Middle East Leaders of the Twentieth Century
William B. Quandt
University of Virginia
Published in Time Magazine (International Edition)
April 13, 1998
The Middle East has changed almost beyond recognition in the past 100 years. From Morocco in the West to Iran in the East, the region has been transformed as the result of well-known processes of urbanization, mass education, and industrialization. The shifting political landscape of the region, however, has had more to do with the collapse of empires in the first part of the century, and the subsequent struggles in the second half to forge viable nation-states.
Just one-hundred years ago, the Ottoman Empire still ruled – at least nominally – over much of the region; the Qajars still occupied the Peacock Throne in Persia; the French held Algeria as an integral part of France, as well as a protectorate over Tunisia; and Egypt was under British control. The idea of a Jewish State in Palestine had just been broached, but was hardly taken seriously, including by most Jews. So how did this all change, and who were the leaders from within the region who helped to shape the course of twentieth century Middle East history?
Wars have played a great part in the making of the modern Middle East, none moreso than World War I. After the guns fell silent, the Ottoman Empire was dismembered and replaced by British and French spheres of influence. The most remarkable exception to this pattern came in the heartland of the old empire, Turkey, and was largely the result of the remarkable leadership of Mustafa Kemal (later known as Ataturk, the father of the Turks.) Kemal led Turks in a national resistance movement, drove out invading Greek troops, deposed the Sultan and Caliph, rejected the onerous terms of the Treaty of Sèvres, and forced the victorious allies to recognize a new Turkish Republic in 1923. He then presided over a remarkable period of institution building, trying, with partial success, to create a modern, largely secular, state. While ruling very much as an authoritarian leader, Ataturk deserves credit for the fact that little more than a decade after his death Turkey was on its way to the first peaceful transfer of power as a result of free elections. With all of its problems today, democratic Turkey still reflects much of the Ataturk legacy.
Another state-builder worthy of special recognition was David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Ben Gurion was the leader of Labor Zionism within Palestine in the formative pre-state era; he helped create the institutions from which the modern state emerged – the labor movement, the defense forces, the self-governing institutions; he combined strength with pragmatism to help Israel through its first difficult years. Many others contributed to Israel’s success as a state, but no one did more to turn the idea into a reality. His later years were marked by controversy, as he split with many in his own party. But his reputation as the founder of Israel as a stable democratic state is still intact.
Ben Gurion’s great adversary in the Arab world was Gamal Abdel Nasser. But Nasser’s claim to stand among the major Middle East personalities of the century has less to do with his posture toward Israel than his role in promoting Arab nationalism and anti-colonialism. By standing up to the British and calling for Arab unity, Nasser changed not only Egypt but also shook the foundations of many other states in the region. Nasserism eventually faded after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and now has few adherents in the region. But in his prime, Nasser was a force to be reckoned with. He nationalized the Suez Canal -- and got away with it – and in so doing inspired a generation of nationalists throughout the region. He invited the Soviet Union into the region and for a while seemed adept at playing off Moscow and Washington. His mishandling of the crisis with Israel in May 1967, however, has left a legacy that Arabs and Israelis still are struggling to deal with.
The last "giant" among modern Middle East leaders is the only leader of a successful revolution – Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. From the 1920s onward, the Pahlavi Shahs had tried to forge a modern state, somewhat along the lines of Ataturk’s Turkey. But the experiment came to a dramatic end in 1979. Contrary to the expectations of almost all observers, a 75 year-old religious scholar, who had spent much of his life writing about mysticism, emerged as the implacable enemy of the Shah and of monarchy. Khomeini was hardly a traditional cleric, for the Islamic republic that he forged was original in many respects. Nowhere in traditional Shii Islamic doctrine can one find his concept of rule by the jurist; nowhere can one see the blend of Western institutions (parliament, elections, a presidency) with novel creations such as the Council of Guardians. Although the strict forms of Khomeinism seem to be waning in today’s Iran, Khomeini showed that militant Islam could topple the seemingly impregnable regime of the Shah. Throughout the Middle East region, those who opposed the despotic regimes in place imagined that political Islam might provide a means for radical change. Those fires have not yet burned out, although the Islamic Republic of Iran has had no imitators.
