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:
- We have legitimate interests in the region.
- We have a right to look after those interests.
- The area is unstable.
- 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.