"During the Cold War, two things came to be known and generally recognized in the Middle East concerning the two rival superpowers. If you did anything to annoy the Russians, punishment would be swift and dire. If you said or did anything against the Americans, not only would there be no punishment; there might even be some possibility of reward." Thus wrote the eminent historian Bernard Lewis in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal. According to Mr. Lewis, these different responses evoked very different attitudes toward the two superpowers among Muslims and Arabs, which eventually culminated in the September 11 attacks:
While American policies, institutions, and individuals were subject to unremitting criticism and sometimes deadly attack, the Soviets were immune. Their retention of the vast, largely Muslim, colonial empire accumulated by the tsars in Asia passed unnoticed, as did their propaganda and sometimes action against Muslim beliefs and institutions.
Of course Muslims have never acquiesced in the loss of these territories, as evidenced by the numerous Russo-Ottoman and Russo-Persian wars during the last few centuries. Even the disastrous Ottoman decision to join World War I on the losing side, which led to the destruction of this empire and the creation of the modern Middle East on its ruins, was largely motivated by the desire to reverse the Russian imperial expansion.
Superpower behavior in the Middle East during the Cold war years did not correspond to the picture painted by Mr. Lewis of endemic American timidity and aggressive Soviet determination.
In reality, the two superpowers were heavily constrained by their global confrontation and the nuclear balance of terror. Time and again, both found themselves powerless to contain undesirable regional developments and were often forced to give a retrospective blessing to actions with which they were in total disagreement.
If anything, it was America that showed the greater inclination to resort to military force whenever it deemed its interests to be seriously threatened. This ranged from the toppling of the Musaddaq regime in Iran in 1953, to the 1958 landing in Beirut to shore up the Lebanese government in the face of Egyptian subversion, to the announcement of a nuclear alert during the 1973 October War, to the 1986 bombing of Libya, to the 1980s support for the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, to the 1991 Gulf war that reversed Iraq's brutal occupation of Kuwait.
In this respect, President Bush's interventionism has been far more congruent with U.S. post-World War II power projection policies than both his admirers and detractors seem to realize.
By contrast, and despite its immediate adjacency to the Middle East, Moscow proved a rather cautious bear. It supplied weapons and military equipment to its Arab clients, but rarely took direct action on their behalf. The first large-scale intervention occurred during the Egyptian-Israel war of attrition between 1969 and 1970, when the Soviets sent an air defense division to neutralize Israel's overwhelming aerial superiority. But this was a reluctant move taken under intense Egyptian pressure.
Likewise, the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was not an imperialist drive for the Persian Gulf oil, as was widely believed at the time, but a desperate bid to stem the mounting the tide of Islamic militancy, fuelled by the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran earlier that year.
But the story doesn't end here. Far from looking up to Moscow in fear and awe, let alone "submit[ting] to Soviet authority," the Arab states repeatedly annoyed and humiliated their Soviet patron with impunity.
For decades Moscow was forced to acquiesce in the brutal repression, and the occasional slaughter, of its communist followers in the Arab and Muslim states for fear of antagonizing the local regimes. The Soviets similarly failed to persuade their Arab protégés to disavow their total rejection of Israel and time and again were forced to acquiesce in Arab wars and invasions they deemed detrimental to their interest, from the Egyptian war of attrition to the Iraqi invasions of Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990.
Nor have the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan and the ongoing bloodletting in Chechnya done much to endear Moscow to Muslims and Arabs throughout the world or to enhance its prestige as a first class military power.
The most caustic humiliation was perhaps the expulsion of thousands of Soviet military personnel from Egypt in July 1972 in retaliation for Moscow's refusal to arm Egypt for its planned war against Israel. And how did the Soviets respond? By exacting a "swift and dire" punishment? Hardly. They dutifully resumed arms shipments to Egypt, only to see President Sadat wage the war they were desperate to prevent, then make an astounding u-turn by moving Egypt to the American orbit, abrogating the 1971 Egyptian-Soviet friendship and cooperation treaty, and terminating Soviet naval services in Egyptian ports.
If American institutions and individuals in the Middle East were subject to more deadly attacks than their Soviet counterparts, as they may have well been, this had far less to do with the fear of Soviet retribution, or dismissal of American deterrence, than with the fundamental asymmetry in the nature of the superpowers' regional allies.
While America's Middle Eastern allies were essentially conservative regimes, respectful of the international rules of the game and anxious to maintain the regional status quo, the Soviet Union supported a string of revisionist powers, ranging from pan-Arab regimes such as Nasser's Egypt, Baathist Syria, and Iraq, that were bent on destroying the Middle East's contemporary state system, to terrorist organizations to rogue regimes such as Mu'ammar Qaddafi's Libya.
This is not to deny that American failures to respond to rogue actions and terrorist attacks have been harmful to its deterrent image, or that Osama bin Laden has misconstrued certain American setbacks for an indication of its diminishing resolve.
Yet it was not America's perceived weakness that brought about the September 11 attacks, as Mr. Lewis argues, but rather its undeniable prowess. This is because Mr. bin Laden and other Islamists' war is not against America per se but is rather the most recent manifestation of the millenarian jihad for a universal Islamic empire, the umma.
As the preeminent world power for quite some time, and the only remaining superpower after the collapse of the Soviet empire, America blocks the final realization of this goal and hence is a natural target for aggression. In this sense, the House of Islam's war for world mastery is a traditional, indeed venerable, quest that is far from over.
Professor Karsh is head of Mediterranean studies at King's College, University of London. A revised paperback edition of his "Islamic Imperialism: A History" was published this month by Yale University Press.