American policy in the Middle East through the Cold War (1947-1991) was largely motivated by the United States’ desire to check Soviet expansion and influence throughout the world.
In the Middle East, this “meant preventing the Soviets from filling the void left by the end of Britain and France colonialism” (Beaver, Beaver and Wilsey, n.d.). Secondary to this issue, the United States has maintained a vested interest in the resources and facilities of the Middle East, including oil and strategic locations such as waterways.
With these concerns in mind, the United States developed two policies regarding the area: the promotion of peace and stability, and the recruitment of partners in the Middle East to curb Soviet expansion.
On May 25, 1950, the Harry Truman Administration coupled with Britain and France to profess the Tripartite Declaration. Not only did the three great powers agree to “not supply weapons to a state harboring aggressive designs” but to also “take action both within and outside the U.N. to prevent any change in the armistice lines” (Jewish Virtual Library, 2017). Though the doctrine was inefficient, it was a clear statement of American foreign policy.
By 1956, Britain and France blatantly violated this agreement by conspiring with Israel to squash the threat of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Egypt responded by nationalizing the Suez Canal, which led to an Israeli invasion for control of the channel. Moreover, in the early 1960s, attempts were made by the U.S. to improve relations, ultimately failing.
Though Iran struggled to remain neutral, the country’s disposition towards the Soviet Union earned them the occupation Allied troops for the purposes of moving supplies during the second World War. When other options became available in 1945, Allied soldiers withdrew from the area at the request of its government. However, U.S.S.R. assets refused to remove themselves from Iran and the country turned to the United States for assistance.
Because of American aid, the Shah of Iran became an ally in the Middle East and continued as such until the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Other examples of recruitment include the Truman Doctrine of 1947, the Baghdad Pact of 1955, and the Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957. All of these policies hoped to produce Middle Eastern support for the U.S. against the U.S.S.R. in the region.
The establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Shi’a clergy threatened the region and American interests. Among those intimidated was Saddam Hussein, the President of Iraq and a Sunni Muslim. When Hussein was willing to fight Iran’s regime, he received U.S. support during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988).
However, the discovery of vast oil fields in Kuwait led to an Iraqi invasion in 1990 with the claim that Kuwait was an Iraqi province. This unprecedented action, along with Hussein’s desire to develop weapons of mass destruction flipped American policy in the region.
The United States not only began to bomb Iraqi targets during the Gulf War, but enforced a no-fly zone, implemented an economic embargo, and intended to force Hussein from power.
After the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, American policy exclusively changed its focus to terrorism. In his speech on September 20th of the same year, President Bush stated “We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism…Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”
By alluding to the peoples of Muslim countries, Bush effectively depreciated American relations with the Middle East. Economic development was replaced by policies of military strategy and pre-emptive strikes. Indeed, following the events of September 11, the United States invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq.
While both President Bush and President Obama supported national security in their foreign policies, Bush employed the military on a large-scale to invade and subsequently (hoped to) rebuild in the Middle East while Obama focused on pulling back and bringing troops home.
Additionally, under Obama, the intelligence community expanded a great deal and a deal was brokered with Iran regarding nuclear energy (a power we’ve long had a rocky history with).
Beaver, Bobby, Jeffrey Beaver, and Matthew Wilsey. n.d. “The Middle East: United States Policy and Relations in the Latter Half of the 20th Century.” War & Peace: The Middle East in Transition.
Jewish Virtual Library. 2017. Tripartite Declaration: (May 25, 1950). http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/tripartite-declaration-may-1950