Clarifying Misconceptions About U.S. Involvement in the Middle East: WWII-2001

Originally published in Feb. 2020 print issue (Vol. 41 Issue 3)

On Jan. 3, the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani by a U.S. airstrike dominated headlines. In response, Iran fired missiles at two American bases in Iraq five days later. That same day, a Ukrainian passenger jet crashed near Tehran, Iran’s capital. After three days of denial, Iran’s military admitted responsibility for the crash.

These are the latest events in a long history of U.S. involvement and intervention in the Middle East. This story and an infographic on pgs. 12-13 aim to provide a clear overview of not just the ongoing “global war on terror” but also the origins of U.S. interaction with the Middle East and the region itself.

The “war on terror” phrase first used by President George W. Bush after the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, captures a simple, one-dimensional impression of the Middle East as a place of violence and terrorism. However, the region is much more than that. Accompanying this story are photos of Iran that provide a picture of the Middle East seldom shared. 

Geographically, impressions of the Middle East are also often mistaken. The U.S.-led “war on terror” began with invading Afghanistan. Is Afghanistan in the Middle East? Below is a map of the region in question. Afghanistan is not included because it is actually in Central Asia. 

Image courtesy of USA Rice Federation

Here is a map of the “Greater Middle East” or Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. (below) Calling these countries by a single name as one region, which the U.S. government began doing after the Sept. 11 attacks, has a political purpose of grouping them by their common religion of Islam.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The MENA countries are all Muslim-majority, except Israel. But while North Africa has historical and cultural ties to the Middle East, the Central Asian countries east of Iran like Afghanistan have differences in culture and language. Invading Afghanistan highlighted the country’s religious tie to the Middle East, encouraging the misconception of Afghanistan being Middle Eastern.

Like Afghanistan, the Muslim world and the Arab world are often incorrectly thought of as the same thing as the Middle East. Muslim-majority countries include more than just the Middle East and the MENA region. Only about 20 percent of all Muslims live in the MENA region. Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population, is located in South Asia.

Maranjab desert at sunrise, covered by snow Courtesy of CNN

The Arab world includes many Middle Eastern and MENA countries, except for Turkey, Israel, Iran and Central Asia. Arab identifies a group with various ethnic backgrounds that shares a common mother tongue, Arabic. The Middle East is home to many non-Arab ethnic groups, including Persians, Kurds, Palestinians, Egyptians, Druze, Jews and Armenians. Below: A map of the 22 Arab-majority countries that make up the Arab world. 

Image courtesy of Pinterest

Both “worlds”, one centered around a religion and one around an ethnic group, overlap with the Middle East but are not one and the same. Likewise, Arab, an ethnicity, does not equal Muslim, a religious identity, and vice versa. There are hundreds of millions of non-Arab Muslims as well as millions of Arabs who are not Muslim.

Today, the U.S. government has diplomatic relations with every Middle Eastern country except Iran and Syria. The U.S. does not recognize the State of Palestine. Turkey is a fellow member of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a peacetime military alliance formed during the Cold War. Major non-NATO allies in the region include Afghanistan, Egypt and Jordan. Israel is a major strategic partner, a level above a major non-NATO ally. The U.S. also maintains close ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

80 years ago, the U.S. had very little interest in the Middle East. That changed after WWII ended in 1945. This new U.S. involvement followed years of European colonialism, a key factor to understanding the region’s makeup. U.S. involvement was simply a continuation of Western interference.

The end of WWI brought the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, a defeated Central Power. Britain had promised independence to Arabs under Ottoman rule if they would revolt, which they agreed to. However, in the now infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, Britain and France secretly carved up portions of the former Ottoman empire for their own control.

The lines of Sykes-Picot never became actual borders. They did foreshadow the borders set in stone a few years later, which remain the modern geographic boundaries of the Middle East. Because Sykes-Picot ignored how ethnic and religious groups were situated, which the later borders drawn did similarly, and betrayed the trust of Arabs, it has been blamed for the region’s continuous turmoil. 

