It’s been 17 years since al-Qaeda hijacked two commercial airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center towers in New York City. In the years that followed the attack, the United States became intricately tied up to the fate of the Middle East, as the republic invaded densely-populated Iraq and sparsely-populated Afghanistan, and its operations there moved fully from the shadows of Cold War diplomacy and espionage out into the open. Today, the U.S. is actively engaged in the Middle East and its dealings are heavily monitored by the press. Washington constantly makes convenient alliances with state and non-state actors alike (groups such as anti-Turkish Kurds in Syria or Iran’s elite, anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan) in order to protect its interests (rightly or otherwise).
Yet the United States did not arrive in the Middle East overnight. It has a long presence in the Middle East. Below are 5 snapshots of American history in the Middle East:
5. The Barbary Pirates. Perhaps the most famous, pre-9/11 conflict between the U.S. and the Muslim world, the Barbary pirates were in reality a group of small political units who were almost completely autonomous, but relied on the Ottoman Empire for military protection. These North African Barbary states engaged in piracy with the Ottoman Empire’s unofficial blessing (this was common throughout the world). When Jefferson sent military ships to the region and began attacking the Barbary states, the Ottomans appealed to their North African suzerains to cease attacking American vessels and recognize the fledgling republic’s sovereignty on the high seas.
4. Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire itself had a long but relatively undistinguished relationship with the United States. After the Americans seized the Philippines from Spain in the Spanish-American War, they had to begin the long, bloody process of stamping out anti-American rebellions. The Ottoman sultan, in an act of good faith toward Washington and in his capacity as caliph of the Muslim world, instructed the sultan of Moro, the Muslim area of the Philippines at the time, to avoid getting involved in the conflict, which the Moros mostly did. The lack of hostilities between Americans and Filipino Muslims allowed the former to pacify much of the archipelago, but a Moro rebellion eventually broke out in 1904, and it was bloody.
3. Woodrow Wilson Anti-Colonialism. Woodrow Wilson’s now-famous 14 points gave the French and British fits after the end of World War I, as many different groups in what was the Ottoman Empire used not only Wilson’s 14 points to argue for independence but the example of America itself as reason enough to not trade one imperial overlord (the Ottomans) for another (the French or the British). Up until the end of World War II, when the oil fields of the Middle East became within American reach, the United States as an ideal served as a torchlight of liberty for the region’s reformers. When the U.S. gave in to the temptation of oil, though, the anti-imperial classical liberalism of those reformers was replaced with the socialism of a new wave of anti-imperial reformers.
2. The Iranian Regime. During the Cold War, the U.S. government supported a number of regimes that were illiberal in the name of fighting communism. The necessity of such tactics are beyond the scope of this article, but the Pahlavi “dynasty” of Persia was one such illiberal regime. The Pahlavis were anti-Communist and pro-Western, which meant that women could dress how they pleased and go to university, and that religion was pushed to the sidelines of political life. This made the Pahlavi’s enemies of not only the socialist reformers of Persia, but also the majority of the conservative religious clergy. One Pahlavi was ousted by a joint British-Soviet invasion in 1925, and his son was deposed in the 1979 revolution that turned Persia into Iran. After the British-Soviet invasion, the United States became heavily involved in Persia and supported the secular autocrat almost blindly, which is why the anti-Shah revolution of 1979 was also anti-American.
1. Anti-Saddam Coalition. When George H.W. Bush led a coalition of states into Iraq during the first Gulf War, he had a broad base of international support, including in the Middle East. Although Iran instinctively opposed the effort, most Arab states and Turkey supported the invasion. Saddam Hussein was actually supported by the U.S. government for many years prior to his invasion of Kuwait. Hussein was encouraged by the United States to wage war on Iran after the revolutionaries there began nationalizing Persian oil fields. The U.S. gave Hussein logistic support, military equipment, and plenty of money to wage his eight-year war against Iran. When the American-led coalition forces invaded Iraq to protect Kuwait, though, the interests of the U.S. began to be viewed in a much different light by Muslims worldwide. One of those Muslims was the son of a wealthy Saudi oil baron. His name? Osama bin Laden, who had previously allied with the United States in his war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.