The Bully of the Middle Eastern Playground

From the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the United States’ role as a global superpower, American foreign policy-makers have viewed the region known as the Middle East with a unique geopolitical and strategic importance with the potential to advance American interests. Following the Allied victory in WWII, the United States emerged as the largest world power with a newfound military and economic strength, leaving behind the pre-war isolationist ways of thinking and introducing the capacity of the United States to influence world affairs, particularly those in the Middle East. Over the decades, the United States has utilized political influence, economic leverage, and military force to achieve outcomes viewed as favorable to US interests but not necessarily favorable for the populations who bear the brunt of military operations, sanctions, and political instability. The primary military, political, and economic motives that have driven US foreign policy have often denoted a disregard for humanitarian and regional consequences, undermining the fundamental ability of Middle Eastern nations to pursue independent development and political sovereignty on the world stage. The following is a brief history of significant United States interference in the Middle East post-WWII:

Partition of Palestine: One of the first questions US policy-makers faced was the partition of the land of Palestine and the creation of the Jewish state of Israel. Against the advice of analysts within his own government, President Harry Truman approved the plan to move 100,000 displaced Jews into the land of Palestine and became the first world leader to officially recognize the State of Israel in 1948. With the creation of Israel came the violent, mass displacement of 750,000 Palestinians inhabiting the land in an event known as the Nakba,  Arabic for “catastrophe.” 60% of Palestinians became refugees, more than the entire Jewish population of Palestine at the time. In their conquest to acquire more land for the Jewish State, Zionist militias destroyed some 500 Palestinian villages and 11 cities. The United States’ Staunch support for Israel in the decades to come would prove to be a source of tensions with nations in the region and a significant contributor to the widespread anti-American sentiment among Arab populations. 

Syrian Coup d’Ètat of 1949: In the same year that Truman recognized Israel, the CIA held 6 secret meetings with Syrian Army Chief Husni al-Za’im to discuss the overthrow of the democratically elected government in Syria. In return, Za’im’s new government would adopt policies in line with the wishes of the United States, such as the improvement of relations with Israel, including signing an armistice, as well as the approval of the development of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, which would bring Saudi Arabian oil to Mediterranean ports for exportation. Covert orchestration of coups, overthrows, and uprisings would prove to be the United States’ most effective and prevalent mechanism of achieving its foreign policy goals around the world. 

Iranian Coup D’État of 1953: In 1953, the CIA developed a plan to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh. His unfavorability with the United States was due largely to his plans to nationalize the country’s oil industry and his staunch opposition to foreign intervention in Iran. The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was at odds with Mossadegh, even asking for his resignation. He was also allied with Western powers such as the United States and the United Kingdom. In 1951, the CIA allocated millions of dollars to the Shah for the sole purpose of overthrowing Mossadegh. This was achieved in 1953, and the Shah went on to rule Iran for the next 26 years. His dictatorial regime was marked by a pattern of torture, executions, and suppression of opposition. These abuses culminated in the violent Iranian Revolution of 1979 that installed the Islamic government of today. 

Soviet-Afghan War: Another form of United States intervention was the proxy war, a tool largely used during the Cold War to counter global Soviet influence. In the 1980s, the nation of Afghanistan was split between the world’s two largest superpowers. The United States, with the assistance of Pakistan, supported guerrilla groups known as mujahideen in an attempt to destabilize and overthrow the leftist and Marxist government of the time. When Soviet forces stepped in to assist the government, the conflict developed into the Soviet-Afghan War, lasting 9 years. Throughout the war, the United States and Pakistan supported the mujahideen with funding and supplies. The war ended with the eventual withdrawal of Soviet troops. However, the aftermath of the war saw Afghanistan reduced to anarchy, widespread violence, and infighting. The country also became a hotbed for terrorist organizations, which developed from the American-empowered mujahideen. The most notable of these groups was the Taliban, who filled the power vacuum in post-war Afghanistan.

