In one way, since the end of the Second World War, when the U.S. assumed its role as the leading global hegemon, American policy towards the Middle East has resembled a damaged pinball machine gone tilt. There was the CIA led 1953 coup against Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, whose sin was nationalizing the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, that resulted in the reinstallation of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. When the ghastly Shah regime finally fell decades later and Iran was soon after at war and Washington’s tilt away from Iran was towards Iraq, of course ruled by none other than Saddam Hussein (his Baath Party’s coup in 1963 also was helped along by the CIA), this tilt coinciding with the worst of Hussein’s atrocities, including the use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers (U.S. intelligence provided imagery and maps about Iranian troop movements) and the Kurds. A few years later Hussein overstepped his bounds by seizing Kuwait, perhaps due to misreading shady diplomatic signals -then American ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie was quoted as telling Hussein ‘We understand that and our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. But we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait’, thus ending Hussein’s days as an American client. Even the ‘Special Relationship’ with Israel wasn’t without such mechanics. Though the United States was the first state to formally recognize Israel in 1948, President Eisenhower didn’t tolerate the Israeli-British-French seizure of the Suez Canal in 1956. The tilt towards Israel didn’t truly occur until after the 1967 war – probably when Washington awoke to Israel’s usefulness as a bulwark against Pan-Arabism.
Still in perhaps a greater way, American policy, in the midst of all that, has displayed a certain consistency: an inherently reactionary arraignment built off the promises of stability and the free flow of oil to the global economy, the main pillars of which for decades, and most especially after the loss of the Shah in Iran, have been the Israeli government, the Egyptian military, and the House of Saud. The practical result was not only the flow of oil but also the enabling of a divided region full of dictatorships and economic stagnation. It all made Wahhabism, often funded by the House of Saud, and other strains of radical Islam, in the case of Hamas and Hezbollah, covertly funded early on by Israel, an appealing ideology to the masses trapped under the system.
This cynical epoch was supposed to have ended with the blowback of September 11th, 2001. It was no less than George W. Bush who proclaimed at a speech at the American Chamber of Commerce in November 2003 ‘Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe.’ Of course Bush’s murderous invasion of Iraq, by then a nation decimated under a lethal combination of Western sanctions and entrenched dictatorship, only served, among other things, to destabilize the country, the culmination of which has been the rise and expansion of ISIS.
A few years later it was Barack Obama in the White House as the Arab Spring got going in December 2010. In May 2011 Obama declared ‘Yet we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind. Moreover, failure to speak to broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense.’ He then spoke out for a ‘set of core principles’ including economic reform, human rights, opposition to violence and repression but not before helpfully leaving himself an out with ‘Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short-term interests don’t align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region.’
It’s only in the subservient mind of American punditry where such a banal sentiment can be declared ‘historic’. Still Obama can be credited with casting aside Hosni Mubarak a couple of months before he made that speech despite the loud objections of the House of Saud and Benjamin Netanyahu (with the usual Great Power hypocrisy: Bahrain, home country of the United States Fifth Fleet, saw its uprising brutally crushed by its government with Saudi support. There was only token opposition from Washington). Even the subsequent coup against Mohamed Morsi in 2013 initially had enough respectable support (such as by Nobel Peace winner Mohamed ElBaradei), before its repression became too apparent, to be defendable. Still, in the aftermath of that repression and the fact that Egyptians overall are back to square one, did Obama have to approve a full restoration of military aid to Egypt’s government?
One of the charming side effects whispered about the Iraq War was that with a new democratic ally installed in Bagdad, and one with ample oil reserves, would enable the United States to step down as patron to the House of Saud. The same sort of idea floats around the ‘energy independence’ notion the fracking boom is supposed to be bringing. Yet the present day finds the United States supporting the House of Saud’s intervention in Yemen in favor of deposed autocrat Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The official justification is that the Houthi uprising that forced Hadi out is Iranian controlled- a largely dubious charge though no doubt such ties will increase as the Houthis are under the Saudi coalition’s assault; this despite the fact that the Houthis are sworn enemies of Al Qaeda in Yemen, the main calling card of Hadi.
Meanwhile the same dynamic is at play in Iraq where the U.S. seems to be trying to square the circle by fighting ISIS without the most effective fighters. Shite reprisals against Sunnis who have already suffered enough under ISIS rule is a serious concern but with the Iraqi army in disarray a policy of completely marginalizing Shite fighters (in an effort to limit Iranian influence, no doubt also conforming to Saudi wishes despite that at the same time the United States is negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program) risks prolonging ISIS rule. A view through this dizzying looking glass of events seems to show the American alliance with the House of Saud is still cemented, even as Saudi ties to 9/11 are still being investigated.
As for the Israeli government is concerned it would seem fair to at least suspect Obama of a cowardice that goes beyond the political and into the personal; back in his first term the announcement of settlement expansion, just as the Obama administration was attempting to restart the tedious ‘peace process’ , greeted Joe Biden’s arrival in Israel. That set the tone for the rest of Obama’s tenure as Netanyahu piled on the insults: lecturing Obama on national TV about ‘reality’ after Obama told AIPAC that negotiations should be based on the pre-1967 borders, all but campaigning for Mitt Romney in 2012, and most recently doing an end-round past the White House to address Congress about the destructiveness of the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. For all that Netanyahu got support for his war in Gaza and endless reassurances that the partnership with Israel is bigger than any personal differences. So American aid keeps flowing and the Palestinians remain stateless and subject to the never-ending process.
To say that after years of war and upheaval the United States came full circle in the Middle East is to miss the essential point: it never relinquished its role as slumlord. The pillars of stability are still in place and have never been seriously threatened. An unjust status quo has gotten much worse, the region now bitterly divided even further (the original vision of European imperialism still vibrates) and therefore a market for patronage and arms dealers. Besides ensuring Israel’s military advantage, it is notable that Saudi Arabia is now the fourth highest spender on weaponry in the world. Last year Qatar got a deal an $11 billion deal with The Pentagon to purchase Apache attack helicopters and Patriot and Javelin air-defense systems. UAE last year spent three times what they spent a decade ago. Drones will soon be hovering more than ever. The amount of bloodshed will undoubtedly continue to be great. Such is Western policy in the region most constant result.
Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City.