United States Policy Towards the Middle East

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United States Policy Towards the Middle East

The Middle East lies across the shortest route by sea connecting Europe with South and Southeast Asia and exports a major share of the oil and natural gas that fuels the world's industrial economies. The Persian Gulf has two-thirds of the world's proven oil reserves. Saudi Arabia alone has more than a fourth of world reserves and Iraq is believed to have the second largest reserves.

Soon after World War II (1939–1945) and as the Cold War was beginning, the Gulf began to produce a significant share of the world's oil: 17 percent in 1950, 25 percent in 1960, and 27 percent in 1990. The United States had just become a net oil importer and economic recovery in Europe and Japan depended upon Middle East oil. As Britain withdrew from the Middle East, the Americans stepped in to secure a steady supply of oil at low and stable prices and to limit Soviet influence; oil security remained a basic policy goal even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In response to successive crises and challenges, the United States involved itself more directly in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia instead of retreating. Although the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were no more predictable than the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that led to them, they were consistent with a trend of more direct U.S. involvement in the Gulf since the early 1970s.

The American-Israeli alliance developed at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s. The alliance offered strategic advantages but also entailed political disadvantages in the Arab world. Since the 1970s U.S. policy has sought to close the gap between its alliance with Israel and its relations with the Arabs by mediating an Arab-Israeli peace. In the 1990s, as the United States intervened more directly in the Persian Gulf, it took a more active role in promoting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.


American involvement in the Middle East was quite limited before World War II. American Protestant missionaries contributed to the development of education, founding what are now the American University of Beirut, the American University in Cairo, and Bogazici University in Istanbul. American policymakers regarded the Middle East as a British sphere and usually supported British policy there. President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) and the congress endorsed the Balfour Declaration (1917), in which Britain declared itself in favor of establishing a Jewish national home in Palestine, and Wilson acquiesced in postwar British and French colonial rule in the Fertile Crescent.

The British were the first to develop Persian Gulf oil in Iran. After World War I (1914–1918) the United States demanded an open door policy for its oil companies, and so in the early 1920s the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) was formed with British, American, and French participation. Standard Oil of California (Socal, now Chevron), which was not a participant in the IPC, struck oil in Bahrain in 1933 and in Saudi Arabia in 1938. The Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO) was formed in 1944 as a consortium of several U.S. oil companies to exploit Saudi oil.


The United States became the major power in the Middle East in little more than a decade after World War II, to a large extent stepping in as Britain withdrew. The two powers had similar interests, especially the containment of communism and protection of the oilfields, but they did not see eye to eye on everything nor always act in concert. In 1947 Britain informed the United States that it could no longer bear the cost of supporting Greece and Turkey. Greece was facing a communist insurgency and Turkey was under Soviet pressure over territory and its sovereignty in the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. The Americans responded in the Truman Doctrine by pledging aid to both countries and support for their independence and territorial integrity.

In 1953 the United States joined Britain in boycotting Iranian oil after it was nationalized by Prime Minister Muhammad Musaddiq (1882–1964). In August the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assisted a coup that overthrew Musaddiq's elected government and secured the throne of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980). The Eisenhower administration was alarmed by the participation of the communist Tudeh Party in the parliament, even though Musaddiq was an anticommunist nationalist. The coup marked the ascendance of American influence in Iran. The British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now British Petroleum, or BP) had controlled Iran's oil since the beginning of the century. Now a new consortium was organized with American companies holding a 40 percent share. The United States also began to provide military and economic assistance to Iran. Over the next three decades the shah would remain a close ally of the United States while creating a royal dictatorship.

The United States supported and later emulated Britain's postcolonial strategy of maintaining hegemony in the Middle East through defense treaties and regional security pacts such as the Baghdad Pact alliance of 1955. Later known as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), it included Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan along with Britain, and was aimed at containing the Soviet Union on its southern flank.

Britain withdrew from the Persian Gulf in 1971 as its remaining Middle Eastern colonies—Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates—became independent. With Britain's exit the Nixon administration turned to Iran and Saudi Arabia as allies that could maintain regional stability. Both received weapons and military training under this twin pillar policy, and as major oil producers they paid in cash. President Richard M. Nixon's (1913–1994) strategy of relying on regional allies to protect U.S. interests in vital areas pragmatically acknowledged the unpopularity of the Vietnam War (1955–1975) and the certainty of public opposition if large numbers of U.S. troops were deployed abroad elsewhere.

