U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East since the 19th Century

© 2004, Mohamed El Mansour

In this article the influential Moroccan historian provides a history of the role of the United States in the Middle East and North Africa. The essay provides an excellent introductory survey, beginning with the recognition of the young American republic by Morocco in the 19th century through recent events. The paper is a concise and necessarily general survey that provides a useful overview of historical developments. Through written over ten years ago, so many of the points  raised by El Mansour remain salient today.

The U.S.-Middle East Connection: Interests, Attitudes and Images

The first contacts the U.S. had with the Middle East go back to the late 18th century when immediately after achieving independence, the American administration sought to negotiate peace treaties with the North African states with the objective of securing safe passage for American ships to the Mediterranean. It was within this perspective that the U.S. signed their treaty with Morocco in 1786, the first treaty to be signed with a non-Western nation. However, North Africa was never the focus of American interests and in the 19th century it was rather the Middle East which attracted the efforts of American missionaries. Aside from spreading Christianity, missionaries focused on creating educational institutions, primarily in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. One of the most important of these was the Syrian Protestant College established in 1866 and which became known later as the American University of Beirut. Similar efforts in Turkey led to the foundation of Robert College in 1863. Both institutions had a major impact on the Middle East because they educated members of the local elites.

Up to World War I the United States refrained from intervention in the Middle East region mainly because they wanted to avoid competing with British interests there. Oil exploitation was also at its beginnings and British Petroleum had the monopoly of it. For the countries of the region the U.S. enjoyed a favorable image since they had no imperial designs in the Middle East. This view was reinforced at the end of World War I by President Wilson’s 14 Points and by America’s championing of the principle of self-determination at the Versailles peace conference. The Middle Eastern countries which were resisting the encroachment of European powers even hoped for American protection against European imperialism. This hope was expressed forcefully in the King-Crane Commission dispatched by Wilson to Syria and Palestine to ascertain the preferences of the populations regarding which mandatory power should be chosen to help them toward independence, according to the goals set by the League of Nations. The King-Crane Commission left a favorable impression in Syria and Palestine as the majority of those interviewed expressed a desire for an American mandate in preference to a British or a French one.


America’s Growing Interests

However, once the war was over the U.S. became a vigilant watcher of Soviet behavior not only in Europe, but also in the Middle East. For strategic reasons the U.S. could no longer ignore the region especially that their allies there, France and Britain, had been weakened by the war and were in no position to contain the Soviet ambitions in Iran, Turkey, and the Middle East in general. American concern with the Middle East as a strategic region has grown steadily since then.

During the 1930s the U.S. moved to compete with the British in the field of oil exploitation. As the world learned more about the value of oil as a significant, long-term source of energy American oil companies became increasingly motivated to push for a share in prospecting and exploiting overseas resources (Seikal, 46). To avoid coming into friction with the British in Iran the U.S. chose to concentrate on Saudi Arabia where the Wahhabis were ready to grant oil concessions to the Americans in return for U.S. military protection. In 1933 the Saudis granted a friend of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and head of a Californian oil company the first oil concession. Export of Saudi oil to the U.S. started as early as 1937. The theocratic character of the Wahhabi monarchy did not seem to concern President Roosevelt who secretly committed the United States to Saudi Arabia’s security and defense (Seikal, 48).

After the Second World War, as the Soviet Union and the U.S. emerged as the two main global adversaries, Washington adopted a strategy designed to deter the Soviets from further expansion and to deprive them at the same time from vital oil resources in Iran and elsewhere in the region. This strategy, known as the Truman Doctrine, essentially aimed at defeating the Soviets by whatever means possible short of direct military confrontation. For the Middle East this strategy meant that the U.S. would fill in the vacuum left by the two old colonial powers, France and Britain. Thus the U.S. embarked on open diplomatic and military interventionism in the Middle Eastern region. It did so along a three-dimensional approach:

  1. A firm support for anti-communist conservative rulers who after the war came under increasing pressure from their peoples who were expecting more political freedom and social justice. For Washington it made no difference whether the governments were theocratic, autocratic or democratic, as long as they were anti-communist and willing to side with the West.
  1. The second approach consisted in treating all communists, socialists, or even nationalists as ideologically monolithic. No differences were recognized among them. A radical nationalist reformer was not less worse than a Marxist communist.
  1. The third dimension required that for the achievement of American strategic goals any means short of military confrontation with the Soviet Union could be deployed. Economic and military assistance, cash distribution, bilateral and multi-lateral pacts were used as means of promoting American interests. Political and economic pragmatism was the only norm that governed U.S. policy in the region.

