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Cold War Legacies in the MIddle East

Panel X-23, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
  • This paper assesses the uses and misuses of history in public discussions about the future of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. After the Obama administration announced in 2011 that the United States intends to redirect its diplomatic, economic, and military resources away from the Middle East, policymakers turned to political scientists, military strategists, even game theorists to assess the so-called “pivot.” Historians, by contrast, have largely been absent from these discussions, even though many arguments both for and against the pivot turn on interpretations of the past. This paper contends that the relative dearth of rigorous and informed historical thinking within policy discussions is hampering policymakers as they pursue this new foreign policy paradigm. The paper begins with a literature review of the most frequently cited policy papers about the pivot, summarizing and critically assessing the kinds of historical analogies, assumptions, and arguments employed by the pivot’s supporters and detractors. In particular, the paper focuses on how analysts are interpreting and applying lessons from America’s Cold War competition with Russia in the Middle East to asses China’s growing regional influence. I then examine the analytic value such thinking provides policymakers with an eye toward how the region has evolved since the Cold War and critical differences between Soviet and Chinese ambitions, capabilities, and strategies. Finally, the paper assesses the limitations of historic analogy by explaining why the region’s future is more likely to turn on its own unique political, economic, social, and institutional dynamics than leading western accounts tend to acknowledge. The paper is part of a larger project I will lead during the 2023-2024 academic year at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Centered around a course I will teach in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, entitled “America in the Middle East: Studies in Applied History,” the project examines the contributions historical literacy can make to improving how the United States engages the region. This paper, which is slated to be published in the Department of State’s Lessons Learned series and incorporated into the department’s regional training curriculum, aims to engender in future U.S. diplomats an appreciation for the analytic value of historical thinking in formulating and implementing U.S. foreign policy.
  • Despite a long tradition of scholarship on the Turkish republic and its nation-building project, the political implications of popular culture and its associated visual imagery have been largely overlooked, even derided as a less-than-serious research question. If one reflects on the country’s rates of literacy estimated from its first census in 1927 and another in 1950—between 8 and 10.5 percent and below 32 percent, respectively, this oversight and even such dismissals are intellectually inexplicable not only for the early republican and single party eras but for the multi-party and Cold War ones, as well. In traditional studies of nationalism, however, wherein ideas of literacy and print capitalism are foundational, how might we explain a thorough—albeit contested—nation-building project when well over half the population remained illiterate after two and a half decades? In my research on identity construction in Turkey, I have turned to approaches found in the fields of cultural studies, visual studies, and critical geopolitics to engage with this historiographic oversight and theoretical problem. In doing so, I have selected for research the specific medium of comic books. Bringing together research questions in the scholarship of both popular culture and critical geopolitics, geographers focused on questions of a sub-field now known as critical geopolitics to identify and analyze the idea of nationalist superheroes as revealed in Western comics. While relevant heroes and titles typically occupied only a portion of the comic book marketplace in countries like the US, I demonstrate how the nationalist superhero genre became and endured as the mainstay of comics in Cold War Turkey. In doing so, I account not only for sales figures but also how particular sub-genres of the Turkish superhero comic book spoke to a plurality of past and present predicaments faced by both Turkish and Turkic peoples, giving way to nationalist heroes both of mythic pasts and of the emerging Cold War itself. While the Kemalist republic’s curriculum centered almost exclusively on the life, legend, and lessons of its singular founder, the fictional pantheon of comics heroes safely and entertainingly augmented the wider Turkish national narrative, providing citizens with yarns of adventure, heroism, intrigue, and even romance. While these heroes are today regarded more so with nostalgia than nationalistic reverence, they remain highly regarded, inseparably linked with Cold War recollections, and relevant as their invented eponyms continue to be bestowed upon many of the nation’s newborn males.
