Unraveling Middle Eastern Diplomacy

It was disclosed this past summer that the U.S. sold arms to Iran while simultaneously delivering intelligence information to Iraq in hopes of creating a stalemate in the war between those nations. In the midst of these revelations, one Harvard professor has come up with what may be a more effective method of handling the Persian Gulf crisis and a foreign policy which could lead to an easing of tensions between Arab countries and Israel.

Assistant Professor of Government Laurie A. Mylroie has travelled extensively throughout the Middle East, taking advantage of her proficiency in Arabic to interview a wide range of government officials and citizens of the nations which make up the Middle East region. Analyzing data collected over the past few years, she has been able to come up with a few policy theories which even she labels as possibly "eccentric."

The Iraqi Key

The crux of Mylroie's arguments is the idea that any Iranian victory in their war against Iraq would spell disaster for U.S., Israeli, Egyptian, and Jordanian interests in the Persian Gulf. With any increase in power, the fanatic Iranian government would further destabilize the situation in the Middle East, she says. Thus U.S. policy in the Gulf should be aimed at preventing future Iranian hegemony. Policymakers should abandon their current neutral stance in the Iran-Iraq struggle and openly back Iraq, contiues Mylroie's arguement.

While in the past Americans have met Iraqi opposition on a range of security issues, Mylroie says that U.S.-Iraqi rapprochement is not as far fetched as one might think. She points out that Iraq played a critical role in the Arab decision last year to recognize Egypt formally after that country's peace arrangement with Israel. Iraq also supported Chad in its war against Libya and welcomes the U.S. reflagging of Kuwaiti oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. should also back Iraqi interests because of that country's potential as a Middle East peacemaker, says Mylroie. The Iraqis may now be experiencing a shift in policy similar to to the one that occured in Egypt, less than ten years ago, which climaxed in the Camp David accords.

"I'm interested in whether the same kind of phenomenon is taking place in Iraq...they too have begun to shift," says the Illinois native, who is one of the American scholars most recently permitted by the Iraqis to study in that country. With enough of a shift, Iraq could join with other nations in an attempt to quiet the current Arab-Israeli crisis.

U.S. Policy Problems

In the past, much of American foreign policy designed to promote Arab-Israeli negotiations has been based on faulty presumptions, Mylroie says. American leaders have always assumed that Middle Eastern countries desire a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. So Washington policymakers have always aimed at quelling Arab desires to retake Israel as a Palestinean homeland through negotiations at the bargaining table, says Mylroie, who has consulted with State Department officials about her research and conclusions.

Contrary to U.S. beliefs, however, there are in fact countries with a stake in blocking any Middle Eastern peace settlement, she says. Despite Syrian statements to the contrary, it is ridiculous to imagine the driving force behind Syrian foreign policy is a concern for the Palestinians. "There's something wrong in the Syrian position...in fact they do nothing for the Palestinians. The last thing the Syrians want is an independent PLO state on the West Bank or...a settlement of the conflict," says Mylroie, who plans to expand her research on this topic next year.

What Syria desires is a maintenance of the status quo, which allows that country to position itself as the leader of the anti-Israeli vanguard, says Mylroie. This status earns Syria recognition and monetary support from Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union. Mylroie says that to achieve a peace settlement, the U.S. should deemphasize negotiations with Syria and concentrate on talks with such states as Iraq and Jordan, which are more likely to abandon their strong anti-Israel stances.

On a broader level, Mylroie has criticized American leaders for tending to view the entire Middle East region as the scene of U.S. Soviet power struggles and ignoring analyses on a regional level. The reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers last summer, for example, was motivated by an American fear that the Soviets would take the Kuwaitis under their wing if the U.S. did not act first. In addition, a similar fear of growing Soviet influence in the region led to the U.S.'s selling of arms to Iran.

Experts React

Several foreign policy experts have reacted favorably to Mylroie's "eccentric" ideas. "The originality [of her research] lies in her discerning a pattern... and seeing the larger picture," says Daniel Pipes, Director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Pipes, who is the publisher of the foreign policy journal, Orbis, also co-authored a story in The New Republic with Mylroie on the necesity of a pro-Iraqi stance.

Pipes says that Mylroie's research is significant because it refutes arguments which contend that American attitudes toward the Arab-Israeli crisis cycle through four-year periods corresponding to American presidential administrations. Mylroie has found that the U.S. alternates between an extremely pro-Israeli position and a stance which takes into account the demands of Arab countries and Israel alike. "She offers a more complex and more convincing pattern," Pipes says.