Within these parameters the U.S. focused on three major countries in the region: Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. In 1950 the Truman administration committed the U.S. to the defense of Saudi Arabia and toward this end it upgraded the facilities at the military base of Dahran, turning it into one of the most important American bases. The U.S. also moved to strengthen its ties with the conservative forces in Iran. Reza Shah Pahlavi, a pro-Western by education and conviction, became Washington’s man in this country. He actively cooperated with the Americans to transform his country from a non-aligned country into a close ally of the U.S. As a result, the Americans stepped up their military and economic aid to Iran. They also helped in the restructuring of the Iranian army and security (Seikal, 51).

Washington’s breakthrough in Iran occurred in 1953 when they acted jointly with the British to overthrow Mossadaq, the democratically elected prime minister. Mossadaq was a nationalist who was not satisfied with the share his country got from the oil concession that the British enjoyed. After difficult negotiations between the two parties ended in failure, Mossadaq decided to nationalize the oil industry. His overthrow was the result of a coordinated action by the CIA and British intelligence services and led to the reimposition of the autocratic rule of the Shah. This operation was the first large-scale American intervention in the Middle East and had far-reaching consequences. It confirmed Iran’s position as an anti-communist frontline state and close ally or the U.S. It further provided the U.S. with a centrally important strategic foothold on the Soviet border. It also marked the end of British monopoly over Iranian oil and a severe blow to the British presence in the region in general. In October 1953 John Foster Dulles commissioned Herbert Hoover Jr., a petroleum advisor and son of a former president, to solve the oil dispute in Iran and above all make sure American companies acquired a share in the Iranian oil industry.


The Arab-Israeli Conflict

Meanwhile, another dimension was added to the U.S. involvement in the region. It stemmed from U.S. support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine and its subsequent support for Israel. During World War II, and before the British disengagement from Palestine, the U.S. began to show increasing signs of interest in the question. Zionist leaders like Ben Gurion worked actively during the war to win over the support of both the American administration and the American Jewish community. In 1946 Washington demanded the immediate entry into Palestine of 100,000 survivors of the Holocaust after the Europeans and the United States themselves refused to admit them on their territories. Once the British decided to hand over the Palestinian issue to the United Nations, the U.S. became the main supporter of the Zionist cause. In 1948 they were the first to recognize the newly created state of Israel.

To the Arabs the significance of the U.S. role in constructing what they regarded as another Western colonial obstacle to self-determination cannot be overstated. By backing the creation of the Jewish state, President Truman was largely motivated by domestic political concerns. As one American official of the State Department formulated it, Truman wanted to solve the problem of Jewish refugees by another refugee problem, that of the Arab Palestinians. The implications for U.S.-Arab relations were catastrophic. This is what this official, Evan Wilson, later wrote: “It is no exaggeration to say that our relations with the entire Arab world have never recovered from the events of 1947-1948 when we sided with the Jews against the Arabs and advocated a solution in Palestine which went contrary to self-determination as far as the majority population of the country was concerned” (Evan Wilson, 154).

Henceforth the security and survival of Israel became one of the pillars of U.S. policy in the Middle East, not only because the Jewish state fitted very well in their Cold War politics, but also because for many Americans, Israel represented part of their culture and a Western presence in an alien and threatening region. During the fifties, with the radicalization of Arab nationalism (Nasserism and Baathism), the objective of American policy in the region consisted in enabling Israel to maintain a strategic edge over its Arab neighbors through massive financial and military assistance.

