Raymond Hinnebusch
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Comparative foreign policies
Explaining foreign policy variation

This chapter uses comparative analysis to elucidate how the interaction between the system level and particular state formation paths shapes similarities and differences in states' international behaviour. What explains the similarities and differences in the foreign policy behaviour of Middle East states? As this chapter shows, neither state features nor systemic forces alone have an impact on foreign policy but the interrelation between a state's specific position in systemic structures and its particular internal features determines its foreign policy behaviour. The level of consolidation determines whether a state remains a victim of its systemic environment or becomes an effective actor in it. Finally, leadership, by virtue of its location at the intersection of the systemic and the domestic, can make choices that set states on new tangents.

What explains the similarities and differences in the foreign policy behaviour of Middle East states? The relative explanatory weight carried by domestic politics versus that of the systemic arenas in which states operate is a matter of some dispute between pluralists on the one hand, and realists and structuralists on the other. On the face of it, if the domestic level is determinant, as pluralists tend to argue, different kinds of states should follow different foreign policies and similar ones similar policies. If the systemic level is determinant, as realism and structuralism hold, a state’s domestic features should make little difference, at least over the long run; similar systemic situations – power position, economic dependency – of initially domestically dissimilar regimes should drive a convergence in their foreign policies while differing systemic situations should pull initially similar regimes in divergent directions. Moreover, as, over time, the system has moved toward the Westphalian model, its power to drive a convergence of its ‘parts’ toward ‘realist’ behaviour should increase.

Neither view is wholly supported by the empirical evidence from the Middle East. Rather, as this chapter will show, neither state features or systemic forces alone but the interrelation between a state’s specific position in systemic structures and its particular internal features determines its foreign policy behaviour. Thus, as has been seen (chapter 4, pp. 74–5), a state’s initial formation tends to put it on a particular (status quo or revisionist) foreign policy tangent. Systemic forces – the balance of power, economic dependency, trans-state ideological tides – may subsequently deflect it from this course. However, its level of consolidation determines whether a state remains a victim of its systemic environment or becomes an effective actor in it. A state’s consolidation, in turn, is affected by variables at the system level where some (a neighbouring state) may constitute the threat that motivates it, and others (bi-polarity) may determine whether it gets the resources that enable it. Finally, leadership, by virtue of its location at the intersection of the systemic and the domestic, can make choices that set states on new tangents. This argument about the interaction of system and state levels will be illustrated by comparative case studies of divergence and convergence in foreign policy.

Regime origins and the limits of convergence: Saudi Arabia and Syria

Comparison of a conservative rentier monarchy, Saudi Arabia, with Syria, a radical republic, highlights both the enduring effects of contrasting state formation paths in differentiating foreign policy tangents and the extent to which systemic forces make for convergence in behaviour.

Origins of the state

Saudi Arabia was founded by the al-Saud clan’s dual mobilisation of tribal military power and the Wahhabi Islamic movement. Unlike most Middle Eastern countries, the state was, thus, founded by indigenous forces, never experienced an imperialist occupation or protectorate and was therefore spared the accompanying collaboration with imperialism that often discredited traditional elites. This does not mean that Saudi state-building was a wholly indigenous product, for the impoverished Arabian peninsula lacked the economic surplus to sustain more than ephemeral states and formation of a stable state depended on assistance from Western powers (Gause 1994: 22, 30, 42). The British provided state founder, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, with subsidies and the military means to discipline the militant Ikhwan wing of his Wahhabi coalition which wanted to carry on jihad against British client states in the region. The American oil companies provided him with the financial resources to incorporate unruly tribes into state-centred patronage networks. Thus, external powers endowed the al-Saud regime with the hallmarks of statehood – territorial demarcation and internal security – in return for eschewing Wahhabim’s universalistic Islamic mission. To minimise his consequent dependency, Ibn Saud sought to play off his British and American benefactors. But the Saudi state was, from the outset, secure enough in its Islamic identity and autonomy to pursue close mutually beneficial relations with the West (Bromley 1994: 142–7; Salame 1989).

Saudi Arabia’s main vulnerability was a function of its large sparsely settled territory, with long, difficult-to-defend borders, in a dangerous region where the balance of power favoured the more settled developed states. Once its oil reserves made it a potential target of stronger states, insecurity became a constant in Saudi policy. In addition to seeking external protection, the Saudis played the regional balancing game, initially aligning with Syria and Egypt against the Hashemite states to ward off their schemes for Arab unity or revenge for the Saudi’s conquest of the Hijaz at their expense. Then, much as today, the main threat to the al-Saud was from regional, not Western powers. The combination of satisfaction with its statehood, beneficial relations with the West and a sense of threat from the region made Saudi Arabia a naturally status quo power.

Syria, by contrast, was born frustrated and revisionist. In the wake of the 1917 Arab revolt, Syrians expected the creation of an independent Arab state in historic Syria (bilad al-sham) linked to a wider Arab federation. Instead, betraying their promises to the Arabs, the Western powers subjugated the Arab East and dismembered historic Syria into four mini-states, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine. Imperialism also sponsored the establishment of the state of Israel in Palestine. Thereafter, a powerful revisionism was rooted in the impulse to merge the Syrian state, seen as an artificial creation of imperialism, in a wider Arab nation and in the utter rejection of the legitimacy of Israel.

The newly independent Syrian state was, however, weak, insecure and the victim of acute domestic instability. It was governed by a narrow-based traditional oligarchy that suffered a mortal blow to the precarious legitimacy won in the independence struggle when the government failed to defend Palestine against the 1948 establishment of Israel. This weak state was exposed on all sides to countries, which, at one time or another, constituted threats. The threat from Israel was particularly keenly felt as Syrian–Israeli animosity escalated from 1948 onward, feeding on border skirmishes over the demilitarised zones left over from the war. Syria was also the object of Hashemite ambitions to absorb it via the Greater Syria or Fertile Crescent unity schemes. Stronger Arab states financed and backed rival Syrian elites and the coups that changed governments while all Syrian players looked for patronage and protection abroad. It was a combination of this vulnerability and its Arab identity that led Syria to sacrifice its sovereignty to Egypt by joining the UAR in 1958 (Mufti 1996: 43–59; Seale 1965: 5–15:).

Political mobilisation

The era of political mobilisation impacted differentially on the two states, propelling them further in contrasting directions, with Saudi Arabia containing threats to its status quo orientation and Syrian revisionism reaching a peak.

Saudi Arabia faced the ‘King’s Dilemma’ which proved fatal for several Middle East monarchies: how to modernise, yet prevent the new social forces created by modernisation from destroying the traditional order (Huntington 1968: 177–91). In the 1950s and 1960s, the regime was vulnerable to Pan-Arab ideology manipulated from Cairo as the small, educated, new middle class and the working class in the oil fields, attracted by Nasser, embraced Arabism and reform. The al-Saud had, however, enough traditional legitimacy and enough resources from oil revenues to combine limited modernisation in the economic and technical spheres, with the preservation of the traditional culture and political order.

Crucially, the regime incorporated conservative social forces, enjoying the support of the tribal elite which controlled the tribal masses and the ulama that legitimised the regime among the people (Gause 1994: 158). A capitalist class emerged but rather than a ‘national bourgeoisie’ with an interest in industrialisation and reform, it was satisfied with the status quo, including Saudi connections to the West. Its dominant firms started as trading companies enriched as importers and agents for foreign firms: the Alirezas were agents for Ford or Westinghouse, the Juffaili were guarantors for foreign contractors while Adnan Khashoggi made his fortune brokering Western arms contracts. The bourgeoisie invested much of its surplus in Western banks and real estate. The requirement that Western companies have local partners widened this parasitic bourgeoisie during the oil boom of the 1970s (Vassiliev 1998: 404–12, 461).

