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What have been the role and effects of U.S. foreign policies and actions in the Middle East?

Despite the physical distance between the United States and the Middle East, U.S. influence has been felt in every country within the region. Throughout the 20th century, strategic interests, including a longstanding competition with the Soviet Union, have provoked a variety of U.S. interventions ranging from diplomatic overtures of friendship to full-blown war.

American economic interests -- particularly in assuring access to Middle Eastern oil -- have long motivated presidents and lawmakers to intervene in the region. In addition, strong cultural ties bind American Jews, Arab Americans, Iranian Americans, and Turkish Americans, among others, to the area, and these interest groups seek to make their voices heard in the U.S. foreign policy arena.

Entering the Middle East

For most of the 20th century and now into the 21st, the U.S. has had global interests and a global reach to match. In the Middle East, the U.S. has made itself a key player by using its diplomatic, economic, and military power in support of its national interests.

President Wilson leaving Denver's Brown Palace to deliver a speech in support of the League of Nations, September 25, 1919 [ enlarge ]

In 1919, in an effort led by President Woodrow Wilson, the League of Nations (a precursor to the current United Nations) was formed. The League soon handed down a series of mandates laying out the colonial boundaries of the Middle East in the territories of the now-defunct Ottoman Empire. These boundaries continue to shape many of the region's political realities.

The U.S. enjoyed a generally positive reputation in the region at the end of World War I. Nationalists cited President Wilson's Fourteen Points Proposal for ending the war, which enshrined the principle of self-determination, in justifying their demands for self-representation. After the war, the U.S. sent a commission to the region to ask local populations what political arrangement they would prefer. All wanted complete independence, but if that was impossible, they hoped for supervision by the U.S. rather than by the British and French mandatory powers that were actually installed as a result of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.

The U.S. began to involve itself more deeply in regional politics in the late 1940s. It acted to support what it saw as its national interests, the most important being fighting the Communists during the Cold War, ensuring a steady supply of oil, and making sure that no single power dominated the region. More recently, it added fighting terrorism. The U.S. has supported leaders and governments it considered to be stable allies, like the Saudi royal family, Israel, and Egyptian governments since Anwar Sadat.

The changing U.S. relationship with Egypt

The United States was distrustful of the regime of Gamal Abd al-Nasser after the Egyptian Revolution deposed King Faruq. The U.S. under President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles expressed distaste for the government of Nasser and his policies of non-alignment and Arab socialism. After Washington turned down his request for assistance to build the Aswan High Dam, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956 to pay for the dam construction. Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal was met by a joint attack on the Canal and Sinai peninsula by Britain, France, and Israel, but they were forced to withdraw by the United Nations, with U.S. and Soviet support.

Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and U.S. president Richard Nixon converse as their wives look on near the pyramids at Giza, June 12, 1974. [ enlarge ]

Egypt turned toward the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc to build the Aswan High Dam, buy arms, and import wheat. U.S.-Egyptian relations suffered until President Anwar Sadat ousted the Soviet advisors and began orienting his economic and foreign policies toward the West. After the historic Camp David Accords resulted in a treaty between Egypt and its neighbor Israel, the U.S. rewarded President Sadat's peace initiative with a substantial, long-term aid package.

The U.S. and Iran

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Concerned about growing Soviet influence in Iran during the Cold War, the U.S. toppled the regime of Iran's elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq, who intended to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. The U.S.-backed coup against Mossadeq in 1953 reinforced the power of the young Mohammed Reza, Shah of Iran.

President Carter chats with Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, the Shah of Iran, in the Oval Office, November 15, 1977. [ enlarge ]

The pro-Western Shah was viewed by many in Iran as increasingly autocratic and oppressive. He tried to institute many Western social reforms by decree, and his secret police, SAVAK, viciously silenced opposition voices. A 1979 Islamist revolution against the Shah's regime swept a new kind of Islamic state into power, the Islamic Republic of Iran, governed by Islamic jurists and scholars. The popular hatred of the Shah also tarred his American supporters, and the revolution's anti-American passion led to the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, where 53 hostages were held for more than a year.