The American preoccupation with the growth of Soviet influence in the region became a consistent .pattern during the next three decades. The Eisenhower doctrine announced in 1957 committed the U.S. to come to the aid of any state threatened by “international communism”. In fact what this doctrine did was to allow the U.S. to assist unpopular rulers who were threatened by the insurgency of their own peoples. This happened in Jordan in 1957 and in Lebanon the following year, 1958, when the U.S. deployed their military to prevent the fall of King Hussein of Jordan and of Camille Chamoun in Lebanon. Such a policy angered the Arab peoples and generated anti-American resentment among Muslims in general. The favorable image the Arabs had of the U.S. as a non-colonial power and champion of anti-colonialism simply faded away.

The turning point came with the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 which resulted in Israeli occupation of more Arab land, at the expense of the Palestinians, but also at the expense of countries such as Egypt and Syria. The adoption of dozens of resolutions by the UN calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Arab occupied territories did not prevent Israel from pursuing its policy of annexation and expropriation of Palestinian lands. The American administration, especially under the Republicans, tended to sanction Israel’s policy of settlements in the West Bank and in the Gaza strip. Despite the illegal character of these settlements under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, the U.S. never challenged Israeli policy in this regard and continued to provide Israel with financial assistance that was used in the building and extension of settlements. This attitude resulted in Israel’s taking over more than half the West Bank, not to mention the annexation of Eastern Jerusalem.

From the perspective of Arab countries, U.S. strategic partnership with Israel has been crucial in enabling the Jewish state to defy UN resolutions and defeat any attempt to settle the Palestinian question. What angers the Arabs most is the perception they have of a double-standard U.S. policy consisting of two approaches, one for Israel and another for the Arab countries. In fact the U.S. have always been reluctant to pressurize Israel to comply with UN resolutions concerning the occupied territories while it showed a firm determination to implement international resolutions pertaining to Arab countries. This was particularly clear in the case of Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990.

The double-standard policy can also be seen in the way Washington has dealt with the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the region. While the U.S. administration is insisting on clearing the Middle East region from such weapons it never mentions Israel’s holding of nuclear armaments. This policy has largely contributed to the growth of anti-American sentiment in the region and fueled Islamic radical groups.


Arabs and Muslims in the American Mind

The image of the Arab in the American mind is older than the history of American-Arab relations. In fact, it is part of a Western view which concerns not only the Arabs but the Muslims in general. The perception of Muslims as a threat is not something born in the 20th or 21st century. Islam, according to the British historian Albert Hourani, was always a problem for the West from the very beginning. In the Middle Ages Christians found it hard to accept Islam as a religion, stating that “Islam is a false religion, Allah, the God of Muslims is not God, and Muhammad is not a prophet”.

Centuries of interaction have left a bitter legacy between the worlds of Islam and the Christian West, deriving largely from the fact that both civilizations claim a universal message and mission and share much of the Judeo-Christian heritage. Separated by conflict and held together by common spiritual and material ties, Christians and Muslims presented a religious, intellectual, and military challenge to each other. However, this portrait of unremitting Western-Muslim hostility is misleading. In fact, the pendulum of relations between the two sides has swung between confrontation and collaboration. Although conflict arising from cultural, religious, and ideological factors has been the norm, real politik and interstate interests have also shaped the relationship between the two civilizations.

Historically, Western powers had no scruples about aligning themselves with Muslims against fellow Christian powers. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the French, the English and the Germans joined ranks with the Ottoman Muslims against their European opponents. The Ottoman Empire itself was for centuries part of the European system of alliances and counter-alliances. During the 20th century Western interests in the Arab and Muslim lands were more influenced by the requirements of colonial policy than by religious sentiment. In the case of the U.S., the American administration had been throughout much of the 20th century the main supporter of the Wahhabi state in Saudi Arabia. More recently Islamist movements would be backed to undermine Communist regimes in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

However, unlike Europe, the U.S. did not engage in any prolonged, bloody encounters with Muslim states and societies. Apart from the current occupation of Iraq, the U.S. never ruled over Arab and Muslim lands, or developed Europe’s complex imperial system. In the first part of the 20th century, the U.S. developed dynamic and cordial relations with Arabs and Muslims who viewed America as a progressive power compared to European colonial countries. Even after it became a superpower, the U.S. was much less constrained by colonial or historical antagonisms that we find in the case of the European powers. For the U.S., political and economic concerns have always been the driving force behind Washington’s Middle Eastern policy. Although the religious and cultural challenge of Islam continues to seize the imagination of many people in the U.S., it is the security and strategic implications of Islam that resonate in the minds of Americans.