Iran-Iraq War: A revolution in Iran in 1978 and 1979 ousted the pro-Western and autocratic Shah and replaced him with Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, a devout Shia Muslim who brought dramatic shifts in Iran’s foreign and domestic policy, including a wary attitude toward American and Israeli actions and objectives in the Middle East. Upon Khomeini’s installment as Supreme Leader of Iran, Saddam Hussein began to worry about the spread of the Shia revolutionist ideology propagated by Khomeini, fearing a similar uprising could occur among the Shia sect in Iraq. In 1980, Iraqi forces invaded Iran through its western border, kicking off a deadly war that would last for the next eight years. Seeking to counter the revolutionist and anti-Western government in Iran, the United States provided Iraq with intelligence, training, the sale of dual-use technologies (equipment with both civilian and military applications), and billions of dollars in economic aid. Iraqi forces achieved initial success in their invasion, pressing forward against an unorganized resistance, forcing Iranian defense forces to retreat to defensive positions in the cities. However, an organized consolidation of its forces would allow Iran to launch a successful counteroffensive, regaining almost all of the territory taken by Iraqi forces and beginning a long stalemate that included failed attempts at negotiated settlements. Throughout the war, Saddam employed the internationally condemned use of chemical weapons, particularly preceding major offensives that relied on satellite imagery of Iranian positions provided by the United States. Declassified CIA files reveal the United States had full knowledge of Saddam’s use of poison gas and continued to support Iraq regardless. On several occasions, the United States military conducted operations against Iranian forces, including attacks on Iranian oil platforms and the sinking of Iranian warships and gunships. On July 3, 1988, a United States Navy cruiser shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing all 290 passengers and the crew. The United States falsely claimed that the plane was in international waters, causing it to be mistaken for an Iranian fighter jet. The total death toll of the war is disputed and uncertain, but the figure is estimated at between 500,000 and 2,000,000 military and civilian deaths, about half of whom were children. The war ended with Khomeini’s government accepting a ceasefire despite not achieving its goal of dismantling Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq. 

Gulf War: It was not until 1990 that the United States military became directly involved in a regional conflict, fighting among a coalition of states against Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi forces. In response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the United States led various countries in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, leading a bombing campaign against Iraq and eventually overwhelming Iraqi ground forces to take Kuwait. The bombing campaign left Iraq’s infrastructure and industrial framework devastated, contributing to long-term economic woes and an Iraqi population’s resentment of the United States and its allies. After the war, the addition of crippling sanctions against the Iraqi economy contributed to a full-scale humanitarian crisis. 

Afghanistan War: In 2001, the United States launched a war against the Taliban government in Afghanistan, accusing the Taliban of hiding Osama Bin Laden, the designated culprit of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Twenty years of war in Afghanistan would see the assassination of Bin Laden and the ousting of the Taliban government by United States forces working with the Northern Alliance. The civilian costs of the war amounted to at least 70,000 deaths, many of which occurred in neighboring Pakistan. A large number of these casualties occurred when the United States loosened its restriction on airstrikes in 2017. Another contributing factor was the controversial practice of “double taps” employed by US forces under President Obama, in which a drone strike would be followed by another sequential strike, often killing first responders and civilians who arrived on the scene of the initial strike. But the futility of the United States’ longest war would be revealed when US forces withdrew from the country in 2021, and the Taliban swiftly regained control and eliminated the Western-friendly government. A combination of a deadly war and international isolation of the Taliban government means a dire humanitarian situation for Afghanistan’s population, who endure a failing economy and widespread food insecurity. 

