Global Politics and the Middle East

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Global Politics and the Middle East

When the United States went to war against Iraq in the first Gulf War in 1991 (a war in which many nations attempted to stop Iraq from overtaking Kuwait and other Middle Eastern countries and resources), it was not the first time that a major world power had become involved in conflicts in the Middle East. By 1991 a changing array of world powers—nations whose power was so great that their actions impacted politics far beyond their actual borders—had been directly involved in the Middle East for more than seventy-five years, and indirectly involved for much longer. The history of foreign intervention in Middle Eastern affairs is very complicated, and it has occupied the attention of numerous historians, most of whom have written from a Western perspective (from the viewpoints and cultures of such countries as Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and the United States). Yet even Western historians, who might be expected to have a favorable view of Western actions in the region, have generally concluded that foreign involvement in the Middle East has left a mixed legacy, with economic development and democracy existing alongside sustained violence and an undercurrent of anti-Western sentiment.

Imperial powers vie for influence in the Middle East

From 1516 until the end of World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies), the Ottoman Empire (a vast empire of southwest Asia, northeast Africa, and southeast Europe that reigned from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth century) ruled over the majority of the contemporary Middle East, excluding Saudi Arabia and Iran. Until about 1700 this Muslim empire, based in modern-day Turkey, was among the most powerful empires on earth, with territory stretching well into Europe. In the eighteenth century, however, it began a slow decline. The rising economic and technological power of the major European nations, including Russia, allowed them to push back the borders of the Ottoman Empire, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, the empire was significantly reduced in size and in power.

By the late nineteenth century European powers that had been accustomed to negotiating with the Ottomans for access to the Middle East began to speculate about its coming collapse, and they considered what their response would be. Newspapers in European capitals referred to the Ottoman Empire as the "Sick Man of the East," and diplomats spoke of the "Eastern Question." Perhaps the most useful metaphor for the way that European nations began to compete for access to the Middle East is the "Great Game," a term used by historians to refer to the way that European nations tried to gain power in different regions of the world by building colonies and trade networks.

To Britain, France, Germany, and Russia, the Middle East did not appear to be an ideal site to build colonies: it had few known natural resources and little potential for agriculture; much of the land was hostile desert; and warring Arab tribes made it difficult to conquer. The Middle East did, however, offer a wealth of possibilities to European nations. Russia, for example, wanted trade route access from the Black Sea through to the Mediterranean Sea, a route that would take ships past land held by the Ottoman Empire. Great Britain and France had helped to build Egypt's Suez Canal and depended on established routes through the Middle East to reach their distant colonies in India and southern Asia. Germany, which in the early nineteenth century had not been as active as its European rivals in the region, sought to establish trade routes of its own. None of these European nations considered the interests or aspirations of the native peoples of the Middle East: they looked upon the region as an empty map, ready to be divided to suit their needs.

Dividing the spoils of World War I

World War I dramatically reshaped the Middle East and its relations with the great European powers. Believing its survival was best secured by allying itself with Germany, the Ottoman Empire joined the Germans to fight against the Allied forces, led by the Britain, France, Russia, and the United States. The Allied victory forced the collapse of the Ottoman government. The nation of Turkey emerged from its collapse with its present borders, while the remainder of the Middle East fell under the rule of the Allied powers. At that time the United States had no interests in the Middle East, and Russia withdrew its involvement in the region after the 1917 revolution that brought a communist government into power. (Communism is a system of government in which the state plans and controls the economy and a single party holds power.) Britain and France thus found themselves in control of the Middle East, a vast and strategically important region that connects Africa, Europe, and Asia. The decisions that they made in the aftermath of World War I have shaped politics in the region to the present day.

Britain and France had no intention of ruling the Middle East directly. In the wake of a difficult war, they did not have the capacity or the will to put colonial governments in place. Moreover, world political opinion now held that nations should have the ability to govern themselves. Under what was called the mandate system, Britain and France, with the support of the international community represented at the League of Nations (cooperative organization through which nations could address problems), were charged with creating new nations within their areas of mandate.

As has been the custom of every great power in dealing with the Middle East, Britain and France did not consider the ethnic, religious, or political customs of the inhabitants when they established these new nations. According to Alan Taylor, author of The Superpowers and the Middle East, the Western powers behaved as if "the Middle East represented a declining civilization, one whose peoples and governments were inept and incapable of dealing with reality and whose cultures and institutions were not to be taken seriously." They created national boundaries and established local governments based on what would best serve their own interests.