During the last fifty years, however, U.S.-Middle Eastern relations have witnessed a dramatic change. While in the first half of the 20th century, U.S. officials supported the concept of self-determination and opposed the perpetuation of colonialism, in the second half of the century they tended to look with suspicion on populist Third World movements and ideologies. By the 1950s, containing the perceived Communist threat and keeping Soviet influence out of the Middle East became the driving motivation of U.S. policy. Within the American administration the scale weighed in favor of those who mistrusted nationalists like Mosadaq in Iran or Nasser in Egypt, and suspected them of being allied to the Soviets in order to overthrow the existing regional order. In U.S. eyes, revolutionary nationalism, not political Islam, represented a security threat to the pro-Western, conservative monarchies of the region.

In fact, during much of the 1950s and 1960s the U.S. hoped to construct an alliance of Islamic states with sufficient power and prestige to counterbalance “godless communists” and the secular nationalist forces as represented by Nasser. During the 1960s, one of the reasons behind the deterioration of relations between the U.S. and Nasser was the encouragement given by the Americans to the Saudis in order to sponsor a holy Islamic alliance which would bring together all conservative regimes in the region to isolate Egypt and the radical secularist regimes in the Arab world. At the time Islam was seen to serve Western interests while Arab secular nationalism was considered to be dangerous as an objective ally of communism.

The U.S. perception of the Middle East situation and the nature of the threat saw a radical shift in the 1970s largely because of the explosion of Islamic politics on the scene. Regional events such as the 1967 war between the Arabs and Israel brought about a discredit of secular nationalism in the region and allowed radical Islamist ideologies to move to the central stage.

While Nasser had fought the 1967 war under the banner of Arab nationalism, Sadat, his successor, fought his war in 1973 under the banner of Islam. The timing of the war itself was decided in such a way as to coincide with the holy month of Ramadan. This war led to an oil embargo which for the first time affected the lives of Americans in peacetime.

But it was the Iranian revolution of 1978 which contributed more than any other factor in bringing the so-called “Islamic threat” to the attention of ordinary Americans. Accustomed to seeing their country as the model of democracy and generosity, the Americans were shocked when they heard Ayatullah Khomeini call it “the great Satan”. Never before had the American administration been confronted to this type of irrational and uncompromising attitudes on the part of the Iranian Mullahs. By holding 52 American hostages for more than one year, Khomeini’s Iran inflicted daily humiliation on the U.S., underlying at the same time their unfamiliar sense of powerlessness. Iran really became a national obsession for the Americans, and the image of Islam for them had acquired its most negative aspect. As with Arab nationalism of the 1950s, labels such as “fanatical” or “terrorist” were now applied to the Iranian Islamic revolution. As the specter of communism was retreating it was now Islamism which rose to prominence as the number one security threat. Worse than communism this new threat aroused the fears of a clash of civilizations which would bring about a direct confrontation between Islam and the West.

The Iranian revolution resulted in real damage to U.S. presence and interests in the Middle East. The loss of the Shah of Iran, a staunch American ally whose role was to police the Gulf region, was deeply felt in Washington. More than that the whole security system the U.S. built around conservative countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies was in jeopardy now, especially after Khomeini denounced these regimes as “un-Islamic”, or characterized their Islam as “American Islam”.

American fears were confirmed during the few years that followed the Iranian revolution. In 1979 Saudi Arabia witnessed a two-week take-over of the Grand Mosque at Mecca by radical Islamists and the following year President Sadat of Egypt was assassinated by Islamist extremists. The bloody attacks against U.S. personnel and installations in Lebanon, Kuwait and elsewhere heightened American concern over the export of Iranian “fundamentalism” (Gerges, 78).

