Other Military Operations and Peacekeeping Missions: U.S. Relations and Operations in the Middle East

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Other Military Operations and Peacekeeping Missions: U.S. Relations and Operations in the Middle East

American involvement in the Middle East did not begin in earnest until after World War II, when the end of European colonialism led to a rapidly shifting political situation complicated by the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948. Initially one of the front lines in a series of proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Middle East has found itself increasingly at the center of international attention, as terrorist attacks on Western targets, anti-American sentiment, and Islamic extremism have all increased dramatically in the past generation.

The Rise of the Modern Middle East

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I brought three decades of European dominance to the Middle East, which was quickly growing prosperous from its rapidly developing oil industry. Independence movements, already growing in strength prior to World War II, created the states that comprise the modern Middle East. The complicating factor of the creation of the state of Israel was resolved in 1948, when that country successfully defended itself against attacks from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

Israel's success was achieved largely through grim determination coupled with arms and equipment smuggled in from Europe. However, as the Cold War began to dictate American foreign policy, Israel would find in America a staunch ally, willing and able to provide economic and military aid to the fledgling country. The roots of Arab anti-Americanism stem partially from this support of a country that is widely regarded in the region as illegitimate, invasive, and anti-Arab.

Cold War Operations

The other half of the anti-American equation comes out of Cold War power politics. As the newly formed nations of the Middle East began to carve out their own destinies, several anti-American governments were brought to power throughout the region, namely in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Libya. The Soviet Union, eager to capitalize on this and hamper the American petroleum industry's influence in the process, began backing these regimes.

The United States responded in kind, strengthening its alliances with Saudi Arabia and the Arabian emirates, as well as Jordan and Iran, which was ruled by a monarch installed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The rise and fall of the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Palavi, is illustrative of the lengths to which Western covert forces went to manipulate politics in the Middle East for political and economic gain.

In 1953, in concert with British MI6 (intelligence) agents, members of the CIA, responding to Iranian efforts to nationalize its oil production, initiated Operation Ajax, a manufactured coup against the democratically appointed Prime Minister Mohammed Mosadegh. Through a campaign of mass propaganda and character assassination, CIA and MI6 agents were able to force Mosadegh from office and bring in their own handpicked military strongman. The shah, effectively a figurehead, negotiated a deal that diverted at least half of all Iranian oil profits to American and European companies.

While the KGB (Soviet secret police) and CIA played politics behind the scenes, the two great powers armed and equipped their respective allies, leading to wars in the Middle East in 1956, 1967, and 1973. This complex interplay of foreign interference and ideological clashes would become further complicated by unforeseen developments during the Jimmy Carter administration (1977–1981).

The Carter Years

Perhaps President Carter's greatest achievement while in office, the Camp David Accords finally brought some measure of stability and peace to the Middle East by bringing Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin to the negotiating table. Building on earlier, less successful U.S. efforts to initiate an Arab-Israeli peace process, Carter was able to host the two leaders, who had been making secret peace overtures of their own, at the presidential retreat at Camp David.

Over the course of thirteen days, issues were slowly hammered out between the two men who could hardly stand to be in the same room with each other. On multiple occasions the talks threatened to dissolve completely, and it was President Carter himself who personally convinced both Begin and Sadat to persevere and not scrap the talks altogether. Carter's personal approach paid off—the landmark Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty was later signed in March 1979.

That same year brought another unexpected development in the Middle East—the Iranian Revolution. The seeds of anti-American resentment and radicalized Islam planted by Operation Ajax bore a bitter fruit for the West when a faction of religious radicals led by the Ayatollah Khomeini toppled the shah's regime. The United States had not only lost one of its key allies in the region, but also gained a vehement enemy.

The degree to which the situation had changed was amply demonstrated when, on November 4, 1979, militant university students overran the U.S. Embassy in Teheran, the Iranian capital. In what came to be known as the Iran Hostage Crisis, sixty-six American citizens were taken prisoner, fifty-two of them were held hostage for a total of 444 days.

A rescue attempt launched in the last days of the Carter presidency was scrapped before it got started due to logistical problems and the loss of eight servicemen after a midair collision. The hostage crisis was eventually resolved diplomatically, and the hostages were released.

America and Iraq

The Iran-Iraq War (1980—1988) provides further insight into American intervention in the Middle East, as Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi Army became proxy fighters against America's newest enemy, Iran.

Throughout the course of the eight-year war, Iraq received extensive aid and equipment from the United States, in spite of evidence of Saddam's use of poison gas on his own citizens. Two years after the end of the war, Saddam invaded the tiny, oil-rich country of Kuwait. The United States and United Nations forces swiftly expelled the invading Iraqi Army during the Gulf War (1990–1991).

Since the Gulf War, American military forces have been a permanent presence in the Middle East, a situation that rankles many in the region. The terrorist bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983, in which 241 Americans lost their lives, showed just how angry some factions had grown about the American presence—in fact, terrorist leader Osama bin Laden credits the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia during and after the Gulf War as the primary motives for driving him to declare a personal war on America.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on U.S. targets and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, the George W. Bush administration began making an increasingly vocal case for linking Iraq (as well as Iran) to terrorism, eventually resulting in an American-led invasion of Iraq and the arrest and execution of former ally Saddam Hussein.

How the American presence in Iraq will ultimately affect the stability and future of the Middle East remains to be seen. One thing is certain: after decades of covert operations, the American and allied forces in Iraq, and the support network that stretches into Qatar and Saudi Arabia, constitute the largest-ever foreign intervention in the region, an unprecedented move that will have repercussions for decades to come.

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Other Military Operations and Peacekeeping Missions: U.S. Relations and Operations in the Middle East

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