American Diplomacy
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February 1999

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The Geopolitics of the Middle East Peace Process

An essay by
Robert K. Olson

The author, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer, served in Libya and Lebanon among other posts during his long diplomatic career. He recently completed a study funded by the U.S. Institute of Peace on Europe’s role in the Middle East peace process. His article entitled “Ambassador Henry Grady and Indian Independence: A Historical Retrospective” appeared in this journal’s Spring 1998 issue. ~ Ed.
    Israel, the answer to the Diaspora, to centuries, to millennia of frightful persecution, to the holocaust.

    Israel, the promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey, the fulfillment of the Zionist dream, a light unto the world.

These are the images and ideas that everybody knows and understands. Not everyone will agree with these concepts, but they understand them.

What is not well understood is the reality of geopolitics which mocks those dreams and aspirations and will continue to do so as far as we can see into the future. In fact, the Zionists could not have made a worse place to establish the new Israel, for its strategic position guarantees conflict with its neighbors, as well as with the great world for the foreseeable future.

This geopolitical fact is bad news for peacemakers who strive and strive again to bring peace and stability to the region. It is bad news for Israel and bad news for the Palestinians, who deserve a national home and even a nation state as much as the Israelis. On the other hand, an understanding of geopolitics provides a clearer picture of reality, which helps us to understand better what we can reasonably expect. It helps to define the possible, with hopes not set too high. In the words of the former Israeli foreign minister, Abba Eban, in this part of the world, “we have to be grateful for small mercies.”

It is so surprisingly simple that it is a wonder that the world has not caught on to it, even after fifty years of both hot and cold conflict.


Former National Security Advisor to President Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, is not reluctant to talk about geopolitics long after it has fallen out of fashion, and I have taken the liberty of borrowing from his controversial 1997 article in Foreign Affairs for the title of this piece.
1 But geopolitics has long been overrun by ideology, thanks to the Cold War and Americans’ appetite for ideological and idealistic rationales —democracy, freedom, liberty, justice, and the like—for foreign policy. As a result, geopoliticians, who once held pride of place before the Cold War, have been driven into obscurity in their think tanks and universities, with only a few remaining in the halls of the Department of State, the corridors of the Pentagon, and the labyrinths of the CIA. They have been succeeded by econopoliticians and even ecopoliticians, for which State has an entire bureau. Nevertheless, geopolitics still matters.

Early in the twentieth century, two geopolitical concepts had been articulated that came to dominate thinking on the world power balance. U.S. Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan not surprisingly took an oceanic view of world strategy, as set forth in his study The Influence of Sea Power on History (1893), which had an immediate impact on strategic planners, especially in Europe and Japan. According to Mahan, whoever controls the “Rimland”—the countries circling the Eurasian mainland from the Baltic to Korea—controls the destinies of the world. Rimland countries and their American allies are the key to world control because of their populations, technology, resources, and control of the sea lanes, the last an absolutely vital point. He believed that world domination could be achieved by an Anglo-American alliance operating from strategic bases because of the inherent advantages of sea transport over land transport.

Sir Halford John Mackinder’s thesis, as propounded in Democratic Ideals and Reality (1904), may be summarized as follows:

  • Whoever rules Eastern Europe commands the Heartland (basically Russia).
  • Whoever rules the Heartland commands the World Island (Eurasia).
  • Whoever rules the World Island commands the world.

Geographer Mackinder, although British, took a land-based view of the world and redefined Mahan’s Rimland as what he termed the “Marginal Crescent.”

These two interpretations can be said to have provided the framework for the history of the twentieth century in general and, in particular, of the Middle East. Hitler followed the ideas of his geopolitician Karl Haushofer, who combined the views of Mackinder and Mahan. First, Hitler sought Eastern Europe; then, after neutralizing Western Europe, went for the Heartland. He then struck south into the Rimland of the Middle East, expecting to meet a victorious Japan at the Indian border. Fortunately, due to a variety of factors and oversights, it did not work out for the Axis.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union perforce took the continental Mackinder view, with America and England, in fulfillment of Mahan’s predicted Anglo-American Alliance, following the oceanic strategy. The Cold War thus became a bitter global conflict, not just along the Iron Curtain, but also between two psychologically and geographically different perspectives, with advantages and disadvantages on both sides. As a result, the Cold War flickered along the arc from Korea through Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East, through the Iron Curtain countries to the Baltic. At times, it seemed that the Soviets had the advantage, running the Allies ragged while they aided and abetted one crisis after another along the Rimland. One of the outstanding geopoliticians of our time, Saul Cohen of Clark University, has appropriately labeled this Rimland or Marginal Crescent the Cold War “Shatterbelt.”
2 His term proved especially apt in several divided countries along the way—the two Koreas, two Chinas, two Vietnams, and two Germanies, with others torn between the competing pressures and the blandishments of the two major rival systems, the continental and the oceanic.

Future analysts should bear in mind that in both cases, World War II and the Cold War, it was the oceanic powers that won.