Also crucial to the survival of the Saudi regime was its ability to bring under control the two groups that were the potential vehicles of opposition, the military and organised labour. There was a string of coup attempts by Arab nationalist middle-class officers in the 1950s and 1960s. The air force, which was most exposed by its higher education to politicisation, was particularly vulnerable: thus, Saudi pilots sent to support Yemeni royalists defected to Egypt in the 1960s and, as late as 1977, an Islamic/Libyan inspired plot was crushed. Such periodic threats only fuelled the regime’s distrust of its own military, the most common vehicle of regime change in the Middle East. The al-Saud sought to control the military by keeping it small and balancing it with a tribally recruited National Guard. Pakistani mercenaries units were imported and royal princes, trained in the West, packed the air force officer corps (Gause 1994: 123–6; Vassiliev 1998: 368–72). Organised labour, concentrated in the oil fields, which became a crucible of Arab nationalist and leftist opposition in the 1950s and 1960s, was controlled by repression. Strikes of oil workers in 1953 and 1956, which challenged the regime’s pro-Western foreign policy, were brutally suppressed – including the flogging to death of two pro-Nasserite labour leaders.

At first, the al-Saud tried to use foreign policy to appease Nasser and the nationalist middle class by diluting its overt Western alignment. As Nasser became more threatening, however, Saudi policy moved from bandwagoning with Cairo to balancing, together with the Hashemite monarchies and the West, against Cairo. When Nasser’s ideological threat became a more concrete military one after the Egyptian army was sent to protect the republican revolution in Yemen, King Feisal responded with closer military links to the US (Dawisha 1979: 1–5; Vassiliev 1998: 350–3).

In Syria, by contrast, radical forces successfully challenged and swept away the old order. Oligarchic-dominated political institutions failed to absorb the political mobilisation of the middle class and to address the growing agrarian unrest from the country’s extremely unequal land tenure structure. The military, expanding to meet the Israeli threat and recruited from the middle-class and peasant youth, was a hotbed of populist dissent, radicalised by the conflict with Israel and Nasser’s anti-imperialism. The West’s backing of Israel inflamed the people against it and de-legitimised pro-Western politicians and the Western economic ties of the commercial oligarchy. This fuelled the rise of radical parties – notably the Ba’th Party – and the military coups and counter-coups that destabilised the state and gradually pushed the oligarchic elite from power (Seale 1965; Torrey 1964).

The coup that brought the Ba’th party to power in 1963 ushered in a new era of unstable radicalism (1963–70). The Ba’th regime had a narrow support base, owing to conflict with mass Nasserism (over failure of a 1963 Arab unity project) and from the opposition of the old oligarchs and Islamic rivals. On top of that, the regime was split into ‘radical’ and ‘moderate’ wings which used foreign policy as tools in their power struggle – each trying to win support by advocating greater militancy against Israel. The radical faction led by Salah Jadid seized power in a 1966 coup, ousting the more moderate party founders, Michel Aflaq and Salah ad-Din Bitar (Rabinovich 1972). The radical Ba’th attempted to carry out a revolution from above through land reform, nationalisations, and government control over the market, and to contain the fierce urban resistance this provoked by mobilising peasants on its side. The Ba’thi radicals, driven by ideological militancy and seeking the legitimacy to entrench their precarious rule, also aimed to make Damascus the bastion of a war of Palestine liberation by supporting Palestinian fedayeen raids into Israel. They also sought to push the Arab states into confronting Israel and to stimulate the revolution in the pro-Western monarchies needed to enlist Arab oil in the battle. This, however, ignored the balance of power – Israeli military superiority – and brought on the 1967 defeat and the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights (Hinnebusch 2001: 52–7; Yaniv, 1986).

Watershed wars and convergence

Two watershed wars propelled the Saudi and Syrian regimes on a path of convergence in both structure and policy. The 1967 war, a disastrous defeat for Syria, split the regime, discredited the radical Ba’thists, and precipitated their ouster by the Defence Minister, Hafiz al-Asad who set Syria on a new realist course. Asad put revolution on hold to concentrate on the recovery of Syria’s occupied territory and containment of the Israeli threat through a military build-up. Since this required Saudi financing, Asad, as well as Nasser, was ready to bury the ideological cold war with the traditional monarchies (Kerr 1975). For Saudi Arabia’s King Feisal this was an opportunity to end the Arab nationalist threat and gain nationalist legitimacy for his regime while moderating the radical regimes. This convergence was consolidated in the 1973 war when the Saudis’ use of the oil weapon won them enormous nationalist prestige and precipitated the oil price explosion which enabled them to consolidate their regime at home (Vassiliev 1998: 383–92). Transfers of rent to Syria allowed a similar consolidation there. Although relations between the two states subsequently had their ups and downs, their mutual ability to damage the other and their shared interest in an equitable resolution of the Arab–Israeli conflict made them interdependent.

Oil and state consolidation

Oil gave impetus to the consolidation of both states. Oil revenues radically increased the Saudi regime’s autonomy of society, whose taxes it no longer needed. At the same time, the centralisation and bureaucratisation of the state enabled the al-Saud to subordinate autonomous social forces. The once autonomous Hijazi merchants were absorbed into corporatist relations with the bureaucracy; the ulama lost their independent financial base and the regime fostered a loyal Nejdi business class entirely dependent on state patronage. Bureaucratic expansion absorbed at least a half of nationals into the state-employed middle class and once-radical workers were transformed into welfare recipients or white-collar employees. In a tacit social contract, the mass public eschewed political rights in return for vastly increased material and welfare benefits. The division of the country into privileged citizens, many of whom did little work, and non-citizens, who worked but were unentitled to benefits, arguably gave citizens a stake in the status quo. At the centre, the Saudi clan, with its more than 5,000 princes, presided over the levers of government power and operated like a single-party system, an enormous solidary force stretched throughout society. As a lion’s share of the new wealth accrued to the Saudi clan, its position and cohesion was consolidated: ‘reformist’ liberal or Arab nationalist princes disappeared as enormous wealth gave the clan an overriding stake in the status quo (Chaudhry 1997: 43–76, 100–47; Cordesman 1984: 373; Gause 1994: 11, 15, 42–77; Vassiliev 1998: 435–9, 474–82).

The limits of Saudi state-building were, however, underlined by the regime’s inability to mount a credible defence against external threat. While its population is comparable to that of Syria and Israel, they have armed forces about four times as large as its 111,500 troops (Cordesman 1984: 200; Gause 1994: 125). The regime’s low capacity to mobilise defence manpower results, in good part, from fear that a conscripted population would demand political rights or that a large army would inevitably recruit from more plebeian ranks of society whose loyalty to the monarchy could be suspect (Gause 1994: 123–4). Instead, the al-Saud opted for a small, high-tech military, especially an air force that could be realistically dominated by Saudi princes; but this strategy intensified dependence on the US for equipment, operations and training (Vassiliev 1998: 441–4).

In Syria, the state was also consolidated in the 1970s under Hafiz al-Asad. Previously, Syrian regimes, unstable and unconsolidated at home, were unable to pursue effective foreign policies, making Syria the prize over which stronger states fought. Indeed, Asad’s power concentration was accepted as necessary to confront the gravest threat the country and regime had ever faced, a defeat and occupation brought on by the recklessness of a factionalised regime. It was only as Syria attained relative internal cohesion and regime autonomy that foreign policy makers were able to act effectively in Syria’s external environment.

Under the radical Ba’thists, the regime had already achieved autonomy of the dominant classes by breaking their control over the means of production and mobilising workers and peasants through the Ba’th party. Within this regime, Asad increasingly concentrated power in a ‘Presidential Monarchy’ through a policy of balancing the elements of his political base. Thus, he used the army to free himself from Ba’th party ideological constraints; then, he built up his jama’a – a core of largely Alawi personal followers in the security apparatus – to enhance his autonomy of both army and party. At the same time, he appeased the remaining private bourgeoisie through limited liberalisation and fostered a state-dependent new bourgeoisie as a fourth leg of support to minimise dependence on the others (Batatu 1981; Dawisha 1978a; Perthes 1995: 146–54). While elements of the Damascene Sunni bourgeoisie entered into tacit business alliances with Alawi military elites at the top, the party and its auxiliaries incorporated a significant mass base, particularly in the villages, Sunni as well as non-Sunni. New state-dependent constituencies were widened as education and state employment expanded the salaried middle class, while agrarian reform transformed a large part of the landless peasantry into a smallholding, co-opertised peasantry dependent on regime support. Thus, Asad built a cross-sectarian coalition which held together even in the face of the major Islamic fundamentalist uprising of 1977–82 (Batatu 1982; Hinnebusch 2001: 93–103, 115–25; Seale 1988: 317–20, 455–60).

