Idealism, not greed, has shaped US Foreign Policy in the Middle East since 9/11
America’s blundering into Iraq, failure to achieve decisive victory in Afghanistan, and role in the destabilization of Libya have understandably left many throughout the world, including in the United States, feeling disillusioned with the use of American power abroad. And these are only a handful of numerous engagements in the Greater Middle East (Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia) that have either ended in stalemates or severely backfired.
It is only natural to ponder why the US continues to be mired in a myriad of endless conflicts in the region. For historian Andrew Bacevich, author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East, other considerations may play a role, but “oil has always defined the raison d’etre of the War for the Greater Middle East.” Social critics such as Glenn Greenwald and Noam Chomsky are at pains to rationalize every intervention in the region as part of an “imperial grand strategy.” More comically, in the Key and Peele sketch “Foreign Intervention,” an American ambassador to a war-torn African initially refuses to send military aid — but when he is informed that the country possesses vast oil reserves, he immediately changes his mind and initiates “Operation Golden Eagle.”
Indeed, many wars and alliances in the Greater Middle East have been about defending vital natural resources. FDR cemented the US alliance with Saudi Arabia during World War II after recognizing the importance of Saudi oil for the American economy. Throughout the Cold War, American officials frequently compromised on democratic and liberal principles to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining a stronghold in the Persian Gulf. The First Gulf War, while also justified as an operation to liberate Kuwait, was primarily driven by concern about Saddam potentially taking over Saudi oil fields.
However, as Bacevich himself points out eventually, material interests cannot explain various engagements throughout the region, especially after 9/11. The relationship with the Saudi royal family today is not just about oil, but also counterterrorism, containing Iran, and cracking down on fundraising networks for Sunni jihadists. Moreover, the US is significantly less dependent on Middle Eastern oil than in previous decades, and concerns over Persian Gulf natural resources today are focused more on maintaining stable prices for the global economy as a whole. Even when oil was a top priority for American statesmen during the Cold War, this was not necessarily because of the demands of US oil companies, but rather the strategic importance of reviving the economies of Western Europe and East Asia, which were in shambles after WW2. Washington feared (accurately) that Soviet officials sought to cut off oil supplies from US allies in order to weaken them, and eventually expand the Iron curtain to these allied regimes.
The common “blood for oil” criticism of the Iraq War also turned out to be untrue — the post-Saddam Iraqi parliament, not the US, decides which oil companies secure contracts via independent auctions, and most post-war oil contracts went to non-occupying countries. Indeed, a handful of American oil companies exploited the war to secure contracts with the new Iraqi government, but this was not the underlying reason for the invasion itself — the oil conglomerates’ interests would have been much better served by leaving Saddam in power and lifting sanctions, which is what they had been lobbying for. In fact, throughout the 1990s, Washington prioritized maintaining sanctions on Saddam as a means of containment, whereas other countries such as France and Russia were eager to lift sanctions and trade oil with him. Prior to the invasion, Saddam desperately tried striking a deal with the US for American oil companies to control Iraqi oil to prevent being overthrown, but the Bush Administration declined the offer. Similar rationalizations have been made for other interventions, such as the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya, but these too have been thoroughly debunked.
Despite a dwindling dependence on Middle Eastern oil, the military presence in the region has gone well beyond what is necessary to defend natural resources. Besides Trump’s peace deal with the Afghan Taliban and withdrawal of American troops from Syria, no administration has made a significant effort to reduce America’s footprint in the region. Though Trump chastised both Obama and Bush for intervening in conflicts in which US national interest was not directly at stake, such as Iraq and Libya, even he ended up authorizing airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons facilities in Syria.
If material interests cannot explain the militarization of US Foreign Policy towards the Middle East since the end of the Cold War, then what does? Other explanations often cite domestic actors, such as the Israel Lobby, defense contractors, and even personal feuds. While these factors are no doubt relevant, I think that the heart of US interventionism lies in a major ideological transformation in American politics in the 1990s.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and road to the Iraq War
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the ‘third wave’ of democratization throughout Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia prompted a swift change in American foreign policy priorities. No longer pressed with the Cold War dilemma of choosing between anti-Communist dictatorships and democratic regimes that could potentially elect pro-Soviet Marxists, Washington was presented with a genuine opportunity to promote democracy abroad. In the End of History, political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that the results of the Cold War demonstrated the moral and intellectual superiority of liberal democracy over all other political ideologies. Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer advocated for the US to capitalize on this “Unipolar Moment” to prevent the emergence of a rival peer competitor. Bill Clinton’s liberal national security advisor, Anthony Lake, advocated a “strategy of enlargement” to spread democracy and open markets.
