A recent dispute between conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer and White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer centered on the Obama administration’s return to the British government in January 2009 of a bust of Winston Churchill, which had been kept in the Oval Office by President George W. Bush following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
A more fruitful discussion would compare the policies and military campaigns of British Prime Minister Churchill and President Obama in the Middle East and North Africa during their respective first years in office. This historical comparison is timely, as last week’s foreign policy debate between Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney was primarily devoted to these interrelated regions.
While Obama’s serial failures over the past 45 months in the Middle East and North Africa have been intensively analyzed, Churchill’s outstanding successes in the same regions between 1940 and 1943 are not remembered by the general public in Western democracies.
For example, an Israeli government-sponsored conference on September 21 in New York City, on the more than 800,000 Jews who were expelled from Arab countries after the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, totally ignored the critical reality that nearly all Jews living in the Middle East and North Africa during World War II survived because of Allied battlefield victories. For three decades after the war, these Mizrachi Jews immigrated to Israel, France, America and other Western countries, and they and their descendants have made many valuable contributions to their new homelands.
Even Obama’s most diehard supporters have not argued that his strategy between January 2009 and October 2012 has been successful in the two regions. The president refused to support the popular uprising in Iran in the summer of 2009 against the Islamic fanatics who have misruled that nation for three decades, and his reliance on diplomacy and economic sanctions to end the Iranian nuclear-weapons program has also failed.
Similarly, Obama’s reactions to the revolutions that have swept across North Africa and the Middle East since their beginning in Sidi Bou Zid, Tunisia in December 2010 (the site of a major American battlefield defeat in February 1943) are aptly summarized as “leading from behind.” The unwillingness to take military action to end the mass killings of civilians by the Assad regime in Syria is another diplomatic fiasco on the part of Obama and his hapless secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.
In Iraq, Obama snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by not negotiating an agreement with the new Iraqi government to extend the stay of American military personnel who were successfully rebuilding the country’s armed forces.
Further, the president’s dispatch of tens of thousands of Army, Marine and Air Force reinforcements to Afghanistan in 2010 and his simultaneous announcement of their withdrawal in 2012 violated a cardinal rule of war. As General George Patton once pointed out, no commander should allow a pre-existing plan to override battlefield conditions; instead the commander must adjust the plan to the inevitable successes or failures on the ground.
More than 1,500 Americans have been killed in the Afghanistan Theater since Obama’s inauguration as compared to 650 killed there during President Bush’s eight years in the White House.
Finally, on September 11, 2012, our embassies in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and other Muslim countries were attacked by local religious fanatics, and four Americans – Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty – were killed in an assault on our embassy in Benghazi, Libya.
Despite extensive outreach and apologies to the Muslim world, the Obama administration can’t claim the countries of the Middle East and North Africa are more aligned with American interests than they were when the president was inaugurated in January 2009. In short, his “new beginning” with the Islamic world has been an abject disaster.
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By contrast, between May 1940, when he replaced Neville Chamberlain as prime minister, and May 1943, when the Mediterranean again became an Allied lake, Churchill was the driving force behind victorious military campaigns from Iran in the east to Morocco in the west.
In September 1940, with the Battle of Britain raging and a Nazi invasion still a genuine threat, Churchill reinforced Commonwealth and Empire forces in Egypt in anticipation of an Italian attack from Libya aimed at the Suez Canal and Middle East oil fields. The expected Italian invasion was launched, but stalled after an advance of just 60 miles into Egypt.
In December 1940, British, Indian and Australian troops counterattacked and wrecked the Italian Tenth Army, sending its remnants retreating toward central Libya. Only Hitler’s dispatch of General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps in February 1941 and Churchill’s diversion of troops to assist the Greeks against the Italians, who had invaded from Albania in October 1940, salvaged the Axis stake in North Africa.
In the last week of March 1941, Rommel’s troops began to drive the British Commonwealth/Empire troops out of Cyrenaica (eastern half of Libya), and in early April 1941, sensing Britain’s precarious military situation, Rashid Ali and Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, staged a military coup in Baghdad against the pro-British Iraqi government.
