“Ancient History”: U.S. Conduct in the Middle East Since World War II and the Folly of Intervention

August 16, 1991 • Policy Analysis No. 159
By Sheldon L. Richman

When Iranian revolutionaries entered the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and seized 52 Americans, President Jimmy Carter dismissed reminders of America’s long intervention in Iran as “ancient history.” Carter’s point was not merely that previous U.S. policy could not excuse the hostage taking. His adjective also implied that there was nothing of value to be learned from that history. In his view, dredging up old matters was more than unhelpful; it was also dangerous, presumably because it could only serve the interests of America’s adversaries. Thus, to raise historical issues was at least unpatriotic and maybe worse.[1]

As the United States finds itself in the aftermath of another crisis in the Middle East, it is worth the risk of opprobrium to ask why there should be hostility toward America in that region. Some insight can be gained by surveying official U.S. conduct in the Middle East since the end of World War II. Acknowledged herein is a fundamental, yet deplorably overlooked, distinction between understanding and excusing. The purpose of this survey is not to pardon acts of violence against innocent people but to understand the reasons that drive people to violent political acts.[2] The stubborn and often self‐​serving notion that the historical record is irrelevant because political violence is inexcusable ensures that Americans will be caught in crises in the Middle East and elsewhere for many years to come.

After 70 years of broken Western promises regarding Arab independence, it should not be surprising that the West is viewed with suspicion and hostility by the populations (as opposed to some of the political regimes) of the Middle East.[3] The United States, as the heir to British imperialism in the region, has been a frequent object of suspicion. Since the end of World War II, the United States, like the European colonial powers before it, has been unable to resist becoming entangled in the region’s political conflicts. Driven by a desire to keep the vast oil reserves in hands friendly to the United States, a wish to keep out potential rivals (such as the Soviet Union), opposition to neutrality in the cold war, and domestic political considerations, the United States has compiled a record of tragedy in the Middle East. The most recent part of that record, which includes U.S. alliances with Iraq to counter Iran and then with Iran and Syria to counter Iraq, illustrates a theme that has been played in Washington for the last 45 years.

An examination of the details and consequences of that theme provides a startling object lesson in the pitfalls and conceit of an interventionist foreign policy. The two major components of the theme that are covered in this study are U.S. policy toward Iran and the relations between Israel and the Arabs. Events in which those components overlapped–development of the Carter Doctrine, the Iran‐​Iraq War, and the Persian Gulf War–will also be examined.

In the aftermath of the most overt and direct U.S. attempt to manage affairs in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf War, it is more important than ever to understand how the United States came to be involved in the region and the disastrous consequences of that involvement. President Bush’s willingness to sacrifice American lives to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait, to restore the “legitimate” government of that feudal monarchy, and to create a “new world order” proceeds logically from the premises and policies of past administrations. Indeed, there is little new in Bush’s new world order, except the Soviet Union’s assistance. That may mean the new order will be far more dangerous than the old, because it will feature an activist U.S. foreign policy without the inhibitions that were formerly imposed by the superpower rivalry. That bodes ill for the people of the Middle East, as well as for the long‐​suffering American citizens, who will see their taxes continue to rise, their consumer economy increasingly distorted by military spending, and their blood spilled–all in the name of U.S. leadership.

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About the Author
Sheldon L. Richman is senior editor at the Cato Institute.