Rapprochement, Containment and Stability
: Kennedy’s Cold War in the Middle East

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis analyses Kennedy’s foreign policy towards the Arab world and Israel in 1961-1963, by focusing on three states of core diplomatic concern for the administration: Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Examining the Kennedy administration’s policies towards Egypt, Israel, and the outbreak of the Yemen crisis, this thesis adds to the historiography on the subject a nuanced understanding of Kennedy’s incomplete attempt to find a balance between the American Cold War objective of containment of the Soviet Union, and its regional interests in Arab oil and in the security of Israel.
This thesis argues that Kennedy’s Mideast policies were conceived in the context of his strategy of rapprochement with Nasser. The administration extended diplomatic and economic support to Egypt in order to gain pro-American sentiments in the region, steer Nasser towards a moderate, non-socialist course, and reduce his dependence from the Soviet Union. Hoping to succeed in such an effort, Kennedy offset his pro-Nasser policy with strategies of containment and stability. The administration embraced Israel’s security concerns in order to forestall its pre-emptive strikes against the Arab neighbours, mitigate the tensions between Arabs and Israelis, and prevent the Soviet Union from gaining strategic and political opportunities. Kennedy’s pro-Nasser policy also compelled the administration to secure its economic interests in the Saudi oil through the promotion of social, economic and political reforms, aimed at broadening the domestic political consensus of the Saudi regime, and thus stave off a possible revolutionary threat inspired by Nasser’s propaganda.
This work challenges a number of studies that have been conducted on the subject, such as Warren Bass’s Support Any Friend, Douglas Little’s American Orientalism, and Roby C. Barrett’s The Greater Middle East and the Cold War. It is argued, contra Bass, that Kennedy’s Mideast strategies were not simply designed to support any regional ally to gain a wider range of Cold War options; that the administration did not intend to transform Saudi Arabia and Israel into regional proxies, as Little argues; and that Kennedy’s policies cannot be seen as a mere continuation of Eisenhower’s, as contended by Barrett. Rather, this thesis argues that the administration’s enhancement of the US relationship with Saudi Arabia and Israel was the necessary obverse to its Nasser policy. Seeking to bolster his rapprochement with Nasser, Kennedy laid the foundations of two special alliances for his successors to build upon, but such result was not intended.
Kennedy’s legacy in the Middle East could best be understood as an attempt to balance larger Cold War objectives with more specific regional interests. Of course, it was his inability to appreciably influence the course of the events in Yemen, and Congress’s amendment in November 1963, to prompt the paradoxical result of his Mideast strategy. Indeed, the shift in US strategies occurred after his untimely death, ultimately confined Kennedy’s experience to be an ambitious footnote in history, whose idealist drive and diplomatic capability with the Arab leaders however, still echoes to this day, in a time when, perhaps, a point of connection with the Arab world is mostly needed.
Date of Award2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorStacey Gutkowski (Supervisor), Rory Miller (Supervisor) & Michael Kerr (Supervisor)

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