A sign of the autonomy of the regime was its ability to harness the economy to its foreign policy and military strengthening. Syria’s turn to statist ‘socialism’ from the late 1950s was, in good part, driven by the belief that a nationalist foreign policy could only be pursued by diluting dependency on the West and the world market. The 1967 defeat stimulated a massive military build-up aiming at recovery of the Golan while Egypt’s separate peace and Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon set off similar build-ups, all of which had to be financed. A high degree of state control over the economy allowed Asad to devote 15–17 per cent of GNP and 20 per cent of manpower to the armed forces at its height in the 1980s. Aid from the Arab oil states was crucial to Syria’s military enhancement, but Asad escaped the constraints such dependence could have put on his options by balancing between rival Soviet/East European, West European, Arab Gulf and Iranian sources of aid (Clawson 1989; Diab 1994: 87; Waldner 1995). By 1986, Syria had enormous armed forces for a state of its size: 5,000 tanks, 500,000 men under arms, and some 400 ballistic missiles. According to Evron (1987), the result was a mutual deterrence that relatively stabilised the Syrian-Israeli military confrontation.


In Saudi Arabia, foreign policy decisions are taken consensually by the King and senior princes of the royal family, producing caution and continuity in policy, deeply reflective of Saudi Arabia’s character as a status quo power. The muted competition which exists within the royal family also encourages a risk-averse attempt to appease – ‘bandwagon’ between – conflicting pressures from the West and the Arab world. Thus, the preferences of the ‘Suderi Seven’ – notably King Fahd, Defence Minster Prince Sultan and Interior Minister Prince Nayef – for a Western alliance and Western-backed modernisation have been balanced by Crown Prince Abdullah’s more Arab nationalist and socially conservative sympathies (Cordesman 1984: 182–3; 226, 376–8; Gause 1994: 120: Vassiliev 1998: 354–60).

The Saudi inner circle is not formally accountable for its decisions but the ulama, under the obligation of an Islamic ruler to consult and because they head the institutions which can most credibly claim to represent wider public opinion, may represent a veto group able to restrain regime policy; the Gulf War precipitated an unprecedented attempt by a part of the ulama to exercise their right of consultation (Gause 1994: 158). The threat of domestic dissent also tends to keep the regime on a cautious centrist path. The 1979 attack on the Grand Mosque by hundreds of radical Islamists led by a self-proclaimed ‘Mahdi’ and recruited from traditionally supportive tribes and shari’a students antagonised by the growth in corruption and Westernisation, awakened the regime to the dangers of a conservative Islamic regime’s perceived departures from Islamic probity. The subsequent growth of radical Islamic dissent – of which Osama bin Laden was a product – tends to counter pressures on the regime from Washington.

Faced with a more threatening environment, Syria developed a more centralised command structure. Power was concentrated in the hands of the president, enabling Asad to make decisions free of overt constraints by hawkish or dovish factions. To be sure, at least initially, he tried to govern by intra-elite consensus, taking account of the ideologues of the Ba’th party, but he was also prepared to be out in front of elite opinion and to subordinate ideology to realpolitik if external constraints demanded it. Thus, in the disengagement negotiations after the 1973 war, Asad took pains to consult the political elite (in contrast to Sadat’s unilateral decisions), but, in the end, accepted Kissinger’s final proposal and dragged his reluctant lieutenants along with him (Dawisha 1978b; Jourjati 1998: 51). Thereafter, Asad took several unpopular foreign policy decisions, notably the 1976 intervention against the PLO in Lebanon, the alignment with Iran in the Iran–Iraq war, and that against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait. As long as he could justify these decisions as necessary to the long-term struggle with Israel, he calculated that opposition could be contained. They, nevertheless, had domestic costs; arguably the 1976 conflict with the PLO so damaged the regime’s legitimacy that it was much more vulnerable to the Islamic rebellion of 1977–82. The link between the external and internal arenas was not that foreign policy was designed to deal with domestic threats, but that decision-makers could not ignore the impact of policies designed to cope with external threats on their precarious domestic legitimacy (Hinnebusch 2001: 147–9; Sheehan 1976).

Foreign policy behaviour: the persistence of divergence

Regional threats most immediately shape Saudi foreign policy. As a weak, rich, pro-Western state nearly surrounded by stronger, more populous, but poorer nationalist regimes, Saudi Arabia inevitably faced significant security threats. The Saudis long feared encirclement from various combinations of the republican and Marxist Yemens in the south, Islamic Iran, and Ba’thist Iraq. External threats all had a trans-state dimension: the Saudis perceive the Middle East as a cauldron of instability that could spill across their borders, a product of their experience with Nasserism in the 1960s. In the 1980s the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan generated a perception of Soviet penetration of the region while revolutionary Iran, contesting the validity of the Saudi’s ‘American Islam’, represented both a military and ideological threat (Dawisha 1979: 20–5; Vassiliev 1998: 469–73). These threats have made Saudi Arabia highly dependent on Western, particularly American, protection.

Yet this, far from being a solution to the regime’s insecurity, itself created a major dilemma. On the one hand, the identity of the Saudi state, astride the birthplace of Islam, the product of the Wahhabi Islamic revivalist movement, and the guardian of Islam’s holy places, was virtually indistinguishable from Islam; on the other hand, the al-Saud had become a part of the international financial oligarchy, utterly dependent for its continued wealth and security on the US, a state widely perceived to be a main enemy of Islam and backer of Israel. This dual character of the regime generated contradictory pressures on its foreign policy: the first drove it to distance itself, even oppose aspects of US policy connected with Israel; the second dictated close partnership with Washington (Vassiliev 1998: 475–6).

The regime historically tried to reconcile this contradiction by insisting that the main threat to Islam came, not from the West, but from atheist communism, of which Zionism was claimed to be an offshoot. The US alignment was therefore justified on the basis of common anti-communism and the claim that good US relations could bring Washington to pressure Israel into concessions to the Arabs. The regime also historically sought to keep the US connection as unobtrusive as possible: ‘over-the horizon’ and pre-positioned US capabilities rather than overt US bases. However, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait sharply exposed its dependency on the US, while the subsequent US failure to resolve the Arab–Israeli conflict, de-legitimised this dependence, stimulating dissent among the strongly Islamic elements that were the regime’s putative constituency (Dawisha 1979: 23–34; Gause 1994: 121–2).

The regime’s built-in contradictions shaped certain characteristic features of its foreign policy, above all a propensity to bandwagon between (appease or bend before) the contrary pressures from the region and the West. In the region, the Saudis’ style was to avoid confrontation unless it was forced on them. In periods of greater weakness or intense regional pressures, the Saudis bandwagoned, seeking to appease radical Arab states: in the 1950s King Saud attempted to appease Nasser and Pan-Arab opinion until they became too hostile to the monarchy. King Faisal re-established the regime’s anti-Zionist credentials by the use of the oil weapon in 1973 and by financing the Arab front-line states. As the Saudis’ economic resources increased with the oil boom, they deployed ‘riyal diplomacy’ to pre-empt threats, moderating radical Syria and the PLO, mediating inter-Arab conflicts which could widen regional instability and financing anti-Communist Islamic movements, such as the Afghan mujahadin. That the last was driven less by Islamic zeal than by a pragmatic desire to strengthen what they identified as conservative forces is evident from the Saudis’ curbing of aid to Islamic groups which sided with Iraq in the Gulf War and their increasing support for governments fighting Islamic movements (Dawisha 1979: 26; Gause 1994: 121, 172).

Equally characteristic of Saudi Arabia’s policy has been its failure, the brief oil embargo aside, to decisively deploy its seemingly incomparable ‘oil power’ to achieve an end to the Arab–Israeli conflict, arguably the single most important source of the regional instability and domestic dissidence which threatens it (Middle East, January 1999, p. 23). In 1980 Saudi Arabia had some $111 billion in financial reserves, 35–40 per cent of that of all IMF countries (Dawisha 1979: 17), entitling it to a seat on the IMF. Yet, although it used its petro-power to serve American interests – recycling petrodollars, moderating oil prices, and rejecting renewed use of the oil weapon – Washington failed to deliver the even-handed policy needed to achieve a settlement of the conflict. The Saudis’ continued deference to Washington in spite of this partly reflects their economic interests in the West, partly their heavy dependence on the US for their security. Yet far from trying to diversify this dependence, the Saudis deliberately intensified it (Dawisha 1979: 28; Gause 1994: 179–83; Vassiliev 1998: 398–404). This was, in great part, an artifact of state formation: the domestic dangers of a popularly recruited defence had to be avoided even if this meant deepening dependence on the US. The al-Saud’s external insecurity and dependency are, thus, intimately connected to its domestic vulnerability.

