American Post-Saddam Policy in Middle East

  December 14, 2023   Read time 6 min
American Post-Saddam Policy in Middle East
The ousting of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent direct occupation by American forces to secure Iraq’s oil were a decisive break with traditional US policy in the region.

It was also a dramatic departure from the experience of European colonial rule in the Middle East, where Britain and France had preferred to install a strongman who would do their bidding, usually to ensure their uninterrupted exploitation of local resources such as oil. If the local ruler defi ed the colonial power, he was replaced with another strongman – in what today would be called ‘regime change’. That was why Iraq’s King Faisal had little choice but to sign the concession with the Iraqi Petroleum Company in the 1920s.

It was also why for many years neighbouring Iran had been ruled by a series of monarchs, the Shahs, who signed similar oil deals with European and Soviet companies. After a nationalist prime minister, Mohammed Mossadeq, nationalised Iran’s oil industry in 1951, a prolonged power struggle between Mossadeq and the Shah ended with the latter fleeing into exile in 1953. Within days the CIA had engineered a coup to restore the Shah to power. One of the Shah’s fi rst acts after his return was to sign a new oil concession with an international consortium, led by American companies. The West also began helping him to develop a nuclear energy programme, possibly to silence domestic demands for the renationalisation of the oil industry. The Shah was overthrown in an Islamic Revolution in 1979, a blow to Western control of the country that consecutive US Administrations have never forgiven.

American dealings with the region’s other major oil state, Saudi Arabia, were murkier still. In the early twentieth century, a powerful Sunni family, the Sauds, had unifi ed various Gulf provinces, ruling them as a monarchy with Western backing. The Sauds had signed an oil concession with an American fi rm in the 1930s and the two countries rapidly developed close ties. As early as 1943 President Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked that ‘the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States’. Saudi Arabia’s key place in US Middle East policy, however, only emerged in the early 1960s with the establishment of an oil cartel, OPEC, over which the kingdom had decisive control.
The point of OPEC – which grew to include eleven nations – was to ensure that oil prices remained above production costs to maximise profi ts for both the oil-producing countries and Big Oil, based in the US. Under anti-trust legislation, the cartel could have been challenged as illegal had it been formed by the corporations themselves, but the oil nations had a freer hand. OPEC came into its own in the 1970s as the main oil countries nationalised their industries. Its fi rst, and only, real show of strength was to protest American intervention in the 1973 ‘Yom Kippur War’ – when President Richard Nixon airlifted arms to Israel to prevent its defeat by its Arab neighbours – by cutting off oil supplies and dramatically raising global prices.
Following the death of King Faisal al-Saud two years later, the new Saudi monarch, Fahd, entrenched the ‘special relationship’ with Washington and effectively eroded the strength of OPEC. Instead, Saudi Arabia promised stability in oil prices and profi ts on condition that the US protected the regime against the threat from powerful neighbours like Iraq and Iran and from its own home-grown Islamic militants. For this reason, the Saudi regime has been consistently, and misleadingly, labelled as ‘moderate’ in the West. The Sauds have also reliably invested hundreds of billions of dollars of their oil profi ts in Western economies and bought the latest US military hardware, much of it needed to protect their regime from the rise of radical Islamic groups in the region.
The long-standing and intimate relations between the Saudi rulers and key fi gures in the American political and economic establishment, including the Bush family and the veteran statesman James Baker, may go some way to explaining the enduring US indulgence of this unpleasant, though consistently obliging, regime. The House of Saud has managed to contain, even if barely, the explosive tensions created by the US demand following the 1991 Gulf War to station thousands of troops on Saudi territory.
The presence of foreign soldiers in the same country as Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, became a symbol for the radical Islamists of the way the West had humiliated and desecrated the Arab world. The Sauds’ deep ties to the US establishment may also explain the otherwise baffl ing decision by the White House to ignore the established links between Saudi Arabia and the terror attacks of 11 September 2001 on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
Fifteen of the 19 men who hijacked the planes used in the attacks were Saudi nationals. The refusal by the Bush Administration to publish a section of a Congressional report into Saudi Arabia’s links with the hijackers was explained by a US offi cial: ‘It’s really damning. What it says is that not only Saudi entities or nationals are implicated in 9/11, but the [Saudi] government.’54 Instead the US pursued Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, even though he had no known connection to the attacks.
Describing British colonial dealings with Middle Eastern states, Mark Curtis, a former research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, noted: British policy in the Middle East is based on propping up repressive elites that support the West’s business and military interests ... Repressive Middle Eastern elites understand these priorities, and also that their role in this system helps keep them in power locally; the West could withdraw its support for them if they got any wayward ideas ... London and Washington have throughout the postwar period connived with Middle Eastern elites to undermine popular, secular and nationalist groups which have offered the prospect of addressing the key issues in the region – the appalling levels of poverty and undemocratic political structures.
When Britain’s infl uence in the region waned after the Second World War, Washington took over, adopting similar methods for dominating the region – as its interventions in Iran, for example, proved. But, as Curtis points out, this traditional approach was beginning to backfi re and ‘helping to fan the fl ames of religious extremism that is often the only alternative available to those being repressed’. In US military jargon this would later come to be called ‘blowback’. The outcome in Iran was an Islamic Revolution in 1979 that replaced the Western-backed Shah. But there were many other examples of blowback: it explained the emergence of Shia militias, including Hizbullah, in Lebanon that drove out US forces in 1983 and nearly two decades later ended Israel’s occupation of the country’s south; it accounted for the success of the Taliban fundamentalists, nurtured in the madrasas of Pakistan with CIA funding, who not only ousted the Soviet army from Afghanistan but then went on to take over the country, offering a base to Islamic militants from across the region; and it could be blamed for the rise of the Sunni jihadi movements that were conveniently labelled al-Qaeda and expressed a destructive longing for Islamic self-suffi ciency and revolt against Western interference in the region.

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