In researching another post I happened across a very interesting monograph by William A. Eddy, the first U. S. “minister plenipotentiary” to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In the monograph Eddy describes a meeting between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Abdul Aziz al Saud, called Ibn Saud, the first king of Saudi Arabia. Most of our knowledge of the meeting comes from Eddy’s description—he was the translator for FDR and, apparently, the only person in either party who spoke both English and Arabic.
A number of things struck me in reading this post but one of them is what a wonderful example it was of how the traditional domestic influences on American foreign policy (economic realism, isolationism, idealistic internationalists, and populist nationalists) operate synergistically in creating U. S. foreign policy.
America’s entrée to Saudi Arabia was economic realism. Ibn Saud granted a U. S. company an oil concession in 1933 (it was the successor to a voided concession granted to a British firm that expired in 1928). Why did an American firm receive the concession? Were the British not interested (there’s evidence of that)? Did the Americans offer a better deal? Probably both of the above but I also suspect that Ibn Saud believed that the U. S. was likely to be less meddlesome than on of the colonizing powers. America’s traditional reflexive isolationism helped put our foot in the door.
Eddy himself was a nearly perfect stereotype of the missionary internationalist. Born in Lebanon of Presbyterian missionary parents (and grandparents), he grew up speaking Arabic. He has been characterized as one of the best Arabists that the U. S. has produced and his writing suggests an understanding of and sympathy with Arab customs and interests.
The opening and closing paragraphs of the monograph reinforce the suggestion of the sources of Eddy’s attitude in his faith:
THE KING OF SAUDI ARABIA, WHO SIGNED HIMSELF “Abdul Aziz Al Saud” but who has come to be known as “Ibn Saud,” was one of the great men of the twentieth century. He won his kingdom and united his people by his personal leadership. He possessed those epic qualities of the leader which Samuel recognized in Saul; he excelled in the common tasks which all must perform.
The United States can still tip the balance one way or the other. If we regard the nations of the world as a string of sixty-odd pearls, we have to admit that the string has been broken and many of the pearls lost. The most precious of all remaining pearls, one which is not firmly within our mutual circle, but which is still within our reach, is the friendship, the good will, and the resources of the three hundred million Muslims of the world. There are those who are bent upon taking this pearl of great price and hurling it to the bottom of the sea. If they succeed in that wanton and disloyal act, let them hope that the American people will some day forgive them; for they know not what they do.
BTW if there were ever a biography crying out to be written it would be that of Eddy. He was something rather rare today: an intellectual man of action. I understand that when he died he left an unfinished and as yet unpublished memoir.
The honor, sense of duty, and just plain decency of our Jacksonians (populist nationalists) was evident as well:
The Arabs and the sailors fraternized without words with a success and friendliness which was really astonishing. The sailors showed the Arabs how they did their jobs and even permitted the Arabs to help them; in return the Arabs would permit the sailors to examine their garb and their daggers, and demonstrate by gestures how they are made and for what purposes.
Do we still have the ability to cooperate to the benefit of our country as this incident from history suggests? I think so; but we must take care to view the varying different interests which have shaped our country as collaborating interests rather than as competing ones.