The aftermath of Sykes-Picot was a mandate system of territories under European control. One of these mandates, Palestine, felt the impact of another controversial British promise made during WWI. Known as the Balfour Declaration, it promised British support for the creation of a Jewish homeland within Palestine. Like Sykes-Picot, this promise was contradictory to the earlier pledge to Arabs for their independence. The Balfour Declaration set forces in motion that led to the creation of the State of Israel and the lasting conflict between Jews and Palestinians today.

Another legacy from the British is the name “Middle East” itself, coined in the late 19th century shortly before the world would go to war for the first time. Like “Far East” referring to East Asia, “Middle East” only makes geographic sense from a European perspective. 

Anti-colonial Arab and Islamic resistance movements sprang up between WWI and WWII in reaction to European control. At the end of WWI, the U.S. had made a positive impression on the Middle East when President Woodrow Wilson advocated for self-determination, a people’s right to decide their own national identity or government. However, when the U.S. stepped into the scene after WWII’s end, that sentiment would soon change.

As the democratic U.S. opposed the communist Soviet Union during the Cold War, Europe lost most of its colonial holdings, including in the Middle East. Ex-colonial nations became battlegrounds in the U.S.-Soviet struggle. The U.S. government rallied around a battle cry of democracy, but often prioritized stability instead. Multiple American presidents ended up supporting dictatorships or repressive, right-wing regimes as long as they were anti-communist. Besides countering Soviet influence, the U.S. had two other goals in the Middle East: protect its oil access and protect the new State of Israel. 

U.S. concern for oil and stability played out in 1953. Iran’s prime minister then was the popular, democratically-elected Mohammad Mossadegh, who opposed Western interference. When he claimed British oil properties in Iran, the CIA helped the British overthrow Mossadegh, placing the shah (king) back in power. Resulting Iranian distrust and resentment towards the U.S. lasted for decades, as U.S. support for the shah continued until 1979. 

In 1979, a revolution, fueled in part by anti-Western sentiment, forced the shah into exile and established a theocracy, a government under religious leaders, led by Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. For over a year, 52 American hostages were held captive in the U.S. embassy. The 1979 Iranian revolution marked a critical point in Middle Eastern history, including the widening of the divide between Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims.

1979 Iranian Revolution, Courtesy of National Security Archive

That same year, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Cold War was still ongoing, and the U.S. responded by funding anti-communist guerrilla warfare. Among those guerrilla fighters was Osama bin Laden, the man who would be responsible for 9/11.

A year later in 1980, Iraq unexpectedly invaded Iran, beginning eight years of war. Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein, had the aim of preventing the Shiite revolution from spreading to Sunni-majority Iraq. The U.S. supported Iraq, incorrectly believing Hussein could subdue Iran. 

Two years after the Iran-Iraq war’s end, Hussein invaded Kuwait, threatening oil-rich neighbor Saudi Arabia while under the impression he had U.S. support. America’s response to the threat towards an important oil supply resulted in the Gulf War, a quick, victorious removal of Iraqi troops by 1991.

The U.S. emerged from the Cold War’s end in 1991 as the dominant world power. However, years of U.S. interference in the Middle East from WWII-on, including continual support for Israel throughout the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, had accumulated strong backlash in the region. This backlash would take the form of terrorism as early as 1993, when a bomb went off beneath the World Trade Center in New York City. By 1998, Osama bin Laden had organized his radical Islamic militant group Al Qaeda and was bombing U.S. embassies in Africa and Yemen. The stage was set for Sept. 11, 2001. 

This summary of U.S. involvement and intervention in the Middle East before 9/11 still lacks enough detail and nuance to resolve all misunderstanding. It fails to completely capture the conflict in the Middle East since it omits the interaction between Middle Eastern countries themselves.

However, as U.S. citizens, knowledge of the U.S. government’s actions in the region is important for undoing false impressions, understanding the context of news headlines, remembering that the people of the Middle East are people as well and reflecting on how their lives have been affected. 

Cover photo courtesy of Scott McLeod on Flickr

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