The contradiction embedded in the Syrian state was that between the revisionism rooted in its Pan-Arab identity – which stood for the unification of the Arab states and the liberation of Palestine – and geopolitical realities: the durability of the status quo state system and the reality of permanent Israeli military superiority (Ma’oz 1972). The immediate challenge Asad faced was to eliminate the consequences of Syria’s failed revisionism, Israel’s 1967 occupation of Arab lands, amidst an unfavourable power balance and without sacrificing nationalist legitimacy. It was only the autonomy and stability with which Asad endowed the state that enabled him to manage these dilemmas in a way approximating a rational actor.

First, he replaced Syria’s impotent irredentism – the messianic goal of liberating Palestine – with the limited but still very ambitious goals of recovering the Golan and achieving a Palestinian state in the West Bank/Gaza. In pursuit of these goals he demonstrated great consistency and tenacity: for a quarter of a century, he refused to settle for less than a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan and eschewed a separate settlement with Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. When these vital interests were at stake, he was prepared to take high risks, as illustrated by his obstruction of the 1983 Lebanese–Israeli accord at a time when Israeli and American power were being projected right on his ‘Lebanese doorstep’ (Hinnebusch 2001: 151–3; Ma’oz 1988; Seale 1988: 494).

Second, Asad was the rational actor in his development of the increased capabilities needed to match his goals. He proved himself a master of adapting a mix of foreign policy instruments – alliance formation, limited war, negotiations – to the changing and usually unfavourable balance of power he faced. In simultaneously sustaining alliances with the conservative Arab oil states, Libya, Islamic Iran and the Soviet Union, he got the necessary economic resources, arms and protection needed for the struggle. He built up the military forces needed for the 1973 war to recover the Golan and, when this failed, he entered the Kissinger-sponsored disengagement negotiations. Although Asad was extremely wary of the pitfalls of negotiating with Israel, he was prepared to do so when it could be done from a position of sufficient strength and when he judged he could exploit US fears of Middle East instability to get pressure on Israel to withdraw from conquered Arab territory. When Egypt’s separate peace destroyed his bargaining position, rather than concede principle, Asad preferred to work for a favourable change in the power balance, while seeking to obstruct any further separate settlements with Israel by Jordan or the PLO. As the Golan front stagnated, and the conflict was diverted into a low-intensity proxy war in Lebanon, paralleled in the 1990s by a diplomatic struggle over the conditions of a peace settlement, Asad invested in the relative military parity with Israel which allowed him to avoid bargaining from weakness, and even enabled him to apply military pressure on Israel in southern Lebanon at reasonable risk. After his Soviet patron declined, Asad seized the opportunity of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait to join the Gulf War coalition as a way of building credit with the sole remaining superpower and re-enlisting its diplomacy on behalf of a land-for-peace settlement with Israel. Thus, Asad parleyed limited resources into greater influence than would be expected from Syria’s base of national power and turned Syria from a recurrent victim of its neighbours into a powerful regional player (Cobban 1991: 112–38; Hinnebusch 2001: 147–63; Seale 1988: 226–66, 267–315, 344–9, 366–420).

The foreign policies of Syria and Saudi Arabia converged as both states were consolidated enough to become rational actors pursuing limited goals. However, the Israeli occupation kept Syria a dissatisfied power pursuing redress through the maximisation of power, while Saudi Arabia’s satisfaction and inherent weakness made bandwagoning its natural strategy. Differences in decision-making structures reflected these different priorities: one building in caution, the other designed to enable the maximum in geopolitical manoeuvring. So did the differential development of capabilities: Syria sacrificed its economy to mobilise the power needed to reach its foreign policy priorities just as Saudi Arabia sacrificed an independent foreign policy and military strength for economic interests and domestic stability.

Similar regimes, divergent policies: Egypt and Syria seek exit from war

The very different paths followed by similar regimes in Egypt and Syria in dealing with their common Israeli enemy seems to demonstrate the inadequacy of state formation patterns, in themselves, to explain foreign policy. Egypt and Syria were, by the mid-1960s, ostensibly similar authoritarian nationalist regimes that had originated in similar plebeian revolts against imperialism and oligarchy and initially promoted radical ideologies reflective of these origins. Thereafter, commonly experienced systemic forces seemed to divert them on to the same road toward moderation. They shared the defeat of 1967 and the rise to power, in reaction, of newly ‘pragmatic’ leaders – Sadat and Asad – in 1970. Both initiated limited liberalisation at home and inter-Arab détente abroad. Together they launched the October 1973 war and together they started on the path of post-war negotiations with Israel. Together – and only together – they might have reached a comprehensive Middle East peace for, as Henry Kissinger remarked, the Arabs could not wage war without Egypt or make peace without Syria.

Yet this break with the radical past was much sharper in Egypt under Sadat than in Asad’s Syria and by 1980 they had become bitter rivals, as Egypt abandoned Nasser’s Arab nationalism, pursued a separate peace with Israel which ignored the touchstone of Arabism, the Palestine cause, and embraced alliance with America. Syria became the main standard bearer of Arab nationalism, was branded a rejectionist state in the West and remained locked in bitter conflict with Israel. What explains this spectacular divergence? That such similar states should pursue such different policies suggests that, as realism holds, their different positions in the regional power balance or, as structuralists might suggest, their differential economic dependency, were ultimately decisive. Yet, as will be seen, subtle differences in state formation and identity shaped different conceptions of state interest which, given the right systemic factors, drew the two states in opposing directions.

State formation

Identity and legitimacy   For Egypt, a homogeneous society with a long history of separate statehood and confidence in its own particular identity, pursuit of Egyptian ‘national’ interest was a viable alternative to Arab nationalism and the sacrifice of Arab nationalist principles much less damaging to regime legitimacy than it would be in Syria. Even under Nasser, Arab nationalism was, to a considerable extent, regarded instrumentally, and while there was considerable recognition that Egyptian and Arab interests coincided, once the costs of Arab involvement exceeded the benefits, a more overtly Egypt-first attitude appeared in the ruling establishment. After 1967, Israel’s now dominant military position left few opportunities to pursue Pan-Arab ambitions and after Nasser’s death Egypt could no longer readily manipulate Arabism against other Arab states. Egyptian elites had been ‘socialised’ by the costs of Arabism into embracing the rules of a conventional state system in which sovereignty was valued above supra-state ideology. This change in elite values did not include a consensus on a separate peace with Israel, but such a peace could be justified as putting Egyptian interests first and the elevation of sovereignty over Pan-Arabism meant that, once the Sinai was returned, irredentist grievances against Israel would be satisfied. In addition, Egyptian elites resented their new dependency on the Arab oil states and Sadat hoped to use alignment with the US to assert another sort of regional leadership based on mediating between the West and the Arab world (Dawisha 1976: 78; Dekmejian 1971: 105–8; Telhami 1990: 12–17, 90–106).

By contrast, in Syria, a mosaic society lacking a history of statehood, the main alternative identities were initially either sub-state sectarianism or Arabism, the main unifying ideology through which a cross-sectarian coalition needed to consolidate the state could be forged. In fact, the Ba’th regime’s Arab nationalist mission, as the most steadfast defender of the Arab cause in the battle with Israel, became the basis of its domestic legitimacy and the regional stature that entitled it to the financial backing of other Arab states. This is not to say that hostility to Israel was a mere function of the regime’s need for an external enemy. Asad neither invented nor sought to wilfully prolong the Arab–Israeli conflict; indeed, he scaled down Syria’s definition of its Pan-Arab mission to liberation of the occupied territories (Hinnebusch 2001: 139–42). What it does mean is that the regime’s need to protect its Arab nationalist legitimacy and regional stature put certain outside boundaries on policies that could be safely pursued toward Israel, and a separate peace which abandoned the Palestinians would be seen as a dishonourable offence against Arabism. Israel might have been prepared to concede the Golan had it believed such a settlement would be legitimised and turn Syria inward to its own state-centric affairs; but Israeli leaders were convinced that, unlike in Egypt, Arab nationalism was too strong in Syria for this to happen, at least without a contemporaneous settlement of the Palestinian issue (Jourjati 1998; Sheehan 1976).