Saddam Hussein and the United States

The U.S. supported Iraq's Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), when Iran's new post-revolutionary Islamic regime appeared to be the region's biggest threat.

A U.S. fighter plane flies over a Kuwaiti oil well, still burning in the aftermath of the Gulf War, August 1, 1991. [ enlarge ]

Hussein, however, has since become a significant focus of American anger because of his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 -- which led to the Gulf War -- in an effort to control more of the region's oil. His known desire to develop weapons of mass destruction is also a concern. The U.S. began bombing Iraqi targets during the Gulf War and continues to enforce a no-fly zone.

The U.S.-led economic embargo of Iraq, intended to force Hussein from power and keep Iraq from rearming and further developing weapons of mass destruction, has had a devastating impact on the health and living conditions of the Iraqi people, and sympathetic Arabs hold this grievance against the United States.

The U.S. and Israel -- and the Palestinians

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The product of an energetic Zionist effort that began before the turn of the century, Israel was intended to be a national home for Jews and a place for them to return to their roots, both spiritually and physically. Many, including nearly 75,000 European Jews escaping persecution from Nazi Germany, found refuge there. But its creation came at a price. In addition to the many Jews who died struggling to create the new state, many Arabs were killed -- and hundreds of thousands of Arabs were either displaced by Jewish settlers from areas where they had been living or became unwilling citizens of Israel.

President Truman (left) accepts a gift from Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion of Israel, in the Oval Office, as Israel's American ambassador, Abba Eban, looks on, 1951. [ enlarge ]

U.S. support for Israel began when President Harry S. Truman extended U.S. recognition to the Jewish state immediately after its 1948 declaration of independence. Continued U.S. support for Israel has varied in form and intensity over time, but this support has remained a pillar of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. U.S. support for Israel is based on several factors: a commitment to one of the few democratic states in the region, a need for stable allies, a sense of a shared Judeo-Christian religious tradition, and as a market for the products of the American defense industry.

U.S.-made aircraft were critical to the Israeli victory in the 1967 Six-Day War that pitted Israel against an alliance of Arab powers. And when the Yom Kippur War of 1973 again threatened the Jewish state, a massive U.S. airlift of war material was crucial to Israel's survival in the conflict.

President Reagan's defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger (left), meets with Ariel Sharon, then his Israeli counterpart, in Weinberger's Pentagon office. [ enlarge ]

Recently, the U.S. has backed Ariel Sharon and his Likud government in Israel, even as Sharon has authorized military strikes against the Palestinian Authority and militant groups in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At a time when Israeli soldiers are regarded by many Arabs as agents of an oppressive army of occupation, unconditional U.S. support for the Jewish state in its struggle with the Palestinians has challenged American relationships with nations long considered allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. These Arab allies argue that American principles like human rights and freedom of the press are not promoted in Israel in the same way that Americans push for reform elsewhere.

Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, U.S. president Jimmy Carter, and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat meet during the 1978 Camp David Summit. [ enlarge ]

For many decades, the U.S. has been active in its attempts to broker peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Notable achievements include the 1978 Camp David meeting that negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel and the 1993 Oslo interim peace agreement that established a framework for negotiating peace between the Israelis and Palestinians and set in motion the process for achieving a Palestinian state.

Supporters of the Palestinians, however, believe that the U.S. has not done all that it can to bring about peace. After all, because much of the support to Israel is in the form of American military equipment, the American economy and American jobs are tied to a continually upgrading Israeli army. Some Palestinians argue that the United States is too committed in its support for Israel to make unbiased decisions and is unwilling to pressure the Israelis to negotiate a fair peace.

Promoting stability or democracy?

