United States of America and the Middle East

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The Middle East has been an area of vital interest to the United States since World War II.

Although U.S. interest in the Middle East can be traced to the early years of the American republic, the region has been a principal focus of U.S. foreign policy since World War II. Oil investments and the special U.S. relationship with Israel were the chief reasons for U.S. involvement in that area of confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

U.S.Middle East Relations

U.S. contacts with the Middle East started in about 1800 in North Africa. U.S. naval forces defeated the Barbary pirates in 1816, but most relations in the nineteenth century were educational and commercial in nature. Protestant missionaries established several schools, medical facilities, and colleges in Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon.

In 1919 President Woodrow Wilson sent the KingCrane Commission to inquire into the wishes of the Syrian and Palestinian people as to their political future. In the 1920s and 1930s U.S. oil companies invested heavily in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. During World War II, the United States participated in the Allied battles for North Africa and established the Persian Gulf Command to transport lend-lease materials from the Gulf, through Iran, to the Soviet Union. By 1945 several U.S. air bases, supply depots, and transportation facilities were operating throughout the Middle East. From the end of World War II until the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, a major objective of U.S. foreign policy was to prevent Soviet penetration of the Middle East. When British political and military commitments in the area diminished, several Middle Eastern countries signed agreements with the United States, and the region became the recipient of the greatest portion of U.S. military and economic aid.

Soviet pressure on Turkey and Iran marked the beginning of the Cold War, and the Truman Doctrine of 1947 represented one of the first efforts in the new "containment" policy to halt Soviet expansion. Responding to feared Soviet encroachments in Greece, Turkey, and Iran, the United States, under the Truman Doctrine, sent $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey, and helped modernize Turkey's armed forces. U.S. advisers were also sent to Iran.

Founded in 1948 with U.S. support and, by the 1960s, viewed as an important strategic asset, Israel became the largest single recipient of U.S. economic and military assistance. Close ties with Israel were reinforced by humanitarian impulses inspired by knowledge of the Holocaust. The assistance to Israel made it difficult for the United States to establish closer ties with the surrounding Arab nations. During the 1950s Egypt refused to join a Middle East defense organization proposed by the United States, Great Britain, and France. Instead, the Northern Tier or Baghdad Pact, which was based on a military alliance between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan, was devised. The pact was linked with other containment alliances through Turkey's membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the West and Pakistan's affiliation with the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization in the East.

Efforts by Western countries to keep Soviet influence out of the Middle East were undermined by the events leading up to the ArabIsrael War of 1956. Attempts by the United States to cultivate better relations with Egypt were subverted when the United States refused to provide Egypt with aid to construct the Aswan High Dam; as a consequence, President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in July 1956. Despite the strain in relations between the two countries, the Eisenhower administration strongly opposed the invasion of Egypt by Britain, France, and Israel in October 1956, and joined the Soviet Union in condemning the attack.

Following the war, unrest throughout the Middle East and the spread of nationalist doctrines that the U.S. government perceived as leftist led in January 1957 to the Eisenhower Doctrine, whereby military and economic assistance was dispensed to the Middle East and the use of U.S. forces was provided to protect countries in the region "against overt aggression from any nation controlled by international Communism." The doctrine was tested in April 1957 when the U.S. Sixth Fleet was sent to the eastern Mediterranean to support Jordan's King Hussein. After the 1958 revolution in Iraq, Lebanon's
President Camille Chamoun also called on the United States for assistance to protect his regime from revolutionary forces, and President Eisenhower responded by sending 14,000 marines. They were withdrawn a few weeks after a truce was arranged, through intervention of the United States, between the various conflicting Lebanese parties.

The United States's efforts to resolve the ArabIsrael dispute during the Eisenhower administration centered on the Arab refugee problem and projects intended to achieve the economic reconstruction of the Middle East through cooperative development of the region's water resources. Although he was successful in achieving a de facto regional water-sharing accord, Eric Johnston, Eisenhower's special representative, failed to obtain agreement for proposals to resettle the refugees. During 1955 and 1956 the United States also joined Britain in a secret operation, code-named "Alpha," which was designed to coerce Egypt and Israel into direct talks. The operation ended in failure when another Eisenhower emissary, Robert Anderson, returned to Washington in March 1956 after a fruitless round of shuttle diplomacy. The Kennedy administration sought to promote good relations with
"progressive" Middle Eastern countries concerning containment. Kennedy also approved the first U.S. sale of a major weapons system to Israel.

UN Resolutions

After the ArabIsrael War of 1967 between Israel and Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, UN Security Council Resolution 242, drafted with U.S. help, became the basis for U.S. policy in the ArabIsrael conflict. Its requirement that Israeli forces withdraw from territories occupied during the war hinged on the achievement of a comprehensive peace settlement. The Nixon administration's Rogers Plan, which was based on Resolution 242, called for Israel to withdraw to its pre-June 1967 borders (with minor exceptions). After the 1967 war, Egypt and Syria were rearmed by the Soviet Union, with whom they signed defensive alliances. In 1968, when the British announced their planned withdrawal from the Persian Gulf, the United States decided to build up the military forces of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Ties between Israel and the United States were greatly strengthened after the 1967 war when Israel demonstrated its potential as a strategic ally by shipping great quantities of captured Soviet-made weapons to the United States for close analysis. Ties were also aided by a strong pro-Israel lobby that influenced Congress, the White House, and the media. During the Reagan administration a memorandum of understanding was signed between Israel and the United States calling for cooperation to "deter all threats from the Soviet Union to the region." The pact provided for joint military exercises and working groups for cooperation in development and in the defense trade. In 1987 the U.S. Congress formally designated Israel a "major non-NATO ally." Israel was considered a special case in U.S. efforts to curb the expansion of nuclear powers and was not pressured to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

