Goodbye to All That?

Friday, June 27, 2008

The American public, pundits, and policy makers are understandably frustrated with developments in the Middle East. For the past several decades, that region has been a fountainhead of problems for ordinary citizens as well as government leaders. Oil shortages, steep prices at the pump, militant Islam, terrorism, and now conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia emanate along an azimuth extending from the Rock of Gibraltar to eastern Pakistan. Moreover, there appears to be no end in sight to the consequences of political and sectarian strife that find their way onto our shores and those of our allies. Many, therefore, muse on how satisfying it would be simply to walk away from the entire mess. One commentary writer bluntly asked: “Might we not be better off just leaving the region alone?” Another pundit advised that “backward societies [like the Middle East] must be left alone, as the French now wisely leave Corsica to its own devices, as the Italians quietly learned to do in Sicily. ”

It is an exceedingly appealing notion. After all, American troops vacated Vietnam in 1973 after a bloody and unrewarding eight-year conflict, and no calamity befell the United States when the North Vietnamese overran the South. The plight of the South Vietnamese boat people, the Cambodian killing fields, and the fall of eleven countries to communist forces in the half decade after 1975 did not materially affect the United States. Less than two decades later, in fact, the United States won the Cold War and the Soviet Union collapsed. Won ’t history repeat itself after a pullout from the politically chaotic and violence-prone Near East?

Americans are tempted by the prospect of a silver bullet. The 1945 atomic bombing is a prime example of an action that in one blow ended the Pacific war and precluded a bloody invasion of the Japanese home islands. The current construction of a missile shield to protect our country from a long-range rocket attack offers another purported technological panacea to a threat. But neither scenario is as rosy as it appears. Japan ’s atomic defeat opened a nuclear age of potential annihilation. And the potential security offered by U.S. missile defense extends only to the lone accidental or “rogue state” intercontinental ballistic missile, not salvos from a nuclear power like Russia or China. The prospect of a total withdrawal from the Middle East is another such oversimplified, silver-bullet answer to the complex challenge this region presents to the United States.

Any carefully reasoned argument for or against American disengagement from the Middle East must examine historical involvement, energy supplies, psychological consequences, strategic implications, American ideals, and, of course, the current conflict with Islamist terrorists. Our interchange with the lands stretching from Casablanca to the Caspian is historically longer and more politically convoluted than is sometimes realized.


American contact with the Muslim Arab world began more recently than Europe’s but is built on the same foundation of mutual hostility broken by spells of trade and peaceful coexistence. What early interest America evinced toward Muslim polities was both episodic and portentous for our own times. The clash resulted in our new nation ’s first overseas conflict.

Official Washington’s attention to the lands east of Gibraltar came soon after the Republic’s birth, when Barbary Corsairs, in the name of religion, assaulted American merchant vessels, imprisoned their crews, and demanded ransom for their freedom. Located along the North African coast, the renegade states of Tripoli, Tunis, Morocco, and Algiers (the Barbary Coast) had disrupted Mediterranean commerce for centuries with their mercenary jihads. The Arabic-speaking pirates styled themselves as mujahideen, or warriors in an Islamic holy war, as they preyed on Western sailing craft. They captured and enslaved European Christians, who secured their freedom only when ransomed. Christian men toiled in galleys or mines, and the women found themselves in Mideast harems. The Barbary States ’ vessels also ventured into the Atlantic to waylay American merchantmen.

U.S. troops vacated Vietnam in 1973 after a bloody and unrewarding conflict, and no calamity befell the United States. Does this suggest the value of walking away?

After securing their independence from Britain in 1783, the American colonies were no longer protected by the Royal Navy. The newly indepen-dent country confronted the choice of paying tribute or fighting the piratical ships cruising from Muslim North Africa.

