Global Policy Forum

A History Lesson: US Intervention in the Middle East


By Stephen Zunes

Common Dreams
February 10, 2003

For those who argue that a U.S. invasion of Iraq will somehow advance American interests in the Middle East, an overview of the major cases of U.S. intervention in the region during the past fifty years appears to indicate otherwise. Below is a list of major interventions in the region during the five decades along with a brief description of the U.S. role and its result:

Iran, 1953: When the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh nationalized the Anglo-Iranian oil company, the resulting sanctions on the country – led by Great Britain and the United States – resulted in economic hardship and political unrest. Fearing that such instability could result in a communist takeover and concerned about the precedent of nationalization on American oil companies elsewhere in the Middle East, agents of the Central Intelligence Agency organized a military coup in 1953, ousting the elected prime minister. The United States returned the exiled Shah to Iran, where he ruled with an iron fist for more than a quarter century. Tens of thousands of dissidents were tortured and murdered by his dreaded SAVAK secret police, organized and trained by the United States. The repression was largely successful in wiping out the democratic opposition. The SAVAK was less successful in infiltrating religious institutions, however, so when the revolution finally took place, toppling the Shah in 1979, the formerly secular Iran came under the leadership of virulently reactionary and anti-American Islamists. The result of the Islamic revolution was not only the end of one of America's strongest economic and strategic relationships in the Middle East, but also the hostage crisis of 1979-81, Iranian support for anti-American terrorist groups, and a series of armed engagements in the Persian Gulf during the 1980s. Had the United States not overthrown Iran's constitutional government in 1953 and replaced it with the dictatorial Shah, there would not have been the Islamic Revolution and its bloody aftermath.

Lebanon, 1958 and 1982-84: U.S. Marines briefly entered Lebanon in 1958 to block an attempt by Arab nationalist forces to topple the confessional representation system imposed by departing French colonialists fifteen years earlier. This system effectively kept elites of rival clans in control of the country, particularly those of the pro-Western Maronite Christian minority. Tensions grew in subsequent years as rival factions began forming heavily-armed militias. A full-scale civil war broke out in 1975, which included militias made up of Palestinian refugees expelled from their country during Israel's war for independence in 1948. The United States provided military, financial and diplomatic support for Israel's June 1982 invasion of Lebanon targeted at the Palestinians and their leftist Lebanese allies. Despite tens of thousands of civilian casualties from the Israeli onslaught, the United States blocked efforts by the United Nations to force an Israeli withdrawal or even a cease fire. The United States brokered an agreement that September which led to a withdrawal of Palestinian forces from the country and the appointment of a new Lebanese government led by the neo-fascist Phalangist Party, representing part of the country's Maronite Christian community. After Israeli occupation forces led by General Ariel Sharon facilitated a Phalangist massacre of thousands of Palestinian refugees just south of Beirut, U.S. troops moved into areas around the capital and Navy ships were stationed off the coast. When a popular uprising commenced against the minority Phalangist government, U.S. forces began bombing villages in the Shouf Mountains and other opposition strongholds while U.S. Marines exchanged gunfire with Muslim militias in nearby Beirut suburbs. There were also a series of armed engagements with Syrian forces in eastern Lebanon, resulting in the killing and capture of American pilots. In 1983, suicide bombers struck the U.S. embassy in April and a Marine barracks in October, killing nearly 300 Americans, which led to a U.S. withdrawal in early 1984. Meanwhile, the United States continued its military and financial support for Israeli occupation forces in southern Lebanon, blocking the UN Security Council from enforcing a series of resolutions demanding Israel's unconditional withdrawal. Periodic attacks by U.S.-armed Israeli forces against Lebanese civilian population centers resulted in hundreds of thousands of internal refugees, many of whom joined radical Islamic groups like Hizbollah, which were responsible for a series of kidnapping and assassinations of Americans in Lebanon. The collapse of leftist and nationalist Lebanese forces as a result of the U.S. intervention and the U.S.-backed Israeli invasion led to a power vacuum filled by extremist Islamic groups from below and an overbearing presence of the anti-American Syrian government from above. Combined with resentment at the enormous human costs of these interventions, Lebanon has turned from a staunchly pro-Western country to a center of anti-American sentiments.

