Since the 1950s, I have watched the decline in the United States relationship with the nations of the Middle East.
The U.S. government has grown progressively less inhibited in the use of direct military force in the Middle East, and less concerned with international law and world public opinion. Despite an expanded military presence in the region, the U.S. government has become progressively less able to influence events there. Successive U.S. military interventions have been an education to our enemies in how to fight us, and they have learned their lessons well.
Looking at the many U.S. interventions (many of which I thought were a good idea at the time), I don’t see how the USA would have been any worse off if we had left the Middle East alone.
- During the Eisenhower administration, the U.S. government supplied favored governments with military and other foreign aid, and engineered at least one coup, against the Mohammed Mossadegh government (which was legally elected), but reined in Britain, France and Israel when they attacked Egypt.
- In the Reagan administration, the United States began committing acts of war against Middle East countries — bombarding villages in Lebanon in retaliation for the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut; bombarding Libya in retaliation for President Qaddafi’s involvement in the terror bombing of an airliner
- In the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. for the first time invaded and occupied a Middle East country, in order to set up a more acceptable government. This followed nearly a decade of low-level war—blockade and bombing—under the administration. The target was Iraq, whose government had never threatened the United States.
- The Obama administration is talking about intervening in conflicts within Middle Eastern nations, to make sure the side most favorable to the United States wins. This is a hard choice, because so many of the factions, however much they hate each other, are agreed they don’t want foreign control of their countries.
An evolution also has taken place in the enemies of the United States. In each generation, the new leaders are fiercer, more savage and more implacable than the ones that went before. I think Americans today would be pleased to deal with the likes of Mohammed Mossadegh and Gamel Abdel Nasser, and even Saddam Hussein and Hafiz al-Assad seem moderate and reasonable compared to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
We Americans value freedom of religion and equal rights for women, but Christians and other minorities were persecuted less under Nasser and Saddam, and women enjoyed greater opportunities, than they do in Egypt and Iraq today.
Our enemies, unlike us, have grown more effective. What our government has been doing with its interventions has been giving our enemies lessons in how to fight us. They have learned they can’t fight us on the battlefield, on our own terms, as Saddam Hussein tried to do. Instead they have improved on classic guerrilla tactics, in which the enemy’s strength is used against him.
The Pentagon and the CIA know how to topple governments, overtly and covertly. But they can’t topple a movement such as ISIS, any more than Israel can topple Hamas, because they are mass movements, not governments. Kill or capture the leaders, and more leaders emerge to take their place.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is apparent that in terms of the goal of obtaining access to oil, the United States government would have done better to stay out of Middle East conflicts.
The Japanese and Chinese, whose governments have been neutral, are just as free to buy Middle East oil as Americans.
U.S. access to the oil of the Middle East has been threatened only once—during the Arab oil embargo of 1973. The embargo was in retaliation for U.S. meddling in the Middle East, and was ineffective anyway. There also was a brief oil shortage in 1979 following the interruption of oil production in Iran following the overthrow of the Shah.
But broadly speaking, the oil-producing countries need to sell oil as badly as the United States and other oil-consuming countries need to buy it. Not even the anti-American government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela cut off oil sales to the United States, because that would have hurt Venezuelans as much or more than it would have hurt us Americans. Economic self-interest, in some circumstances, can be a powerful force for good.
Of course prior to 1991, the U.S. government had a negative as well as a positive goal. The negative goal was to keep the Soviet Union from gaining control of the governments and resources of the Middle East. Maybe the Soviets would have gotten bogged down in quagmires of their own without the United States doing anything, and maybe not. There is no way to know for sure. I can understand why American policymakers wouldn’t want to stand aside and find out.
U.S. policy today could be interpreted as having the goal of being able to deny the Chinese access to the oil of the Middle East. I have no evidence that this is the goal, but if the Chinese government thinks otherwise, this would explain why they are building up an ocean-going navy and demanding control of the sea lanes around China.