In the Gulf the United States sought to block threats from perceived Soviet allies. The United States encouraged the rise of the Baath Party in Iraq because of their ruthless anticommunism. Yet the Baathist regime of Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr (1914–1982) and Saddam Hussein (b. 1937) that seized power in 1968 later signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union. At the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula, the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, independent since 1967, was openly Marxist. With U.S. blessing, Iran aided a Kurdish insurrection in northern Iraq (1972–1975) that distracted and weakened the Baathist regime and sent troops to Oman's Dhofar province, on the border with Yemen, to put down a Marxist insurgency.

There was far less agreement between Britain and America when it came to postwar Palestine/Israel and Egypt. British policy in Palestine restricted Jewish immigration and aimed at creating a state with the existing population in which there was an Arab majority. The Truman administration favored a version of the Zionist or Jewish nationalist program that called for large-scale Jewish immigration and the creation of a state for the Jews, who at the time were a large minority in Palestine. The United States lobbied for the November 1947 United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolution partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states and quickly recognized the new State of Israel proclaimed in May 1948. A more dramatic breach between the United States and Britain occurred during the Suez War, launched in October 1956 by Britain, France, and Israel against Egypt, in response to the nationalization of the Suez Canal. The Eisenhower administration distrusted Egypt's President Gamal 'Abd al Nasir (1918–1970), who opposed the Baghdad Pact, espoused neutrality, and received Soviet-bloc weapons. Yet, believing that the assault on Egypt was a disaster for Western interests, they joined the Soviets in demanding a cease-fire and the withdrawal of the invaders.

The Suez debacle marked the eclipse of Britain by the United States as the leading power in the Middle East. Two other consequences were soon apparent. The Soviets gained a firmer foothold in Egypt—their first in the region—not only supplying arms but agreeing in 1958 to assist in building the Aswan High Dam. Second, the war turned Nasir into a pan-Arab hero. Already before the war Egypt's Voice of the Arabs radio, broadcast with a high-power transmitter throughout the region, was attacking the Baghdad Pact and the Arab allies of Britain and the United States—Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. The wave of Arab nationalist and Nasirite sentiment that now broke over the region was seen in Washington and London as favoring the spread of Soviet influence. In January 1957, before Israeli troops withdrew from the Sinai, the Eisenhower Doctrine asserted that the Soviets were manipulating regional instability and offered assistance including the use of troops to countries facing communist aggression, direct and indirect.

In the first half of 1958 it appeared that the Arab nationalist goal of political unity might be achieved, and with it a setback to Western interests. In February Syria and Egypt signed a pact of union, forming the United Arab Republic (UAR) under Nasir's leadership. Then in July the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown by officers using revolutionary, nationalist rhetoric similar to that of the Egyptians. The United States and Britain responded by sending troops to Lebanon and Jordan. Lebanon was in the throes of a local political struggle now known as its first civil war (1958). The arrival of U.S. Marines in Beirut brought an end to the conflict while British troops propped up the remaining Hashemite Kingdom. The specter of Arab unity turned out to be just that, however. Within months the Iraqi and Egyptian regimes were trading invective, and three years later the UAR dissolved.


Although American public opinion consistently favored Israel, a close political-military alliance was cemented only in the aftermath of the June 1967 Six Day War. France was Israel's main source of military equipment before 1967 and provided the know-how and probably the fuel for Israel's nuclear program, begun in 1958. The French-Israeli relationship was based on mutual antipathy toward Arab nationalism and especially Nasir, during the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962).

The United States proposed more than one ArabIsraeli peace scheme before 1956, but Cold War geopolitics drew the United States closer to Israel as self-styled progressive regimes emerged in Egypt (1954), Iraq (1958), and Syria (1966) that espoused Arab unity and socialism, opposed U.S. hegemony, and received Soviet weapons and aid. Like prerevolutionary Iran, Israel was a counterweight to these states. A strategic relationship including the supply of heavy weapons began to develop between the United States and Israel after 1956, and a threshold to more sophisticated weapons was crossed when President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) authorized the supply of Hawk anti-aircraft missiles in 1963. While the emerging alliance with Israel balanced Egypt and other Soviet clients, both Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969) and Kennedy hoped that Israel would abandon its nuclear weapons program if it received sufficient conventional arms.

In the June 1967 war Israel conquered Egypt's Sinai peninsula, the Palestinian West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, and Syria's Golan Heights. Israel's decisive victory over the Arabs was celebrated in the United States as the triumph of an ally against Soviet proxies. The United States now became Israel's main patron, and aid—especially military aid—grew exponentially. In part this was driven by a postwar arms race. The Soviets supplied Egypt and Syria with new and more advanced weapons after 1967 and, again, after the Yom Kippur/Ramadan War of October and November 1973. U.S. policy was to ensure that Israel kept an advantage in conventional weapons. The doctrine that Israel is a strategic asset became fixed in U.S. policy circles during the Nixon administration.

