ’90s: America needs to reexamine role in Middle East

There is an enormous cost to us, as American citizens, regarding our current political involvement in the Middle East. In pursuit of this policy, we have traded arms to Iran for the release of American hostages held in Lebanon; we have supported Iraq in a war against Iran to the detriment of some of our naval forces; and we continue to support Israel to the detriment of certain Arab political relations, while continuing to pay both Egypt and Israel for the Camp David Accord signed during the Carter administration.

We currently spend $50 million a month policing the Arabian/Persian Gulf with our naval forces to keep oil flowing to countries other than our own, while simultaneously financing Afghanistan rebel forces via Pakistan to force the Soviet withdrawal from that war-ravaged country. In essence, politically we have lost by trying to be all things to all Middle Eastern parties.

On the other hand, until recently we have held our own economically. In areas of defense, aviation and large development projects, America has held the upper hand over our Allied competitors.

Within the past five years, however, we have given ground to the British, French and to the Japanese in many economic and defense areas where we once held the dominant position. Some of the reasons for this are:

  • Arab reaction to our political uneven-handed foreign policy in the Middle East;
  • Our inconsistent policy in regard to Iran;
  • The fact that our European and Japanese allies now can provide better quality economic/ defense support to countries of the area at a cheaper price than we can.

What we as American citizens must realize is that there is a taxpayers’ price to be paid for this type of foreign/economic policy approach.

Nobody does anything for nothing in the Middle East. There is always a price to be either extracted or paid. When Middle Easterners do something for someone—anyone—they expect to receive something in return.

It appears that only we, as Americans, make concessions and do things for Middle Eastern interests, in a political sense, without asking for something back in return. It is one of the reasons that we get caught up in the political problems of the area by not confining ourselves to areas that we traditionally do best.

If, after living for 23 years in the Middle East, I were to pass on any gained advice on the Middle Eastern mentality to our new administration it would be this:

America, let’s involve ourselves in the Middle East in those areas where we function best—in perpetuation of our economic abilities, our technology and our systems-and service-support capabilities: We should not try to regulate the political policies of nations of that area, or become a willing surrogate of countries that want to use America as a springboard for their own internally defined interests.

Instead, we should influence by example by demonstrating a firm nonpolitical economic base that is the backbone of a clearly defined foreign policy. Such a policy lets all nations know exactly where we stand and what we intend to do in a foreign policy mode directed first and foremost by our own economic interests.

It may be surprising to many Americans not familiar with the area that, in general, inhabitants of the Middle East like Americans and what the American way of life produces. I once heard the minister of interior from Saudi Arabia publicly state, “America, we like you as a people and the technology that you can provide us—total systems that you will support us on over long extended periods of economic relationship. But your drugs, your heart attacks, your nervous breakdowns, your high divorce rates, your lack of family units—please keep to yourselves in America.”

The basic problem that confronts America and the world today in dealing with the Middle East is in understanding Islam—the driving force behind every Muslim. It is in this area that basic misunderstandings arise that lead to long-term confrontation, not in the area of oil shipping or the influence of the Soviet Union in the Gulf.

The rising nationalistic influence of Islam—which is a reaction to a highly developed technological West over the past 45 years—is the basis for concern in the Middle East. All other offshoots from this, such as situations that Jews and Christians find themselves in today in the Middle East, are only manifestations of the basic problem of Islam in its struggling stance toward the industrialized world.

This being the case, I suggest that America, in the context of our new political administration, can only influence. Otherwise we as a nation will continue to be an unwitting surrogate to the political interests of Muslim, Jewish and Christian entities in a part of the world that, at best, we plainly do not understand.

Any further direct political confrontation will bring more havoc to an already disorganized, highly emotional, sensitive and volatile situation. By using our economics we have a much better chance of positively influencing the Middle Eastern situation. We can then possibly contribute toward a solution, rather than further become part of the problem.

Editor’s note: Two years after graduating from the University of Washington, Paul Wineman was stationed in Teheran with the Army, a move that was to keep him in the Middle East for 23 years. During that time he worked as an advisor to the Shah’s Imperial Iranian Army Special Forces Units, general manager of Television of Iran, administrator for the Saudi Television Network, and was hired into the private sector as Middle East representative for several U.S. technology corporations.

His experiences there seldom were dull. Wineman has survived two plane crashes, one in 1965 when an Iranair plane crashed on landing in a heavy windstorm and only a few passengers survived by scrambling out of the rear of the aircraft, and the other in 1969 when a U.S. Army Beechcraft lost an engine at 9,500 feet and had to land wheels up in a remote desert area. In 1972 he was aboard a commercial flight from Beirut to Athens which was hijacked and diverted to Cairo.

And in 1975 he was taken hostage by the PLO in Beirut, accused of spying and imprisoned 40 feet below ground in a small cell of a military prison. For seven days and nights he was interrogated in a room lined with torture instruments. He was released after convincing his captors that his Palestinian professors at American University of Beirut could verify his identity.

In 1977 Wineman returned to Los Angeles as a consultant to American defense and aerospace corporations on how to successfully market and win sales in the Middle East. He also conducts seminars on Middle East business strategies and negotiation techniques.