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The United States and the Middle East: Roots of the Past Lead to the Present

It may be one color on the map, but the Middle East is certainly not a homogeneous place.

It may be one color on the map, but the Middle East is certainly not a homogeneous place.

The Middle East, exotic land of tales, that reigns in the American mind as a dangerous, divided, and deeply alien place, was for much of American history a land with which the United States had little contact. But for the past century, and especially following the Second World War, American interests in the region have grown by leaps and bounds. These have been in response to a host of issues - Israel, the perhaps-unlikely American ally, the containment of communism and radicalism, and above all else, the need for the region’s vital oil reserves. How does this complicated legacy continue to reflect on recent American actions in the region?

Perhaps this question is best answered by looking at the most important element of any region : the people that make it up. In contrast to American perspectives which broadly see two groups in the region - the Arabs (alternatively, the Muslims), and the Jews, the Middle East is an incredibly complicated religious patchwork, including both the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam, Jews, Christians of a host of different sects, Druze, and many beyond this. The region is not simply one of duality, and America has links with many. But if it has one grouping with which it has a true special friendship, then it is the Jews of israel.

Why exactly the United States developed its special relationship with Israel is something that has been debated, as an internal electoral American concern or rather one of cold war mutual interests. At first glance it is somewhat bizarre : why has the US pursued a policy of close alignment towards what is, in the end of things, a small and insignificant nation, when this has alienated hundreds of million of people who command vast resources of oil vital to American interests, and potentially driven them closer to the very dangerous of communism and radicalism that the US ostensibly allies itself with Israel to defend against? Israel has been much more successful at portraying its similarity with US values and impressing American opinion during policy making than its Arab counterparts. This was hardly inevitable, given the extensive American anti-semitic prejudice of the early 20th century, but ultimately Israel has been able to portray itself much like America - as a young, bright, energetic, hard-working, productive, and very much Western nation , surrounded by alien, decadent,fanatical, irrational, degenerate, tyrannical, and parasitical opponents. This was both accomplished by Israeli representations of themselves, but also by sympathetic Americans as well, as well as the lingering memories of brutality exercised against Jews in the Holocaust. These differing representations of Israel and the surrounding nations have made for different responses to them : Israel has been treated as a headstrong but friendly ally, while surrounding nations are backwards and emotional. When Ibn Saud, King of Saudi Arabia, asked for US help on an irrigation project, the response from President Truman was that “he should send for a Moses to strike rocks in various places with his staff and he’d have plenty of water.” In effect, their needs are belittled.

Thus a dichotomy emerges which has created and propagates a US policy in the region : Arab demands for a more equal and just treatment and for control over their resources are met with the charge that they are simply demanding it out of emotional-based anti-Western hatred, while the Israelis are just, noble, rational representatives of the Western world. This dichotomy is no spectre from the past, but rather haunts the present, often to a poor reflection upon the United States.

It is all well and good to have a friendly dictator ally, such as the Shah of Iran, but what happens when they're overthrown?

It is all well and good to have a friendly dictator ally, such as the Shah of Iran, but what happens when they're overthrown?

Of course, this is not absolute, and the US has had and continues to have allies in the region other than simply Israel. Unfortunately, many of these allies are allies with the US not on the basis of popular accord, but upon elite correspondence with the US. In times of tranquility this is of little consequence, but it leaves alliances the US holds in the region open to dangerous instability. Perhaps most piercing for Americans is Iran : once hailed as an American ally, where a belief that the US had a special relationship with the Iranian imperial regime was de rigeur, and where US president Carter exalted in Iran as a beacon of stability in the region in 1978, Iran collapsed into the fires of revolution within a year, overturning the friendly stable US regime and becoming an Islamic republic with which the US has had icy relations for decades. Twenty years earlier, the same story had played itself out in Iraq, where a moderate, pro-Western regime that the US had expressed confidence and satisfaction in was overthrown by a nationalist government which charted an independent course for the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates. The US fundamentally underestimated the legitimacy and power of its Iranian ally, and paid the price when it collapsed. It is a chilly warning for the US today : it boasts not friendly publics throughout the Middle East, but instead fragile regimes where the overturning of an elite risks a radical change in a country’s relationship with the United States. The United States has attempted to meet this with programs of moderate reform, but instead of shoring up friendly regimes, more often this has led to the dissolution of the conservative states which America was on good terms with. In both the courts of Persepolis and on the banks of the Euphrates, US movements for reform ultimately failed to stem revolution, or even hastened it. US hostility to revolution and anathema to traditionalism has run itself on the rocks of reform all too often.

But if US policy in the Middle East has often been driven by faulty perceptions and incorrect assumptions, one thing which the US can be pardoned of is the accusation that its foreign policy is driven alone by oil companies. Instead of US policy in the middle east being a cozy link between American imperialism and American oil companies, divisions have constantly plagued this relationship, and the united States and its oil companies are easily parted. Libya applied pressure on Western Oil companies in 1969 to increase its own share of profits : the large American Exxon oil company had the power to ignore these demands, but Occidental Petroleum, could not. It received no assistance from fellow oil companies, and was ultimately forced to cede to Libyan demands, much to the US State Department’s horror. Just a few years later, oil companies increasingly wanted to separate themselves from US association to protect themselves from anti-US pressure being applied upon themselves in response to the US pro-Israeli policy. Instead of being titans which drive US policy and march in lockstep with the US State Department, US oil companies, despite their size and profits (especially in times that are bad for consumers - it is no surprise that US oil companies made record profits during the 1970s despite the extensive political pressure applied on them), appear curiously vulnerable, weak, divided, and often impotent. US consumers unhappy about rises in their oil prices, be it in the 2000s or 1970s, would do best to look somewhere else than oil companies as the source of their woes, despite the obnoxious greed that they represent.

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While not necessarily glamorous, the US negotiating relationship with the Middle East was also well displayed as a result of the Libyan incident of 1969. When the United States attempted to reach a satisfactory solution related to conflict over oil and pricing issues in 1971 after the Libyan fiasco, with a two-track negotiations between the Middle East proper and North Africa respectively, the former resulted in more generous terms for the United States. Shortly thereafter, North Africa secured a more competitive agreement, which resulted in Middle Eastern pressure for renegotiation of the accords. The difficulties of a multilateral world are displayed : it is not a question of simply a bilateral relationship between two nations. Middle Eastern oil-producing nations have learned this lesson as well, to their cost : attempts to drive oil prices too high results in the growth of competition, and the goose that lays the golden egg is slaughtered. This open market, a result of US efforts to ensure the open door for petroleum, is a critical tool of US influence - but the rules of multilateralism imposed by the US impinge on and enforce the behavior of all actors.


Little, Douglas, American orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945, North Carolina, The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas

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