MIDDLE EAST – American policy in the Middle East was thrown a major curve ball recently, with U.S. President Donald Trump reversing a 7 decade long U.S. policy on the status of Jerusalem. The move comes at a time where Iranian influence in the region has grown exponentially, loosening the once steady grip the United States held on the Middle East. American allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, have also seen fierce geopolitical competition come from Tehran, especially in the form of militias on the ground in the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars, and the funding of Lebanese based group Hezbollah.
To get a glimpse as to when this all started, we must first head back to 1979, when the Islamic Revolution in Iran successfully toppled the Iranian Shah and proclaimed an Islamic Republic. What ensued shortly after was nothing less than chaos. Immediately after the revolution, American diplomats in the American Embassy in Iran were taken hostage, in retaliation for Shah Pahlavi being granted asylum in the United States. In 1980, Saddam Hussein ordered an invasion of Iran, in an attempt to capitalize on Iranian institutional weakness and instability. The United States and allies played a crucial role during this war, providing material aid to both sides. However, the material aid sent to Iran was major controversy in the United States, as it violated an arms embargo placed on Iran. The war ended in a military stalemate, however the consequences had been far reaching. Hundreds of thousands lay dead, Iranian relations with the United States were strained, due to the results of the “Tanker War”, which saw the US Navy undertake its largest naval convoy operation since World War Two, Operation Earnest Will, to protect its arms and oil shipments in the Persian Gulf, and the so called Iranian Hostage Crisis. This, combined with the rise of Sunni Wahhabi Islamism and Sharia Law in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the Grand Mosque Siege in 1979, laid the groundwork for the sectarian fueled Cold War over the Middle East between the two Persian Gulf powers.
The first major direct American military intervention in the Middle East came during the First Persian Gulf War, where the United States and a coalition of states invaded Iraq over their invasion and annexation of Kuwait, whom Iraq accused of stealing Iraqi petrol by “slant drilling“. The invasion was backed by a United Nations mandate, which had set a deadline for when Iraqi troops were to withdraw from occupied Kuwait or face war. When the deadline was ignored, American and coalition forces stationed in Saudi Arabia crossed the border into occupied Kuwait, starting the First Persian Gulf War. Unlike the Second Persian Gulf War in 2003, commonly known as the Iraq War, Saddam Hussein was not removed from power, as the pretext to remove him from power wasn’t the mission goal of the coalition, nor was it in US government interests at the time, who preferred Saddam to be toppled via an internal coup.
Fast forward to 2001, the year where American and in reality, the policies of all major powers, underwent massive change in the Middle East. Following the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington D.C, George Bush declared a “War on Terrorism”, and following the Taliban’s refusal of George Bush’ lengthy ultimatum, American forces invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, with the goals of overthrowing the Taliban led government, killing Osama Bin Laden, and destroying all Al-Qaeda and other terrorist linked training camps in the country. Initially, the war in Afghanistan went heavily in favor of the US and its allies, with Northern Alliance forces recapturing Kabul by November 14 while just two days earlier, an uprising in the Herat province saw a crucial covert operation, planned out by American and Iranian intelligence agencies, go in their favor. Following a close call for Bin Laden at the Battle of Tora Bora, Osama assumed hiding in Pakistan and the Taliban insurgency had begun. By the end of the year, the Interim Government of Afghanistan was sworn in, and the Taliban were on the retreat on all fronts.
In 2009, with the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, the war saw a drastic change in strategy. The years between 2001 and 2009 under George Bush were marked with numerous military and counter terrorism operations and a heavy focus on the Iraq War. Barack Obama focused the might and intellect of the US military on Afghanistan and away from Iraq – a decision which would result in the killing of Osama Bin Laden, but also result in sectarian violence, civil war, and the rise of ISIS in Iraq. Another core part of his strategy was the development of local Afghanistan security forces, however, with the withdrawal of more and more American troops, and more of the burden of fighting the Taliban placed on the Afghan National Army, it soon became clear this weak and ill disciplined army did not have the means to take on the resurgent Taliban, who as of 2017, have been waging an effective guerrilla war in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan and have made considerable gains. Now incumbent President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis have proposed for a larger American presence in the country. However, with the war entering its 17th year, the war exhaustion is settling in and popular support for the war is fading, resulting in an American strategic disaster and military crisis in Central Asia.
