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The U.S. and the Middle East Since 1945

A Guide to Mideast Policy from Harry Truman to George W. Bush


The first time a Western power got soaked in the politics of oil in the Middle East was toward the end of 1914, when British soldiers landed at Basra, in southern Iraq, to protect oil supplies from neighboring Persia. At the time the United States had little interest in Middle East oil or in imperial designs on the region. Its overseas ambitions were focused south toward Latin America and the Caribbean (remember the Maine?), and west toward east Asia and the Pacific.

When Britain offered to share the spoils of the defunct Ottoman Empire after World War I in the Middle East, President Woodrow Wilson declined. It was only a temporary reprieve from creeping involvement that began during the Truman Administration. It’s not been a happy history. But it’s necessary to understand that past, even if only in its general outlines, to better make sense of the present -- especially regarding current Arab attitudes toward the West.

Truman Administration, 1945-1952.

American troops were stationed in Iran during World War II to help transfer military supplies to the Soviet Union and protect Iranian oil. British and Soviet troops were also on Iranian soil. After the war, Stalin withdrew his troops only when Harry Truman protested their continued presence through the United Nations, and possibly threatened to use force to boot them out.

American duplicity in the Middle East was born: While opposing Soviet influence in Iran, Truman solidified America’s relationship with Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, in power since 1941, and brought Turkey into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), making it clear to the Soviet Union that the Middle East would be a cold war hot zone.

Truman accepted the 1947 United Nations partition plan of Palestine, granting 57 percent of the land to Israel and 43 percent to Palestine, and personally lobbied for its success. The plan lost support from U.N. member nations, especially as hostilities between Jews and Palestinians multiplied in 1948, and Arabs lost more land or fled. Truman recognized the State of Israel 11 minutes after its creation, on May 14, 1948.

Eisenhower Administration, 1953-1960

Three major events marked Dwight Eisenhower’s Middle East policy. In 1953, Eisenhower ordered the CIA to depose Mohammed Mossadegh, the popular, elected leader of the Iranian parliament and an ardent nationalist who opposed British and American influence in Iran. The coup severely tarnished America’s reputation among Iranians, who lost trust in American claims of protecting democracy.

In 1956, when Israel, Britain and France attacked Egypt when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, a furious Eisenhower not only refused to join the hostilities; he ended the war.

Two years later, as nationalist forces roiled the Middle East and threatened to topple Lebanon’s Christian-led government, Eisenhower ordered the first landing of U.S. troops in Beirut to protect the regime. The deployment, lasting just three months, ended a brief civil war in Lebanon.

Kennedy Administrations, 1961-1963

John Kennedy was supposedly uninvolved in the Middle East. But as Warren Bass argued in “Support Any Friend: Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance,” John Kennedy tried to develop a special relationship with Israel while diffusing the effects of his predecessors’ cold war policies regarding Arab regimes.

Kennedy increased economic aid toward the region and worked to reduce its polarization between Soviet and American spheres. While the friendship with Israel was solidified during his tenure, Kennedy’s abbreviated administration, while briefly inspiring the Arab public, largely failed to mollify Arab leaders.

The Johnson Administration, 1963-1968

Lyndon Johnson was absorbed by his Great Society programs at home and the Vietnam War abroad. The Middle East burst back onto the American foreign-policy radar with the Six Day War of 1967, when Israel, after rising tension and threats from all sides, preempted what it characterized as an impending attack from Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

Israel occupied the Gaza Strip, the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank and Syria’s Golan Heights. Israel threatened to go further. The Soviet Union threatened armed attack if it did. Johnson put the U.S. Navy’s Mediterranean Sixth Fleet on alert, but also compelled Israel to agree to a cease-fire on June 10, 1967.

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