(Between 1936 and 1939 a mufti-directed uprising against the British in Palestine had been a complete failure, with tens of thousands of Arabs killed, wounded, captured or exiled. In October 1937, al-Husseini fled to Lebanon and then in October 1939 to Iraq to escape detention and prosecution.)
Churchill rushed forces into Iraq by sea from India, by air from Egypt and by land from Palestine. By the end of May 1941 the Iraqi rebels, despite military assistance provided by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Vichy France, were crushed and the pro-British government was restored.
David Raziel, leader of the Revisionist Party in Palestine after the death of Ze’ev Jabotinsky in 1940, was on a British-directed mission to assassinate the mufti when he was killed in May 1941 by a Luftwaffe bombing. Tragically, before the arrival of Allied forces in Baghdad a pogrom by Muslim fanatics killed or wounded hundreds of Iraqi Jews.
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Immediately following the Iraq victory, Churchill was determined to destroy the remaining Axis strongholds in the East Mediterranean and he ordered an invasion, from both Palestine and Iraq, of Vichy-controlled Syria and Lebanon on June 8, 1941. A month of hard fighting put two more Middle Eastern countries under Allied control. Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Allon were among the hundreds of Jewish Palestinians who fought with the Allies, and Dayan lost an eye in the conflict.
Between 30,000 and 40,000 Palestinian Jews served in the British armed forces, and 6,000 Jewish-owned factories produced material for the war effort. In September 1939, after the Nazis (and Soviets) invaded and conquered Poland, David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jewish community in Palestine, wisely declared that they would fight the Nazis as if the White Paper restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine did not exist and fight the White Paper as if no war against Hitler was being waged.
Indeed, the Jewish-Palestinian military contributions to the Allies outweighed those of Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Palestinian Arabs and other erstwhile Muslim allies. Only in February 1945, three months before Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender, did these Islamic countries declare war against the Axis powers. But their declarations of war were done not to provide military support to the Allies but only to secure entry into the post-war United Nations.
On June 22, 1941, in the middle of the Syrian-Lebanese Campaign, Hitler’s army and air force attacked the Soviet Union, ending the alliance between the two hereditary enemies and making the Soviets an ally of the British. At the end of August 1941, British Commonwealth/Empire forces from Syria in the west and Soviet forces from the north invaded Iran, and in a few days of fighting defeated the Iranians, deposed the pro-Nazi Shah Reza Pahlavi and replaced him with his son, who would govern almost uninterruptedly until 1979 when he was swept away by the revolution that eventually brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power.
Approximately 25 percent of the critical military and non-lethal aid provided by the Americans and British to the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945 was funneled through Iran. This military hardware was indispensable in the summer of 1942 when the Wehrmacht launched two unsuccessful offensives to capture Stalingrad and the Caucasian oil fields.
(Though Obama in his infamous June 2009 Cairo speech apologized for the 1953 CIA-aided coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, he hasn’t yet apologized for our major intervention in World War II, which was critical to the Allied victory and which led to remarkable improvements in Iran’s ports, railroads, roads and oil production. In 1946, the United States kept its promise, made to the Iranians during the war, that Soviet and Commonwealth/Empire military forces would withdraw after the Axis powers were defeated.)
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With the northern and eastern flanks of Palestine secure, Churchill reinforced his forces in Egypt and on December 9, 1941 began an attack that drove Rommel’s troops back to central Libya. On December 10, as a result of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor three days earlier, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy declared war on America. Hitler, for a second time, sent major reinforcements to North Africa, including an entire air wing commanded by General Albert Kesselring, and Rommel’s troops again halted the Allied advance in central Libya, and began a counterattack.
In February 1942, British tanks and soldiers surrounded the Abdeen Palace in Cairo and forced King Farouk to dismiss the government, which had many pro-Axis members, and replace it with a pro-Allied coalition. In late June 1942, Rommel routed the Commonwealth/Empire Army in eastern Libya and sent it furiously retreating into Egypt. Hundreds of Jewish Palestinians, who were attached to Free French forces, fought tenaciously at Bir Hakeim and prevented the Germans and Italians from turning the Allied southern flank and encircling the entire Commonwealth Eighth Army.