Though this division of nations preserved the Western powers' economic interests, it did little to provide a foundation for stable national governments. France's division of its mandate territories into Syria and Lebanon created countries whose people had a variety of different cultures, religions, and political beliefs. The two nations have experienced nearly continuous conflict into the twenty-first century. Britain's inability to negotiate an effective compromise between the Jewish and Arab inhabitants within its mandate of Palestine has also led to persistent violence in the region. As Britain and France slowly withdrew their involvement from the region in the three decades after World War I, they left behind a troubling legacy of conflict for new leaders to resolve.

Cold War rivalries

The end of World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan) brought hope that many Middle Eastern countries might be able to pursue their political independence, free of foreign interference. Britain and France, the two world powers whose influence had been so dominant in the region for the preceding decades, were exhausted by the costs of the war, and they rapidly withdrew their administration of the region after 1945. Across the Middle East, political forces that had been suppressed by European dominance began to emerge, and Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq all saw the rise of popular political movements.

Any hope that the Middle East would be free from outside interference was crushed, however, by the emergence of the Cold War (1945–91), a political and economic conflict between the two great powers, called superpowers, that arose after World War II: the United States and the Soviet Union (or U.S.S.R.). These two nations represented very different political and economic systems, and they struggled against one another for dominance. This struggle, however, was not fought directly on a battlefield. Instead, the United States sought to influence other nations to align with it, while the Soviet Union competed to do the same. Their rivalry had a decisive impact on the politics of every region in the world, including the Middle East.

Though they had fought alongside each other in World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union soon found themselves pitted against one another ideologically (in terms of the beliefs and principles that governed their societies and cultures). Each believed that its system was best. The Soviet Union wanted to spread communism to other nations in the world, while the United States supported democracy (a system of government in which government leaders are elected by and accountable to the people) and capitalism (a system where the economy is run by supply and demand) and wanted other nations to follow suit. Rather than impose these systems on other nations through war, however, the United States and Soviet Union used incentives, such as government loans, to make allies. These groups of allies—pro-American or pro-Soviet—were called blocs. Both developed very different strategies and goals for the Middle East.

Conflicting strategies

One key to the Soviet Union's interest in the Middle East lay in geography. The Soviet Union was a large nation, and it bordered many other countries. It wanted to create secure partners on its southern border, which made Turkey and Iran ideal allies to acquire. In addition to making neighboring nations allies, the Soviet Union wanted to encourage them to develop communist governments. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Soviet Union succeeded in influencing nations in Eastern Europe to adopt communism, creating what became known as the Soviet Bloc. Over time it also forged relations with communist governments in China and, later, Vietnam.

The United States primary interest in the Cold War was in limiting Soviet expansion. In 1947 U.S. president Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53) announced the Truman Doctrine, which declared that the United States would support any government that was endangered by "armed minorities or outside pressures." It also presented the theory of the domino effect; that is, if one nation in a region fell to communism, the others would soon follow. This doctrine was a direct response to Soviet funding and encouragement of communist groups in developing nations around the world, which including advocating for the overthrow of existing governments to install communist ones. A secondary goal of the United States was to maintain Western, U.S.-allied access to the vast oil reserves being discovered in several Arab states surrounding the Persian Gulf. Late in the Cold War, the United States also began to champion human rights, which it claimed were very limited in Soviet Bloc nations.

These conflicting strategies, as each side sought to bring nations within its cultural and political influence rather than its control, dictated the way that the superpowers related to the nations in the Middle East. The United States and the Soviet Union each had one main objective in the Cold War: to gain advantage over the other. To achieve this goal, they would do whatever was necessary. The United States, for instance, would support a violent dictatorship if that government was fighting communists. As a result, the needs and desires of the people whose nations served as indirect battlefields in the Cold War were a low priority. In the Middle East, this often made problems worse rather than better, for all parties involved.

Iran and Turkey

Many nations in the Middle East were targeted to be made allies by both the United States and the Soviet Union. Following World War II the Soviet Union wanted to gain a steady partner on its southern border, both to gain access to oil fields and to have a secure port for trade. Turkey and Iran were ideal candidates, and the Soviets provided weapons and money to communist groups attempting to overthrow the governments of these nations, which were not open to the Soviets' plan.

Reacting against Soviet involvement in the region, the United States provided monetary and weapons support to the existing governments of Turkey and Iran, neither of which had a democratic government or a history of respect for human rights. Turkey's rulers had frequently used military force to oppress ethnic minorities, especially Kurds (non-Arabic Muslims) and Armenians (Christian Turks) who struggled to establish their independence. Iran was led by a shah (king) who held a tight grip on power, using his country's vast oil wealth to enrich a small minority and leave the rest of the population in poverty. The United States overlooked the antidemocratic nature of these governments as long as they resisted Soviet influence.