As his country’s ambassador to France and later its secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson realized that making ransom payments simply stimulated the extortionists to press for repeated payoffs. From his Paris embassy, Jefferson tried to fashion an alliance among such maritime states as Denmark, France, Naples, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden that would place a naval police force along the North African coast. Despite an interest in such a cooperative venture, the kingdoms flinched at actually providing ships and crews for a joint defense pact, viewing tribute payments as less expensive. But the anemic government of the United States under the Articles of Confederation had difficulty in raising the “gifts” intended for the Barbary Corsairs. Indeed, the shameful spectacle of American frailty helped spur the Founding Fathers to draft the U.S. Constitution, begetting a stronger central government able to defend itself.

When Jefferson settled into the White House in 1801, the new administration embarked on a course of action that led to America ’s first war on terror. Its belligerent posture led to a protracted Cold War–style standoff against the piratical Barbary States that was punctuated by two hot wars. This confrontation centered on economic advantage instead of any clash of civilization or religion.

As in the contemporary Middle East, America’s success in the first Barbary war (1801–05) brought neither lasting peace nor decisive victory. In the years ahead, the plundering, pirating, and snatching of sailors from American commercial vessels in the western Mediterranean Sea continued. But at least the Jefferson government won the Barbary powers ’ fleeting respect for the Stars and Stripes. Its policy also set a precedent for subsequent administrations.

After America’s victory over Britain in 1814, Washington turned again to confronting the Mediterranean menace. Americans had grown tired of losing ships, sailors, and money to the Middle East predators in what had become a national humiliation. President James Madison obtained a declaration of war from Congress and dispatched a powerful naval flotilla under the command of Stephen Decatur, a national hero from earlier engagements along the Barbary Coast. His instructions were to the point —inflict “serious disasters” on the Middle Eastern renegades and secure “a just and lasting peace.”

Before the Barbary wars came to an end, the conflict had lasted three decades. The North African states had seized thirty-five American ships and abducted 700 sailors. By prevailing over the Barbary Corsairs, the United States was transformed into a respected maritime power with a small but aggressive Navy and Marine Corps. Moreover, the Barbary victory restored American pride after years of military and political embarrassments. No greater foreign threat menaced American seaborne commerce until Imperial Germany launched unrestricted submarine warfare against America ’s transatlantic trade in the course of World War I.


At the conclusion of World War I, America was devoid of a military presence in the Near East, unlike its British and French allies. Nor did it possess grand imperial goals or exclusive economic ambitions for the region. Washington sought to avoid foreign entanglements and international commitments anywhere in the world, not just in the Middle East.

Between the two world wars, American attention to the Middle East concentrated on two main enterprises: oil and the ripening problem in Palestine. The West ’s industrialization and motorization by the early 1920s necessitated adequate petroleum stocks. American and European firms prospected for, contracted, and produced oil from Mideast fields. America oilmen and their European counterparts struck pay dirt in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Bahrain, initiating a flow of crude and a dependency on foreign energy that persists undiminished today. As the world ’s thirst for energy accelerated, the Middle East became a geostrategic pivot point in global affairs.

The second, and unofficial, link to the Middle East grew from the planting of Zionism in Palestine. Tensions with the Arab inhabitants flared into violent conflicts. Despite calls for U.S. assistance to protect Jewish settlers from Arab attacks, the United States held firm to the view that Palestine was a British responsibility and clung to a policy of neutrality. Three years after the conclusion of World War II, in 1948, the Jewish immigrants and their compatriots in Palestine declared statehood.

Our interchange with the lands stretching from Casablanca to the Caspian is historically longer and more politically convoluted than is sometimes realized.

The United States had dropped its standoffish policy toward the Middle East during the 1939 –45 global conflict. It could no longer remain indifferent to the prospect of losing access to Middle East oil or East-West communications through the Suez Canal. North Africa and the Mediterranean basin loomed large on strategists ’ maps in Washington. Freedom of the seas was once more at stake, and control of North Africa ’s littoral became crucial in Washington’s calculations. In 1942–43, in Operation Torch, U.S. and British forces drove Axis troops from North Africa. Other foundations of American interest in the region were laid during the war. America ’s oil ambitions were entrenched in Saudi Arabia, where the U.S. military started constructing an air base close to an American petroleum entrep ôt in Dhahran.