The result, according to many scholars and observers, was that Iran’s brand of revolutionary Islam overshadowed much of the debate in the U.S. about the rise of political Islam. When asked what comes to mind when the words “Islam” or “Muslim” were mentioned, more than half of the Americans interviewed in 1981 responded with the words “Muhammad” and “Iran”.


The Specter of Terrorism

Unlike many European countries the U.S. had virtually escaped the horror of terrorism during the second world war. Now in the 80s and 90s, it became a target for terrorist actions. Perhaps the most memorable terrorist attack before the September 11 events, was the 1993 World Trade Center bombing which deepened Americans’ fear about the security threats associated with Islamists. This incident did considerable damage to the Muslim image and presence in the United States. The Muslim community in the U.S. became an easy target for racism and political discrimination. Professor Richard Bulliet of Columbia University expressed fears that American Muslims might become the target of a new kind of anti-Semitism, based not on theories of Semitic race but on Islam. “What I mean by anti-Semitism, wrote Bulliet, is a willingness on the part of substantial portions of the American population to vilify others, both in this country and abroad, because of the accident of birth into a Muslim family or their choice of the Muslim religion. It is a hateful prospect…” (Bulliet,16). Other analysts compared the situation of American Muslims on the morrow of September 11 to that of American Germans during World War I, or to that of American Japanese during World War II.

The World Trade Center bombing had broader implications for U.S. foreign policy. For President Clinton who was working for a positive accommodationist policy toward Islam, violent actions like this one were a real setback. In the Middle East some regimes, particularly Israel and Egypt, sought to capitalize on American fears to escalate their repression of local Islamist groups. In the U.S. itself the advocates of the clash-of-civilizations hypothesis used it to recommend tougher policies toward Islamists. Therefore, the World Trade Center blast of 1993 provided hard-liners both inside the U.S. and abroad with the opportunity to lobby the Clinton administration to come up with a harsher policy toward the Islamists.

The 1995 Oklahoma terrorist attacks, although the work of local American terrorists, were used to bring about a harsher legislation against terrorism, which in the minds of the legislators meant primarily Middle Eastern terrorism. President Clinton had cautioned against associating the Oklahoma attacks with Middle Eastern Islamists but the media tended most of the time to reflect a different opinion. Instead of treating terrorist attacks as an aberration and acts by a radical minority, most of the analysts and commentators would exaggerate their importance and portray them as part of a systematic war against Western civilization. In this sense terrorism has poisoned even more U.S.-Arab and U.S.-Muslim relations.


U.S. Foreign Policy and the Media

It is not easy to determine how much the media contribute to the shaping U.S. foreign policy. To many, the dominant media are themselves part of the corporate-elite establishment, therefore tensions between media and foreign policy makers seldom arise. The advocates of such a view would point to the media’s overwhelming dependence on government sources for their news stories which are often delivered in an ideological wrapping with a label of anticommunism, Islamic fundamentalism or similar threats.

Another view would underline the determinant role of the media itself in shaping public opinion and indirectly influencing foreign policy making. According to this view the media do not wait to receive their guidelines from the administration since it has developed its own agenda in the name of national security, anticommunism and the need to keep way the Islamist threat. The media might not be part of the foreign policy establishment but it is a participant in foreign policy making in so far as it helps establish the boundaries within which this policy can be made. This is particularly clear in the case of Muslims and Arabs who are often portrayed in a negative light, thus placing them at a considerable disadvantage in U.S. public opinion. In fact, the media’s negative portrayal of Arabs and Muslims has become an integral part of public consciousness in America. And because decision makers are attentive to public opinion and get much of their information from the media as well, then their policies would necessarily reflect the views of the media.