Heading back into the early 21st century, and the United States finds itself in the midst of creating and exaggerating false information to use against the Saddam Regime in Iraq for a future conflict. Alas, the Government of the United States claimed that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, and planned to use them against Israel and the United States. However, this was not the case, as these weapons did not exist and the Iraqi WMD program was abandoned long ago. The rationale behind the true motive of the Iraq War vary, with the accusation of oil to revive the declining US oil industry as a main factor, especially seeing how the Pentagon and State Department earlier in 2001 had produced documents relating to Iraqi oil field contracts and exploration.
Regardless, the War in Iraq went on, with the primary goals of the United States to remove Saddam, “rid the country of weapons of mass destruction,” which to note, were non existent, and install a democratic government. This was dubbed “Operation Iraqi Freedom”. The U.S. war effort in Iraq mainly focused around “Shock and Awe“, with hundreds of targets being attacked by the US Air Force, and the showcase of the Battle of Baghdad on live and international television that lead to mass protest against the Iraq War, similar in a sense to the anti-Vietnam war movement. In the end, the Iraqi Military was defeated and Saddam Hussein overthrown, trialed and executed. The war against the Saddam government was a quick and decisive victory for the United States and shortly after an occupation ensued. In turn, this saw the rise of U.S. oil production underlined in the Pentagon and State Department’s plan for Iraqi oil reserves. A U.N. mandate was also passed that legitimized the illegal US invasion and occupation of the Iraqi nation. While occupying the country, George Bush and Dick Cheney had bullied the country into effectively becoming a puppet state of the United States, forcing them into signing a “strategic alliance treaty”, threatening to withhold $50 billion of Iraqi Assets based in the United States and the continued maintenance and operation of numerous American military bases throughout the country which would’ve effectively turned Iraq into an American protectorate dominated by U.S. oil extraction operations. However, matters were to get much worse for Iraq as the death of Saddam Hussein left a massive power vacuum waiting to collapse on the nation and its peoples.
The occupation of Iraq lasted from 2003 – 2011, and in 2011, with the lack of any agreement between the Iraqi government and the Obama Administration on the status of U.S. forces in the country, US forces pulled out of Iraq and either went back home to the U.S. or were deployed to Afghanistan to engage on the Afghani-Pakistani border as outlined in Obama’s new military strategy for the region. During the American occupation sectarian violence between the minority Sunni and majority Shia skyrocketed. The Shia were also viewed by Iran as a regional ally and a key player in an overall struggle for control of the Middle East due to their shared religious values. Coupled alongside this sectarian violence, reformation on social and economic issues failed, plunging the country into mass poverty and social division. These harsh socio-political conditions led to the rise of ISIS in Northern Iraq, who exploited the oppressed conditions of the Iraqi Sunni minority and Iraqi oil reserves to their advantage (to note, many ISIS commanders were Army Officers in Baathist Iraq). The ISIS campaigns across Northern Iraq which saw the fall of cities such as Mosul, including the vital Mosul Dam, and Tikrit, Sinjar, and numerous other towns and cities, highlighting the flaws in the Iraqi Army who despite US arming and training shattered in the face of a numerically and quality wise inferior opponent. Fueled by lack of morale and discipline the Iraqi Army initially suffered the same fate as the Afghan National Army. Due to the new political landscape, US forces were reintroduced into Iraq under the mission of “Operation Inherent Resolve” – an operation in which the strategy would equal to American air power and special forces in the region while the arming of numerous other groups, such as the Kurdish Peshmerga and Free Syrian Army to fight ISIS and other American adversaries in the Middle East.
