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A Thumb on the Scale: Exploring the Limits of U.S. Narratives of Neutrality in the Middle East after Camp David

Session XIII-06, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
Recent scholarship has highlighted the gulf between celebratory perceptions of the diplomacy and promise of the Camp David Accords and the costs of this agreement for many peoples of the region. U.S. policymaker narratives about conflict in Lebanon and Israel-Palestine emphasized U.S. neutrality and status as an “honest broker” between parties, while many locals saw the United States as a heavily interested or belligerent party in their politics. By relying on newly declassified materials from the late twentieth century, highlighting the perspectives of people of the region, and considering narratives about legitimate and illegitimate violence this panel contributes to an emerging body of scholarship examining the breadth of U.S. interventions into the Middle East at the end of the twentieth century. The following case studies highlight the function and limits of U.S. narratives of neutrality during this era, they include the U.S. cultivation of counterrevolutionary sectarian militias against broad-based revolutionary mobilizations in the early Lebanese civil war era, Lebanese right-wing political appeals for U.S. support in the Lebanese civil war, an unsuccessful CIA assassination attempt against the Lebanese Shia cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the lived experience of the U.S. Marine Peacekeeping presence in Lebanon from 1982-1984, and U.S. support for mass Soviet Jewish immigration to Israel in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
  • Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a leading Shi‘i theologian based in Beirut, was a controversial political actor. He took divisive stances on theological issues and on Lebanese and regional politics while exerting wide influence in both domains. This paper focuses on the position Fadlallah acquired as a symbol of opposition to American power in the Middle East, examining the relationship between Fadlallah’s resistance to U.S. power and his theological and political thought. The paper considers the consequences of Fadlallah’s activism, including the relationship between his ideas and the political activity of others, such as Hizbullah. A critical event in Fadlallah’s career was the assassination attempt directed against him outside his home in 1985, which implicated the CIA and other intelligence services. The assassination failed and ended in atrocity. This paper considers what made Fadlallah appear so threatening to some U.S. national security elites. It speculates on the relationship between the effort to assassinate him and broader U.S. strategy in the Middle East, taking stock of its consequences for U.S.-Middle East relations.
  • After the outbreak of Civil conflict in Lebanon beginning in 1975 U.S. policymakers insisted on U.S. neutrality and support for an end to hostilities. Their support for Lebanese stability, was based on a desire to preserve a weak state largely controlled by conservative factions. In this context right-wing Lebanese partisans perceived a cultural and religious affinity between the themselves and the United States that they could use to appeal for greater support for their factions in the Lebanese civil war. Especially after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, these right-wing Lebanese advocates sought to curry favor with U.S. leaders using narratives about Western civilization, Christianity, and anti-Soviet politics. When overt support was not forthcoming, these leaders pursued public diplomacy through relationships with American journalists like Geraldo Rivera of ABC’s show 20/20. Drawing on U.S. national archives, news reports from the era, and interviews with members of the Phalange lobbying office in Washington, D.C., the Lebanese Information and Research Center (LIRC), this paper demonstrates that skepticism towards U.S. neutrality in the region came both from those who wished to prevent greater U.S. involvement in the region and from those who sought to encourage U.S. intervention in their favor.
  • This paper traces how the George H. W. Bush administration’s support for mass Soviet Jewish immigration to Israel in 1989-1991 inadvertently undermined U.S. claims to neutrality in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Throughout the Cold War, the United States granted presumptive refugee status to the relatively few Soviet Jews whom Moscow permitted to emigrate. In 1989, however, at precisely the moment Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberal reforms triggered the exodus of Soviet Jewry, the Bush administration quietly enacted numerous immigration restrictions that aimed to redirect the flow of Soviet Jewish migration to Israel. Unlike U.S. officials, who conceived of Soviet Jewish emigration purely as a human rights issue, Palestinians interpreted this latest wave of Jewish immigration as evidence that the Bush administration’s claims to impartiality in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process rang hollow. As PLO publications, U.S. government documents, and other Arabic-language materials reveal, the influx of Soviet Jewish immigrants in Israel from early 1990 onward gave rise to a narrative across the Arab Middle East that Palestinians were “paying the price” for U.S.-Soviet détente, or that a new nakba was in the offing. Members of the ruling Likud appeared to corroborate this interpretation, triumphantly declaring throughout early 1990 that the new aliyah would provide Israel with the demographic boost it needed to retain the occupied territories, quell the intifada, and establish a “Greater Israel.” Ultimately, the Bush administration’s failure to anticipate and take seriously these Palestinian grievances laid bare the limits of American pretenses to impartiality in the U.S.-sponsored peace process.