Iraq War: On March 19, 2003, the United States and Coalition forces began their invasion of Iraq under the directive of the Bush Administration. The pretext of the invasion was a campaign by the Bush Administration to convince Congress and the American public that Saddam Hussein facilitated terrorist organizations and possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that posed a threat to the security of the United States.  What was later exposed as an elaborate deception was orchestrated mainly by President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. The testimonies of figures such as Benjamin Netanyahu, Ambassador Richard Butler, and others were critical in selling the claim that Saddam possessed WMDs despite no tangible evidence. A powerful air campaign and swift ground invasion from the south quickly overwhelmed Iraqi forces, followed by the fall of the capital of Baghdad in just three weeks. Saddam Hussein was captured shortly after that, and a trial for crimes against humanity ended in his execution by hanging. But the end of Saddam’s rule and US control of Iraq, including its rich oil fields, would prove to be only the beginning of the continued Iraq War and the conflict and instability in the nation that continues to this day. When the United States demilitarized the Iraqi armed forces, thousands of Iraqi soldiers were left without employment, carrying resentment toward the forces occupying their country. Many of these soldiers were the beginnings of what would become some of the most brutal terrorist organizations in the region, most notably what would become the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, better known as ISIS. Intense fighting and widespread violence among terrorist groups, militias, and insurgents and their conflicts with US forces would prove to be deadly for civilians as well as soldiers. Around 300,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed directly by war since 2003, and other estimates put the number much higher. In the end, weapons inspections revealed no WMDs, and despite the official withdrawal of Coalition forces in 2011, US troops were again sent to Iraq in 2014 to combat ISIS operations. The Iraqi population continues to endure the costs of war, including internal displacement, a devastated infrastructure, lack of clean drinking water, food insecurity, and a severely hindered economy. 

Arab Spring and Subsequent Conflicts: The Arab Spring was a series of uprisings in the 2010s that spread across North Africa and the Middle East, beginning in Tunisia and fueling protests, civil wars, and devastating economic and political instability. They were the primary causes of conflicts in Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. The Arab Spring was the most dramatic example of the influence of American non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the implementation of their policies in the Middle East. American NGOs are funded by the United States government mainly through the State Department, the US Agency for International Development, and the National Endowment for Democracy, an NGO created by the United States to promote its idea of democracy worldwide. They fund NGOs such as the National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, and Freedom House. These NGOs serve as an extension of US foreign policy throughout the world. In the Middle East, these organizations promoted ideas of uprisings against governments that were viewed as dictatorial. In Yemen, protests escalated into a violent revolution that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a transfer of power that would lay the groundwork for a full-blown civil war in 2014 and a conflict that continues to this day. Yemen is subsequently one of the poorest nations in the world, ranked 183 out of 191 countries in terms of human development. A comparable rebellion of protestors and insurgents occurred in Libya against the government of Muammar Gaddafi. The United States and NATO allies intervened in opposition to Gaddafi’s government, and the conflict led to Gaddafi’s assassination by rebels. In Syria, the Arab Spring culminated in a conflict between the government of Bashar al-Assad and foreign-backed militant groups intent on putting an end to Assad’s rule. The situation quickly devolved into a full-scale war that continues today, with Syrian government forces fighting against militias supported by the United States and others through training, funding, and arms supplies. Although many of the rebel groups are not aligned nor united, certain militant groups are supplied and trained by nations such as Turkey, Jordan, and other Gulf States, while Russia and Iran directly support the Syrian government under Assad. The Islamic State (ISIS) has also played a large part in the conflict, fighting against the Assad government while simultaneously fighting against other groups, attempting to gain and maintain influence in the country. Incidents of United States military equipment falling into ISIS hands have raised speculations of an underlying US motive in its involvement in Syria. However, the United States maintains that its intervention in Syria was largely to counter the influence of ISIS and support groups that would do the same. Although the ISIS caliphate in Syria was largely dismantled in recent years, 900 American troops remain in the eastern portion of Syria, which contains the majority of the country’s oil fields. The United States occupies the oil fields in cooperation with Kurdish and rebel forces, all of which benefit greatly from the smuggling of Syrian oil. Former President Donald Trump admitted, “We’re keeping [Syria’s] oil… We left troops behind only for the oil.” About 80% of Syria’s oil production is smuggled out of the country, amounting to losses exceeding $100 billion. Syria also faces difficulties importing foreign oil due to sanctions from the United States that seek to prohibit petroleum-related transactions. An array of sanctions from the United States, in conjunction with the extraction of much of the country’s wheat and oil, have created an economic crisis and widespread food insecurity. 12.9 million Syrians face food insecurity, and 2.3 million are at risk of hunger. The protracted conflict, exacerbated by foreign meddling, has proved to be one of the largest destabilizing factors in the region. 

