'Another Fine Mess' in the Middle East
“Well, that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”—Laurel and Hardy, c. 1930’s.
There is no question that the Middle East Arab-Israeli-oil situation is one of the world’s most enduring and vexing problems. Almost every economically significant country in the world has a major stake in how this scenario plays out and most countries orient and arrange a large part of their foreign policy and energy strategy with Middle East considerations front and center in their planning.
What if the United States had been presented with the opportunity to circumvent the Mid-East Jewish-Arab-oil crisis before it had a chance to metastasize into the worldwide scourge it is today? The opportunity did, in fact, present itself in 1945. Unfortunately, the United States—under FDR—failed to capitalize on it and thus the world today lives in constant danger caused by the flashpoint of those seemingly unending, unsolvable regional tensions.
The missed opportunity was the result of FDR's mishandling of his historic meeting with King Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud of Arabia on Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal on Feb. 14, 1945. FDR’s actions here essentially created the 70+ year economic and political tensions and conflicts regarding oil that continue to afflict international relationships and define the national security and oil acquisition strategy of virtually every developed country in the world today. Most of the damaging international energy related circumstances in the present-day world were set in motion by FDR’s actions at that meeting.
FDR knew that as America entered the post-WWII era, it would no longer be able to provide itself with enough oil-based fuel to meet its growing economic and military needs. Saudi Arabia, with its vast, largely untapped oil fields, was a key part of America’s post-WWII economic puzzle. America needed to get there first, to be regarded by the Saudis as their trusted friend and ally, in order to receive favorable treatment from the Saudis and obtain prioritized access to Saudi oil, in preference over the other major WWII victors, like the Soviets, China and Britain.
Therefore, FDR arranged a meeting with Saudi King Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud aboard the American Navy cruiser Quincy on Roosevelt’s way home from the Yalta Conference with Churchill and Stalin. The “Big Three” had just met to determine the after-war world order; only FDR had the foresight to try to secure his own country’s energy — and therefore economic and military — future as well.
It was quite a meeting on the Quincy. Quite literally, it was the meeting of two completely different worlds. The King came aboard with an entourage of at least 20 people, complete with sheep for slaughter and rugs and tents for sleeping on the deck. The King was reportedly quite fascinated with Naval gunnery and Hollywood motion pictures, neither of which he’d seen before. Roosevelt, for his part, earned the King’s trust and affection with his direct, respectful, non-condescending manner, and the two men of disparate worlds got along quite well.
Even then, in the 1940s, the primary motivator in the Arab world was the “Jewish problem,” and where the Jewish people should settle after the war. The King was opposed to the establishment of a modern Jewish state upon historical Jewish lands, saying in effect, that if Germany had done such horrible things to the Jews, then Germany should pay for their repatriation to Germany and be forced to offer them prime German lands for their new homeland. Roosevelt knew that this was untenable; there was no Germany, per se, anymore, no independent state that had authority over lands and resources to “offer” to anyone.
With the establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East looking more and more like the only viable solution to the problem of Jews displaced by the war, Roosevelt made an offer to King Saud that would forever change and shape the post-WWII world: FDR said that America would never make any move with respect to the Jews and Arabs without first consulting him and other Arab leaders, and would not do anything for the Jews at [the Arabs’] expense. In other words, we’d never unilaterally side with Israel against Arab interests. With this statement, this promise, Roosevelt sought to reassure King Saud that America could be trusted with regard to the Jewish “problem,” and was thus deserving of preferential oil treatment by Saudi Arabia.
The problem was Roosevelt’s statement was his own personal assurance; it was not any official policy on the part of the United States. Roosevelt used his own sophisticated communications experience and his personal connection with the King to essentially deceive the King into believing that official U.S. policy was to not make any preemptive pro-Israel moves to the detriment of Arab interests. As soon as Roosevelt was gone (he died only two months after this meeting), his “agreement” with King Saud vanished into thin air.
Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, felt no obligation to honor Roosevelt’s informal personal assurances. Quite the contrary, America became unapologetically pro-Israel from that point forward. Saud and his country were incensed.
From Thomas Lippman’s book, "Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia" is this proof:
The king taking this as a commitment from the United States and not just from Roosevelt personally, was furious to discover three years later that Harry Truman did not consider himself bound by it.
Saudi Arabia felt betrayed, stabbed in the back by an American president. Any sense of long-term loyalty and political/geographic allegiance to America was immediately replaced by self-serving economic and military considerations. Saudi Arabia would gladly accept American investment, American military protection and the infusion of American technology into their economy, but the good feelings and burgeoning trust between the two countries engendered by the Lake Bitter meeting was shattered forever once the Saudis realized that Roosevelt had deliberately misled them into thinking his personal word was, in fact, official U.S. policy.
A better way to resolve the conflicting requirements of a post-WWII Jewish homeland and American access to Saudi oil could have and should have been found. Saudi Arabia in the 1940s desired to enter the “modern world,” yet it was still so economically undeveloped and its society still so backwards by Western standards that the United States held all the negotiating cards. Worldwide oil usage in 1945 was a fraction of what it is today and the modern Israeli state didn’t yet exist. Therefore, the game was far simpler then, and the United States was in an overwhelmingly dominant position to ensure that the outcome of any negotiation concluded to its advantage. But Roosevelt squandered his edge, made a transparent, unenforceable promise and left his American successors holding an empty bag.
Saudi Arabia has since founded OPEC, twice started oil embargoes against us and generally led the U.S. around by the nose like a flirtatious girl dishonestly teasing a teenage boy just to get showered with gifts and attention.
It’s been 70 years since FDR botched the biggest economic/political game the U.S. has ever played and we’re still paying dearly for his error today, in every single aspect of our country’s business.
A fine mess indeed.
© 2019 Steve Feinstein. All rights reserved.