Political structures and process   Despite outward appearances of similarity, differences in the structures of the Syrian and Egyptian states also help explain their differential paths. In Egypt under Nasser a strong state was early consolidated around Nasser’s charismatic authority and command of a reliable bureaucratic apparatus ruling a hydraulic society conditioned to submit to the state. Nasser made the presidency a powerful office, endowed with his personal legitimacy and immense legal prerogatives; Sadat inherited and was able to similarly exercise this presidential power but, ironically, on behalf of a reversal of Nasser’s Arab nationalist policy (Hinnebusch 1985: 78–91).

Sadat’s course cannot be detached from his needs and strategy in consolidating his power. He inherited Nasser’s office but not his popular support and he lacked Nasser’s capacity to use Pan-Arab leadership to bolster his position at home. As such, he chose to root his rule in the support of the bourgeoisie – the social force that was both most strategic and most prepared to support a leader promising a reversal of Nasserism. The bourgeoisie wanted an end to war, economic liberalisation and an opening to the West (Hinnebusch, 1985: 89–90).

While Sadat had to find some solution to the crisis of Israel’s occupation of the Sinai if he was to survive, once he won legitimacy in the 1973 war, he acquired a remarkably free hand in post-war diplomacy. There were no domestic interests threatened enough and strong enough to constrain his incremental movement toward Western alignment and a separate peace. The military elite was resentful of the USSR and attracted by promises of US weapons, owed much to Sadat’s rehabilitation of them in the 1973 war, and had no desire to risk the honour won in that war in another round with Israel; the minority of officers who challenged this consensus were easily purged by the dominant presidency (Hinnebusch 1985: 125–31; Telhami 141–3). Because the ease of Nasser’s power consolidation had not required him to create a strong ideological political party, there was no corps of ideological militants with a stake in Arab nationalism and socialism which could balance the bourgeoisie’s growing interest in a Western alignment and economic liberalisation. Once Nasser was gone, there was little obstacle to transformation of the state’s social base through purges of the nationalist left and new bourgeois recruitment under Sadat. The public was more concerned with economic troubles than foreign policy and the official media stirred up their resentment of the rich Arabs who refused to share their wealth with Egypt while promising that an economic bonanza would follow from peace with Israel. Those opposed were prevented from mobilising by the authoritarian state.

State formation proceeded differently in Syria. In Syria’s more intractable society, the 1960s Ba’th regime, facing powerful urban upper-class and Islamic opposition, relied on a dual strategy to survive. Before 1970 a strong ideological party rooted in plebeian strata had institutionalised Ba’thist Arab nationalism. Secondly, especially under Asad, recruitment of the core military elite was from property-less minorities, especially Alawites who had embraced secular Arab nationalism as an ideology which gave them equal citizenship; yet because their Arabism was suspect to the Sunni majority, they had to prove it by being more militant than their Sunni opponents. Party and Alawi recruitment from plebeian strata deterred solidification of a new bourgeoisie that might have had an interest in a Westward tilt as in Egypt (Hinnebusch 2001: 67–88).

In Syria, the president also dominated foreign policy but Asad was, at least until the 1980s, more dependent on a politicised military and an ideological party that were less deferent than their Egyptian counterparts and which still took ideology and anti-Israeli militancy seriously. More concerned to sustain an elite consensus on the extremely risky matter of dealing with Israel, Asad was less willing to take diplomatic risks to get a breakthrough than was Sadat, particularly since rivals could more readily mobilise public opinion against policies seen to be a betrayal of Arabism (Sheehan 1976). Moreover Asad, having played a role in the loss of the Golan for the sake of Palestine, had to recover it without abandoning Palestine. He built and legitimised his regime for the struggle to do so and to settle for less would mean his whole career was a failure and the sacrifices he had imposed on Syrians for thirty years wasted.

These differences in the political needs and power of the two presidents shaped differences in their approaches to the post-1973 negotiations: Sadat’s willingness to make concessions to Israel and Asad’s stubborn refusal to do so.

Systemic forces

Geopolitics   While state formation explains why Egypt, unlike Syria, could readily make a separate peace, it was their comparative geopolitical situations which best explains why the leaderships actually did follow such divergent strategies. Since Egypt and Syria failed in the 1973 war to militarily recover their occupied territories, a political settlement would have to be reached which satisfied Israel and Israel sought a partial deal, not a comprehensive peace that could satisfy both. These states’ quite different geopolitical power positions vis-à-vis Israel determined which of the two would be satisfied. Egypt was tactically weak but strategically strong. Tactically, Israeli leverage over Egypt was higher since at the end of the war Israeli forces had penetrated the West Bank of the Suez Canal and encircled the Egyptian Third Army, putting intense pressure on Sadat to accept an unconditional disengagement of forces. On the other hand, as the most powerful Arab state, Egypt’s strategic bargaining hand was strong since Israel had a strong interest in reaching a separate peace which would take Egypt out of the Arab–Israeli military balance and effectively end the Arab military threat. Similarly the US, its interests threatened by the 1973 war outcome, was prepared to extract the limited territorial concessions from Israel needed to appease and win over Sadat in order to relieve pressures for a comprehensive settlement at Israel’s expense, and to exclude Soviet influence from Egypt. Tactical weakness set Egypt on the road to a separate peace and strategic strength got it to the end of that road (Fahmy 1983: 69–81; Riad 1982: 317–339; Sela 1998: 165–70; Sheehan 1976; Telhami 1990: 6–9).

Syria, by contrast, was tactically stronger than Egypt. Because the ceasefire on the Syrian front left Asad in a less vulnerable position, he had less immediate need to make concessions and was even able to start a war of attrition to strengthen his hand in the disengagement negotiations. But strategically, Syria’s leverage over Israel was weaker since Israel had little interest in a settlement with it, especially once Sadat showed his willingness to settle separately. The US also had much less interest in satisfying Syria than Egypt. Syria was not the key to the Arab world and it could not start another war once Egypt was removed from the Arab-Israeli power balance; there was, therefore, no need to antagonise Israel by pushing it into concessions on a second front. Asad’s search for military parity after Egypt’s withdrawal from the Arab-Israeli power balance reflected the geopolitical reality that until the balance was restored he could not effectively bargain with Israel. Lacking Egypt’s incentive to be flexible, Damascus remained adamant for a total comprehensive settlement. Tactical strength and strategic weakness prevented Syria from even getting on the road to a separate peace (Ma’oz 1988: 113–134; Seale 1988; 226–315, 344–49; Sela 1998: 153–154; Sheehan 1976).

Geo-economics and dependency   Economic factors did not determine the difference in regime paths but reinforced decisions that were probably taken chiefly on other grounds and locked the two states into their separate courses. Egypt’s economic crisis was much deeper than Syria’s. It suffered from the worst population/resource imbalance in the region. Egypt’s war-associated economic costs from the loss of the Suez Canal, Sinai oil fields, and tourism income were $350 million annually and Arab assistance only $250 million into the early 1970s, while defence expenditures were enormous; after the war, Arab aid to Egypt declined from $1,264 million in 1974 to $625 in 1976. The 1977 food riots shook the Egyptian regime and increased the urgency of access to new sources of aid from the US (Brecher 1972: 115; Telhami 1990: 96–9)

None of this necessarily had to lead to Sadat’s separate peace: Egypt could have expected to continue receiving both US and Arab aid by simply staying in the peace process and the riots could have been resolved by less risky, potentially de-legitimising means; moreover, the separate peace cost Egypt its Arab aid and peace did not substantially lift its military spending burden. To be sure, infitah spawned a business class wanting foreign investment and therefore a peace settlement, but much of this class saw the Arab oil states as their main market and capital source and these were jeopardised by the separate peace (Telhami 1990: 6–9). However, it is true that, as Sadat’s step-by-step moves toward a separate peace were rewarded with increased American economic aid, a reversal of course would have been very costly as Egypt became increasingly entrapped by dependency on its yearly American aid ‘fix’. The infitah bourgeoisie was enabled to enrich itself on the American aid and Western joint ventures that in good part replaced the lost Arab aid.