Occupation of Palestine: The United States’ political, economic, and military support for the State of Israel has been a crucial factor in achieving Israeli objectives and shielding the Israeli state from threats and consequences alike. Various conflicts have been fought between Israel and Palestinian liberation fighters, militias, and neighboring Arab countries. The mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 marked a dire warning of the implications of the presence of the State of Israel in the Middle East, a fact quickly noted by its Arab neighbors. Incursions and attacks from Arab guerilla groups against Israel prompted violent retaliations, often viewed as disproportional. The Arab-Israeli War of 1967 saw Israel acquire the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. However, the United States did not provide military aid to Israel during the war. It was not until the 1970s that the American-Israeli relationship progressed to an indirect military alliance that remains steadfast today. Since 1971, Israel has received more direct military aid from the United States than any other nation, at an average of around 2.4 billion dollars per year. Following a deal signed by the Obama Administration, Israel receives 3.8 billion dollars annually, designated to its military and Iron Dome missile defense system. The United States also provided Israel with billions in economic aid to prop up Israel’s economy in the 20th century, then reduced economic aid once Israel achieved full industrialization and development. The United States’ critical support of the Jewish state has allowed it to methodically protect its interests by exerting control over the Palestinian populations in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, often violating human rights and international law. Its military occupation of the West Bank began after the 1967 war, and it installed a subsequent system, defined as apartheid by Human Rights Watch and other groups, to move Jewish settlers into Palestinian communities, often evicting Palestinian residents. The Jewish settlers receive heightened rights, privileges, and security while Palestinians face the challenges of settler attacks, restricted movement, highly limited self-determination, and frequent Israeli raids that largely kill young Palestinian men and teenagers. In the Gaza Strip, Israel has imposed a blockade since 2007, highly restricting the movement of goods and people. At times, a committee in the Israeli government calculated how much food could be allowed into Gaza so that Gazans would have just above the required calories to avoid starvation. Gazans have not been able to travel outside of the Gaza Strip, with only rare exceptions. The blockade has also severely hindered Gaza’s economy, creating high levels of unemployment and poverty. Israel has also conducted multiple military operations in the Gaza Strip, resulting in high casualty numbers among civilians, particularly children. These operations are referred to as “mowing the lawn” within Israel and include Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defense, and Operation Protective Edge. Following Hamas’s Al Aqsa Flood attack against Israel on October 7th, the Israeli military began its most deadly assault on the Gaza Strip to date. Israel’s bombardment and military offensive have overtaken the entirety of the Gaza Strip, creating a severe humanitarian crisis. The Gaza population faces mass starvation as airstrikes and gunfire continue to kill large numbers of Palestinians. The Israeli bombardment and blockade have killed tens of thousands of Gazans, while other estimates place the toll in the hundreds of thousands. Due to deteriorating health and humanitarian conditions, coupled with the destruction of Gaza’s healthcare system, rising casualties from disease, malnutrition, dehydration, pre-existing conditions, and untreated injuries are not included in the official death toll. Even deaths from war go uncounted in the absence of a humanitarian reporting system. The United States remains a crucial partner in assuring the continued violence, as it has vetoed resolutions calling for a ceasefire in the United Nations Security Council and continues to supply the Israeli military. US President Joe Biden even requested an additional $14.3 billion to aid Israel amidst its Gaza assault. Regardless of who has inhabited the White House, strong support for Israel and its actions appears to be a constant, and the United States continues to be Israel’s most valuable partner in securing its objectives. 

While it is no secret that the United States has strayed from the isolationist ideas first expressed by founding father George Washington, several major incentives drive United States foreign policy that appeal largely to the nation’s top decision-makers. These incentives can be categorized as either military, economic, or political. In the Middle East, each of these incentives carries an increased significance. As a region rich in natural resources and with a political atmosphere that often challenges Western democratic ideals, US policymakers have taken a unique interest in the affairs of Arab nations. 