Mylroie has been politically active in attempting to change American foreign policy toward the Middle East, according to Pipes. The primary focuses of this activism have been to convince people that Iran is a real threat and that "there is a possibility of a U.S.-Iraqi rapprochement," he says. "She's getting people together and getting issues on the table. Whether it will work or not remains to be seen."

"I'm very interested in the things she's doing and hope she continues it, particularly the work on Iraq...She's on the cutting edge of some interesting material," says Phebe A. Marr, a senior fellow at the U.S. Military National Defense University.

The assistant editor of Middle East Insight magazine, Raymond Stock, also praises Mylroie's political arguments. "She's argued forcefully and persuasively that the U.S. should back Iraq in the war and abandon its supposedly neutral position," he says. The originality of her scholarship lies in the professor's "unabashedely pro-Iraqi stance."

Travels and Travails

To accomplish this broad-ranging research on Middle East issues and policies, Mylroie has had to travel extensively. She has visited the region five times over the last decade, and her itinerary includes the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Sudan, and Cyprus. Last summer, she ventured to Iraq and Egypt to do research for an article examining the Egyptian position on the Iran-Iraq war.

In the course of her research, Mylroie interviewed all types of policymakers including ministers, advisers, and members of the Royal Court of Jordan to learn how they perceive their own interests in Middle Eastern crises. Egyptian leaders, for example, feared this past summer that their political ally Kuwait would be drawn into the Iran-Iraq war. Mylroie also spoke with many friends she had met at Harvard or on previous visits to the Middle East about what the people think of the latest foreign policy developments. "I catch up with them as to what the gossip of the country is and what the talk is," Mylroie says.

While interviewing government contacts in nations known for their hostility toward American interests is never a simple matter, Mylroie reports that Iraqi officials gave her easy access to government sources since her prior research had come out in support of Iraq. "I know their friendship was due to my friendship," Mylroie says. "If my position changed, there would be no more visas to Iraq." This is a common policy folled by many "illiberal regimes" all over the world, according to Mylroie.

Conversely, she has not interviewed any Iranian officials. "I wouldn't go [to Iran] because unless you have a pro-Iranian position, your life is in danger... I would be reluctant to go to a place where I felt the government could turn on me for political reasons."

Travel through foreign lands was not entirely devoted to research on government affairs, though. Mylroie has culled a diverse collection of souvenirs from her adventures over the past few years. Hanging from one of her living room walls is a complete microfiche copy of the Koran, the sacred text of the Islamic religion, and Mylroie also owns several pieces of Middle Eastern furniture. "That's one of the payoffs--you get to pick up theses things other people can only get at expensive import shops," she says.

Coincidences and Paradoxes

Mylroie first became interested in studying Middle Eastern politics almost by coincidence. She grew up in a small town outside Chicago and received her B.A. in political theory from Cornell. She soon shied away from the field because "to do political theory you have to be brilliant to say something new in a discussion that's centuries, if not millenia old," says Mylroie. "I wanted to study the real world."

Such an opportunity arrived when one of her Cornell professors travelled to Jerusalem to teach at Hebrew University. He needed someone to accompany him and care for his children, and so Mylroie took off a year from school to fill the position. She immediately fell in love with the city, she says. After six months Mylroie moved on to study in Munich, but she "missed Jerusalem--its...warmth and immediacy."

She then resolved to research Middle Eastern politics and spent the next two years in Cairo learning Arabic. Cairo was "always full of adventure--riding horses on the desert by the pyramids. You can't do that in Cambridge." Mylroie says she "slowly drifted East--to Cornell, then to Harvard, then to Egypt.

While in Egypt, she noted its transformation from a leader in the anti-Israeli coalition to a friend of Israel, after the Camp David accords. "I saw...that the Israelis were genuinely welcomed in Cairo. The Egyptians were kind of curious about them." She was also intrigued by the fact that the U.S. and Israel had not recognized the magnitude of the Egyptian policy shift.

Mylroie returned to Harvard to complete her Ph.D. and wrote a dissertation on the problems of security in the Persian Gulf after Britain's 1968 withdrawal from the region. She was next appointed an assistant professor of government and worked on transforming her doctoral dissertation into a book due out this spring.

Mylroie, who says she has enjoyed teaching undergraduates, is offering two courses this semester: "The U.S. and the Arab-Israeli Conflict" and "Topics in Arab/Persian Gulf Politics: The Gulf Since the Iranian Revolution." Next year, Mylroie plans to be on sabbatical to research American policies toward the Arab-Israeli crisis. She said she hopes this work, which is based on several themes discussed in her course on America's role in the Middle East, will form the basis of her second book.