Not arbitrary or inconsistent

While I continue to research my long-postponed series on the history of U. S. military bases in the Middle East, I wanted to quickly sketch a history of U. S. foreign policy with respect to the region and make a small point.

The United States is frequently accused of being arbitrary or inconsistent in its policies toward the Middle East. Quite to the contrary over the last 200 years U. S. foreign policy has evolved in a manner consistent both with U. S. history and preferences and with its evolving interests in the region.We didn’t set out to have thousands of our troops and dozens of military bases in the Middle East. That wasn’t our first choice and it wasn’t our second choice.

Our first choice was isolationism. For the first 150 years or so of U. S. history we had, essentially, not much in the way of dealings with the Middle East and no foreign policy with respect to the region. It was not until the time of the American Civil War that the U. S. had contracted a treaty with the Ottoman Empire, and that treaty mostly dealt with trade and maritime law, which was sensible considering the U. S. identity as a sea trading nation.

When first the nationalization of the oil industry under Mossadegh in Iran and then the Suez Canal crisis made it obvious that we could not remain completely disengaged from the region and still protect our legitimate interests, we changed course.

Our second choice was a policy created by the Eisenhower administration referred to as the “pillars of defense” policy. Under this policy we supported regional powers (Saudi Arabia and Iran) to enable them to maintain stability in the region. This policy is now referred to as “supporting repressive regimes”.

In the 1970’s this policy received two severe shocks: first there was the oil embargo, strongly abetted by our presumed allies, the Saudis, and then there was the overthrow of the Shah in Iran and his replacement with the present Iranian regime. When, during the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranians began to interfere with shipping in the Gulf, it was obvious that the “pillars of defense” policy was dead.

That’s when we began to maintain a presence in earnest in the region. Now we have hundreds of thousands of troops and dozens of military bases. This is now being called “occcupation of Muslim lands”.

But the key factors are:

  1. We have legitimate interests in the region.
  2. We have a right to look after those interests.
  3. The area is unstable.
  4. The regional powers aren’t able or willing to maintain stability and are themselves causes of instability.

I understand that this sketch is a gross oversimplification of a very complicated history. There are scores of vital considerations I haven’t addressed: the domestic political considerations that have influenced our policy with respect to Israel since before the country existed and the Soviet Union’s thorough infiltration of governments in the region (read the Mitrokhin archives), just to name two. But my main point is that our policy with respect to the region is not arbitrary or inconsistent, it’s completely understandable,and that we’ve arrived at the point at which we are now as the result of a process that began with a predisposition to isolationism and has become progressively more involved as less intrusive approaches have failed.

Our interests in the region are not simply our interests: they’re the interests of the French and the Chinese and the Japanese and the Zambians and Indonesians, too. And let’s understand clearly: serious instability in the Middle East will adversely effect poor countries much more than it will us.

8 comments… add one
  • Fletcher Christian Link

    If the US didn’t have such a gluttonous appetite for oil, the internal problems of the Middle East would be of no interest or importance whatsoever.

    The real answer to the problems there, from everyone else’s point of view? Make serious steps towards “alternative” energy, and let them find out if oil is edible.

    One of the possible approaches might give us the Solar System and three billion Earths’ worth of living space as a free gift.

    But blowing things up is more fun.

  • The United States is 17th in the per capita consumption of oil (Canada is 19th—no appreciable difference).

    U. S. consumption of oil per dollar GDP has fallen sharply:

    During 1975–2003, U.S. primary energy consumption per dollar of real GDP fell by 43%220—in effect, creating the nation’s biggest energy “source,” now providing two-fifths of U.S. energy services, and equivalent to 1.9 times 2003 U.S. oil consumption, 5.1 times oil production, 3.4 times net oil imports, and 13.9 times Persian Gulf net imports. Per-capita U.S. primary energy use rose 0.6% while per-capita GDP grew 78%. And we’ve saved oil even faster than total energy: the black line in Fig. 8 shows that in 2003, producing a dollar of GDP took only half as much oil as it took in 1975.

    Your concern should be addressed to China (which directly subsidizes oil consumption by its citizens by selling at below market value) which consumes more oil for every increased dollar of GDP.

  • Location, location, location…

    If the Persian Gulf weren’t at a geographic crossroads for Britain’s Empire, it wouldn’t have been there in the first place (after it displaced the Dutch and Portuguese in the Gulf, by the way). Note that this was all pre-oil.

    One also might talk with an American military logistician about how important or not important the Gulf States are to US security interests. Ask about “over-flight rights”. Not basing, just the ability to fly over certain countries rather than around them.

  • Good point, John. I know, for example, that the agreement on overflight rights with Abdul Aziz was considered crucial in connecting Allied Atlantic and Pacific operations during World War II.

    It also raises an interesting point in the discussion of our policy with respect to Iraq. Having an overflight rights agreement with neither Iraq nor Saudi Arabia would make things interesting, wouldn’t it?

    It adds another component to my point about U. S. interests.  We have significant, legitimate interests in the region and will continue to do so in a post-oil economy.  Oil is important but it’s not the only important thing.

  • Calling interests “significant” and “legitimate” doesn’t make all actions taken in the name of said interestes either moral or wise. They’re just words.

  • Fletcher Christian Link


    The fact remains that the US consumes just over triple the amoint of oil that the nearest other country (which happens to be China) does.

    China has just over half the GDP of the US, and consumes just under a third of the oil.


    Of course, production of cars with 3-litre and above engines, and the production of the gasoline to run them, both increase the GDP figure.

    I might also have mentioned that effective action against islamic terrorism is hampered by the gigantic balance of payments deficit between the US and the Arab oil states.

    Yes, your country appears to be doing well – on borrowed money. I could live like a king myself – for a while – on that basis.

    Maybe that’s why you need that gigantic military of yours – to stop the peons objecting?

  • Listen up, EuroTrash ` Fletcher Christian’, or wherever you hail from….

    If people invest in the US, it’s because of our dynamic economy and the safety of capital and the relatively low taxes here. – unlike some other spots I could name. Why do you think everybody wants to come here?

    If the United States wanted to, we could end that payments deficit overnight, simply by tariffing the crap out of imports, expanding local manufacture and actually waging trade war the way much of the rest of the world does against the US.

    Likewise, we could save a bundle by, say, cutting back on that US military you hate so much and pulling our troops out of Europe and other places and letting them defend themselves, becoming totally self involved and self interested and not giving a patoot what happens on your side of the pond unless it affects us directly.

    You’re quite correct about Arab petrodollars (and Chinese dollars, for that matter) fleeing to the US. But that doesn’t affect action against Islamic terrorism in the least, because the Arab world is thus wired into our banking system and subject to pressure and sanctions from the US..which is one of the few effective steps the Bush Administration has managed to do well. It has already worked quite well against al Qaeda, and to an extent with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas – or it WOULD if people like the EU weren’t happily trading with the last three groups of Islamic fascists and appeasing them.

    Now, there’s one of the REAL problems in dealing with Islamic terrorism in a nutshell.

    Get this Fletch. We may consume a lot of oil, but we outproduce the rest of the world as well…not to mention defending it, including YOUR sorry ass. Our growth in GDP over the last three years versus China’s entire economy is extraordinary…and that’s with Katrina, the war in Iraq and protecting morons like you from themselves with that `gigantic military’ you despise so much.

    Get bent.


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