by Morris Kennedy
As ISIS continues its presence in the Middle East, and as the U.S remains involved in the conflicts of at least seven different countries in or around the Middle East, we must remember to take a look at the history of Western involvement in said region, and learn from our failures and successes in the region. What ends up dictating whether or not something becomes a success or failure is whether or not we intervene with the intention of allowing countries to develop at their own pace, limiting ourselves in scope when we do intervene, and knowing what we are and will be doing when we go in.
As early as 1798, with Napoleon’s invasion of Ottoman Syria and Egypt, the West has been involved with the Middle East in a very invasive relationship, with us being the invaders. Even earlier than that, the Middle East always felt the pressure and heat from the navally superior European nations after the Ottomans’ navy was defeated at the hands of the Spanish fleet at the 1571 Battle of Lepanto. The true beginning of the issues at hand, though—colonialism, interventionism, and imperialism—started with the French conquest of Algeria in 1830.
Given this centuries-long history of one-sided involvement and the general view of the West as an invasive force that has been opposed longer than anyone has been alive, we must tread carefully. Despite some supporting further intervention, we have to remember that this viewpoint of the West isn’t too compatible with what we are doing right now, which is continued and further intervention.
Some see intervention as a means to “help” nations with Westernization, but that is simply not the case. Even as early as 1876, and again in 1908, the Ottomans had developed constitutions, a very western practice at the time, and Persia developed a parliament and constitution in 1905. There was no “help” needed in the making of that constitution.
Nations generally need to develop at their own pace. Given the history of intervention, even a truly altruistic intercession will only be seen as the machinations of greedy international power looking to get the Middle Eastern piece of the pie that they’ve always wanted. Imagine how Americans would look at France, for instance, if at one point in history, they tried to “Europeanize” the U.S. Now imagine that happening many more times, from many different European nations, and we’d be dealing with a U.S extremely hostile to Europe even far after those events occurred. That is what has happened in the Middle East for the past two centuries.
The First World War really escalated the West’s involvement in the Middle East when the winners had to decide what to do with the defeated Ottoman Empire and Germany’s colonies. The solution, as the League of Nations – the precursor to the United Nations – decided, was to divide up these regions into regions of land called “mandates” that were drawn with little respect to any of the cultural, societal, or geographical realities of those regions. While other regions – like Egypt – were made “protectorates” until a clear plan could be devised for them, it’s clear that these post-WWI plans were bound to fail from the start.
Even after major protests, demonstrations, and violence led to Egypt being declared independent by its British rulers, Egypt remained heavily under British influence, especially the Suez Canal, which continued under British influence until Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal in 1956.
The “British Mandate for Palestine” remains an issue to this date, despite not being a mandate anymore. The “French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon” dealt with a violent but failed revolt (1925-1927) and later pressure from nationalists (1941-1946) until its status as a Mandate ended in 1945, and French troops finally withdrew in 1946. The “British Mandate for Mesopotamia” (Iraq) was drafted, but a revolt in 1920 against the British, boiling out of preexisting strong nationalistic sentiment, prevented such a development from going into effect. In all these regions of the Middle East, we see strong opposition to occupation, and the eventual necessity to leave as a result.
These people simply do not want us in their lands. It is extremely hypocritical and contradictory to perpetuate the need for Westernization and democracy, when the West constantly instates autocratic control in these regions after major bloodshed.
The biggest example of this is Iran, with the C.I.A.-led coup of Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh was a liberal reformer and a progressive in Iran, believing strongly in democracy and “strict constitutionalism.” His most notable reform as Prime Minister of Iran was nationalizing Iranian oil, or more specifically, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s operations in Iran, which was a British oil company leading oil operations in Iran. After Britain tried further to gain access to Iran’s oil, Mossadegh’s administration declared them “an enemy.”
This did not please the British, who wished to maintain their oil interests in Iran, and thus they called for help from their American allies to achieve that goal. We went right to work at that goal, and despite his best efforts, Mossadegh was deposed in a coup and kept under house arrest from 1953 until his death in 1957. The monarch at the time, Shah Reza Pahlavi, was rewarded with his cooperation in the coup by being returned back to the full power that be enjoyed before Mossadegh’s assumption of office.
