Thinking Aloud: “Containing Arab Nationalism”

Apr. 2, 2015 by Darius

I recently finished reading Containing Arab Nationalism: The Eisenhower Doctrine and the Middle East by University of Chicago professor Salim Yaqub.  Containing Arab Nationalism is a thorough and scholarly blow-by-blow account of the rise and fall of the Eisenhower Doctrine of the mid- to late-1950s.

In the mid-1950s, the US was of course preoccupied with halting Communist expansion throughout the world.  At the same time, the old imperial powers of Britain and France were unable to continue their roles as major players in the Middle East.  Filling the void was Arab nationalism, personified by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.  The US, however, mistrusted Nasser’s “positive neutrality” in the Cold War and, most of all, feared Nasser and his allies were oblivious to the insidious threat of Communism.  President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles rolled out the Eisenhower Doctrine to contain and diminish Nasserism through a combination of economic pressures and support for conservative Arab regimes.  The ultimate goal of the policy was to either turn Nasser fully towards the West or supplant Nasser’s pan-Arab leadership.

However, the US quickly found that the Arab public was much less receptive to the US message than the US had hoped.  The conservative regimes the US hoped to promote as an alternative to Nasser squabbled among themselves and were corrupt and despised by much of their own populations.  Finally, and fatally, Eisenhower and Dulles underestimated the strength of Arab nationalism itself.  By 1960, the Eisenhower Doctrine was finished as US foreign policy.  Instead, ironically, the US renewed its efforts to improve relations with Nasser and adopt a more conciliatory tone.

Containing Arab Nationalism is written in a scholarly style about a topic that is admittedly not terribly fascinating.  If you’re really into US foreign policy and Middle Eastern history, then Containing Arab Nationalism is worth a read.  If not, there are many better and more relevant books on the US and Middle East.

By contrast, Dr. Yaqub’s pre-recorded college-level lecture series “The Unites States and the Middle East: 1914 to 9/11” is an excellent and accessible primer on the history of US foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East.  The lecture series is available on DVD or audio CD from The Great Courses (

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