Despite many U.S. State Department proclamations that American interests lie in promoting the creation of democratic governments around the world, U.S. power has at times supported oppressive regimes in the Middle East. During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, many key policymakers saw a stable ally -- dictatorial or not -- as far preferable to an unstable regime that might side with the Soviets.

Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. dollars and military assistance continue to flow to regimes cited by human rights monitors for violations of human rights or lack of democracy, including Saudi Arabia (where a Wahhabi regime limits women's rights), Turkey (which has suppressed the movement for Kurdish autonomy), Israel (which doesn't enforce equal rights for its Arab citizens), and the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak (where an Egyptian American was jailed for encouraging voter participation).

The U.S. also supported the military coups in Tunisia (to depose President Bourguiba) and in Algeria, when the Islamists appeared close to winning a national election -- and winning it fairly. Recently, the U.S. supported the transfer of power in Syria from the late Hafez al-Asad to his son despite Syria's supposedly republican form of government.

U.S. military action

The bombed-out remains of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, where 241 American servicemen were killed in April 1983. [ enlarge ]

U.S. troops have seen limited action in the Middle East. As peacekeepers in Lebanon after Israel's 1982 invasion, U.S. forces fared poorly. Two hundred forty-one Marines were killed when their barracks was hit by a suicide truck-bomb in October 1983, prompting a U.S. withdrawal from Beirut to offshore warships.

After a 1986 discotheque bombing in West Berlin was traced to Libya, the U.S. bombed that country, killing three dozen civilians, including Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi's adopted daughter.

The most significant direct U.S. military intervention came in response to the Iraqi invasion of oil-rich Kuwait in August of 1990, which led to the Gulf War. Although the invasion didn't directly threaten American territory, a vital U.S. economic interest -- oil -- was at stake, along with principles of international law that protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations.

The Gulf War won the U.S. the gratitude of the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf for eliminating the Iraqi military threat, but these regimes have had to deal with increased internal criticism for allowing U.S. troops to remain in Saudi Arabia.

A member of the U.S. Air Force hands out candy to Kurdish children in a village in northern Iraq, August 1995. [ enlarge ]

The Gulf War also left charges that the U.S. had abandoned some of its most vulnerable allies. The Kurds and Shiis of Iraq were encouraged to revolt against Saddam Hussein by the U.S., with assurances of U.S. support. But little support materialized when the uprising actually got under way, and Iraqi retaliation against both rebelling groups was harsh. Limited U.S. intervention allowed the creation of Kurdish safe havens in the north and assisted Shii refugees fleeing into Iran in the south, but charges that the U.S. abandoned its regional allies linger to this day, leading to skepticism that George W. Bush's call for a new government in Iraq would be accompanied by full American support.

The U.S. and oil

While American interest in the region isn't motivated by the pursuit of fossil fuels alone, the historically complicated U.S. relationships with Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf states have often revolved around oil -- specifically, ensuring an adequate supply at a reasonable cost.

The Khawr Al Kafka oil terminal in the Persian Gulf [ enlarge ]

Since Standard Oil's 1936 discovery of massive oil deposits in Saudi Arabia, ensuring access to the region's fossil fuels has been on America's foreign policy agenda. The 1973-1974 OPEC oil boycott and the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 are both dramatic examples of how regional forces have challenged U.S. access to fuel. The 1973 boycott was particularly powerful; at the time, Arab nations supplied 37 percent of the oil consumed by the noncommunist world. To this day, ensuring the supply of oil from the region factors heavily in the development of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

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In the wake of Sept. 11, Frontline produced a series of documentaries, all of which dealt with the roots of terrorism and the complex evolution of U.S. policy and Islamic fundamentalism. This guide provides accompanying student lessons.

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What role have natural resources played in the politics and economy of the Middle East?

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Jump To:

Entering the Middle East

The changing U.S. relationship with Egypt

The U.S. and Iran

Saddam Hussein and the United States

The U.S. and Israel -- and the Palestinians

Promoting stability or democracy?

U.S. military action

The U.S. and oil


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