Turkey eventually moved closer to a democratic system and adopted many Western practices, such as the division of government from religion. The government of Iran, however, was overthrown in 1979 by religious conservatives, and a government based on Islamic law, or Sharia, was implemented. Iran's new Islamic government was neither democratic nor communist. It disliked any influence on the country that went against the culture and religion of Islam, and it severed relations with the United States and the Soviet Union. In the Cold War competition for Iran and Turkey, the United States succeeded in preventing either country from aligning with the Soviet Union, though Iran's unexpected new government was strongly anti-American.

Iraq and Syria

The Soviet Union also sought to make allies out of Iraq and Syria. In the 1960s both countries saw the emergence of the Baath Party as a dominant political force. With its promotion of socialism (a system where government owns the means of production, such as land and factories, and controls the distribution of goods and services) and secular (non-religious) rule, the Baath Party was a natural ally of the Soviet Union, which directed weapons and money to the political party. In 1968 the Baaths took power in Iraq, and, two years later, they gained power in Syria. Though the Baath Party in both countries had accepted Soviet support, they were not willing to accept direct orders from the Soviet Union. In fact, Iraq and Syria began to compete against each other for dominance in the region, a conflict the Soviet Union sought to avoid. In the end Soviet involvement in Iraq and Syria led to the creation of two well-armed nations that were not allies of the United States, but were equally determined to resist Soviet control.

One of the biggest criticisms leveled at the Cold War rivals concerning their engagement in the Middle East is that they attempted to purchase loyalty by providing weapons, contributing to the armament of nations controlled by dictators. Syria and Iraq are good examples of dictatorships whose access to weapons decreased the stability of the region: Syria used its military to dominate neighboring Lebanon from the 1970s into the 2000s, and Iraq used its armed forces to wage a long war against Iran (1980–88), as well as to face off against the United States in 1991 and again in 2003. (Ironically, the United States supplied weapons to Iraq during its war against Soviet-backed Iran.)

The Cold War and the Arab-Israeli conflict

The best example of the destructive impact of the Cold War rivalry in the Middle East is the Arab-Israeli conflict. When the creation of an independent Jewish state in Palestine was proposed, the United States and the Soviet Union were in agreement. They both supported the 1947 United Nations plan that called for two states—one Jewish, the other Palestinian—in the former British mandate territory in Palestine. When Jewish forces defeated the combined military forces of the Arab nations in 1948 and established the nation of Israel, the United States and the Soviet Union were two of the first countries to recognize Israel's existence. Yet neither country knew at first how to position itself with regard to Israel, nor how to respond to the desperate conditions faced by the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who flooded into surrounding Arab nations.

Since the late 1950s the Soviet Union had sold weapons and provided military training to several Arab nations, including Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. Though these nations did not declare their allegiance to the Soviet Union, leaders in both Israel and the United States feared that the Soviets might be gaining an edge in the region. Hoping to counter such influence, U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61) announced in 1957 that the United States would provide military assistance to any nation facing threat from a communist uprising.

Ten years later, in early 1967, this U.S. policy was still in effect when Arab nations began to mass forces along their borders with Israel. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970) made a public speech in which he vowed to use Egyptian forces to work toward the destruction of Israel. Believing that the Soviet Union may have been behind these developments, U.S. president Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) promised to lend U.S. support to help maintain the existing borders of Middle Eastern nations and protect any nation from attack. With this statement, the U.S. president allowed for the United States to protect Israel if it was attacked by its Arab neighbors.

It was in this context that Israeli troops, fearing a possible attack, surprised the Arab nations with swift air strikes followed by the advance of powerful ground forces on June 5, 1967. Despite the U.S. promise to help any Middle East nation against attack and preserve existing borders, the United States threw its support behind Israel, which within a few days captured substantial territories from its Arab neighbors and shifted the balance of power in the region.

For several tense days, observers around the world feared that the United States and the Soviet Union, which supported Egypt, Syria, and other Arab nations, would become more actively involved in the war. Instead, the United States worked with the Soviet Union to negotiate an end to the fighting, which lasted just six days. Perhaps more importantly, the United States and the Soviet Union worked together to create a resolution issued by the United Nations. Security Council Resolution 242 called for Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories in exchange for the negotiation of secure borders. This resolution has provided the framework for nearly every peace talk that has followed.