It does appear that Syrian foreign policy was free of comparable economic pressures. Syria’s economic crisis was less severe and the Golan had much less economic value than the Sinai; on the other hand, Arab aid given to Syria in its role as front-line state against Israel made a bigger difference to its smaller economy than the impact of such aid in Egypt. While Syria’s economy did fall into crisis in the 1980s, Asad had diversified his economic dependencies sufficiently that they could not be used to leverage his foreign policy. While Sadat’s bandwagoning led Egypt into a total economic dependency on the US, which locked the country into his separate peace, Asad’s balancing between a multitude of powers allowed him to avoid such a separate peace.


It is not uncommon to explain these different outcomes as functions of the personalities and values of Sadat and Asad. Given the power of the other variables analysed, it might, however, be thought that the leadership variable is not needed to explain them. Where leadership may have made a difference was in its effect on these deeper seated factors: while Nasser would probably have worked against pressures for a separate peace, Sadat’s power needs led him to push them forward. Moreover, as was seen in chapter 5, Sadat’s wishful thinking, craving for Western approval and impulsive propensity to make concessions led him to play his cards poorly in the extended peace negotiations. By contrast Asad’s ‘realist’ view of international politics, which put no faith in the good intentions of either Israel or the US, his extreme wariness of being tricked by them and his tenacious bargaining may have better corresponded to reality than Sadat’s world view. However, it may also conceivably have led Asad to let plausible deals with Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and later Ehud Barak slip through his fingers. However, these differences were not simply idiosyncratic but reflected divergent situations and interests: Sadat’s separate peace, after all, conceded Palestinian and Syrian interests for Egyptian gains and that, in turn, put Asad in a weaker position in which he could not afford to readily give up any of his few remaining bargaining chips.

Pluralism and foreign policy

Does democratisation or even merely pluralisation of the political system produce a generically different kind of foreign policy outcome? Democratic peace theory suggests that Middle East wars are, in part, a function of the region’s democratic deficits which prevent publics from holding leaders accountable or constraining their foreign adventures. Realists, however, argue that elites in all states, regardless of internal features, act to maximise security and power and that the public largely defers to or is readily manipulated by such elites. Mansfield and Snyder (1995) suggest that in unconsolidated democracies, where electoral success may depend on playing the nationalist card, competitive politics may actually introduce higher levels of bellicosity into the policy-making process. The test cases in the Middle East which arguably best approximate the democratic-pluralist model are Israel and Turkey by virtue of their higher levels of institutionalisation, tolerance of opposition, and regular use of competitive elections in elite recruitment.

The determinants of Turkish foreign policy: the primacy of state formation

Turkey is, as pluralists would expect, essentially a status quo state whose foreign policy has normally been cautious and defensive. However, the evidence suggests that the primary determinant of Turkey’s policy has been its initial state formation and that subsequent alterations in policy have been the products of geopolitical struggles or shifts in economic dependencies, not democratic politics. Indeed, the structural type of the Turkish state, which has varied from Ataturk’s authoritarian regime to today’s fragmented parliamentary system, explains little variation in its foreign policy.

Turkey’s state formation experience set it on a status quo, West-centric tangent. Ataturk’s successful war of independence against the Western designs on Anatolia imposed by the Treaty of Sèvres spared Turkey colonial subjugation and enabled establishment of a territorial state within boundaries that satisfied Turkish national identity. The consequent eclipse of former alternative identities, Ottomanism and Pan-Turkism, meant the eschewing of revisionist ambitions in the Middle East and Turkic central Asia. The satisfaction of identity also allowed independent Turkey to re-establish relations with the West on an amicable basis. This was reinforced by Ataturk’s investment of the nationalist legitimacy, with which the independence war endowed him, in a Westernising brand of modernisation, which created a large secular and Western-educated middle class and wove a Western orientation into the fabric of the state establishment. Thus, Turkey’s dominant social forces have, from the state’s founding, been largely satisfied, not irredentist and their identity durably Westcentric (Ahmad 1993: 47–51).

Until Turkey felt fully secure in its independence, it followed a foreign policy of balancing between the rival European powers and a statist import substitute industrialisation policy to secure an independent economic base. Once, however, Turkey opted for capitalist export strategies, jump-started by US aid after W. W. II, economics helped lock in a pro-Western foreign policy (Ahmad 1993: 67–8). Turkey’s historic sense of geopolitical threat from its powerful northern neighbour, Russia, revived by post-war Soviet pressures, superseded post-Sèvres fears of the West and pushed the country into NATO, consolidating its Western identity. Turkey’s desire for admittance to the EU was advanced by its subsequent capitalist development and this same political economy imperative – the need for aid and markets – led the Ozal government to consolidate close ties with the United States.

Foreign policy making in Turkey: a ‘democratic pacifist deficit’

Turkey’s military and diplomatic establishment have long made foreign policy relatively insulated from popular pressure. Foreign policy has been the reserved sphere of elites, notably the military and the foreign ministry bureaucrats, responding to external exigencies and their view of the national interest rather than to public opinion or domestic interest groups. This elite has pursued a policy of caution, eschewing irredentist ambitions or entanglements in foreign conflicts, whether under democratic or non-democratic regimes. The predominantly defensive geopolitical considerations which governed the elite’s calculations enabled Turkey to stay out of costly wars, remarkable given its fraught location.

The gradual deepening of democratisation has opened the policy process to a wider spectrum of influence from below, but the foreign policy establishment has retained the last word. The political mobilisation and Islamisation of the mass public incrementally increased the impact of Turkey’s long-suppressed Islamic identity on foreign policy; thus, in the 1970s the Islamic Salvation Party was instrumental in forcing the government to abandon its friendly ties with Israel. The rise of Islamic electoral power has, however, had little impact on the pro-Western foreign policy establishment’s conviction that Turkey is essentially European. Although the Islamist leader Necmettin Erbakan tried, during his brief tenure as prime minister in the 1990s, to strengthen ties with the Islamic world, he was constrained by establishment vetoes and ultimately removed by military ultimatum. Similarly, various ethnic pressure groups sought to push Turkey into post-Cold War involvement in the Caucuses and Central Asia but this was also rebuffed by the foreign policy establishment.

In the limited cases where electoral politics or public opinion has significantly impacted on foreign policy, they have tended to produce a more nationalistic, less pacific outcome. Elected politicians have been more likely than the unelected state establishment to advocate adventurous regional policies such as Adnan Menderes’ enlistment of Turkey against Arab nationalism in the 1950s and Turgut Ozal’s involvement of Turkey, against the caution of the establishment, in the Gulf War (Robins 1991: 65–73). Rivalry with Greece was the one foreign policy issue which had major domestic resonance: success in this conflict could make or break politicians and party competition discouraged diplomatic initiatives which could make leaders vulnerable to the claim that they were soft on Greece. Turkish Cypriots acted as a domestic pressure group of some potency, obstructing a diplomatic settlement of the Cyprus conflict (Ahmad 1993: 174–80; Fuller 1997: 53–7; Mufti 1998: 42–5; Robins, 1991: 3–16, 27–45).

Turkey’s foreign policy behaviour: the effect of systemic pressures

Systemic pressures largely reinforced Turkey’s initial foreign policy tangent. While Ankara remained neutral in W. W. II, its subsequent ‘bandwagoning’ with the triumphant Western allies corresponded to an influx of Western aid and capital, the Soviet threat and NATO membership and democratisation, all of which consolidated Turkey’s Westcentric orientation. Turkey joined the Western powers and Iran in the Baghdad Pact/CENTO and made moves under the Eisenhower Doctrine to ‘quarantine’ Syria’s Arab nationalism, briefly assuming guardianship of the Middle East status quo on behalf of the West (Ahmad 1993: 118–20, 224–5; Fuller 1997: 43–8).