This foreign policy doctrine of “liberal hegemony” was not just expected to solidify American primary, but also promote international peace by consolidating democratic governance, deterring aggression, and expanding an interconnected global economic system. This worldview strongly resonated with a rising movement in American politics called neoconservatism, which championed the use of military force to spread neoliberal democracy, defend human rights, overthrow hostile regimes, and advance a liberal world order policed by the US. For instance, Paul Wolfowitz, a prominent neoconservative, was instrumental in convincing the Reagan administration to push for democratic reforms in the Philippines, Indonesia, and South Korea in the 1980s. Along with the neoconservatives were the liberal interventionists, such as Madeline Albright and Bill Clinton, who also desired a more hawkish foreign policy but within the constraints of multilateral bodies such as the United Nations. Despite minor disagreements, the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists would see eye to eye on many issues, and both groups fervently believed that the promotion of classical liberal values abroad would be good for America, and for the world.
The various US-led humanitarian interventions in the 1990s are testimony to this widespread idealism: Operation Provide Comfort for Iraqi Kurds suffering under Saddam’s rule, Operations Provide Hope and Restore Hope during the Somali Civil War (where the Black Hawk Down fiasco took place), Operation Uphold Democracy to overthrow a military junta in Haiti, and Operations Deliberate Force and Allied Force to put a stop to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo (respectively). The US also expanded NATO eastward during this time, both to expand its sphere of influence and facilitate democratization in Central and Eastern European, and significantly increased democracy promotion aid to Latin America.
With respect to the Middle East, Saddam’s tyrannical rule, support for anti-Israel terrorism, resistance to American hegemony, contempt for international law, and regional aggression situated him directly in the crosshairs of the neoconservatives. Though they were unable to convince George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton to overthrow Saddam after expelling him from Kuwait, they nonetheless shaped various policy decisions in the region, including the decision to send humanitarian aid to the Kurds and help them achieve autonomy in northern Iraq. In 1998, neoconservative ideologues Robert Kagan and William Kristol formed the Project for New American Century and wrote an open letter to President Clinton calling for the overthrow of Saddam’s regime in light of his refusal to comply with UN weapons inspections. President Clinton eventually succumbed to this pressure and signed the Iraq Liberation Act later that year, making regime change and democratic transition in Iraq official US policy.
The Freedom Agenda
When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he initially represented the restrained ‘realist’ foreign policy approach of his father. However, 9/11 prompted a drastic change in his foreign policy vision. Bush’s neoconservative advisors, such as Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Scooter Libby, Richard Perle, and Elliott Abrams diagnosed the root cause of Islamic radicalism as a result of the dictatorships and oppressive regimes in the Arab world. Condoleezza Rice, while not specifically identifying with the neoconservative movement, echoed this idealism in many ways when she called for a “paradigm of progress” throughout the Middle East. Max Boot, a journalist voicing the administration’s thinking, saw the overthrow of Saddam as an opportunity to rectify America’s past support for despots in the region, and made analogies between Iraq and Eastern Europe as a model for democratization. Just three weeks prior to the invasion, Bush outlined a “democratic domino” theory in which the democratization of Iraq would trigger a wave of democracy throughout the region. This logic also applied to allied regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan.
Much like how the promotion of democracy in Europe and Asia helped enforce Americans’ security at home, the establishment of a “first Arab democracy” was expected to “drain the swamp” in which anti-American terrorism emerges and serve as a model for other countries in the region. To Bush and his close advisors, democracy had a transformative power to preclude the spread of Islamic extremism in the Middle East. This desire to extent liberal hegemony to the Islamic world also resonated with liberals such as Thomas Friedman, Peter Beinart, Christopher Hitchens, and Fareed Zakaria. Iraq, ostracized by the international community and weakened by sanctions, and in possession of an upwardly mobile, secular, and oppressed population, was the ideal ‘lead domino’ to kick off this process.
This messianic ambition to remake the Greater Middle East in America’s image after 9/11 was perhaps the most significant reason for the Iraq War and the “nation-building” project that followed. Similarly, in Afghanistan, the US did not just focus on eliminating Al-Qaeda, but engaged in a broader war against the Taliban and invested over $130 billion dollars over the past 19 years attempting to democratize the country and train Afghan security forces. The Bush administration also created aid programs such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative to invest in political reforms across the region.
It might sound odd to some that the Iraq War (and to some extent, the Afghanistan War as well) was fueled by a desire to democratize the region, given America’s historical indifference to democracy and alliances with authoritarian regimes throughout the Greater Middle East. But one has to remember the Cold War context behind many of these unsavory alliances, and how American foreign policy strategy shifted after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 9/11 was also a major turning point in America’s approach to the Middle East — as Condoleezza Rice put it, “things have changed. We had a very rude awakening on September 11th, when I think we realized that our policies to try and promote what we thought was stability in the Middle East had actually allowed, underneath, a very malignant, meaning cancerous, form of extremism to grow up underneath because people didn’t have outlets for their political views.”
Some critics have correctly pointed out double standards in Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” — while attempting to advance democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, the administration also maintained alliances with other despots as a part of its counterterrorism strategy. What often gets overlooked, however, are the administration’s pushes for liberal reforms in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Palestine, and Egypt, which were rather aggressive between 2003–2006. By mid 2006, Bush toned down his pro-democracy zeal in light of the faltering situation in Iraq and victories by Islamist groups in elections throughout the Arab world — nonetheless, the Freedom Agenda as a whole did play a conducive role in undermining authoritarianism in the region. For instance, an Egyptian reformer in 2005 conceded that “eighty percent of political freedom in this country is the result of U.S. pressure.”