Libya, 1981-86: Beginning in 1981, in part to challenge Libyan claims for expanded territorial waters, the United States launched a series of air strikes along the Libyan coast, shot down Libyan military aircraft, and engaged in a series of minor naval battles with the Libyan forces in the Gulf of Sidra. Partially in response to this U.S. hostility, Libya increased its funding for radical groups such as Abu Nidal, which launched a series of terrorist attacks in Europe against Americans. In April 1986, the United States bombed Libya's two largest cities, killing over sixty civilians, including the two-year old daughter of Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi. In retaliation, Libyan agents planted a bomb aboard Pan Am flight 103 bound for New York in December 1988, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people aboard.

Iran-Iraq war, 1980-90: The United States actively supported Iraq's invasion of Iran, blocking efforts by the United Nations to place sanctions upon Saddam Hussein's regime for its aggression, and providing the Iraqis with economic and military assistance. Even though Iraq was actively supporting terrorist groups such as Abu Nidal, the United States dropped Iraq from its list of countries sponsoring terrorism in order to send otherwise banned military and technological support. These included the seed stock for Iraq's anthrax supply (which were used to make biological weapons) and various toxic chemicals (which were used to make chemical weapons), which the United States now claims makes Iraq enough of a threat to require a U.S.-led invasion. Officials from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency were sent to Iraq to use U.S. satellite imagery to help the Iraqis target Iranian troop concentrations, even though they knew the Iraqis were using banned chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers. The U.S. also covered up for Iraq's use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians in 1988 by falsely claiming the Iranians were responsible for the massacres. In 1987, the United States sent in the U.S. Navy to protect Kuwaiti ships that were supporting the Iraqi war effort, launching a series of armed engagements with Iranian naval forces and bombing Iranian coastal areas. When the Iraqis attacked the U.S. navy frigate Stark in May 1987, killing 37 sailors, the United States accepted Iraqi claims that it was an accident despite evidence to the contrary. In July 1988, the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian airliner on a regularly-scheduled flight over Iranian air space, killing all 290 on board.

This American support for Saddam Hussein despite his invasion of Iran, his use of weapons of mass destruction, and his unprovoked attack on a U.S. Navy ship in international waters undoubtedly emboldened the Iraqi dictator to believe he could get away with invading another neighbor country: the small but wealthy emirate of Kuwait.

The Gulf War, 1991: The United States led a devastating six-week war against Iraq in early 1991 over Saddam Hussein's refusal to withdraw from the emirate of Kuwait, which Iraq invaded, occupied and annexed in August 1990. Going well beyond what was necessary to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation forces, the damage to Iraq's civilian infrastructure and the humanitarian consequences from the resulting sanctions led to widespread anti-American resentment in the region, even among Saddam Hussein's fiercest opponents. These included Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi businessman who had been a U.S. ally in the war against the communist government in Afghanistan and its Soviet backers during the 1980s and had offered to raise an army of mujahadin to fight the Iraqi occupation forces. Bin Laden and his followers were particularly incensed at the increased strategic cooperation resulting from the Gulf War between the United States and the repressive family dictatorships of the Gulf region, particularly Saudi Arabia. An additional consequence of the Gulf War was the ongoing stationing of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia – the guardian of Islamic holy places – which was deeply offensive to bin Laden and his followers who saw this as a desecration by non-believers of sacred land. As a result, bin Laden formed the Al-Qaeda network. Had there been no Gulf War, there would have been no 9/11.