King David, founder of the combined kingdom of Israel and Judah, captured Jerusalem and made it his his capital city. He did not choose the best place. Wealth and power lay along the Mediterranean coast and the major river valleys from the Persian Gulf around the fertile crescent to the Orontes, the Jordan, and thence to the Nile Valley. What was left was not so much a dreamland “flowing with milk and honey” as a mountainscape from Dan in the north to Beersheba and the desert in the south. This may have been the “promised land,” but it was also a leftover, a place where a relatively weak and poverty-stricken people could get a toehold. What wealth David and Solomon did enjoy was largely due to their control of the trade route between the wealthy Phoenician kingdom of King Hiram through Petra to the Red Sea and beyond.

After the death of David’s son, Solomon, however, it was downhill all the way. Over the next several centuries Palestine was successfully occupied by Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks. About 587 B.C. the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took thousands of Jews back to Babylon as captives. Released by Cyrus the Great in 538 B.C., most of the survivors returned to Israel and rebuilt the temple. Five centuries later, Palestine was taken by the Romans, and not long thereafter the nation of Israel was obliterated. In other words, the Kingdom of the Jews, while literally built upon bedrock, was also built on a geopolitical seismic fault, which periodically shattered under its luckless inhabitants.

For 1900 years after the final destruction of Israel, Palestine continued to be the battle ground between the West and the East, the oceanic and the continental. Byzantium gave way to the Muslims, who were attacked by the European Crusaders, then by the Egyptians, followed by the Turks, who were finally dislodged by the British in 1917. Thirty years of the European mandates ended with the final insult of having Palestine attacked and repossessed by the Ashkenazi Jews with the support, however marginal and grudging, of Britain and the United States—and the Soviet Union. The Cold War continued the pattern of conflict with the Americans and Soviets competing for strategic advantage through the June War, the October War, and so on. The Gulf War was a watershed, given the collapse of the Soviet Union and Soviet support for Iraq, and with the United States and Europe coming out on top. Once again the oceanic powers had won.

The Middle East is the graveyard of predictions, but we must nevertheless try to look ahead. Despite the Western victories of the Cold War, the Gulf War, and the momentary triumph of Oslo, the old pattern now seems to be reasserting itself. Hostility still radiates toward the West from the grass roots to heads of state. It is questionable whether the Oslo Humpty Dumpty will ever be put back together again. Iran is doing its best to become the preeminent Muslim power in the region, to develop medium- and long-range missiles with the help of Russia and China; Iran also hopes to achieve nuclear capability, which would tend to equalize the current imbalance of regional power.

Enormous problems of water and food, a geometric rate of population growth, and stagnant economies loom ahead. The mistake of the Likud government is that it has failed to realize that it must stabilize relations with its immediate neighbors so it can get on with the business of strengthening its friendships with the outer circle of Turkey, Azerbaijan, the United States, Europe, and Russia, while confounding its enemies beginning with Iraq and Iran. Thus, instead of resting comfortably and secure in a friendly society of nations, Netanyahu and his party have succeeded in turning everyone against them. This last is certainly an overstatement, but it puts into relief the fact that despite massive U.S. support, the war is not over yet.

What then of Palestine? The geopolitics of the region during this century suggests, ironically and unbelievably, that without Israel there would probably never have been a Palestinian Authority, let alone a state. Without Israel to fight, Palestine would have become a battleground between Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt, as well as another bone of contention between the Soviet Union and the United States.

The Hashemites, Abdullah in Transjordan and Faisal in Iraq, had ambitions to take over the Fertile Crescent, including Syria in a new Hashemite empire to replace the lost Hejaz. Indeed, Abdullah and Faisal’s eminence grise, Nuri es-Said, were both ready to accept Israel, providing they got the rest. Syria, of course, would have fought back. Egypt was more concerned about the Canal and evicting the British from Egypt than the fate of Palestine. But it is probable that a Hashemite empire would have frightened Egypt into reaction.

Due to the Cold War, both Europe and the United States would have preferred the political stability of the status quo rather than the creation of a new state vulnerable to Soviet blandishments. Nothing would have been tolerated that in any way may have posed a threat to the security of Western oil interests. Even then, Americans such as the first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, were passionately against America getting involved in or dependent on Arab oil, not to mention supporting a Palestinian state. So it is doubtful in the extreme that the Palestinians would ever have been allowed to form an independent state.

As it was, the Palestine Liberation Organization did not come into existence until 1964. In 1968 PLO leader Yasir Arafat, losing patience with his do-nothing supporters and rivals, took matters into his own hands, forcing the issue by resorting to political terrorism. Even then Arafat had few real friends, Arab rhetoric notwithstanding. The PLO was expelled by the Syrians, by Jordan’s King Hussein in 1970, and by the Phalange-lsraeli coalition in Lebanon in 1982. Only in 1974, in the wake of the Arab oil embargo, did a Western power (France) take up the Palestinian cause at the diplomatic level.