Faced with a catastrophic Allied defeat, America rushed fighter and bomber squadrons, tanks and self-propelled artillery to Egypt to help stop the Germans and Italians in north-central Egypt at El Alamein – and to save Churchill’s dual positions as prime minister and defense minister.
The aircraft carrier USS WASP had made trips, in April and May 1942, into the western Mediterranean to launch fighter planes to bolster the defenses of a beleaguered Malta, which was essential to interdicting Rommel’s supply lines from Italy. Finally, President Franklin Roosevelt, overruling Army Chief of Staff George Marshall and Chief of Naval Operations Ernest J. King, ordered the deployment of a large army-navy amphibious force to Morocco and Algeria, to trap and destroy the Italian-German army fighting in Egypt.
On October 22, 1942, General Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army launched the Commonwealth/Empire offensive at El Alamein, and after nearly two weeks of hard fighting his forces sent Rommel’s troops retreating into Libya. The North African pendulum had swung for the sixth and last time during the war, because on November 8, 1942, an Anglo-American force, under General Dwight Eisenhower and including General Patton, landed in Morocco and Algeria. After a week of futile yet stout resistance, the Vichy French switched sides and joined the Allies.
But for a third time, Hitler (and Mussolini) heavily reinforced the Axis forces in North Africa. Unfortunately, the Vichy French military forces in Tunisia, unlike their counterparts in Morocco and Algeria who fought vigorously against the Anglo-Americans, did not resist the Axis troops who arrived by plane and ship. Consequently, the Allies required six months of intensive combat to defeat the Germans and Italians.
While the American army suffered severe setbacks at Sidi Bou Zid and the Kasserine Pass in February 1943, the replacement of the incompetent General Lloyd Fredendall by General Patton quickly rectified the battlefield failures. (Patton’s son-in-law, Lt. Col. John Waters, was captured in the February debacle, but he survived in German prisoner-of-war camps.) In May 1943, 250,000 Axis soldiers surrendered in northern Tunisia, some three months after the German surrender at Stalingrad, and these two Allied victories turned the tide in the European war.
In short, Winston Churchill organized and commanded Allied military forces that in three years defeated the Axis and their indigenous allies in nine North African or Middle Eastern countries. By contrast, in nearly four years, Barack Obama has achieved no lasting victories in these two interrelated regions, despite the dispatch of large military forces, extensive economic aid and craven diplomatic efforts.
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The other Allied leader who demonstrated a profound understanding of the disparate forces operating in the Middle East and North Africa during World War II was David Ben-Gurion.
After convincing the Jews of Palestine in September 1939 to support Great Britain and its allies, Ben-Gurion traveled to America in November 1941 to garner support for an independent Jewish state in Palestine. The culmination of his indomitable efforts was the issuance by Zionist leaders in May 1942 of the Biltmore Declaration, named for the New York City hotel that hosted the conference.
The concise document candidly declared “its unalterable rejection of the White Paper of May 1939.” With the Jews of Europe facing an unprecedented tragedy, the Biltmore Declaration raged that it was “cruel and indefensible” to deny them a “sanctuary” in Palestine, which “has become a focal point of the war front of the United Nations.”
This Declaration of Independence from the British – based on Ben-Gurion’s unshakable determination that America would be the leading power in the Middle East and North Africa after the war – also poignantly declared that the conference “offers a message of hope and encouragement to…Jews in the Ghettos and concentration camps of Hitler-dominated Europe and prays that their hour of liberation may not be far distant.”
In May 1948, six years after the historic Biltmore Conference, Ben-Gurion and other Jewish leaders in Palestine rejected the warning of Secretary of State George Marshall that they couldn’t win a war against the surrounding Arab countries and declared a Jewish state reborn after nearly two millennia.
About the Author: Mark Schulte has written about World War II and the liberation of the concentration camp for two decades for The Jewish Press, New York Post, Weekly Standard, New York Daily News and other publications.
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