Middle East, Modern U.S. Security Policy and Interventions

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Middle East, Modern U.S. Security Policy and Interventions


The Middle East figures heavily in U.S. national and international security policy. Factors include the existence of enormous oil reserves in several countries, U.S. support for Israel, and the proliferation of terrorism on the part of Palestinian, Arab nationalist, and Muslim fundamentalist organizations. Coupled with these three factors, the last of which became particularly significant as Mideast terrorism reached the United States itself in 1993, was a Cold War-era competition with the Soviet Union for influence in the region. This prompted the U.S. government to aid Afghanistan, a country low in natural resources, but high in strategic value. Later, in the war on terrorism, Afghanistan itself would become a venue for U.S. military action. Such realignments of policy have been a regular feature in U.S. policy, which has seen shifts in its approach toward Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and other countries in the Middle East over the years.

Israel and the Rise of Terrorism

The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I ended the last in a series of Turkish, Arab, and Persian empires that had controlled the region for 13 centuries. Beginning in the 1920s, Turkey rapidly modernized under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, also known as Atatürk. While maintaining its Muslim faith, Turkey eschewed traditions such as the denial of equal rights for women, and in the eyes of Westerners, served as a model for the region. After World War II, Turkey became a strategic ally and a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

In the decade after the end of World War II, new nations emerged from what had formerly been colonies and protectorates controlled by the United Kingdom, France, and other European powers. Some of these new nations, such as Iraq, formed from three Ottoman provinces, were a product of modern agreements, with little historical identity as a national unit. Such conditions created tension between the military, hereditary monarchs, and religious and ethnic groups.

The Arab-Israeli Wars

Nowhere was the tension of the new Middle East more apparent than in the relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors. A 1947 United Nations (UN) map divided the area today known as Israel almost equally between Israelis and Arabs. Dissatisfied with this proposal, and opposed to the establishment of an Israeli state, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria attacked Israel shortly after its establishment as a nation in May 1948. Though outnumbered, the Israelis had a superior military, and defeated the Arab nations. As a result, Israeli territory expanded to encompass an area larger than that allotted in the original UN partition.

Israel attacked Egypt in 1956, as part of the Suez Canal crisis, but was forced back by pressure both from the United States and the Soviet Union. In March 1957, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed the Eisenhower Doctrine, whereby "the United States regards as vital to the national interest and world peace the preservation of the independence and integrity of the nations of the Middle East." Up to this point, the Cold War lines in the Middle East were not sharply drawn, but as Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser and other Arab leaders entered into agreements with the Soviets, the United States increasingly backed Israel.

In the Six-Day War of June 1967, Israel once again defeated a much larger force, and gained control of the west bank of the Jordan River, which had been Jordanian territory. From that point, the inhabitants of the West Bank gained a political identity not as displaced Jordanians, but as Palestinians. Soon Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) would emerge as spokespeople for the Palestinians, but the groups that made up the PLO did not speak with words alone. During the years that followed, Palestinian and other groups would conduct scores of terrorist attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis, Americans, and others.

The 1973 War and Lebanon. The fourth Arab-Israeli war began with a combined Egyptian and Syrian attack against Israel on October 6, 1973. Other Arab nations eventually sent forces as well. The Arabs were heavily supplied with Soviet arms and equipment, and in retaliation the United States on October 14 began resupplying Israel. On October 18, two days after the Israelis crossed the Suez Canal, the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) announced a cutback in oil production. This raised gasoline prices, causing the first of several energy crises that dealt severe, if temporary, blows to the U.S. economy.

Though Israel would remain at odds with most of its Arab neighbors, events in 1977 and 1978 provided an opportunity for peace with Egypt. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin first conducted talks in late 1977, and in September 1978, President James E. Carter brought both leaders together for talks at Camp David. The Camp David accords provided hope for peace in the Middle East, but incited anger from militants in the Arab world; on October 6, 1981, a member of an Islamic fundamentalist group assassinated Sadat.

In 1978, Israel invaded southern Lebanon, and began a full-scale occupation in 1982. Also overrun by Syria, which sought to exercise control over the country, Lebanon descended into chaos. It was in this context that President Ronald Reagan sent U.S. forces into the capital city of Beirut, where in April and October 1983, two separate terrorist bombings killed a total of 259 Americans, including 242 Marines. Reagan withdrew the troops from Lebanon in 1984.

Islamic Fundamentalism

Although U.S. support for Israel has remained one pretext among many cited by Middle East terrorists as justification for their attacks, the suicide bombers in Beirut were not directly linked with the Palestinian issue. Instead, they were members of a radical Shi'a Muslim group ultimately affiliated with Iran, where Islamic militants had taken control and established a fundamentalist, passionately anti-American theocracy in 1979.

One of the most successful early covert actions of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was Operation AJAX, conducted against the regime of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. Mossadegh had seized control of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951, whereupon the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) developed a plan for covert action against him. MI6 brought the CIA in on the plan in November 1952, and at the behest of CIA director Allen Dulles, Kermit Roosevelt acted as commander of the operations.

