The Middle East is a land where prophets walked, where civilizations rose and a place where much history and culture was created. Unfortunately it has also been a consistent victim of war and violence, and the turn of the 20th century exemplifies this reality more than ever. Today, the Middle East is more associated with dictators like Bashar Al-Assad and terrorist organizations along the lines of ISIS and Al Qaeda than with its amazing culture, history, and people. The question is: how did this come to be?
One can point to many factors, such as a lack of structured bureaucratic institutions due to Ottoman and European colonialism, or a lack of unity spurred from nation-states which hold competing ethnic groups. However, American foreign policy and its mistakes have been one of the biggest culprits. For the past 70 years, American foreign policy has been the ultimate cause for the destabilization of the Middle East. It has involved America funding and arming terrorist groups, militarily intervening with imperfect execution, holding their oil interests above the interests of the local population.
Arming and funding terrorist groups:
Since the beginning of the Cold War, the United States has continuously funded proxy groups to fight wars on its behalf in order to further its interests. In 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the United States funnelled monetary assistance to the Afghan Mujahideen to fight off the expansion of the USSR’s ‘Iron Curtain’. According to Jason Furke of the Guardian, the CIA gave over $500 million to groups in Afghanistan, enabling them to conduct guerilla warfare against the Soviets. One of the main leaders of these groups was Osama bin Laden, who used his family fortune from Saudi Arabia to aid the resistance in Afghanistan. The United States had so much admiration for these fighters that President Ronald Reagan famously said, "These gentlemen are the moral equivalent of the founding fathers". The United States also provided billions of dollars to an Islamist military dictatorship in Pakistan to help train and equip the Mujahideen.
After the Soviets retreated in 1989, Afghanistan descended into civil war with competing factions fighting for control. Large areas of Afghanistan would fall under the control of the Taliban and their leader Mullah Omar, a strict fundamentalist who wanted to impose Sharia Islamic law in Afghanistan. Twelve years later, as the events of 9/11 transpired, the United States would be hunting for Osama bin Laden and would wage war against the same groups, this time not as freedom fighters but as terrorists.
This is a classic example of how the United States created its own problem by focusing on one particular interest but ignoring the future consequences that could follow. In the case of Afghanistan, the United States was determined to stop Soviet expansion, but ignored the consequences of funding, equipping and propping up the most radical elements of Afghan society. These very same elements would later form the Taliban and shelter Osama bin Laden. One can make the argument that the threat of Soviet expansion was too great a threat, and the United States simply had to act. Whilst this argument has an element of truth, the United States also had a responsibility to ensure the stability of Afghanistan after the Soviets retreated which they failed to do.
Military interventions with imperfect planning and execution:
Another way in which US foreign policy has destabilized the Middle East is through its imperfect military interventions, the most famous of these being its invasion of Iraq in 2003. To begin with, the war was advertised with the wrong premise of attempting to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The war should have been advertised as a liberation of the Iraqi people from the brutal tyrant, Saddam Hussain. This message would have resonated better with the international community and the Iraqi people, especially as Saddam Hussein’s brutality could be considered ‘satanic’. An example of this is when Saddam ordered his army to launch a chemical attack on Kurdish villages, killing 40,000-100,000 Kurds. Known as ‘The Anfal’, this genocide happened between 1986 to 1989.
Secondly, the method and planning behind the invasion were flawed, resulting in far too many civilian deaths. The US should have done a better job to avoid collateral damage. According to Kerry Sheridan of the Huffington Post, over half a million Iraqi civilians died due to war related causes since the start of the American invasion in 2003. Reckless bombing has only spurred on terrorism in the region and has allowed terrorist groups to recruit new members, capitalizing on the peoples anger and resentment towards the US. According to an article by Quartz, top US military generals working under the Bush administration said that “drone strikes in particular are creating more terrorists than they’re killing”. If America wants to stop the rise of terrorist groups, America “should stop the barbaric blind bombings that are fueling radicalization”.
