Washington’s Ill-Fated Mideast Ambitions
from Middle East Program and Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

Washington’s Ill-Fated Mideast Ambitions

U.S. Marines carry a portrait of toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein at Baghdad’s international airport in April 2003.
U.S. Marines carry a portrait of toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein at Baghdad’s international airport in April 2003. Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. administrations have backed sweeping efforts for societal change in the Middle East in recent decades, with poor results. But Washington can still achieve more modest, essential goals in the region.*

May 31, 2024 1:30 pm (EST)

U.S. Marines carry a portrait of toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein at Baghdad’s international airport in April 2003.
U.S. Marines carry a portrait of toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein at Baghdad’s international airport in April 2003. Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images
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Given Washington’s record in the Middle East, President Joe Biden’s approach to the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip—in particular, any postwar “day after” scenario—is puzzling. The president and his team seek to revitalize the Palestinian Authority so it can administer Gaza and at the same launch a credible, time-limited process that would result in a Palestinian state. These are laudable goals, but they are based on an idea that the United States has the power, and its leaders have the knowledge and insight, to engage in a social-engineering project half a world away. This is something the United States has tried before, to the benefit of few and the harm of many. It is time to bring an end to this ambition.

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Indeed, the United States’ failures in its efforts to transform the Middle East have been so pronounced that they have triggered lively debate about whether Washington should retrench from, pivot away from, or otherwise leave the region. But the United States’ record in the region is better than analysts, journalists, officials, and commentators generally believe. Measured against what policymakers set out to achieve after World War II—rather than against ambitions for political change—the United States has been quite successful in advancing its primary interests in the Middle East: the free flow of energy resources, Israeli security, and American primacy in the service of those two other interests.  

Israel, Oil, and the Shah

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There have been setbacks, of course. During the 1973 October War, the United States’ interests in energy security collided with its commitment to Israeli security. The Saudi Arabia–led oil embargo over Washington’s support for Israel resulted in a painful recession for Americans. Later that decade, a social revolution engulfed Iran and overthrew the shah, who had become an important strategic partner of the United States. A revisionist regime that was and remains implacably hostile to the United States replaced the Iranian monarchy.

There have also been the moral costs of American success in the Middle East. Support for the region’s authoritarians—including the shah—has rendered Washington complicit in human rights abuses and bloodshed. The United States’ diplomatic, economic, and military support has contributed to the ongoing statelessness of the Palestinian people. When it comes to the Middle East, Washington has often found itself in a place that is strategically tenable but morally compromised. That is to say, U.S. interests were served even if the country’s conduct in the region contradicted its principles and values.

Preventive Actions

If the United States had once been successful in the Middle East, why has it experienced so much failure in recent decades? In the post–World War II era, the United States pursued a Middle East policy based on “prevention”—protecting against disruptions to the free flow of oil, helping to stave off threats to Israel, and precluding challenges to the United States from the Soviet Union and its client states in the region. These commitments developed slowly, taking on momentum only in the 1970s, after the British withdrew from the Persian Gulf and after the outbreak of the October War triggered changes in how United States sought stability and security in the region.

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To block threats to Israeli security, the United States embarked on a policy that would establish the “qualitative military edge” of the Israel Defense Forces. And in the Gulf, Washington sought to intervene against disruptions of the flow of oil by building up Iran as the region’s policeman. The 1970s ended with the U.S.-brokered peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, as well as a series of crises that buffeted the Gulf, including the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis, the siege of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The Carter Doctrine Era

In response to these challenges, President Jimmy Carter declared that the United States would prevent threats to energy security from powers outside the region. His successor Ronald Reagan added a corollary to what became known as the Carter Doctrine, committing the United States to defend Middle Eastern oil fields from regional and external powers. In keeping with this approach, he undertook several military operations in the 1980s to prevent disruption to the flow of oil from the region. The biggest was known as Operation Earnest Will (from July 1987 to September 1988), during which the U.S. Navy reflagged and escorted Kuwaiti oil tankers, which had been under Iranian attack, through the Gulf. The United States also undertook three parallel military operations that effectively ended the Iranian threat to shipping in the area.

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This was where things stood until 1991, a fateful year bookended by American triumphs. In February, a U.S.-led multinational force defeated Iraq after its president, Saddam Hussein, invaded and occupied Kuwait the previous summer. At the end of the year, the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the United States as the world’s sole superpower.

U.S. Overreach

By the mid-1990s, an unencumbered Washington began an ambitious effort to remake the world, expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), promoting economic shock therapy in formerly communist countries, and enlarging democracy globally. In the Middle East, this meant a return to the peace process, which would not only benefit Israelis and Palestinians, but also (from President Bill Clinton’s perspective, if his efforts were successful) undermine a primary rationale behind Arab leaders’ national security states, thereby fostering more just, open, prosperous, and democratic societies. For a moment, it seemed as though Clinton was making progress toward peace, but then the Israelis and Palestinians scuttled the Oslo Accords.

Then came the George W. Bush administration’s post–9/11 Freedom Agenda. Based on the idea that democracy is an antidote to terrorism, it laid out parallel efforts to remake Iraqi society and build a Palestinian state. When it came to the latter, President Bush reversed Clinton’s logic, calculating that the best way to get to peace was through democratic political reform.

Finally, there was President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. While not intended to change the politics of any given country, it was meant to transform the Middle East so that, at least, in the Gulf, the Iranians and their neighbors could “share” the region. The transformative efforts across administrations differed in size, but their scale is less important than the conclusion one can draw from this history: when the United States has leveraged its power to change the region, it has failed.

It is because of this pattern of transformation-fueled failure that the Biden administration should avoid an ambitious effort to reform Palestinian politics and build a Palestinian state. There is little reason to believe that such an effort in international social engineering would succeed when in the past it has failed. The time, energy, and resources of the United States would be better spent preventing threats to American interests than on what would likely be unending, inconclusive negotiations that are likely to do more harm than good. It could very well be that there is no U.S. solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which case, no amount of American effort would change that.

*Editor’s note: This article is based on Steven A. Cook’s new book, The End of Ambition: America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East, now available to order.

This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.

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