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Paul D’Amato

U.S. Intervention in the Middle East: Blood for Oil

(December 2000)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 15, December 2000–January 2001.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

If Kuwait grew carrots, we wouldn’t give a damn.”
– Lawrence Korb, assistant defense secretary under Reagan, as the U.S. prepared its massive military assault on Iraq in 1991.

SINCE THE Second World War, the United States has been the dominant world power in the Middle East. Every U.S. policy shift, every military intervention, every CIA plot has been carried out to secure one main aim: to ensure the cheap and plentiful flow of the world’s most important energy resource – oil. Despite new discoveries of oil reserves in Central Asia, the Middle East still has two-thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves, and its oil is still the cheapest to pump and produce. As Lawrence Korb’s statement about Kuwait and carrots makes clear, nothing that takes place in the Middle East today can be understood without first understanding the strategic and economic importance of “black gold.”

The U.S. has relied on brutal, repressive regimes – Iran under the Shah, Saudi Arabia, Israel – to do its dirty work. It has used the CIA to foment coups against “unfriendly” regimes. When necessary, it has intervened directly to punish regimes that have challenged its dominance in the region – as it did to Iraq in 1991. To this day, the U.S. spends billions annually to maintain a large military presence in the region. It provides billions in military hardware to client states, in particular to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel – which the U.S. carefully maintains as the region’s most formidable military power.

The prize

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France drew the boundaries of the new states in the Middle East with absolutely no input from the people of the region. All promises of Arab independence the British had made to various local leaders during the First World War were scrapped. At the 1919 peace conference, when the victorious powers sat down to divvy up the spoils, foremost in their minds was the need to keep the region divided and thereby easier to control:

Private oil concerns pushed their governments (in the national interest, of course) to renounce all wartime promises to the Arabs. For the oilmen saw only too well that oil concessions and royalties would be easier to negotiate with a series of rival Arab states lacking any sense of unity, than with a powerful independent Arab state in the Middle East. [1]

Britain took the areas that became Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. France took Syria and Lebanon. Each state was then handed to local kings and sheiks who owed their position to British tutelage. Kuwait was handed to the al-Sabah family. After he was promised a united Arab republic, the Hashemite King Hussein was awarded Jordan. Britain gave Ibn Saud Saudi Arabia – the only country in the world named after its ruling family. France put Lebanon in the hands of the Christian minority.

Journalist Glenn Frankel describes how British High Commissioner Sir Percy Cox settled boundaries between Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia at a 1922 conference in Baghdad:

The meeting had gone on for five grueling days with no compromise in sight. So one night in late November 1922, Cox, Britain’s representative in Baghdad, summoned to his tent Sheik Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, soon to become ruler of Saudi Arabia, to explain the facts of life as the British carved up the remnants of the defeated Ottoman empire.

”It was astonishing to see [ibn Saud] being reprimanded like a naughty schoolboy by His Majesty’s High Commissioner and being told sharply that he, Sir Percy Cox, would himself decide the type and general line of the frontier,” recalled Harold Dickson, the British military attaché to the region, in his memoirs.

”This ended the impasse. Ibn Saud almost broke down and pathetically remarked that Sir Percy was his father and mother who made him and raised him from nothing to the position he held and that he would surrender half his kingdom, nay the whole, if Sir Percy ordered.”

Within two days, the deal was done. The modern borders of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait were established by British Imperial fiat at what became known as the Uqauir Conference. [2]

There was one unique exception to this arrangement. The 1917 Balfour Declaration had committed Britain to supporting the formation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. When the postwar settlement made the country a British protectorate, Britain backed Jewish immigration to Palestine, hoping to create a “secure strategic outpost in an Arab world.” [3] Though Lord Arthur Balfour was an anti-Semite, he and other members of the British ruling class could see the value of creating a colonial-settler outpost that, dependent on British support, could become a loyal protector of British interests in the area. The full significance of the role of such an outpost would not become apparent, or fully taken advantage of by the U.S., until several years after the formation of the state of Israel in 1948.

U.S. steps in

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the U.S. moved in quickly to establish itself as the number-one power in the Middle East.

American policy in this period was chiefly concerned that countries in the region did not come under the control of nationalist regimes. They had their first taste of that threat in Iran, when the democratically elected president Mohammed Mossadeq, with mass popular support, nationalized the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. In a coup engineered by CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt, Mossadeq was toppled and replaced by the Shah. The Shah’s power was underwritten by massive infusions of American aid and upheld by the notoriously savage secret police, Savak.