Prematurely withdrawing forces from the war-torn country in 2011 is another example of how imperfect execution during the Iraq war led to the current destabilization of the region. Whereas Bush made the mistake of invading, Obama made the mistake of prematurely pulling troops out when the country was in absolute turmoil. Iraq as a nation was created by the British empire to serve their oil interests in the region. In the process of doing this, the British paid no attention to ethnic divisions and formed a fragmented country with no definite national identity. Surprisingly Saddam Hussain, with his utilization of brutality and tyranny, came the closest to holding this fragmented country together. When the US removed him and left, they created a power vacuum which allowed groups like ISIS to rise, and enabled terror funding states like Iran to have a larger presence. Ideally, the US should have remained in Iraq for an extended period until a viable solution would have been created to solve the communal differences in the country. A possible idea could have been to implement a three-way-president system such as that followed in Bosnia & Herzegovina. A Sunni Arab president, a Shia Arab president, and a Kurdish president would allow total representation of all three major groups in Iraq. Not learning from its mistakes, the US and NATO did something similar in Libya, but to get into that would make this article into a book!
Oil interest superseding those of the local population:
Another example of how American foreign policy has destabilized the Middle East is the United States’ continuous placement of its petroleum interests above the interests of the local population. After the end of World War 2, oil became the most important commodity in the world. To ensure they had sufficient and sustained access to oil, the US made it their number one priority to ensure the free flow of oil from the Middle East. Therefore, if any oil rich country became hostile towards the US or sought to stop the free flow of oil, the US would try to immediately intervene to preserve their interests. A perfect example of this is the CIA backed coup in 1953 to topple the Iranian government. The Iranian people elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who was widely loved for his social and economic policies, the most notable of these being the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry. The aim of this was to bring the once British controlled Iranian-Anglo Oil Company under the control of the Iranian government and its people. In an initiative to take back control of Iranian oil, the CIA along with British intelligence orchestrated two coups in Iran to place Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in power. The U.S and U.K believed they could count on Shah Mohammad to allow for more British involvement in the Iranian oil industry. Although the Shah wanted a more liberal society, he would go on to brutally oppress the people of Iran to achieve this. This and many other factors would lead to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, which would lead to Iran becoming even more anti-western and radicalized. Now Iran plays a major role in funding terrorist groups like Hezbollah and furthering the sectarian divide in the Middle East. These events are the direct result of a US led coup to topple a democratically elected leader, simply because he wanted to act in the interests of his people and nationalize the oil industry so oil revenue could be redirected towards the Iranian people.
In conclusion, American foreign policy has been one of the biggest contributors to the destabilization of the Middle East post World War 2. Of course, there are many other factors which have also contributed to this destabilization, yet it must be stated that the US was the major party which had the greatest ability to limit its mistakes. Toppling leaders to preserve oil interests, funding terrorist groups and invading on false premises further destabilized a region where peace and harmony have always been fragile.
The Middle East today is in a dire situation. It is at a crossroads, and not even the best insiders can predict where the region will be in five years. The US has made mistakes, and at this point needs to refill the ditch it has dug for itself. It cannot simply have a pacifist and withdrawn stance towards the region, rather it must continue to involve itself in the region. This needs to be done through giving aid to countries like Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan, which continue to hold thousands of refugees from the region who have become ‘collateral damage’. It should also hold a strong military presence in Iraq, not just to stop Iranian influence but also to hold ground until a viable solution is created for the future of the country.
The US must choose: will it learn from its mistakes and solve the problems, or will it let other much less responsible nations such as Russia, Israel, Turkey, and Iran take over the region and plunge into absolute chaos.
Muhammad Asfand Yar
Abbas, Hassan. “How Drones Create More Terrorists.” Theatlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group, 23 Aug. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/08/how-drones-create-more-terrorists/278743/.
Burke, Jason. “Frankenstein the CIA Created.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 Jan. 1999, www.theguardian.com/world/1999/jan/17/yemen.islam.
Carden, James. “Why Does the US Continue to Arm Terrorists in Syria?” The Nation, 3 Mar. 2017, www.thenation.com/article/why-does-the-us-continue-to-arm-terrorists-in-syria/.
Chengu, Garikai. “America Created Al-Qaeda and the ISIS Terror Group.” Globalresearch, 19 Sept. 2014, https://www.globalresearch.ca/america-created-al-qaeda-and-the-isis-terror-group/5402881.
Kohn, Sally. “Drone Strikes Are Creating Hatred towards America That Will Last for Generations.” Qz, Quartz, 9 Dec. 2015, https://qz.com/569779/drone-strikes-are-creating-hatred-towards-america-that-will-last-for-generations/
Sheridan, Kerry. “Iraq Death Toll Reaches 500,000 Since Start Of U.S.-Led Invasion, New Study Says.” Huffingtonpost, 15 Oct. 2003, www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/15/iraq-death-toll_n_4102855.html."