A nation that touted itself – and still does – on the values of freedom, independence, liberty, democracy, and constitutionalism had just overthrown a man in another country seemingly in favor of all those ideals, and chose to put in power the autocratic monarch that was Shah Reza, to perpetuate a greedy attempt at getting back the bountiful source of wealth that was Iran’s oil. Note that it was under his leadership that Iran was taken over by a still existing fundamentalist regime with which we are in tense relations to this date.
That coup, is something that represents nearly everything wrong with intervention in the Middle East, as it destroyed strong developments of Western ideals in favor of greed to control the destiny of the Middle East and gain access to the resources of sovereign nations. Iran could very well be a modern, developed nation, with no fundamentalist rulers had this tragic overthrow of a ruler not occurred. In the end, we got left with an Islamist regime that is completely unreceptive to Western ideals. As former US Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright put it in an address, “…the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.”
The lesson here is simple. Don’t greedily toss aside Western ideals and popular leaders who uphold such values to chase after oil money that has already left your clutches. If a nation is clearly making Western developments, don’t stop them.
After noting many failures of imperialism, colonialism, and intervention, maybe it is time to note an instance of major success.
After the Baathists took over in Iraq, we saw the gradual growth of and rise in power of Saddam Hussein, which was formalized with his becoming ruler of Iraq on July 16, 1979. Soon after, seeing Iran as a potential nation that was weakened by a recent political change in powers and a revolution, Saddam entered into war with Iran. Unfortunately for him, it dragged on for over seven and a half years, and ended in a relative stalemate, with both nations worse off. It was exactly that war that led to Iraq accruing a large debt to Kuwait, a neighboring and much smaller country that also possessed a fair amount of oil. Despite having already received billions in aid from the U.S in an attempt to get in favorable relations with Iraq, the U.S wasn’t able to ease rising tensions between Kuwait and the Iraq.
The tensions would not stop rising until Iraq eventually decided to initiate an invasion in August 1990 that didn’t even take three days to come to completion. This led to the formation of a UN-backed, US-led coalition to fight back against this clear breach of international law and the sovereign rights of Kuwait. The actual invasion took less than two months before reaching a conclusion. Note that the goal was not to take down Saddam Hussein, nor to nation-build after doing so, nor was to punish Iraq with military action. It was simply to liberate the sovereign nation of Kuwait from Iraq.
The reason why the invasion was so short, and why the war worked, was because it wasn’t a one- or two- nation mission to Westernize a region without the support of any other nations, nor was it a greedy attempt at harvesting the region’s oil. The goal was the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi control after Iraq showed clearly – with multiple instances of giving no regard to the concerns of the international community – that things needed to come to a head in Iraq with the coalition’s military action against Iraq.
As Brent Scowcroft, Bush Sr.’s national security advisor at the time noted, regime change in Iraq was simply a “hopeful byproduct,” a general sentiment that many associated with Bush Sr.’s administration. Colin Powell, Chief of Staff at the time, said that “we would be ruling Baghdad today – at an unpardonable expense in terms of money, lives lost, and ruined regional relations,” pointing out exactly why regime change stayed as a “hopeful byproduct.” On the same token, Scowcroft further outlined that “if we had succeeding in overthrowing Saddam, we would have confronted a choice with occupying Iraq with thousands of American troops for the indefinite future and creating a gaping power vacuum in the Persian Gulf for Iran to fill.” Even Dick Cheney called what could ensue from a continued intervention in Iraq a “quagmire,” which indeed would have resulted from continued intervention in the region. It is unfortunate that many of those names proceeded to make a major flip-flop on this issue a dozen years down the line.
Being the great success that it is, the First Gulf War represents everything good that can be done with intervention within necessary limits. The international community banded together against a country set on breaking international law. The actions taken were only what were absolutely necessary, and any actions further – as Scowcroft noted earlier – would put us in involvement with Iraq for the “indefinite future” or leave a “power vacuum.” It would have been relatively easy to topple the power structure of Iraq back in 1991 by taking down Saddam, but respect needs to be given to what happens AFTER you remove the strongman who tightly controlled the region just a year before.
Although it is true that Bush Sr. showed great judgement in working within the limits the international community set, there were attempts by the U.S to incite a revolt in Iraq to overthrow Saddam right after the First Gulf War. This revolt was only backed by propaganda and nothing more, so it failed. Essentially, we first spread anti-Saddam propaganda. Then some people rose up in the hopes of eventual U.S backing, and it ended with their deaths when that support didn’t come. While it was solely led by people within Iraq, specifically the Kurds, you can’t go anywhere with a revolt that you try to stir, but then don’t back with any resources.