The 1973 war showed the dangers of letting the Arab-Israel conflict fester. Israel threatened to use nuclear weapons if not resupplied promptly, resulting in a U.S. airlift of weapons. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait responded by declaring a boycott of oil sales to the United States and the Netherlands and reducing output. Separately the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) quadrupled the price of oil. Near the end of the war a Soviet-American confrontation was narrowly averted. A more positive inducement to pursue peace was Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat's (1918–1981) courtship of the Americans and the opportunity of replacing the Soviets as Egypt's patron. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's (b. 1923) shuttle diplomacy produced disengagement agreements in the Sinai and Golan Heights in 1974 and 1975.

In November 1967 the United States had cosponsored UN Security Council Resolution 242, which called upon Israel to withdraw from (unspecified) territories occupied in the recent war in exchange for peace with its Arab neighbors. This land-for-peace formula remains the basis of proposals to settle the Israeli-Arab/Palestinian conflict. In the 1970s and 1980s the United States supported Israel's desire for treaties of peace and normalization with the Arab states, refusing to deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), led by Yasir Arafat's (1929–2004) Fatah organization. The Americans envisioned the return of most of the West Bank to Jordan, but the Jordan option was undermined by PLO diplomatic gains and Israeli colonization in the occupied territories. In December 1988 the United States opened a formal dialogue with the PLO after it declared its goal of a state in the West Bank and Gaza and accepted Israel.

In the 1980s the strategic relationship between the United States and Israel deepened, whereas differences persisted over the path to regional peace. Israel annexed greater East Jerusalem in 1981 and stepped up settlement activity in the occupied territories over ineffectual opposition by Presidents Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) and Ronald Reagan (1911–2004). Israel entangled the United States in its bid for mastery in Lebanon between 1982 and 1984, resulting in the death of 241 U.S. marines in Beirut and a rare instance of U.S. retreat.

In the 1990s Presidents George H. W. Bush (b. 1924) and Bill Clinton (b. 1946) took an active role in promoting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The 1991 Madrid conference and subsequent working groups made little headway politically but established a framework for discussing economic ties between Israel and the Arab states. After Israel and the PLO agreed to the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles, Clinton strove to move the Oslo process forward over the next several years. Though it failed, the Oslo process showed how the land-for-peace and two-state concepts might be applied in a viable settlement.

Between the 1970s and 2000s the Arab-Israeli conflict was transformed from a conflict between states in a Cold War context into an asymmetrical struggle between Israel and the Palestinians for possession of the occupied territories. Egypt normalized relations with Israel in 1979, followed by Jordan in 1994. After Madrid several other Arab states established sub-ambassadorial contacts with Israel. A 1982 Arab League peace plan envisioned creating a Palestinian state in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 and called on the U.N. to ensure "guarantees for peace for all the states of the region," including Israel. In March 2002 the Arab League explicitly offered full normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories.

In the same period U.S. policy evolved dramatically from tacit acceptance of Israel's territorial gains soon after the 1967 war to President George W. Bush's June 2002 statement envisioning a Palestinian state alongside Israel. American opinion remained divided over whether the continuing conflict is part of the larger "war on terrorism" or itself something that feeds anti-Americanism and terrorism. Pro-Israel pressure groups gained a place in policy discussions that they lacked earlier, complicating policymaking in unusual ways. Israel's 2005 withdrawal of military forces and settlements from the Gaza Strip was seen by many as a step toward an eventual political settlement. However, Israel's policy of annexing several large settlement blocks in East Jerusalem and the West Bank seemed an obstacle to the creation of a viable Palestinian state.


Four events in 1979 shaped U.S. policy as it is today. In April Egypt became the first Arab state to normalize relations with Israel, regaining the Sinai. This enabled the United States to develop a strategic alliance with Egypt, which became the second greatest recipient of American aid after Israel.

Two months earlier the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989) returned to Iran at the culmination of a popular revolution that overthrew the shah. The United States lost its strongest ally in the Persian Gulf and the twin pillars policy was in ruins. The November takeover of the U.S. embassy and the imprisonment of American personnel for 444 days, known as the hostage crisis, poisoned what was left of American-Iranian relations. In July Saddam Hussein assumed the presidency of Iraq in a bloody purge. A year later he invaded Iran's oilrich Khuzistan province, claiming it for the Arab nation. In December the Soviet Union sent troops into Afghanistan to save a beleaguered communist regime, raising old fears of a Russian advance toward the Gulf.

