The West’s Middle East Pillars of Sand

LONDON – Two centuries ago, Napoleon’s arrival in Egypt heralded the advent of the modern Middle East. Now, almost 90 years after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, 50 years after the end of colonialism, and eight years after the Iraq War began, the revolutionary protests in Cairo suggest that another shift may well be underway.

The three pillars upon which Western influence in the Middle East was built – a strong military presence, commercial ties, and a string of dollar-dependent states – are crumbling. As a result, the Middle East that emerges in the weeks and months ahead may become much harder for the West to influence.

The first pillar – military presence – dates back to French and British occupation of parts of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, and was reinforced by the Cold War-era military links forged by the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1955, the West was even strong enough to sign up a remarkable cast of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan in a kind of West Asian NATO known as the Baghdad Pact.

The Yom Kippur War in 1973 was a neat illustration of the Western and Soviet military influence. The Egyptian army fired Czechoslovak 130mm rockets while Syrian MIGs fought Israeli Skyhawks over the Golan Heights. But American and Soviet influence was not confined to the battlefield, as both countries made their presence felt high up the military chain of command. More recently, military installations in the Persian Gulf protected the oil supplies of the Cold War alliance and deterred both Ba’athist Iraq and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Iran from grabbing the prized oil wells or choking off export routes.