Until then, the peace process had not been an effort to establish an independent Palestine, but rather one designed to achieve peace between Israel and the Arabs, according to the wording of the November 1967 Security Council Resolution 242 on the basis of “land for peace.” This phrase meant the return of the Sinai to Egypt, the West Bank to Jordan, and the Golan Heights to Syria. Palestine was not even mentioned. The century was approaching its end before Palestine became the cause célèbre of the peace process, rising above the basic geopolitics of the region.

During the Gulf War, Arafat and the Palestinians exhausted their store of good will by siding with Saddam Hussein. Palestinians were expelled en masse from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and Arab funding was severely curtailed. Later, for entirely different reasons, Libya rounded up and dumped its Palestinians on the Egyptian border.

The Palestinian Authority exists today, yes. But despite the fondest hopes of the Palestinians and the international community, it is doubtful that Palestine will ever achieve more than token independence. Likely it will become another nonviable, poor, overcrowded, and defenseless state. Neighboring Arab nations are tiring of the problem, especially since Arafat and the Palestinians backed the wrong side in the Gulf War. They have been quite ready to make peace with Israel along Oslo lines and are more anxious to find their places in the mainstream of the new international economic order. To go to war with Israel for Palestinian independence has become unthinkable.

How would Palestine, if it were to emerge as a nation, relate to the rest of the world? How would it fit into the pattern of regional politics? Could it escape the pressures of Israel, Iran, and Syria, Muslim fundamentalism, Arab radicalism, and the demands of terrorist organizations—all of which have their own agendas? In short, instead of a proud, freestanding, independent state, Palestine seems destined to be entirely dependent for its existence on Western largesse and Israeli goodwill. Palestinians are already grumbling that the Palestinian Authority is incompetent, corrupt, and authoritarian—not a promising beginning. Palestine does hold one ace in its hand: the conscience of the world. This alone might give birth to a Potemkin state with its own internal administration, a flag, and a seat at the United Nations, but with little more.

To this observer, then, the best chance for Palestine is within the context of a sort of Benelux, as proposed by former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, where Palestine, Jordan, and Israel would form a regional “federation” designed to produce a real land of milk and honey through economic cooperation and development. In this connection, King Hussein, Yasir Arafat, and Shimon Peres all declared that the future of Palestine and peace lies in creating something like the European Union. They turned not to the United States, but to the European Union and member states to teach them how to do it.

This was the course of events until Hamas and Israeli extremists together managed to destroy the Oslo effort, with the hard line Likud party returning to power in Israel. The regional federation proposal has faded along with Oslo and, despite its attractive good sense, is likely to remain for the foreseeable future only a statesman’s dream and vision.

Planning, then, has to proceed on the firm foundation of historic geopolitics, not the sands of sentiment and aspiration. Modern technology would seem to have reduced geopolitics almost to irrelevance. Air power and long-range missiles would appear to have telescoped, if not canceled out, time and distance.

Not so, I say. Someday space science may well produce the ultimate weapon. But until then, geopolitics remains at the core of state-to-state relations. Territorial integrity is nonnegotiable. The cases of Bosnia, Palestine, Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, the West Bank and the Golan, Kashmir and Cambodia all remind us of the bitter fighting over scraps of real estate, over shards of broken empires.

There remain the ancient geopolitical conflicts between East and West, between the continental and oceanic worlds, the tumultuous history of the states and peoples of the “Shatterbelt” from Finland to Korea, and the essential vulnerability of any state (including Israel) established on the shores and hinterlands of the Eastern Mediterranean. New and old factors are also emerging and reemerging as critical. For example, as many have pointed out, future wars in the Middle East are going to be fought over water. And the three percent population growth rate and the failure of economic development from Morocco to Iran makes North Africa and the Middle East a ticking time bomb.

In other words, there is more to the Middle East peace process than Palestine, as the Gulf War should have reminded everyone. A sovereign Palestine will depend on the good graces of Egypt, Jordan, and Israel; Egypt, Jordan, and Israel have been and will continue to be dependent on the good will and largesse of the West, as well as on the nonbelligerence of the neighboring Arab and Muslim powers. In short, there is no near-term solution in sight and we will have to work at it indefinitely. Hopefully, someday the Middle East will emerge from the zero-sum mind set of the past and reach out to a future where all states can exist and flourish.

To end on a somewhat positive note, I hold that it is high time that Europe and the United States begin to cooperate in forging not just a peace, but a new future based on realities, not illusion. This means bringing an end to the U.S.-Israeli practice of excluding Europe from an active role in the peace process. With Israel and her neighbors looking to Europe for inspiration and guidance, Europe’s continued exclusion becomes inexplicable and anomalous. The successful conclusion of the Cold War gives us the opportunity to combine forces to stabilize the southern flank of the Alliance from the Mashraq to the Magreb—but that is another story.


1. Zbigniew Brzezinski, “A Geostrategy for Eurasia,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 1997, pp. 50-64.

2. See Saul Cohen, Geography and Politics in a World Divided, New York: Oxford University Press, 1963. Professor Cohen was director of the Graduate School of Geography at Clark.

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