Global Connections: 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 led to U.S. interventions ranging from diplomatic overtures of friendship to full-blown war.

American economic interests, especially Middle Eastern oil, have long motivated presidents and Congress to intervene in the region. In addition, strong cultural ties bind Middle Eastern immigrants to the area, and these interest groups try to influence U.S. foreign policy in the region.

The changing U.S. relationship with Egypt

The United States did not trust Egyptian President Gamal Abd al-Nasser, who came to power in 1956. Washington turned down his request for assistance to build the Aswan High Dam, and Nasser responded by nationalizing the Suez Canal to pay for the dam construction.

Egypt turned to the Soviet Union to build the Aswan High Dam, buy arms, and import wheat. U.S.-Egyptian relations suffered until a new president, Anwar Sadat, kicked out the Soviet advisors and began cooperating with the West. After the historic Camp David Accords resulted in a treaty between Egypt and Israel, the U.S. rewarded President Sadat's peace initiative with a long-term aid package.

The U.S. and Iran

Concerned about growing Soviet influence in Iran during the Cold War, the U.S. supported the young Shah of Iran. He was viewed by many in Iran as oppressive. He ruled by decree, and his secret police silenced opposition voices. A 1979 Islamist revolution against the Shah's regime turned Iran into a fundamentalist Islamic state. 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.

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

Israel was intended to be a national home for Jews and a place for them to return to their roots, both spiritually and physically. Israel became home to nearly 75,000 European Jews fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany, and refugees from other countries also moved 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 either displaced by Jewish settlers or became unwilling citizens of Israel.

President Harry S. Truman extended U.S. recognition to Israel immediately after its 1948 declaration of independence. The U.S. has continued its support over time. 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.

Today, many Arabs view the Israeli army as an oppressive army of occupation. Unconditional U.S. support for the Jewish state in its struggle with the Palestinians has challenged American relationships with Middle East allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

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 Peace Accords and the 1993 Oslo interim peace agreement, which established a framework for negotiating peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

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

U.S. military action

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

After a 1986 discotheque bombing in West Berlin was traced to Libya, the U.S. bombed that country.

The most significant direct U.S. military intervention came in response to the Iraqi invasion of oil-rich Kuwait in August 1990, which led to the First 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 Second Gulf War gave rise to charges that the U.S. had abandoned some of its most vulnerable allies. The U.S. encouraged Iraqi Kurds and Shiites to revolt against Saddam Hussein, with assurances of U.S. support. But the US did not fulfill its promises, and Iraqi retaliation against the rebels was harsh.

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 ensuring an adequate supply of oil at a reasonable cost.

Since Standard Oil's 1936 discovery of massive oil deposits in Saudi Arabia, maintaining access to the region's fossil fuels has been a priority of America's foreign policy. The 1973-1974 OPEC oil boycott and the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 are both examples of how regional forces have challenged U.S. access to fuel.

Source: Global Connections: The Middle East
© 2002 WGBH Educational Foundation

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