Turkey has, on occasion, been partly and temporarily diverted from its essentially Western and status quo orientations by several systemic level factors encouraging it to ‘balance’ between the West and other alignments. First, geopolitical rivalry with Greece and the conflict over Cyprus drove a wedge between Turkey and the West, especially when the US imposed an arms embargo after the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus. Turkish elites, no longer seeing Turkey’s national interest as always compatible with that of the West, undertook to diversify its ties to the Middle East and Third World (Ahmad 1993: 139–42, 225–6). This departure was reinforced by temporary economic anomalies. Thus, in the 1970s, an economic crisis brought on by the rise in oil prices forced the government to seek oil at concessionary prices from Saudi Arabia while Turkish business was attracted by export markets in the newly oil-rich Middle East. These developments were paralleled by a more pro-Arab foreign policy which included the refusal to allow US use of Turkish bases in the resupply of Israel in the 1973 war, support for the Palestinian cause, condemnation of Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem, refusal to impose sanctions on Iran over the American hostage crisis and Turkey’s adhesion to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (Robins 1991: 74–86; Yavuz and Khan 1992). In periods when Turkey’s international economic dependencies have been diversified in this way, its predominately Western foreign policy alignment has been similarly diluted (Robins 1991: 100–13). However Turgut Ozal’s sacrifice of Turkey’s Iraqi market for American ones in the second Gulf War expressed Ankara’s return to its deeper-rooted political-economy tangent.

This reversion has been reinforced by the end of the Cold War. The felt threat from Russia has declined while an opportunity for a sphere of influence in Turkic central Asia has been perceived, but Turkey’s main preoccupation has been fear that its value to the West would suffer from the end of the Cold War. The rebuff of Turkey’s bid for EU membership led, not to a Turkish reconsideration of its Islamic identity, but to a compensatory tightening of relations with the sole American hegemon.

However, it was still unresolved aspects of nation-building, reopened in the post-Cold War era, namely the Kurdish conflict, which most immediately drove Turkey’s foreign policy, drawing it into conflict with Syria, involvement in Iraq, alliance with Israel, and back toward Washington. The GAP Dam project was seen as a way of economically integrating the Kurdish regions into the state and neutralising Kurdish disaffection through economic development; however, the conflict which the diversion of Euphrates water sparked with Syria and Turkey’s insistence that it would unilaterally determine Syria’s share of Euphrates water, led Damascus to support the Kurdish insurgency (Fuller 1997: 47–54; Robins 1991: 28–37, 87–99).

The Turkish establishment’s view of the Kurdish threat to national security led it into a policy watershed – alliance with Israel – which sharply underlined the supremacy of geopolitics over domestic politics in the policy process. This axis is by no means an ideologically inspired alliance of democracies: it has no popular constituencies in either country, is unpopular among Turkey’s Islamist forces, and was largely imposed by the military. Its roots are exclusively geo-political: Turkey and Israel perceive a common threat from the Syro-Iranian axis: while Turkey felt threatened by Syrian support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas (who have had training bases in the Lebanese Bekaa valley), Israel felt aggrieved by Syrian and Iranian support for the Lebanese Hizbollah. Their co-operation in anti-terrorist measures and their alliance was meant to encircle and pressure Syria. In addition, Turkey used the alliance to enlist the Israeli lobby in the US congress against the supporters of Greece. The alliance manifests the classic checkerboard pattern of realpolitik power balancing wherein ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. But it is also compatible with Ankara’s swing back to its pro-Western tangent and the post-Cold War weakening of its links to the Middle East and the Third World (Ahmad 1993: 226–7; Mufti 1998: 47–8).

The limits of pluralist explanations

It seems clear that state formation, geopolitics and economics have most directly shaped Turkish foreign policy. Public opinion and democratic politics have had a modest impact on it, particularly in forcing Westernised elites to take more account of the Islamic side of Turkey’s identity. But where public opinion has forced a policy alteration, it has been working in tandem with geopolitical or political economic forces and issues (the Cyprus issue and the need for Arab oil) and when these have pulled the other way, the elite has ignored public opinion – as in the alliance with Israel. It is also far from clear that democratic politics produces a more dovish kind of foreign policy: in the cases where it has had an impact – most clearly in the conflict with Greece – the effect has been to exacerbate the conflict, not to constrain decision-makers. But because Turkey’s identity is largely satisfied by its boundaries, the public harbours no deep-seated irredentism and, as such, elite and public attitudes are largely congruent in support of a basically status quo foreign policy.

In Israel, covered in more detail in chapter 7, the impact of pluralism is somewhat different. Neither elections nor deepening party pluralism have altered the disproportionate recruitment of the policy-making elite from a security establishment which sees military force as the main instrument for dealing with Israel’s neighbours (Jones 2001). Moreover, given the much more powerful irredentist sentiment in a significant portion of the Israeli public (the Likud-settler bloc), as compared to Turkey, electoral politics has much more systematically rewarded politicians who profess hawkish rather than dovish sentiments. Indeed, the deepening of Israel’s political mobilisation over time strengthened the revisionist ‘right’ at the expense of the more status quo centre-left: Labour party dominance gave way after 1977 to alterations in government in which the right-wing Likud usually held the edge. According to Brecher (1972: 122), ‘elections are profoundly influenced by the degree of chauvinism in relation to the Arabs’, with each party claiming to be more resolute against the Arab threat than the others. While Brecher (1972: 125) insisted that this did not necessarily affect the strategic content of elite decisions Roberts (1990: 43) argued that ‘the dominant fact of political life confronting any peace initiative or “peace policy” was a strongly hawkish climate of opinion in Israel’ which the leadership had helped create but which thereafter constrained any leader who might have thought a peace settlement in Israel’s interest. Not surprisingly, therefore, Israel, the most pluralistic state in the region, has been in more wars than any other and has attacked its neighbours, including semi-democratic Lebanon, more times than any other state.

The contrast between Turkey and Israel reinforces the evidence that the form of government is of secondary importance, in determining the pacific or revisionist direction of foreign policy, compared to whether the dominant social forces are satisfied or not. Democracy’s main effect is, in strengthening identification with the state, to facilitate the mobilisation of the population for national ambitions. As such, in democracies with contested borders, irredentist problems, or unrealised territorial ambitions, and above all, in those founded as settler states – what might be called ‘irredentist democracies’ – the putative pacific effect of widened political participation is seemingly reversed.

Explaining foreign policies: the state formation-systemic dynamic

Distinctive types of foreign policy orientation do appear to be associated with variations in state formation in two important respects: (1) whether identity needs and the dominant social forces in a regime are satisfied or unsatisfied; (2) whether the level of consolidation of the state is higher or lower. These variables come together in four ideal-typical scenarios associated with variations in foreign policy behaviour, as indicated in Table 1.

In less consolidated states, policy-making elites, buffeted by or reflecting the views of powerful dissatisfied domestic/trans-state forces, are likely to either (a) appease these forces through radical nationalist rhetoric, or (b) seek external protection against them. This choice tends to be determined by whether the ruling elites issue from and/or seek support from plebeian forces rebelling against the dominant regional order (1a) or have their power bases in satisfied dominant classes (1b). Pre-Asad Syria corresponds to the first case and pre-oil boom Saudi Arabia and Jordan to the latter.

Table 1: State formation and foreign policy behaviour

By contrast, only reasonably consolidated states can effectively act to enhance the state’s external interests but the differentiation in their ruling social forces will distinguish those (2a) which use enhanced capabilities to mount revisionist challenge to the dominant regional order (Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq) from those which (2b) seek to defend the status quo (post-boom Saudi Arabia and post-Ataturk Turkey).

The importance of differential state formation experiences for a state’s foreign policy orientation is evident in the comparison of Saudi Arabia and Syria: satisfied identities and social forces produced a status quo orientation in the first while frustrated identities and plebeian social forces produced revisionism in the second. It can be seen even more dramatically in the contrast between Jordan and Syria which, once part of the same country, bilad ash-sham, have been taken in entirely different foreign policy directions by their differing regimes. While the Hashemite monarchy is an outcome of Western imperialism’s dismemberment of historic Syria, the Damascus regime arose from nationalist rebellion against it. Consequent differences in the domestic constituencies of the regimes hardened their contrary orientations: Jordan relied on conservative tribal forces to exclude the Arab nationalist middle class and the innately irredentist Palestinians, who make up at least half of the population, from politics. In Syria, the regime arose from the Arab nationalist middle class and is dominated by a formerly deprived minority peasant community seeking acceptance through the championing of Arab nationalism. This case also underlines how differential state formation paths differentially position regimes in the global political economy which, in turn, reinforces the original tangent: thus both Syria and Jordan depend on external rent, but Jordan got much of its support from the West to sustain its role as a buffer state which obstructed the mobilisation of its Palestinian majority against Israel and kept the armies of radical Arab states from its front line with Israel; Syria, by contrast, received Arab rent to sustain its resistance to Israel. Differential state formation translated into opposing foreign policy alignments and strategies: while Syria relied on the Soviets to balance American support for Israel and to achieve the military capability to balance Israeli power, Jordan bandwagoned, appeasing Israel through a long history of secret relations, while relying on a US security umbrella against other regional threats. These differences usually put them on opposing sides of most regional issues and relations were more often bad than good (Brand 1995; Harknett and VanDenBerg 1997; Salloukh 1996).