If Ataturk, Ben Gurion, Nasser and Khomeini stand out as the state builders and revolutionaries, several other leaders also deserve mention for their distinctive contributions to the region’s history. Anwar Sadat of Egypt was the first Arab leader to see clearly that peace with Israel was an imperative. Before making peace, however, he went to war in 1973, convincing Saudi Arabia in the process to use its vast oil resources to bolster the Arab cause. Ultimately, Sadat settled for less than he had dreamed of. He could only persuade Israel to return Sinai, which left Egypt vulnerable to the charge from other Arabs of having sold out Palestinian and broader Arab interests. But Sadat never looked back. He did what he thought was best for Egypt, and thereby began the process of peace negotiations between Israel and the Arabs that has produced both promising results and disappointments. Sadat’s story is a controversial one, but many in the region are now more willing to speak well of him than was the case just a decade ago.
Sadat’s partner and sometime nemesis in peacemaking was the redoubtable Menachem Begin, Israel’s Prime Minister from 1977 to 1983. His vision of an Israel which must include ancient Judea and Samaria, the present-day West Bank, set the stage for a major change in Israeli policy, the implication of which are still not clear. Begin believed that Israel could hold onto the territory, while offering its Palestinian inhabitants a form of autonomy. He thus reopened one of the last territorial issues dividing the states of the region. While securing peace with the largest Arab state, Egypt, he did much to insure long-term conflict with the Palestinians.
If Sadat stands out as premier peacemaker, Saddam Hussein gets the prize for "warmaker". More than any other leader, he has put his mark on Iraq and the surrounding region, forging a harsh authoritarian regime that has endured in the face of enormous pressure. In September 1980, he went to war against Iran – a great strategic blunder, which cost both countries hugely over the next eight years. Then, without time to recover from the war with Iran, Saddam embarked on another venture in August 1990 by invading Kuwait. Despite the massive onslaught from Western and Arab forces mobilized against him, Saddam managed to survive and to govern. And, he is still there, causing hardship for his people and taunting his enemies. The balance sheet for Saddam’s legacy is mostly negative, but cannot be ignored simply for that reason. He too has shaped the modern Middle East, and may yet continue to do so for a while longer.
King Hussein of Jordan is easy to overlook in a list of Middle East leaders. His is a small country, with little apparent ability to influence the course of events. But King Hussein has managed to create a surprisingly viable country where none existed when his grandfather was installed in Amman by the British after World War I. Jordan, just by being where it is and surviving under sensible leadership, has helped to stabilize an otherwise volatile region. Without King Hussein and his essentially realistic views, the Arab-Israeli and Gulf conflicts would most likely have come much closer together, in dangerous ways. The role of governing a weak buffer state is not a glamorous one, but doing it well, with dignity, and with a relatively benign touch merits attention. As King Hussein nears his 50th year in power, he too can claim to have shaped the modern Middle East.
Many of the struggles in the Middle East this century have revolved around the nation state. In a few cases, the struggle was remarkably bloody. The Algerian people paid a particularly high price in their bid for independence. At century’s end, Palestinians and Kurds are still fighting for recognition of their distinctive identities. Those without secure nation states still think that statehood will be the solution to their problems. And yet, the lesson of the century is otherwise. True, those with no state to protect them have suffered immensely. But so have many citizens of states that quickly turned into despotisms. Too often leaders have abused their power; too few have been prepared to make government accountable to the governed.
Statehood has also not prevented domestic violence and civil war. Lebanon in the 1980s paid an enormous price for the failure of its political institutions, as has Algeria in the 1990s. Statehood, the great prize of the political struggles of this century, has not been a panacea. Too strong a state has led to massive abuses of human rights; too weak a state has had the same effect. Some Islamists argue that the problem is the artificial nature of the nation state itself, a concept with no roots in Muslim tradition. Globalists will respond that the nation state is no longer suited to the economic and technological challenges that lie ahead. The future, they argue, is with larger groupings and trans-national actors. This debate has just been joined.
Ataturk, Ben Gurion, Nasser, and Khomeini did much to define the Middle East of the 20th century. The states that they helped to forge now seem secure, but not always relevant or responsive. The broader challenges of peace, democracy and development are still to be faced by most of the peoples of the region. The great leaders of the next century will have to confront those defining issues.