During the Clinton administration a number of U.S. officials held critical ideas of the media coverage of Islam and the Middle East. The Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau, for example, criticized the media for coverage that fosters the tendency, both in scholarship and in the public debate, to equate Islam with Islamic fundamentalism and extremism. Another official of the State Department acknowledged that the media’s hostile coverage of “extremist Islamic groups” reinforces American perceptions of Islam, thus complicating the task of U.S. policy-makers (Gerges, 82). However, under the Republican administration such a discrepancy between the influential conservative media and foreign policy-makers has vanished or weakened to a large degree. The two seem to work in perfect harmony and critical voices are rarely heard. Those rare academics who dare challenge the dominant views would be labeled as apologists of Islamism, or advocates of “radical Anti-Americanism”. Middle East specialists from the academia are rarely called upon to comment on major news events related to the region. Instead the media tend to prefer this new breed of “terrorologists” or newly recycled analysts who are presented as experts in the field and whose so-called “authoritative opinions” tend in general to sanction state policies.


Implications for Academia

It would be interesting to see how events in the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy in the region influence Middle Eastern studies in this country. It is clear that the Arab-Israeli conflict, Islamic resurgence and terrorism have had a negative influence on the field, in the sense that these phenomena are perceived by the American public as the sum total of what the Middle East stands for. Acts of war and violence related to the Middle East are often accompanied by increased media coverage of the region, something which in academia provokes student interest and enhances enrollment in Middle East centered courses. However, such interest tends to be temporary and usually recedes into the background of the popular imagination until the next upsurge of violence. Thus, it seems as if the region is worthy of study only against the background of violence and tension.

More than any other factor the Arab-Israeli conflict has colored Middle Eastern studies in a rather unfortunate way. The main academic forum for the study of the Middle East, the Middle East Studies Association of North America, founded in 1966, has come under increased criticism for its alleged anti-Israeli attitudes, long before the emergence of the so-called “Islamic threat”. Debate rages between two groups of experts: those who are concerned about safeguarding a minimum degree of academic independence within the universities, and those who warn of a growing Islamic threat as the major force seeking to undermine Western values of democracy and freedom. Developments since September 11 have tended to favor the latter tendency with the prevailing security concerns and the political ascendancy of the neo-conservatives. Among the possible repercussions on the field one might mention the possible diversion of funding from the universities, usually considered to be the hot-bed of leftist or liberal intellectuals, to the more cooperative and docile think tanks. Another possible repercussion on academia might be a tighter control by the government over funds allocated to Middle Eastern studies. Lately the House of Representatives, after intensive lobbying by the neo-conservatives who argue that Middle Eastern studies in the U.S. tend to be anti-Israeli and anti-American, adopted a bill that would create an advisory board to ensure that federal money is well spent. Many members of the academia have already expressed their fears that the presence of such an advisory board might limit their freedom in both teaching and research. Actually the proponents of this bill known as bill HR 3077 have made it clear that they prefer federal money to be used not so much in research or recruiting new faculty but rather in raising the number of graduate students with practical expertise on the Muslim world with the hope that they would join government service.

But events after September 11 have also prompted the Federal authorities to allocate additional funds for the promotion of a better knowledge of the Middle East. Perhaps the most important U.S. government program is the Fulbright Scholar Program which has brought an increasing number of scholars from the region to American colleges and universities. Sometimes these Fulbright scholars from abroad contribute to a growing awareness of Middle Eastern issues among their American colleagues and occasionally, the presence of a Middle Eastern Fulbright visitor encourages a university or a college to hire someone in the field. More recently, and as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Fulbright program has launched a new short-term formula by which U.S. colleges are allowed to enrich their international programs by having a Muslim scholar on their campus for a period that does not exceed 6 weeks. So in the few years to come Middle Eastern Studies might witness the granting of additional federal and corporate funds even if the use of these funds might become function of the government’s present priorities in its war on terrorism.


Short Bibliography

Richard Bulliet, “Rhetoric, Discourse and the Future of Hope” in Aslam Syed ed., Islam: Enduring Myths and Changing Realities, published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 588 (July 2003), pp. 10-17.

Fawaz A. Gerges, “Islam and MU.S.lims in the Mind of America” in Aslam Syed ed., Islam: Enduring Myths and Changing Realities, published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 588 (July 2003), pp. 73-89.

Amin Seikal, Islam and the West: Conflict or Cooperation? Palgrave, NY, 2003.

Wilson, Evan M., Decision on Palestine: How the U.S. Came to Recognize Israel, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, California, 1979.

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