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FDR and King Ibn Saud discuss Saudi-U.S. relations aboard the USS Quincy.
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JERUSALEM--Once again Americans are perplexed and frustrated by the blows they suffer from the Islamic and Arab world. Watching the gruesome sights from Benghazi and Cairo, Americans may be thinking: Look how much we have done for them. We went to two wars to give them a free Iraq; our fighting men and women have sacrificed their lives to rid Afghanistan of terror; we have supported the Arab Spring. Why do we deserve such a slap in the face in return?
Some of us who are not just observers of the Middle East but actually live here were not so surprised--especially those of us who have long memories.
On Feb. 14, 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt met King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. The president, returning from the Yalta Summit, where the Allies had decided how to rule the postwar world, hoped to achieve three goals: Saudi consent to the settlement of Jews in Palestine; establishment of U.S. bases on Saudi soil; and free flow of cheap oil.
On the first request, President Roosevelt received from his host a flat negative. Ibn Saud, however, had a very original solution for the Jews: Now that 3 million of them have been murdered by the Nazis in Poland, why don't the rest of them go to the areas vacated by their dead brothers and sisters?
Roosevelt nevertheless sent the Saudi king a letter in which he reminisced about "the memorable conversation which we had not so long ago and in the course of which I had an opportunity to obtain so vivid an impression of Your Majesty's sentiments on this question." He then went on to reassure Ibn Saud, "I would take no action, in my capacity as Chief of the Executive Branch, which might prove hostile to the Arab people."
While thinking about this American need to find grace in the eyes of Arabs, I can't resist the temptation to recall President Obama's Cairo appeal to the Islamic world on June 4, 2009:
Words that sound so hollow in light of this week's events.
Let's go back to 1945. Jewish settlement in Palestine aside, the president did secure from Ibn Saud the two other requests, bases and oil. Yet on his way back home, Roosevelt gave a press conference on board the Quincy in which he made some interesting remarks on Arabs in the Middle East:
So true--and so depressing. Because whenever Americans tried to help the Arabs move toward progress and modernity, they received results opposite to what they had expected. "Liberating" Egypt and Libya from their dictators, without developing civil societies and fighting unemployment, poverty, and illiteracy, is worthless. It only frees the most anti-American forces.
The Middle East is more complex than what meets the eye, and when Americans wonder what's wrong with this godforsaken area, Israel should not always be picked as the first culprit.
Uri Dromi writes about Israeli affairs for The Miami Herald.