Unlike World War I, the second global conflict left the United States with a large military presence in North Africa. It also marked the beginning of a permanent U.S. interest in the vast region between Tangier and Tehran. American anticolonialist sentiments collided with British, French, and Italian imperial rule. U.S. officials mentored nationalist movements, and America proclaimed the colonies ’ right to independence. As a consequence, the Middle East broke free of European rule in World War II ’s aftermath.

The protracted Soviet-American global confrontation also played out in the Middle East, where abundant oil reserves, emerging independent states, and superpower interests converged. Rather than being left to its own devices —as the Arab feudal sheikhs, Bedouin tribes, and caravan traders had been for centuries —the Middle East became one of the epicenters of competition among oil prospectors, arms suppliers, and diplomats who pursued resources and geostrategic advantage. These political and economic forces tended to reinforce authoritarian inclinations in the newly sovereign states, which lacked democratic traditions.

As they preyed on Western sailing craft, pirates of the eighteenth century styled themselves as mujahideen, fighters in an Islamic holy war.

America pursued three main objectives in the greater Middle East during the Cold War era. It resolved to block Soviet penetration, back anticommunist leaders, and mediate peace between Arabs and Israelis as the best way to guarantee stability and the flow of oil on which the West had grown evermore reliant. These incompatible ends on occasion tossed U.S. policy makers into agonizing dilemmas:

  • How to reconcile containment of Moscow’s aggression by backing less-than-democratic rulers.
  • How to stand with Britain and France to safeguard the Middle East from Kremlin machinations, while vowing that America stood against colonialism and for national independence.
  • How to reconcile support for Israel while cultivating goodwill with Arab governments.

While the Cold War in the Middle East played out directly between the superpowers, it also fell to their proxies. American military assistance to Israel grew, especially after the Jewish state crushed its Arab neighbors in the 1967 war. Successive American administrations recognized that Israel represented “the most effective stopper of the Mideast power of the Soviet Union,” as President Richard Nixon phrased it. For its part, the Kremlin channeled weapons and Red Army trainers to Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and South Yemen. Throughout the turbulent 1960s and 1970s the United States tried to contain Soviet advances, promote reconciliation between Israelis and Arabs, and maintain a steady flow of oil. In fact, petroleum as a weapon came into its own during this period.

After Israel defeated the Arab states in the 1973 Yom Kippur War (or October War, as the Arabs designate it), Saudi Arabia and the other oil-exporting countries increased the price of their crude exports to the West by curtailing and regulating output. The results were gas lines at American filling stations, inflation, and stagnant economies. Even more pivotal was the realization of American and Western (including Japanese) reliance on Middle East oil for economic survival and prosperity.

Iran’s revolution also sharply redrew the Persian Gulf’s political map. Before the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979, Iran had promoted Washington ’s interests in the gulf arena by serving as the regional “policeman” within the Nixon Doctrine. After the shah’s dethronement, the Islamic Republic developed into an implacable American adversary. The kidnapping of American hostages in the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the failed rescue operation recalled events nearly 200 years earlier off the Barbary Coast, when U.S. frigates tried to save imprisoned sailors in the dey ’s jails.

In the 1939–45 global conflict, Washington could no longer remain indifferent to the prospect of losing access to Middle East oil or East-West communications through the Suez Canal.

A second dislocation in the U.S. stabilizing agenda for the gulf took place across Iran ’s border in Afghanistan. In late 1979, Moscow deployed the Red Army into Afghanistan. Instead of rescuing the failing government in Kabul, the invasion touched off fierce anti-Soviet resistance. The Afghan guerrilla movement gained fighters from throughout the Muslim world when it raised the banner of jihad against the infidel occupation of its mountainous country. Ten years later, the Red Army withdrew, but not before its presence had triggered a worldwide Islamic reaction. Like no other single event, the Soviet intervention lit the fuse to an Islamic powder keg that exploded into a global terrorist campaign, the end of which is nowhere in sight.