What is demonstrated by this is that even attempting to find some middle ground in interventionism where a revolt is stirred solely by the intervening nation, but only backed in terms of resources, by people in the area, doesn’t really work. The most we should have let ourselves do is the utmost action the principles outlined in the U.S-U.N backed coalition allowed.
The coalition’s intervention was probably the only major intervention that I see as perfectly fine in its goal for the invasion and the outcome. George H. W. Bush’s statesmanship in collaboration with the international community demonstrates the limits of what foreign bodies should be doing in other regions when not outright attacked.
Unfortunately, we saw exactly what happens when we overstep what is necessary for a region, and we are still dealing with the consequences of it to this date. What I am talking about, of course, is the Iraq War or the Second Gulf War, where an offensive war was waged against a country that didn’t attack us in an attempt not to protect a nation’s sovereignty, but instead to instigate regime change.
It is at that point in history that we saw some of those people that made arguments against further intervention in Iraq flip-flop completely on the issue. Though Colin Powell seemed to display more nuance in his understanding of the political situation by urging caution in the early 1990’s, he ultimately supported intervention: “…if military action is undertaken I’m with you, I support you,” with “you” being Bush Jr. It is virtually common knowledge at this point that Dick Cheney orchestrated the Iraq War, with a good quote to illustrate that idea being his suggestion that Iraq will be an “enormous success story,” which is laughable in hindsight. Luckily, some like Bush Sr. – although he commented on the issue far too late – and Scowcroft did remain consistent with their earlier views, like Scowcroft’s concerns over “indefinite” involvement and a potential “power vacuum.” This was demonstrated by comments like Bush Sr.’s that called out Bush Jr.’s “iron-ass” advisors or Scowcroft’s entire article, “Don’t Attack Saddam.”
It seems, though, that we unfortunately were directed to that choice between “indefinite” involvement and leaving a “power vacuum,” and we ended up doing the former and instigating the latter. The takedown of Saddam and the proceeding nation-building led to major financial costs and loss of lives and on behalf of the U.S and Iraq as well. After putting Nouri al-Maliki in power, we left the region, and he promptly promoted sectarian tensions in Iraq, allowing for Sunni insurgents (such as the battle hardened remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq) to band together and easily rise up in a civil war and gain power against the central government of Iraq with the power vacuum that the U.S left when it exited from Iraq. From that rose a major international issue to this date – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – and we are now left with an Iraq in a worse state than under Saddam, after setting out fourteen years ago to improve it.
The West has been in conflict with the Middle East for actually over a dozen centuries now. The West has – in its ideals of constitutions, freedom, and liberty – contradicted itself in nearly every way by promoting autocratic control of Middle Eastern regions, some of which had already developed representative institutions such as constitutions and parliaments.
With the global shift towards oil consumption in the twentieth century, the West’s vision for the Middle East shifted to provider of oil. When nations rebelled against that function by nationalizing their sources of oil, the West further crushed the notions of constitutions, freedom, and liberty in missions like the coup in Iran, where leaders upholding those same ideals—but for their own nations—were cast aside in favor of more Western-aligned powers that willing to give freer access to their oil sources.
In Iraq, we see the one true major success of interventionism by saving an invaded sovereign nation. However, Iraq also represents our greatest failure. We set out to improve a nation through regime change and forcing democracy upon the population, but we left ourselves with a nation in a state many times worse than the state when we entered.
Going forward we need to follow the model of the First Gulf War: (1) Seek international backing for intervention; (2) outline a clear plan for before, during, and after; (3) limit ourselves in our approach to only what is necessary for our goals; (4) commit to action only when necessary.
Unless we set these limits on ourselves, any intervention – however benevolent – is extremely more likely to fail. People in the Middle East remember enough history to know that intervention is rarely good for them. Following these limits will generate a people willing and compatible with intervention when necessary. Otherwise, these people won’t want us in their regions, and will need to be left to determine their own destiny, even if we may not like that destiny. Though there have been many mistakes in our history with the Middle East, and we are seemingly still making them, understanding the context of involvement in the Middle East and learning from our mistakes in the region can lead to a Middle East far better in the state that it is now.