CIA and MI6 support for groups loyal to the deposed monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, resulted in his restoration to the throne in August 1953. Over the next 25 years, the shah remained a loyal U.S. supporter, and attempted to modernize his country, but accompanied that modernization with acts of repression. His secret police, SAVAK, operated throughout the country, practicing torture and dealing severely with opponents to the shah's rule.

By 1978, popular unrest had reached a boiling point, and the shah fled the country in January of the following year. Shi'ite fundamentalists led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared Iran the world's first Islamic republic in February 1979. On November 4, militants seized control of the U.S. embassy in Teheran, taking 52 Americans hostage. The Carter administration secretly called on the U.S. military to make a response, and in April 1980, a team composed of personnel from special military units attempted a rescue.

The mission was aborted after a helicopter and transport plane crashed at a remote desert staging area, killing eight men. The incident marked a low point for the U.S. military, which had seen no significant action since the ceasefire in Vietnam seven years earlier, and it proved to be a major contributing factor in Carter's failure to win reelection. Reagan won in part because of promises to build up the military, and on the day of his inauguration in January 1981, Iran released the hostages after 444 days of captivity.

Even as these events were taking place in Iran, neighboring Afghanistan became a Cold War battleground with the Soviet invasion of December 1979. The action called for a U.S. response, but just what that response should be was not immediately clear. Direct U.S. intervention was not considered, and Carter chose economic sanctions, keeping U.S. athletes home from the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. This did little to sway the Soviets, and resulted in the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

Reagan, on the other hand, chose to supply the resistance, various tribal groups known collectively as the mujahideen, or "holy warriors." While Saudi Arabia provided funds, China provided weapons, and Egypt provided training, the United States supplied the group of approximately 100,000 insurgents with sophisticated weaponry. Most notable among these were Stinger antiair-craft missiles, funded as part of a secret October 1985, congressional appropriation of $470 million. The United States also provided a variety of antitank missiles, C-4 explosives, and even Soviet-made equipment such as Kalashnikov rifles, as well as medical supplies, food, and clothing.

Iran-Contra and blowback. U.S. support for the mujahideen was to prove a significant factor in bringing an end to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which in turn helped bring down the entire Soviet empire. Despite this salutary result, the success in Afghanistan had a number of less positive consequences as well. One of these, the Iran-Contra affair, may not have been so much a byproduct as a concurrent event. In both cases, the United States secretly supported Islamic fundamentalists, with whom it had little commonality of aims, in support of objectives dictated by the Cold War.

The most devastating side effect of the Afghanistan war was a phenomenon known to intelligence and security experts as "blowback," or unintended consequences of a highly negative nature. Even after the Soviets began withdrawing in late 1988, Washington continued to send arms to the mujahideen, and did so until a late 1991 agreement with the Soviets to discontinue all activity in Afghanistan. With the Cold War over, Afghanistan lost its strategic importance, and the United States rapidly turned its attention elsewhere.

This left Islamic militants in possession of large weapons caches, and as the world community focused on other issues, various mujahideen factions began fighting amongst themselves. By 1996, moderate groups such as that of the celebrated rebel commander Ahmad Shah Massoud had been defeated by the Taliban, militant fundamentalists with support from neighboring Pakistan. The Taliban provided safe haven for terrorist groups, most notably Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, and supported their activities with heroin sales.

These circumstances would culminate in a number of terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda and other groups with apparent links to training camps in Afghanistan: the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; the June 1996 attack on the U.S. military complex in the Khobar Towers, Dharan, Saudi Arabia (an incident for which several groups have claimed responsibility); al-Qaeda's bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in August 1998; the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000; and eventually the events of September 11, 2001.

State-Sponsored Terror and the Wars with Iraq

In the war on terrorism, much of the U.S. effort would be directed against what the administrations of presidents William J. Clinton and George W. Bush identified as state sponsors of terror. Clinton launched attacks on alleged al-Qaeda facilities in Sudan and Afghanistan in August 1998, while Bush initiated Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, and Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 19, 2003.

Some critics suggested that Saudi Arabia should be considered a terror-sponsoring nations, since bin Laden and most of the September 11 terrorists were Saudi citizens, and the Saudis supported the Taliban and numerous terrorist groups in Palestine. However, the situation with Saudi Arabia is more complex than almost any other U.S. relationship in the Middle East, including the alliance with Israel.

Because of Saudi Arabia's oil reserves, wealth, and influence in the region, U.S. officials have generally tolerated anti-American statements by Saudi leadership figures. During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, as the United States prepared for and launched military actions against Iraq in 1990 and 1991, Saudi Arabia provided both funds and bases for the operation.

Libya. An example of the degree to which oil wealth contributes to strategic complications in the Middle East is Libya. With its desert location, a population much smaller than New York City, minimal industry, and lack of natural resources other than oil, the North African country would never have been a significant international player had it not been for the discovery of oil in the 1960s. Wealth from oil, however, served to finance a wide array of international adventures on the part of Muammar al-Qaddafi, who seized power in September 1969.