Rather than gaining a respite from Middle East troubles with the end of the Cold War, the United States found itself more diplomatically and militarily entrenched in the volatile theater. Iraq ’s 1990 conquest of Kuwait riveted U.S. attention on the threat it posed to Western oil supplies and the precedent it set for settling other border disputes by armed force. In the course of deploying some 500,000 soldiers to the Persian Gulf theater, the United States enlarged its military presence in Saudi Arabia —the home of Islam’s two most holy sites, in Mecca and Medina. The ever-expanding footprint of infidel soldiers, airmen, and sailors on the Arabian Peninsula ’s sacred soil deeply aggrieved a still obscure Saudi millionaire, Osama bin Laden, who resolved to strike back.

The story of Osama bin Laden and his terrorism network, Al-Qaeda, is well known. The U.S. response to the terrorist equivalent of Pearl Harbor —the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—consisted of first a counterattack against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and then an attack on the Saddam Hussein dictatorship in Iraq. Washington mustered strong NATO participation for the invasion of Afghanistan and a thirty-nation “coalition of the willing” for the Iraq offensive. Both interventions resulted in violent occupations as the United States struggled to set up democratic governments, new police and armed forces, and an array of community services in lands long deprived of responsible rulers. In the aftermath of the attacks, anti-American insurgencies intensified rapidly.

The predicament sketched at the beginning of this essay—that many American citizens yearn for an outright departure from the Middle East—stems from the protracted and seemingly hopeless fratricide in Iraq and, to a lesser degree, in Afghanistan. The nostalgic urge to pull out and return to a 1990s world of apparent peace, economic growth, and hope for tomorrow is understandable. Jihadist terrorist capabilities have been degraded with the destruction of an Al-Qaeda base in Afghanistan and verification that Iraq is devoid of nuclear weapons. America is safer. But the odds of a pre-9/11 restoration of security are virtually nil because the attacks of jihadist terrorists have continued apace. The latest U.S. invasions are not the cause of, nor will they be the ultimate solution to, the problem of Islamic terrorism.

Abandoning the Middle East to its own devices would constitute a replay of the late 1990s, an era when the United States abdicated its duty to strike back forcefully at terrorism radiating from Afghanistan. Engagement in the Middle East need not —and most probably should not—mean U.S. occupations and democracy-building initiatives. To contain and arrest the spread of terrorism, however, the United States will need to operate in the Middle East. Washington cannot replicate its nineteenth-century disengagement from the Barbary Coast today because no European colonial powers exist to police the Middle East in our place.

Moreover, any proposed retrenchment from the Middle East must take account of the strategic impact this decision would have on America ’s economy and its population’s well-being. The United States and its allies rely on Middle Eastern energy to power their economies, heat their homes, and light their businesses. In the foreseeable future neither wind-, solar-, nor hydro-power is expected to make an appreciable dent in the world ’s petroleum guzzling.

The odds of a pre-9/11 restoration of security are virtually nil. To contain and arrest the spread of terrorism, the United States needs to operate in the Middle East.

Despite its recent output growth, Middle East production capacity is unlikely to keep pace with accelerating global energy demands. This mismatch between ever-escalating consumption and moderate or uneven export capacity only amplifies the strategic importance of the Near East for the global economy. The West may be less dependent on Persian Gulf oil than in the 1970s because oil fields beyond the region have come online, but these crude deposits are more likely to be exhausted much sooner than those in the gulf states, which today account for 62 percent of the world ’s proven reserves.

Just as early nineteenth-century trade in the Mediterranean impelled
Jefferson and Madison into war against the Barbary Coast states, today’s commercial interests force the United States to remain immersed in the lands east of Gibraltar. Moreover, a withdrawal would betray the region to terrorism and abandon Israel, a long-term friend and vibrant democracy, to a perilous fate.

Globalization has made it nearly impossible to raise the drawbridges that connect continents and countries. Even if such drawbridges could be raised, breaking off the flow of visitors or immigrants bent on terrorism would not halt the terrorist takeover of some states from the Mediterranean to the Aral Sea. No compromise will assuage the megalomaniac designs of terrorists such as bin Laden, who seeks first a caliphate stretching from the Iberian Peninsula to Indonesia, then a world Islamic theocracy. They must be defeated or contained until the fanaticism recedes like other historical religious floods.