These numerous Middle Eastern conflicts, spread out across a generation of foot soldiers and 3 administrations, have left their mark on the United States. Economically wise, the country is in a battered shape. Enduring the Great Recession in 2008 and seeing the national debt spike up to around $20 trillion, the US economy has been hit hard by domestic events as well as international affairs – that don’t only include the Middle East. American diplomatic relations, soft, and hard power are in a tenuous situation, with most of the international community condemning the recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – which justifies illegal Israeli occupation and ethnic cleansing in de jure Palestinian territory while also dashing away any hopes of a two state solution. This drastically harms the relations with Arab countries, therefore also harming U.S. soft power in the process. The Palestinian President has also made statements saying that the U.S. will no longer be the mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will be applying for full U.N. membership, and wants the supranational governmental body to be the peace negotiator, as “Washington is no longer up to the task” – a direct example of the decline of U.S. soft power in the region.
Direct American allies in the region have also been at tense odds regarding their local spheres of influence. Israel and Saudi Arabia for example have been at direct odds with Tehran over their respective spheres of influence, whether its regarding Syria, Yemen, or Iraq. With this, Iran has seemingly been winning in all these proxy-wars and even on the diplomatic scene. For example, ever since the installment of a Shia majority government in Iraq, Iran and Iraq have reconciled in terms of their relations and recently signed a trade agreement regarding Iraq exporting oil to Iran, while it is also reported Iranian militias and generals helped take back the city of Kirkuk which was once held by the Iraqi Kurds, which is a huge blow to the strategy of the United States in the Middle East and their Kurdish ally. In Yemen, a brutal civil war that has caused a famine and cholera outbreak has been raging between the elected Hadi Government and the “Supreme Political Council” better known as the Houthis. The Houthi’s are a Shia organization and are backed by Iran, and have directly fired upon U.S. Navy warships and targets in Saudi Arabia. Further up North in Anatolia, it has also been reported that Turkey has helped Iran avoid international sanctions. In Syria and Lebanon, the Iranian proxy Hezbollah has helped reign in power. For example, in Lebanon, Hezbollah contributed to the demise of the “March 14th” group, which was a Saudi backed political coalition designed to stop Iranian influence from spreading into Lebanon. On the ground in Syria, there is an estimated 9,000 Hezbollah/Iranian militia fighters as active participants in the civil war and have granted Tehran considerable influence with Assad, especially in terms of the development of military construction in the country – although this influence does not go unchallenged by Israel, which has created a tense and uneasy stalemate, as if Iran can establish a permanent presence in Syria, airstrikes conducted by the IAF will not be enough to deter Iran from future actions, resulting in a unfavorable situation for Israel. This, in turn requires Israel to make rapprochement with their Arab neighbors and other outside powers, which is a monumental task seeing as Israel is at odds with nearly all of its neighbors regarding territory and its very existence. Officials in Washington do not have the geopolitical commitment of fighting a conflict with Iran, nor do they have a unified strategy over the Middle East. Washington’s recent strategies in the Arab world and Middle East have resulted in outright and total failure, with their plans for Iraq resulting in sectarian violence, while their strategy in Syria to overthrow Assad with the Free Syrian Army and other proxies ended in a direct Russian intervention which saw the war flip to Assad’ favor. In Libya, due to the actions undertaken by the United States and NATO, a full on, multi factional civil war and slave trade has broken out, and in Yemen, a stalemate has ensued which is causing the starvation of millions of people. With issues arising elsewhere in the world, such as in Eastern Europe, the South China Sea, and North Korea, Washington has shifted its focus elsewhere to combat its rivals in other corners of the globe, leaving Israel in a vulnerable position.
The total lack of coherent foreign policy in the Middle East, and so many different strategies introduced by the Bush, Obama, and Trump administration have created turmoil and destabilized the Middle East, causing power vacuums that do not work in the advantage of the United States or the people of the Middle East. Sectarian violence in Iraq opened the door to Iranian influence, while failure to overcome Assad in Syria lead to a Russian intervention that lead to the defeat of U.S. backed forces. In Afghanistan, a Taliban insurgency has plagued the country and U.S. forces stationed their for nearly 2 decades, with victory nowhere near in sight. Further failures in Libya and Yemen, and failure to attempt to correct the wrongs such as the mass disease outbreak and the development of a slave market have left U.S. international image battered. In the end, these numerous failures resemble the decline of the American Empire in the Middle East, and showcases that the rise of new regional powerhouses will attempt to challenge the U.S. established world order.