Despite its reservations about Israel's capture and subsequent military occupation of territories that had been set aside for Palestinians after the British mandate ended, the United States continued to be Israel's biggest supporter in the region after 1967. This support took many forms, including monetary donations to the military and the government, and helping Israel to develop nuclear power, which many in the international community feared would lead to the creation of nuclear weapons. Similarly, the Soviet Union backed the Palestinians, supporting their arguments about the injustices imposed upon them by Israel. From this time until the end of the Cold War in 1991, relations between Israel, the Palestinians, and neighboring Arab nations were influenced by their relations with the superpowers.

The impact of the Cold War on the Middle East continues to be studied by historians. Most agree that the superpowers' sale of sophisticated weapons to Arab nations and to Israel only contributed to the violence that plagued the region throughout the twentieth century. The money spent on weapons could have instead gone to social and economic projects that would have contributed to economic growth for these Middle Eastern nations. The constant conflicts in the region, including those supported and encouraged by the Cold War enemies, kept many nations from pursuing more positive social goals. By treating Middle Eastern nations as areas to be influenced in order to gain strategic advantages, the United States and Soviet Union hindered the ability of many Arab nations to achieve their own political and economic stability and independence.

Even more critically, the United States and Soviet Union for years neglected opportunities to advance peace talks

Oil: the Arab World's Major Weapon

The United States and the Soviet Union had significant advantages in their dealings with Arab nations: they had powerful industrial economies; large, well-supplied armies; and numerous allies. Yet the Arab nations had one great advantage over the superpowers: they owned the world's greatest oil reserves and controlled the fuel for the world's economy. Since World War II, maintaining access to the oil produced in the Middle East had been a major goal for the Cold War rivals, and it has remained a strategic goal of the United States into the twenty-first century.

Only once during the Cold War did Arab nations use their control over oil production as a decisive strategic weapon. In 1973 Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, in an attempt to win back territory lost during the Six-Day War of 1967. Instead, Israel claimed even more territory. Its expansion was held in check only by the efforts of the Soviet Union and the United States to stop the conflict. During the war the United States flew military supplies to Israel and promised $2.2 billion in military aid. In response, Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC; an organization of oil-producing nations) organized an embargo of oil shipments to the United States, effectively cutting off the majority of the U.S. oil supply. At the same time, OPEC took actions to quadruple the price of oil.

The impact of the embargo on the United States and on several of its allies, who were also affected, was enormous. Gas prices skyrocketed, huge lines formed at gas stations, speed limits were decreased to save fuel, and governments and car manufacturers sought ways to conserve energy. Within a short time, the embargo's economic impact was felt throughout much of the world.

On May 17, 1974, five months after it had started, the oil embargo was lifted, and prices gradually declined, though they never fell to their pre-embargo levels. The effects on U.S. policy in the region were substantial. The embargo pressured the United States to moderate its pro-Israel stance in regional negotiations, and Egypt, with U.S. assistance, regained the Sinai Peninsula from Israel. Other effects were unexpected. U.S.-sponsored negotiations between Israel and Egypt led to a landmark peace treaty in 1979, establishing the first official peace agreement between Israel and an Arab nation.

Around the same time Saudi Arabia emerged as the world's largest single oil producer. Despite its conservative, religious government, Saudi Arabia and the United States established close ties, which contributed to the decline in OPEC's influence as Saudi Arabia put its own interests ahead of the organization in which it played a significant role. This undermined OPEC's effectiveness in implementing one unified policy of oil production between all of its members. Though OPEC remains an important participant in the world's oil industry, market forces in the early twenty-first century were the greatest determining factor in the prices for oil. The United States, wary from its experiences under the embargo, has remained cautious and determined not to allow political disruptions in major oil-producing countries to have such an impact on its economy once again.

between Israel and the Arab states, and between Israel and the Palestinians. Instead of promoting peaceful solutions and compromise, the Cold War rivals tended to back extreme positions in order to maintain their perceived power in the region. Their own self-interests were of primary importance, and what was best for the region, such as peace, took a secondary position to the battle to win the Cold War.

Middle Eastern politics in the age of the lone superpower

The Cold War ended in 1991 as the Soviet Union succumbed to increasing economic decline and public pressures from its citizens and collapsed. Though Russia, long the central state in the Soviet nation, remained a significant force in international affairs, the United States was left as the one nation after 1991 with enough economic and military strength to be characterized as a superpower. That same year the United States led an international coalition, or alliance, of nations in a war against Iraq, which had invaded neighboring Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia. The U.S.-led coalition quickly defeated Iraqi forces in what came to be known as the first Gulf War and served to emphasize the United States' strength and dominance on the world stage.