At one point, it was estimated that Qaddafi provided some form of support, ranging from funds to weapons to training facilities, for more than 50 terrorist groups. These included not only Muslim militants, such as those operating in the southern Philippines, but also the Irish Republican Army, the Red Army Faction in Germany, and the Japanese Red Army. The wide geographic and ideological range of Qaddafi's exploits, combined with the seemingly bottomless resources he poured into terrorism, made him a notable foe of Washington in the 1970s.

U.S. planes shot down two Libyan fighter aircraft over the Gulf of Sidra in 1981, and five years later, after receiving credible intelligence of Libyan involvement in a West Berlin discotheque bombing that killed a U.S. soldier, Reagan launched air strikes against Libya. Qaddafi was markedly less active after the April 1986, bombings, but in December 1988, he orchestrated the bombing of Pan American Airlines Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 259 people.

During the 1990s, Qaddafi's influence receded as the Libyan economy declined. Eventually, the terrorists associated with the Berlin and Lockerbie bombings were brought to justice, and Qaddafi even made attempts toward a rapprochement with Washington. An Arab nationalist in the Nasser mold, he found himself alienated amid the rise of Muslim fundamentalists such as those of al-Qaeda, and vigorously denounced the September 2001, attacks. On the other hand, in 2003, when the United States attacked the Iraq of Saddam Husseinanother Arab nationalisthe denounced the United States.

Iraq. During the Iran-Iraq war (198088), the United States gave most of its support to Iraq, which most of the outside world perceived as the less troublesome of two contentious states. But when Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait in August 1990, President George H. W. Bush, under the auspices of the United Nations and with international support, retaliated with Operation Desert Storm.

The Persian Gulf War resulted in the Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, the imposition of no-fly zones over much of the country, and a requirement that Hussein relinquish all weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But it also left Saddam in power. On April 14, 1993, Iraqi intelligence agents attempted to assassinate Bush (who was no longer president) during a visit to Kuwait. Two months later, the administration of William J. Clinton launched a cruise missile attack on the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

Saddam Hussein continued to obstruct UN weapons inspection efforts, and eventually forced all inspectors out of the country, claiming that the team included U.S. and Israeli spies. The United States and United Kingdom then launched Operation Desert Fox (December 1619, 1998), a bombing campaign against strategic sites in Iraq. Saddam allowed the weapons inspectors back in but, in the view of the United States, continued to deceive and evade efforts toward uncovering his WMD.

Some authorities held that Hussein had played a supporting role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and after the 2001 attack, President George W. Bush identified Iraq as a major sponsor of terror, suggesting that the Iraqi leader had directly supported the perpetrators of that attack as well. When Hussein failed to relinquish what Bush maintained were significant caches of weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. launched Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. The campaign proved successful, resulting in Saddam Hussein's removal and sending a powerful message to neighboring Syria and other known supporters of terrorist movements.



Lenczowski, George. American Presidents and the Middle East. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990.

Lesch, David W. The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Reassessment. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990.

Nelson, Jonathan M. Paths Not Taken: Speculations on American Foreign Policy and Diplomatic History, Interests, Ideals, and Power. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.

Richelson, Jeffrey T. The U.S. Intelligence Community, 4th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

Rothkopf, David J. The Price of Peace: Emergency Economic Intervention and U.S. Foreign Policy. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1998.

Williams, Mary E. The Middle East: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2000.


ADFGX Cipher
Africa, Modern U.S. Security Policy and Interventions
Bush Administration (19891993), United States National Security Policy
Bush Administration (2001), United States National Security Policy
Carter Adminstration (19771981), United States National Security Policy
Clinton Administration (19932001), United States National Security Policy
Delta Force
Egypt, Intelligence and Security
Enduring Freedom, Operation
Engulf, Operation
Iran, Intelligence and Security
Iran-Contra Affair
Iranian Nuclear Programs
Iraq, Intelligence and Security Agencies
Iraq War: Prelude to War (The International Debate Over the Use and Effectiveness of Weapons Inspections)
Israel, Counter-terrorism Policy
Iraqi Freedom, Operation (2003 War Against Iraq)
Israel, Intelligence and Security
Jordan, Intelligence and Security
Kenya, Bombing of United States Embassy
Khobar Towers Bombing Incident
Kuwait Oil Fires, Persian Gulf War
Lebanon, Bombing of U.S. Embassy and Marine Barracks
Libya, Intelligence and Security
Libya, U.S. Attack (1986)
Pan Am 103 (Trial of Libyan Intelligence Agents)
Persian Gulf War
Saudi Arabia, Intelligence and Security
Sudan, Intelligence and Security
Suez Canal
Syria, Intelligence and Security
Turkey, Intelligence and Security
USS Cole,
USS Liberty
World Trade Center, 1993 Terrorist Attack
World Trade Center, 2001 Terrorist Attack

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Middle East, Modern U.S. Security Policy and Interventions

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Middle East, Modern U.S. Security Policy and Interventions