Obama and the Arab Spring
Though the Obama administration was not influenced by neoconservativism to the same degree as Bush, many of his advisors, such as Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and Hillary Clinton, were liberal interventionists. Obama was also often swayed by the “Blob,” which was Ben Rhodes’s way of describing the coalition of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists that dominated the foreign policy establishment. At the same time, however, he entered office aiming to reduce America’s military footprint in the region and defer to regional allies in the fight against terrorism.
The contradictory visions between Obama and his advisors caused him to vacillate initially in his response to the Arab Spring, a series of pro-democracy movements against authoritarian regimes throughout the Arab world. Nonetheless, his handling of the uprisings in many cases demonstrated a continuation of Bush’s idealism rather than a departure from it. Contrary to accusations hurled at him ad-nauseum, Obama did not side with the forces of “authoritarian stability” to maintain American strategic interests, but for the most part actually favored the pro-democracy demonstrators (with the exception of Bahrain). His 2009 address in Cairo embraced liberal values and called for a transition to democracy across the Arab World, and he played a key diplomatic role in asking Hosni Mubarak (a regional ally) to not crack down on dissenters and eventually step down. The administration even established ties with the new Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi (yes, Obama capitulated to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after the 2013 military coup, but this was after a long struggle to get him to respect human rights). Obama also backed democratic movements in Tunisia, South Sudan, and Yemen.
Libya ultimately attracted the attention of the US and its NATO allies because of Muammar Gaddafi’s threats to go cleanse Libya of the rebel “cockroaches” as his forces marched towards Benghazi. Obama himself was hesitant about intervening, but the liberal hawks eventually convinced him that a failure to act would lead to a bloodbath in the rebel-held city. Some may regard this as the West capitalizing on an opportunity to rid itself of an adversary in the region, but in reality the US had restored diplomatic ties with Tripoli in 2003, and Western oil companies had since been securing contracts to Libyan oil. When NATO assisted rebels in overthrowing Gaddafi, Obama considered this a win for the Arab Spring.
During the Syrian Civil War, while Obama did not follow through on his “red line” with airstrikes (though Trump did) after US intelligence suggested that the Syrian Armed Forces used chemical weapons in rebel held areas, he did authorize the arming and training of rebel groups considered to be moderate. The goal of this policy was to curtail the radicalization of the opposition and encourage a negotiation between the rebels and Assad. This is not to defend Obama’s handling of the Arab Spring (Libya was in particular was a disaster), but to demonstrate that the administration did have a genuine commitment to backing democratic transitions in the Middle East. Trump, of course, had his own idiosyncratic reasons for wanting to stay in Syria, but this should not be conflated with Obama’s initial intention for intervening and the broader consensus within the foreign policy establishment for the need to defend Kurdish allies in the campaign against ISIS.
While the primary concerns of American statesmen towards the Persian Gulf during the Cold War were maintaining the uninterrupted flow of oil in the region and containing Soviet influence, these motives have diminished in light of other national security challenges, fears of Iranian hegemony, and regional developments such as the Arab Spring. Moreover, US policy towards the Middle East during the Bush and Obama administrations was significantly informed by a post-Cold War mindset and optimism about democratic transitions in the Arab world. The military and ideological successes of the 1990s crystallized this re-emergent Wilsonian idealism into a cornerstone of American foreign policy for post 9/11 era. Even Trump, despite his cozying up to dictators and self-proclaimed ‘realism’, could not completely escape the allure of this idealism, as can be seen by his interventions in Syria and Ukraine.
Needless to say, this approach has not worked as intended. The militarized approach of US policy in the Greater Middle East has not led to more democracy and less terrorism, but has destabilized several countries and contributed to the rise of even more radical extremist groups such as ISIS and al-Nusra. One can hope that the ‘frail democracies’ in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq may one day evolve into more stable and functioning societies, but this does not appear to be likely any time soon.
Of course, the US does not deserve all the blame for the disasters that have transpired. It is after all one of many players in the region. But noble intentions do not excuse the shortsightedness of American officials who shaped foreign policy in the post 9/11 era. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” ultimately collapsed because of a failure to understand the theological and cultural dimensions of political movements in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda is not resisting authoritarian regimes to establish democracies, but to impose a transnational Islamic state across the region. Moreover, Islamists, not Jeffersonian liberal democrats, emerged victorious in the elections the Bush administration advocated for. The Obama administration’s main shortcoming was an attempt to balance two mutually incompatible goals: nurturing the Arab Spring and reducing American commitments in the region. This halfhearted approach inadvertently exacerbated the situations in Syria and Libya.
Either Washington must be prepared to wholeheartedly accept the presence of “illiberal” Islamist democracies, or it must embrace a more realist approach and make clear that democracy-promotion is taking a back seat. Trump’s policy towards the Persian Gulf is with its flaws, but he has learned something from his predecessors: straddling the fence between American interests and values will serve neither in the long run.