Kennedy’s Middle East legacy lives on
John F. Kennedy reportedly had close ties with Morocco and Saudi Arabia but a troubled relationship with Egypt
A planned meeting between Morocco’s King Mohammad VI and U.S. President Barack Obama on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death evokes Kennedy’s historical ties with the North African kingdom and with the Arab world as whole.
The visit – which is the first meeting between the two leaders - will highlight Washington’s support for Morocco’s “democratic and economic” reforms, according to a White House statement.
In March 1963, eight months before Kennedy was assassinated, the Moroccan King’s late father Hassan II visited the slain U.S. president.
A document from the Kennedy presidential library contains the remarks between the president and Hassan II on his U.S. arrival.
Kennedy’s speech to the Moroccan king lauds the North African country as being the first to recognize U.S. sovereignty “in the most difficult days of our revolution.”
George Washington, America’s first president, sent a copy of the U.S. constitution to Morocco in 1789, according to the text.
“You will find, Your Majesty, that you come to a country which knows Morocco,” Kennedy told Hassan II.
The king replied by extolling America’s “splendid achievements in progress and civilization” and spoke of his “strong desire to consolidate the friendship which has characterized our two nations relations ever since the dawn of the independence of the United States.”
Eugene Rogan, a Middle East historian and professor at UK-based Oxford University’s Middle East Centre, said the U.S.-Moroccan relationship was a “special” one because it has little to do with international affairs involving oil or geostrategic interests.
Morocco’s long-standing diplomatic partnership with the United States would have been the main primary reason for the visit, said Thomas Lippman, scholar at the Washington D.C.-based Middle East Institute.
As well as being the first country to recognize the United States, America’s first diplomatic mission was in the Moroccan city of Tangiers, he noted.
“We had a close relationship with Morocco that had nothing to do with what we think was Middle Eastern affairs. It goes all the way back to the dawn of the republic,” said Lippman.
Kennedy beyond Morocco
Kennedy would have been well aware of Middle Eastern issues, including the Egyptian Suez crisis in 1956, said Stefan Halper, who is the American Studies director at Cambridge University’s politics department.
“We had a principle focus on Soviet efforts to advance their interest in the near east. People like Nasser were of particular interest, because they were sympathetic to the Soviet view,” said Halper, who has previously served as a White House official in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations.
The Kennedy government would have had a “fairly extensive private diplomacy” in the Middle East, particularly with countries in the Gulf, due to U.S. interests in maintain vital oil supplies, said the expert.
As well as rich Gulf fuel supplies, Kennedy’s administration would have begun to develop a “more textured diplomatic relationship” addressing regional issues such as a the Arab-Israeli conflict and the early rise of Nasser’s brand of Arab socialism, Halper added.
Rogan stated that Nasser desired a positive relationship with his U.S. counterpart.
“I think that Nasser was no less beguiled by the charm that this youthful, handsome American president than anyone in the world was,” he said.
Despite Nasser’s attraction to Kennedy’s charisma, he was met with a conflict of interest of Egypt trying to secure its security and independence – America’s monolithic power would have threatened to impose regional agreements on the Arab world, compromising their independence.
As a possible result of the Egyptian leader’s contradictory position towards the U.S. president, “Kennedy was not able to undertake any initiatives that brought Nasser more in sympathy with American policy or more compliant with American policy,” said Rogan. “The confrontation lens only grew.”
At least earlier on in Kennedy’s presidency, relations with Nasser may not have been as ultimately unfavorable as they might seem.
When Russian engineers diverted waters from the Aswan High Dam in 1961, the great stone pharaohs at Abu Simbel were threatened with flooding. Kennedy offered Nasser $10 million to preserve the ancient site, according to a 1988 article in an American history journal by historian Douglas Little.
The symbolic gesture, wrote Little, was part of a concerted effort to “recognize the force of Arab nationalism” and “channel it along constructive lines.”
Kennedy was initially committed to pursuing positive relations with Nasser, with the latter being the “most prominent Arab leader in the Arab world,” said Olivia Sohns, an international relations fellow at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
On May 11, 1961, Kennedy sent Nasser the first letter in what would become an extended series of personal correspondence with him.
In January 1962, Kennedy began to deliberate about the possibility of offering a multi-year aid package to Nasser, which was an expansion of a previous food aid program by his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, according to Sohns.
By offering food aid to Egypt, Kennedy sought to encourage Nasser to align Egypt with the West during the Cold War, limit his “rhetorical attacks” on Israel, and to moderate the conduct of more radical Arab states towards the Jewish state, Sohns said.
However, Kennedy received criticism at home for his intentions towards Nasser, who sought to leverage aid from both the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Ties between Nasser and Kennedy were further strained during the outbreak of an Arab national rebellion against Yemen’s theocratic monarchy. Kennedy chose to defer to Saudi Arabia’s support of Yemen’s royalist forces and suspended his attempts to promote positive relations with Nasser.
“After Nasser’s intervention in Yemen in September 1962, Kennedy’s relationship with Nasser became increasingly fraught. America’s conservative, pro-Western allies in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, resented Kennedy’s efforts to reach out to Nasser,” she added.
“Nasser was a bit of a thorn in his side,” Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at the New York-based foreign policy think-tank Council on Foreign Relations told Al Arabiya News.
The Egyptian leader’s problems with America stemmed from the fact that his “pan-Arab nationalism was not very pro-America, and the rhetoric was decidedly inflammatory and anti-American,” she said.
While Kennedy appeared to have a mild pro-Israeli stance, it did not extend to a rejection of Arab governments, according to Coleman.
And while he strengthened security ties with Israel – permitting the sale of advanced weaponry to the Jewish state, he also negotiated with Congress to allow Saudi Arabia to purchase U.S. arms, she said.
Kennedy’s appeared to have a warm relationship with King Saud bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud. In January 1962, Kennedy visited King Saud at a residence in Palm Beach, Florida, where the king was convalescing following a surgery in the United States.
However, other experts believe that Kennedy would have been too preoccupied with the Cold War to turn much attention towards comparatively less important issues in the Middle East.
Three “big issues” in international affairs in Kennedy’s era were all “NATO-focused” the growing commitment in the Vietnam War, the disastrous CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, and the Cuban Missile Crisis and relations with the Soviet Union, said Lippman.
Additionally, British involvement in the Gulf at the time also meant that the United States had not been focused on developing a particularly strong foothold, Lippman added.
The Kennedy Administration was still dealing with policies that tried to balance the priorities of the Middle East with the Soviet-American rivalries of the Cold War, said Rogan.
“Kennedy was faced with a Middle East that was dominated by Gamal Abdel Nasser and Egypt, with whom the U.S. was increasingly on bad terms with,” said Rogan.
While aware of the brewing Arab-Israeli conflict, Kennedy had refused to take sides and has a limited engagement in a practical strategic U.S.-Israel alliance that the country would soon be associated with, according to Rogan.
While the U.S. had not really dabbled in the region’s interests, Kennedy’s death and his Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s ascendancy to the title marked a “transition” towards the U.S. attempting to shift the balance of power in the region towards Israel.
Mohammad bin Aisa, Morocco’s ambassador to U.S. between 1993 and 1999 agreed that Kennedy’s presidency was largely preoccupied issues closer to home.
“I don’t think there was time for Kennedy to do anything else,” Aisa told Al Arabiya News.