  • A substantial literature has been amassed on the 1950s Iranian oil crisis and Mossadegh’s demise in 1953. Explanations have varied widely, ranging from Gasiorowski’s mainstream viewpoint framing US intervention in Iran squarely within the Cold War arena to prevent a Soviet communist takeover in Iran, to Abrahamian’s claim US intervention was primarily motivated to preserve the oil cartel. This paper addresses the historical impact of oil on commerce and politics after its emergence in the late nineteenth century. Its growing importance as an energy source, through the invention of the internal combustion engine, and benefits for economic growth and greater military efficiency made oil the paramount natural resource. The battle for oil resources raged globally between the Standard Oil empire and British oil firms, not merely in the Middle East but also in Burmah, Peru, Venezuela, or Mexico, ignoring ideological considerations or US President Wilson’s call for an open-door commercial policy at Versailles in 1919. This study examines US and British diplomatic correspondence, government and company reports, letters, laws enacted, and newspaper articles to construct a concise picture of how the 20th century’s most important energy source fuelled a state-level rivalry in a bid for global hegemony sacrificing Iranian democracy as collateral damage. This paper will argue that not ideology but corporate and state competition for profits and global power lie at the basis of events leading up to Iran’s 1950s oil crisis, facilitated by an Iranian political establishment that initially sided with the foreign oil companies for financial advantages. Ideology has merely served as a smokescreen to wilfully neglect and ignore oil’s importance in political events, so as to specifically justify later intervention in Iran through the more fashionable prism of a Cold War ideological battle between communist Soviet Russia and capitalistic USA. The oil crisis, while serving US oil firms, provided the perfect opportunity for the US to break the British oil monopoly in Iran. It therewith dealt the final blow to Britain’s hopes of an imperial revival, simultaneously ushering in the era of US global dominance and British decline. (*This is part of my thesis which investigates the impact of the Anglo-American oil rivalry and its respective companies in the first half of the twentieth century on foreign policy in particular vis-à-vis Iran. It is a work in progress).
  • In 1954, NYU signed a contract with the University of Ankara to develop public and business administration in Turkey. NYU-Ankara project entailed curriculum development, research activities, and academic exchange programs. Much has been written on the global circulation of expertise during the Cold War and the expanding influence of American social science in countries such as Turkey. Cold War assistance programs at the time were simultaneously about economic development and US military concerns. American representations of aid at the time were articulated in a language of philanthropy. US assistance programs were following the method of “aided self-help.” Such characterizations included manifestations of earlier Western imperial concerns, including the civilizing mission and colonial paternalism. In this essay, I contend that Cold War American imperialism provides opportunities to dissect governmental categories extrapolated to establish a global administrative standard. Going through Turkish and US documents from the era, I propose to trace the intermingled development of three concepts: administration, security, and care. American and UN projects regarded education and administrative capacity as crucial to economic development in the 1950s. My central argument is that the US-Turkey networks of people and knowledge created at the time not only contributed to the making of modern Turkey but also opened up a field of possibilities for improvising the relationship between the ruler and the ruled in the Global South. For the American observers, economic growth appetite had to be tamed in the case of Turkey because of its unwarranted adverse effects on regime stability and military capabilities. Rationalization ought to be the answer for administrative incompetence, yet for the Turkish observers, skepticism reigned over establishing a new regime of care for the population. Turkey was an undeveloped agrarian country, and securing the “free world” had to go together with securing the Turkish peasant. However, these two motives did not mean the same to every actor. In this regard, categories were always subject to change and interpretation. As Cemal Mıhçıoğlu, a faculty member in political science at Ankara University, would say to his foreign counterpart, he was “an interpreter in every sense of the word.” Therefore, in this essay, I focus on the shifting definitions of securing, caring, and administrating in Cold War Turkey. In this way, I will not only show the historical development of Turkish raison d’état but also shed light on the relationship between economic development and regimes of care in a broader context.
  • This study explores the representations of national space and its borders in twenty-four action/adventure films with historical settings. It concentrates on film series featuring comic-book heroes: Tarkan, Karaoğlan, Malkoçoğlu, Battal Gazi, and Kara Murat, all produced between 1965 and 1978. These films were made at a time when Turkish cinema was experiencing its heyday in production and consumption. Some of them became blockbusters of the period and were watched by large audiences. At this point, the number of people is not possible because there are no box office records or any piece of credible information about ticket sales for any of the films. However, most of these films are still broadcasted on television channels. People still watch them, and are familiar with the image of a Turkish hero on his horse fighting against non-Turks. However, despite their popularity, none of them was taken seriously by the intellectual elite, who found them to lack artistic quality. Their prominent place in Turkish national memory, however, makes them effective tools for understanding different varieties of Turkish nationalism in the Cold-War period. In fact, films as cultural products are never independent of the Cold War political and historical context in which Turkey witnessed the rise of nationalism, political Islam, and isolation in the international arena due to its policies in Cyprus. The article, therefore, seeks a relationship between the context and the films. This is not a matching on a one-to-one basis, but the fact that these films exist within the same universe at the same time period with the political-historical context is meaningful. Thus, the paper makes a close reading of action/adventure films featuring comic book heroes such as Karaoğlan, Tarkan, Malkoçoğlu and Kara Murat. These films all take place in historically/politically significant geographies. And, despite the modern understanding of clearly defined borders, the films in my corpus imagine nation's boundaries in a much more fluid fashion based on imperial flashbacks for the modern audience. This representation may lead to the emergence of highly ambiguous, fluid, abstract and indefinite mental maps coexisting with specific, impermeable and static understanding. This, at the end, shows that the empire might have gone away as a political entity, but the idea of an empire with fluid borders could still live as a mentality, a culture, or even a political project.