In the years after the end of the Cold War, the United States remained intimately involved with issues in the Middle East. After the first Gulf War, the United Nations imposed sanctions, or restrictions, against Iraq and its leader, Saddam Hussein (1937–), in an attempt to ensure the nation complied with the war's peace agreement and to keep the country from developing chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. U.S. representatives assisted U.N. officials in enforcing these sanctions, participating in searches in Iraq for illegal weapons and materials. As the 1990s came to a close, however, many in the international community wondered if Iraq remained a threat to other Middle Eastern nations and whether the sanctions had outlived their usefulness and should be removed.

The issue of the sanctions was not resolved before another event drew renewed international attention to Iraq. In 2003 the United States presented information to the United Nations that indicated that Iraq was producing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in violation of the peace agreement it signed after the first Gulf War. (Weapons of mass destruction are chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.) U.S. president George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) sought international support to invade Iraq and halt the production of these weapons. The international community, however, was not convinced. The U.N. sent investigators to Iraq to try to resolve the conflict peacefully, but the United States formed a coalition of nations to support an invasion.

By mid-2003 U.S. and coalition forces invaded Iraq and defeated Iraqi troops. Saddam Hussein was driven from power. The United States believed that Hussein's removal would prepare the way for a democratically elected government in Iraq, which would then influence other nations in the region, such as Syria and Iran. After meeting with initial welcome from the Iraqi people, U.S. troops in Iraq began to be subject to violent attacks from insurgents, people who revolted against U.S. authority and perceived the United States as an occupying force rather than a liberating, peacekeeping presence that would turn power over to a new Iraqi government. In early 2005 Iraqis cast their votes for a new government, but U.S. forces remained in the country to maintain peace and combat the insurgents.

The U.S. policy toward the Middle East changed dramatically after the September 11, 2001, attacks, an event where two passenger airplanes were crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, a third plane was flown into the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., and a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania. The United States dedicated itself to combating the spread of violence, including that coming from conservative Islamist factions wanting to see an end to Western influence in the Middle East. The United States also pledged to support any Arab government willing to combat terrorism (deliberate, politically motivated violence against nonmilitary targets), but many Arab nations, remembering their past experiences during the Cold War, were guarded about allying themselves with the United States. In addition, many Arab nations were cautious about the United States' goals in fighting terrorism, wondering if the real purpose was to strengthen U.S. military presence in the region and gain greater access to the Middle East's oil reserves. The United States' continued support for Israel also contributes to the mistrust of U.S. intentions.

In one area of the Middle East conflict, however, the United States has made significant, positive contributions. The end of Cold War rivalry in the Middle East allowed the United States to focus its diplomatic efforts on resolving the long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The United States played a large role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord that was signed after the 1993 Oslo Accords, where the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israeli government recognized the rights of both the Israelis and the Palestinians to govern their own independent country. In 2000 U.S. representatives and international delegates created the Road Map to Peace, a document outlining how Israel and the Palestinians could progress toward a stable, lasting peace, and how the Palestinians could create an independent nation in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In mid-2005 the United States supported ongoing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the governing body of the Palestinian people, during which plans were made to remove Israeli troops and Jewish settlements from the Occupied Territories. Should a final peace settlement in this conflict be reached, it is likely that the United States will play a pivotal role.

In the early twenty-first century the actions of the world's lone superpower remain a source of both division and potential unity in the Middle East. To some, the United States is seen as the peacemaker, the nation that helped Israel and the Palestinian Authority create true plans for peace, something thought impossible in the 1970s and 1980s. While these plans had not yet been fully implemented by mid-2005, many were hopeful that U.S. involvement would lead to a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. To others, however, the actions of the United States and other foreign powers in countries such as Iraq have driven many Arab nations to despise the policies of outsiders who wish to influence their ways of life. There is little doubt that the Middle East, with its large reserves of oil and its strategic significance as a midway point between three continents, will always be of interest to foreign powers, and countries in this region will continually have to balance the role that these foreign powers play with the cultural and political needs of their people.

For More Information


Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004.

Diller, Daniel, ed. The Middle East. 8th ed. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1995.

Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East. 4 vols. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1996.

Lesch, David W., ed. The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Reassessment. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003.

Marr, Phebe, and William Lewis, eds. Riding the Tiger: The Middle East Challenge after the Cold War. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993.

Sayigh, Yezid, and Avi Shlaim, eds. The Cold War and the Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Taylor, Alan R. The Superpowers and the Middle East. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1991.

Vatikiotis, P.J. The Middle East: From the End of Empire to the End of the Cold War. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Web Sites

"Good Guys, Bad Guys: 1967–78; The Cold War as Regional Flashpoint." CNN Cold War. (accessed on July 8, 2005).

Shah, Anup. The Middle East. (accessed on July 8, 2005).

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