A major factor in maintaining military dominance of the region is achieving the largest presence of any foreign power. The United States has placed dozens of bases across the region, not always with the consent of the host nation’s government. The bases provide strategic importance and symbolic significance, flaunting the reach and power of the United States Armed Forces. The capabilities and technologies of the United States military are also tested and improved amidst their involvement in conflict and wars in the Middle East. Advancements in drone warfare, air defense systems, guided missile systems, and more have been critical factors in maintaining an edge over adversaries in the region. The defense industry in the United States exceeds $800 billion, annually increasing as Congress continues to increase the defense budget. According to Reuters, the shares of companies such as Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman are expected to rise 5-7% in 2024, outperforming the average growth of the rest of the stock market. At least 50 congressmen and their spouses own stocks in the largest defense contractors in the nation. As security threats and conflicts occur, the defense industry sees higher profits, new contracts, and more investments. At the same time, the defense industry is integrally involved in Congress and government, ensuring there remains a continual necessity for arms, equipment, vehicles, and technologies. 

A similarly profitable incentive that drives United States policy is the control of valuable resources, particularly crude oil and natural gas. Both of these resources are abundantly found in the Middle East and have the potential to enrich nations and cause them to be targets of foreign interference. Despite being one of the largest oil producers worldwide, the United States became highly dependent on foreign oil imports in the second half of the 20th century. President Roosevelt established relations with Saudi Arabia in the 1940s, just around the time of the discovery of Saudi Arabia’s oil deposits. Oil imports from Arab countries have remained a staple of the United States oil industry. A demonstration of this dependence occurred when the Arab nations of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an oil embargo in response to the supply of weapons to Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Gas prices in the United States skyrocketed, and most gas pumps shut down, proving the extent of the effect of oil imports from those few nations on the United States economy.  As such, United States foreign policy has sought to ensure that oil fields fall into friendly and amenable hands. The Carter Doctrine of 1980 declared the need for United States intervention to secure the flow of oil coming from the Persian Gulf. Whether toppling unfriendly governments in Iraq or supplying the Saudis with a steady flow of weapons in their conflict against the Ansar Allah movement in Yemen, securing oil and gas imports from the Middle East remains a critical factor in foreign policy and the shaping of Middle Eastern governments.

Another motive for interfering in the domestic affairs of Middle Eastern nations has been the aversion to contrasting or divergent ideologies, often relating to heightened economic and political independence from foreign interests. One of the best examples is the Iranian Coup D’État of 1953, which occurred after Prime Minister Mossadegh promised to nationalize the oil industry and remain independent from foreign powers. Such ideas contradicted the United States’ pursuit of establishing governments that could be swayed toward political stances more favorable to United States interests. Various atrocities, false flag operations, or accusations have been used to justify United States military operations in the Middle East, some factually based, others not. However, the aftermath and destruction created by conflict, sanctions, or instability almost always overshadow the original justification. In reality, humanitarian costs are overlooked in the pursuit of countering potentially dangerous ideas. 

Throughout the decades of interference in the Middle East, it has been the populations that endure the costs of war and instability. Arab nations have seen the usage of some of the most advanced and destructive technologies of modern warfare. Modern technologies have created a sanitization of warfare, with phrases such as “tactical strikes” and “strategic operation” obscuring the brutality and violence inflicted upon civilians unfortunate enough to be called collateral damage. The tragedy of the lives lost is the only reality for the innocents on the ground. Not only have leaders and decision-makers become desensitized to the consequences of their operations, but the same can be said for the American population, which has remained widely ignorant of the true damages its military and government have caused in the Middle East and elsewhere. Constant warfare and instability have severely hindered the progress of Middle Eastern nations economically and geopolitically. While it is not solely United States interference that has created all the problems of the Middle East, it has been that interference that has undermined the fundamental right of the peoples’ freedom to choose their path to prosperity, uninhibited by foreign interests and actions.

One Comment

  1. The policy of the United States since WWII and especially since 1960 has been to incrementally increase the danger, misery and death as widely as possible. But this democracy, because the American people are subject to the same horrors as everyone else.

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