Similarly, Saudi Arabia and Islamic Iran, while both ostensibly Islamic oil states, are the product of quite different state formation histories which have shaped opposing policies. In Saudi Arabia the militant Ikhwan was early pushed out of the regime coalition in favour of conservative ulama and a tribal elite subsequently turned into a petro-bourgeoisie; in Iran the revolution’s catapulting to power of utterly un-Westernised elites transformed Iran from main surrogate of the US in the Gulf to its main challenger. Iran’s revolutionary Islam, cast by Khomeini into an expression of revolt against monarchy and Western dominance, was the opposite of the Saudis’ conservative establishment Islam. Arguably, these diametrically opposed versions of Islam were expressive of the two countries’ opposing experiences of the West: while Saudi Arabia never experienced colonialism and actually achieved independence with Western support, Iranians perceived the West to have overthrown their nationalist leader, Muhammad Mossadeq, in favour of the last Shah. The oil/population ratio in Saudi Arabia allowed a massive export of capital giving Saudi elites a big economic stake in the West; in revolutionary Iran, oil revenues were needed at home to sustain the welfare of its much larger population and to conduct a war brought on by the effort to export Islamic revolution.

Nevertheless, it also seems clear that ‘external’ systemic forces can powerfully reinforce or divert regimes from their original tangents. Thus, Arab nationalist Egypt was only able to pursue its Pan-Arab challenge to the status quo because bi-polarity lifted the main systemic constraint, Western dependency and/or intervention, while the region-wide spread of Arab identity constituted an indispensable system-level resource. However, changes in the balance of systemic forces from the late 1960s, including the unfavourable Arab–Israeli power balance and the oil-boom-induced flow of influence to conservative states, pushed revisionist regimes toward more moderate policies not too different from those of the status quo states. This began when, in the 1967 war, the costs of putting ideology over realism shifted power in Syria and Egypt from revisionist elements toward national security pragmatists. Islamic Iran, similarly ‘socialised’ into the realist rules of the game by its war with Iraq, also adopted more moderate policies. Mutually reinforcing systemwide forces – the decline of trans-state ideology, the rise of military threats, and the consequent consolidation of the individual states – have arguably driven a convergence in the foreign policies of initially very different regimes toward ‘realist’ type behaviour (see chapter 4).

Nevertheless, such convergence never ends in uniform behaviour for several reasons. The very different roads taken by Syria and Egypt, operating under the same systemic pressures, in their attempts to recover their lost territories from Israel, make the point that there is never only one possible response to system pressures, even among similar regimes. If at first these pressures drove the two states along similar paths, ultimately they responded differently. In Syria, the result was the state building and realpolitik through which Asad was enabled to pursue more limited goals more effectively. The more intense pressures on Egypt so shifted Sadat’s ruling coalition toward embourgeoised class fractions that republican Egypt’s initially nationalist foreign policy was turned on its head. Such an outcome can only adequately be understood by analysis of the interaction between the unique features of each state’s formation and the unique systemic positions each occupied. It was chiefly the difference in their geopolitical power position that determined why Egypt had the option of a separate peace and Syria probably did not. But domestic features decided how the two states responded to their environments: differences in identity and levels of presidential dominance explain why the Egyptian regime could make a separate peace at reasonable cost and the Syrian one could not; differences in the bases of the leaders’ support explain why Sadat had an incentive and Asad a disincentive to take such a path.

Additionally, as realism itself acknowledges, the ‘realist’ behaviour supposedly imposed by the states system can take two diametrically opposite forms, the balancing that stronger (and autonomous) states tend to pursue and the bandwagoning typical of weaker (and dependent) ones. It is differential state formation, locating states in varying power or dependency positions in the system that makes the difference in state conduct. Thus, in spite of a substantial convergence toward realism by the Saudi and Syrian regimes, driven by the shared Israeli threat and facilitated by the similar effects of oil on state formation, differences persisted. These were initially rooted in the contrasting impacts of imperialism on identity, but were, in certain ways, reinforced by subsequent differences in their systemic positions. Syria, locked by the consequences of its earlier revisionism into a drive to recover the occupied territories from a militarily superior Israel, restructured itself to match Israeli power and, despite a certain post-Cold War bandwagoning toward the US forced by the collapse of Soviet power, largely continued to balance against Israel. Saudi Arabia, a status quo power enjoying Western protection had no comparable incentive for military strengthening and domestic reasons to eschew it. Its weakness wedded it to a policy of bandwagoning – temporarily bending before the most intense pressure of the moment. Thus, in 1973 the threat from trans-state ideological penetration initially bent the kingdom’s policies in an uncharacteristically radical direction – the oil embargo against its US patron – at odds with the interests of its conservative ruling social forces; however, once released from Pan-Arab pressures, it quickly reverted to its traditional deference to Washington. More important, Saudi Arabia’s sheikhs, thereafter transformed into wealthy partners with the Western oil companies, acquired such a stake in the Western economy that Arab nationalism and Islam could be no more than thin veneers of limited relevance to foreign policy.

Finally, even where systemic forces divert states off their original tangents, they have seldom been strong or sustained enough to wholly overcome the biases built in by state formation. Thus, while systemic pressures – the Iranian threat – drove a convergence in the policies of Jordan and Iraq, making them close allies in the 1980s, this did not persist. Iraq’s need for Western and Gulf support against Iran temporarily moderated Saddam Hussein’s nationalism, but when the Iranian threat was turned back, Iraq reverted to its original revisionist tangent. Although the trans-state ideological arousal of its population could temporarily force Jordan’s weak status quo monarchy into policies incompatible with its interests, such as joining Nasser in 1967 and Saddam Hussein in 1991, once such pressures passed, the regime quickly reverted to its ‘natural’ pro-Western posture.

Globalisation is expected by some pluralists to transform states through democratisation and, in consequence, to put an end to realist dynamics at the system level by spreading the ‘zone of peace’ to the region. So far, however, the record suggests no such straightforward association between regime type and foreign policy behaviour. Authoritarian regimes can be status quo or revisionist: Nasser’s Egypt fought three wars with Israel in the name of Arab nationalism and Sadat’s Egypt made peace with it at the expense of Arab nationalism. Absolutism is associated with foreign policy caution in the Gulf monarchies and foreign policy recklessness in Saddam’s Iraq. Nor do Turkey and Israel show there to be any necessary relation in the Middle East between democratisation and foreign policy behaviour. Pluralistic political institutions have incorporated significant levels of mass participation in each country but its effect on policy making has been neither as important or as ‘pacific’ as the democratic peace thesis expects. In both, foreign policy is primarily shaped by elite conceptions of security and geopolitical interest. Moreover, when non-elite influences impact on policy, they tend to express irredentism, not pacifism but much more so in Israel where dissatisfaction with status quo (pre-1967) borders runs deep. Because such democratic states enjoy greater popular support, hence mobilisable capabilities, they may well be more dangerous than their ultimately weaker authoritarian counterparts. The region’s most pluralist states stand out for their irredentist activism in neighbouring territory: Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara, Israel’s settlement of the occupied territories and Turkey’s role in northern Cyprus. Although democratic peace theorists will argue that peace mostly obtains between democratic states and only kicks in when they dominate a regional system, the Middle East evidence suggests that the democratic peace may be chiefly an artifact of regions where satisfied states enjoy secure identities. As long as irredentism and insecurity remain basic features of the Middle East regional system, the foreign policy impact of the form of government will, as realism expects, be relatively limited (Goldgeier and McFaul 1992).

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