The “Oil Imperialism” Myth

Idealism, not greed, has shaped US Foreign Policy in the Middle East since 9/11

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US Ground Forces in Syria in October, 2019

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.

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.

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.


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.

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