The United States responded to the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by becoming more directly committed in the Gulf. The Carter Doctrine of January 1980 declared, "Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." To put teeth in this policy the United States created a Rapid Deployment Force that later evolved into the Central Command (Centcom) of the U.S. military. The new strategy, carried forward by the Reagan administration, still relied on local allies—Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf Arab states—while planning for the direct use of American forces. State of the art military and air bases were constructed in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis purchased Airborne Warning and Command Systems (AWACS) planes and advanced fighter aircraft. Supplies and equipment were prepositioned in Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, and Egypt. The navy acquired a forward base in the Indian Ocean by leasing the island of Diego Garcia from Britain. These preparations enabled the United States to respond rapidly and effectively when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

At the same time it prepared for the defense of the Gulf, the United States intervened against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Even before the Soviet invasion, the United States and its allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, had supported anticommunist mujahideen (holy warrior) fighters in Afghanistan. During the Reagan administration money, expertise, and materiel flowed into Afghanistan through Pakistan. Allies such as Saudi Arabia encouraged volunteers to join the mujahideen, and thousands of Muslims did so. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, some of these Arab-Afghan veterans joined radical Islamist movements back home, in places such as Algeria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. The most famous of the Arab-Afghan veterans is Osama Bin Laden (b. 1957).

During the Iran-Iraq war (1980–1988) the Reagan administration assisted Iraq, judging Iran's revolutionary regime to pose the greater danger. Aid to Iraq was stepped up in 1982 after a successful Iranian counteroffensive. In 1986 and 1987 the Soviets and the United States reflagged Kuwaiti tankers to protect them from Iranian attack, and the U.S. Navy engaged in the tanker war with Iran in 1988, leading to Iran's acceptance of a ceasefire that year.

The United States supported Iraq without illusions, except in underestimating Saddam's capacity for miscalculation. Condemnation of his invasion and annexation of Kuwait in August 1990 was nearly universal. President George H. W. Bush assembled a broad coalition of forces that ejected the Iraqis from Kuwait in February 1991. The coalition had a UN mandate to liberate Kuwait, not to carry the war to Iraq itself or to overthrow Saddam. Nevertheless, Bush compared Saddam to Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and made his removal a goal. A postwar UN Security Council resolution imposed economic sanctions on Iraq to force it to divest itself of unconventional weapons (weapons of mass destruction, or WMD). However, the Bush and Clinton administrations, backed by Britain, sought to use the sanctions for regime change. Several covert operations were launched in the 1990s, and the no-fly zones in the south and north of Iraq were used aggressively. Some analysts argued that American policy gave Saddam no incentive to cooperate in disarming, and controversy grew over the effect of the sanctions on Iraqi civilians, which included high child mortality.

Bin Laden and other radical Islamists have articulated the goal of establishing a new caliphate. However, his war against the United States and its allies, including his native Saudi Arabia, appears to have been triggered by the stationing of American forces on Saudi soil during and after the Kuwait war, which he found intolerable. President George W. Bush declared a "war on terror" in response to the September 11, 2001 (9/11) attacks by Bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization on New York and Washington, DC. Between October and December 2001 the United States and its allies including Afghan militias defeated the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which harbored Bin Laden, but he eluded capture. The United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 with far less international support, alleging that Saddam still possessed WMD and was reviving WMD programs, and that he posed a threat. Less directly Iraq was alleged to be involved in the 9/11 attacks. Neither allegation proved to be true. American and allied forces made little headway against a post-invasion insurgency, while an Iraqi transitional assembly was unable to achieve consensus on a new constitution scheduled to be voted upon in an October 2005 plebiscite.

In addition to invading and occupying two countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, Bush introduced two novel foreign policy ideas. In January 2002 he announced a policy of preventive war to keep adversaries from developing the capacity to pose a threat. The Iraq war was justified mainly on that basis. The other idea, invoked before and since the war, was the promotion of democracy and free markets, which he associated with peace and development.


Nineteenth-century Anglo-Russian rivalry in Central Asia was once known as the Great Game. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, a version of the Great Game appears to have revived, with the United States in Britain's role. During the twenty-first century more U.S. troops are deployed by Centcom in Central and Southwest Asia than in Europe and East Asia combined, and the United States has basing and military aid agreements with numerous countries in the two regions. There is likely to be a long-term American presence in Central and Southwest Asia (including the Persian Gulf) regardless of the short-term outcome of the Iraq war, due to the perception that American hegemony is the surest way to protect the industrial world's—and America's—supply of oil. Efforts to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian settlement will continue out of a recognition that failure to do so would undermine this and other U.S. policy goals in the rest of the region.

see also Oil; Suez Canal and Suez Crisis.


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United States Policy Towards the Middle East