Sudan, 1998: U.S. planes bombed and destroyed the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plan outside of the capital of Khartoum in August 1988. The Clinton Administration justified the attack by falsely claiming that it was a chemical weapons factory controlled by Osama bin Laden. Though the United States blocked the United Nations from investigating, independent reports leave little doubt that the plant was solely used for civilian medical items and there was no connection with the exiled Saudi terrorist. Estimates from foreign embassies and development groups believe that thousands of Sudanese, particularly children, died as a result of the shortages of antibiotics and vaccines caused by the destruction of the facility, which manufactured as much as half of the country's domestic supplies. In retaliation, the Sudanese government refused to extradite two Al-Qaeda suspects who were scheduled to be turned over to U.S. custody along with documents that many believe could have shed light on plans for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In addition, the U.S. destruction of the pharmaceutical plant likely saved the repressive Islamist military regime from imminent collapse, as opposition groups – that had been making dramatic gains in the weeks leading up to the attack – closed ranks behind the government in response to the bombing. That government, which has been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in the southern part of the country and continues to harbor anti-American terrorists, remains in power to this day.

Afghanistan, 1979-90, 1998, and 2001-present: The United States began secretly arming Islamist rebels fighting the leftist government of Afghanistan in July 1979. According to former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, the decision to aid these fundamentalist militias was based in part on the hope that it would provoke the Soviets to invade, which they did that December. U.S. support for Islamist rebels dramatically increased in the coming years, with 80% of the aid going to the Hekmatyar faction, the most extremist of the seven major mujahadin factions fighting the Soviets and their Afghan allies. The reason for wanting to encourage a Soviet invasion and to support the opposition group least likely to compromise was the hope that the Soviets would be bogged down in a debilitating counter-insurgency war, which would thereby assist America's Cold War aims. Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, but U.S. support for Hekmatyar continued and a coalition of mujahadin groups ousted Afghanistan's leftist government in 1992. Not satisfied with the Islamic coalition government that resulted, Hekmatyar forces shelled the capital of Kabul, killing thousands of civilians and making a stable government impossible. Out of the ensuing chaos rose the Taliban militia, which seized power in 1996 and imposed a theocratic fascism upon the country. The Taliban allowed use of its territory by the Al-Qaeda network, which served as the base of operations for a series of terrorist attacks against Americans in Africa, the Middle East and finally in the United States itself. Had the United States not supported the extremist Hekmatyar faction and instead backed efforts by the United Nations and others to bring a peaceful settlement to the Soviet occupation and civil war, Afghanistan could have a established a stable government many years earlier and the Taliban would have never come to power.

The Clinton Administration bombed a series of camps belonging to Al-Qaeda in August 1998 after terrorist attacks against two U.S. embassies in Africa. The Bush Administration launched a major bombing campaign and limited ground operations against both Al-Qaeda and Taliban positions in October 2001 following the 9/11 attacks against the United States, facilitating the takeover of the government in Kabul by the rebel Northern Alliance. U.S. military operations continue to this day. Dozens of American servicemen and thousands of Afghan civilians have died as a result of the U.S.-led war. Whether this military operation will eventually lead to a similar blowback against the United States as have these previous interventions remains to be seen.

The planned U.S. invasion of Iraq would be unprecedented in its scale. If this review of U.S. intervention in the Middle East is any guide, the result could be disastrous, not just for the Iraqi people, but for the United States as well. Other great powers that have tried to impose their will on the Middle East have sooner or later faced the consequences. Initial victories – like the installation of the pro-American Shah of Iran or the defeat of Iraq in the first Gulf War – have proved to be illusory in terms of promoting American interests.

A counter-example if illustrative: In 1956, Great Britain and France – with the support of Israel – tried to impose a regime change in Egypt against an Arab nationalist dictator whom they likened to Adolf Hitler. The United States came to the defense of Gamal Abdul-Nasser's regime, claiming that despite its opposition to Nasser's policies and its close alliance with the Britain, France and Israel, the U.S. government felt obliged to uphold international law. Just as the United States had to speak out against the simultaneous Soviet invasion of Hungary, it was argued, the U.S. must speak out against such aggression even when it involves a U.S. ally. The United States has never been more popular in the Middle East before or since. Egypt – the largest and most important country in the Arab world – has been an important U.S. ally for more than three decades.

There are many important moral and legal arguments against a U.S. invasion of Iraq, but this has not stopped the drive toward war. Perhaps this brief history lesson, then, may convince those who naively believe that U.S. intervention in the Middle East makes America safer to reconsider.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.