During the 1973 October War between Israel and Egypt and Syria, U.S.Soviet relations worsened. Moscow and Washington provided their respective clients with billions of dollars in arms; a threat by the Soviets to send troops to assist Egypt and nuclear alert by the United States brought the two countries to the brink of war. After the outbreak of the war in late October, the Arab oil-producing nations imposed an oil embargo that created an energy crisis in the United States and Western Europe. A peace conference at Geneva in December 1973 broke up after two days without settling the conflict, but Secretary of State Henry Kissinger subsequently initiated step-by-step negotiations that resulted in disengagement agreements between Israel, Syria, and Egypt and provided for Israel's withdrawal from parts of Sinai and the Golan area.

Relations between Egypt and the United States improved after 1973 as Egypt's President Anwar alSadat shifted from relying on Soviet aid to being receptive to U.S. influence. Hoping to capitalize on the improved diplomatic climate, President Jimmy Carter attempted to reconvene the Geneva Peace Conference in 1977, but Sadat flew to Jerusalem in November to start direct negotiations with Israel.
Sadat's dramatic initiative began a new peace process based on direct bilateral contacts between Egypt and Israel. When bitter disagreements between the two adversaries threatened to disrupt negotiations, Carter intervened personally. He invited Sadat and Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp David, where two frameworks for peace were hammered outone dealing with EgyptianIsraeli relations and the other with the Palestinian issue. Under Carter's guidance, the Camp David Accords were shaped into the EgyptianIsraeli peace treaty that was signed in Washington, D.C., in March 1979. At the Camp David summit Carter persuaded Begin to include establishment of a Palestinian "self-governing authority" in the final accords. "Palestinian home-land" and "Palestinian rights" were accepted for the first time as legitimate concepts by the U.S. government.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Carter's policy of containing Soviet influence in the Persian Gulf was undermined when his close ally Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, was overthrown in 1979. The president's efforts to obtain the release of U.S. hostages held by the new revolutionary government in Tehran took over a year to resolve successfully, and this delay was a factor in his loss of the 1980 presidential election.

Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush continued the containment policies of their predecessors and also became deeply involved in the ArabIsrael conflict. During the Lebanese war in 1982, Reagan sent the Sixth Fleet and the U.S. Marines to Beirut as part of a multinational peace-keeping force. Lebanese militias attacked the marines, inflicting heavy casualties, and the marines were withdrawn soon after. The Reagan plan for Middle East peace envisioned "self-government by the Palestinians . . . in association with Jordan" as the "best chance for a durable, just, and lasting peace." Bush's attempts to continue negotiations based on the Reagan plan and Resolution 242 were stymied until 1991, when the Madrid Conference convened. Cosponsored by the United States and Russia, the new peace process provided for bilateral talks between Israel and Syria, Lebanon, and joint JordanianPalestinian delegations. It also included a series of multilateral meetings on such substantive issues as security, environment, economic development, water, and refugees.

President Bush involved the United States in its largest foreign military operation since Vietnam when in 1991 he sent U.S. forces to drive Iraq from Kuwait. From a military perspective, the operation was a success because the United States and the allied forces sustained only minor casualties. Bush was sharply criticized, however, because Iraq's President Saddam Hussein remained in power despite his defeat on the battlefield.

PostCold War Policy

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a new phase of U.S. foreign policy began; containment was no longer the principal objective. Instead, Russia and the United States cooperated in regard to the Middle East. As Soviet influence in the region declined, the United States became the dominant power, and its influence was paramount. This situation greatly facilitated Washington's goal of maintaining the political status quo through its support of friendly regimes. It also made it easier to intervene when U.S. concerns such as assured access to oil and the security of Israel appeared to be threatened.

Initial attempts by President William J. Clinton to resolve the ArabIsrael conflict seemed encouraging, but the failure of an IsraeliPalestinian summit at Camp David in July 2000 contributed to a second Palestinian intifada (uprising) against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. By 2003 hostilities degenerated into a low-intensity war between Israel and Palestinians that threatened U.S. policies aimed at maintaining stability in the region through support for the status quo.

An attack by Middle Eastern terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York and severely damaged the Pentagon in Virginia on 11 September 2001, resulting in thousands of casualties. The September attack intensified President George W. Bush's war on terrorism, leading to a U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan resulted in expulsion of the Taliban government in Kabul and establishment of a new regime allied with the United States. Bush renewed efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2002 and 2003, charging that he was a threat to international peace and that he had developed weapons of mass destruction in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. U.S. forces were assembled in surrounding countries, and invaded Iraq in March 2003.

see also camp david accords (1978); camp david summit (2000); gulf crisis (19901991); kingcrane commission (1919); madrid conference (1991); twin pillars policy; war in iraq (2003).


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don peretz

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United States of America and the Middle East