The U.S. worried that Egypt, under Gamal Abdel Nasser – a nationalist military officer who had come to power, ironically, with the CIA’s blessing after a 1952 coup – might become a pole of attraction for pan-Arab movements.

U.S. interests in the region were couched in the Cold War terms of preventing Soviet domination, though it was clear that any regime attempting to leave the orbit of the U.S., whether it had ties to Russia or not, was considered a threat. Under the first of what would become a series of “doctrines” outlining U.S. policy in the Middle East, the 1957 Eisenhower Doctrine declared that the United States was “prepared to use armed forces to assist” any Middle Eastern country “requesting assistance against armed aggression from any country controlled by international communism.” [4]

The Eisenhower Doctrine reflected Washington’s anger over Nasser’s turn to the Eastern Bloc for weapons. The U.S. refused to arm Egypt unless it agreed to join the U.S.-sponsored Baghdad Pact, a regional security agreement under U.S. auspices. The doctrine was quickly put to the test as a series of developments in the region seemed to augur a wave of nationalism. In Jordan, King Hussein was threatened by a newly elected pro-Nasser parliament. In 1958, Egypt and Syria joined together to form the United Arab Republic. In Lebanon, Muslim Arab nationalists led a struggle against the minority Christian regime led by Camille Chamoun. More importantly to the U.S., a nationalist military coup in Iraq that same year overthrew pro-British dictator Nuri Said. This event was perceived as a severe blow to U.S. prestige in the region and as a threat to American oil interests.

U.S. officials feared that the new Iraqi regime might reassert its historical claim on Kuwait, a tiny country created by British fiat in order to prevent any larger state from controlling what was then the biggest oil-producing area in the Gulf. A memorandum based on an emergency meeting between Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Nathan Twining, and CIA director Allen Dulles asserted that unless the United States intervened, “the U.S. would lose influence,” its “bases” would be “threatened,” and U.S. credibility would be “brought into question throughout the world.” [5] The U.S. was also concerned about the nationalist threat to what were very profitable oil concessions in Kuwait and Iraq.

Fearing that he was on the brink of losing power, Lebanon’s Chamoun asked the U.S. for assistance under the Eisenhower Doctrine. With its eye on Iraq, the U.S. seized this opportunity and declared a nuclear alert, mobilized a massive strike force ready to intervene when called on, and invaded Lebanon with 14,000 marines. When the new Iraqi regime announced its commitment to “respect its obligations,” the U.S. withdrew its forces. “Thus what followed the coup in Iraq and the landing of troops in Beirut was a new understanding of the rules of the Middle East game,” writes Micah Sifry. “Political changes were possible as long as economic interests were safeguarded.” [6]

The “special relationship” with Israel

Since the late 1960s, Israel has been the single most important ally of the U.S. in the Middle East, fulfilling the role laid out for it by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz as America’s “watchdog” in the region. For this reason, Israel receives more economic and military aid from the U.S. than any other country in the world. “The U.S. relationship with Israel is singular,” writes Stephen Zunes.

Israel represents only one one-thousandth of the world’s population and has the 16th highest per capita income in the world, yet it receives 40 percent of all U.S. foreign aid. In terms of U.S. aid to the Middle East, Israel received 54 percent in 1999, ›gypt 38 percent and all other Middle East countries only about 8 percent. Direct aid to Israel in recent years has exceeded $3.5 billion annually and has been supported almost unanimously in Congress, even by liberal Democrats who normally insist on linking aid to human rights and international law. [7]

The basis on which Israel was formed – the mass expulsion of the local Arab population and the establishment of an exclusively Jewish state – makes Israel both the most reliable ally and a source of instability in the Middle East. The U.S. can rely on Israel’s superior military might to help police the region because Israel’s unique history makes the majority of its citizens zealous defenders of the Israeli state. In addition, Israel’s dependence on American imperialism to pay for its massive military superiority over its neighbors makes Israel solidly pro-West. On the other hand, the forced expulsion of Palestinians by Israel has created a constant source of friction in the region that threatens to upset U.S. relations with Arab states.

In the early years following the Second World War, as the U.S. endeavored to extend its dominance over the Gulf states, Washington viewed Israel as an ally, but only as one among many. However, as the threat of Arab nationalism rose after Mossadeq’s and Nasser’s rise to power in the early 1950s, U.S. aid to Israel began to increase. Whereas in 1951 the U.S. gave Israel only $100,000 in grants, the coup in Egypt the following year prompted the U.S. to give Israel $86.4 million. [8]

But the U.S. was still wary that stronger ties with Israel could sour relations with the other Arab states. This was one of the reasons that the U.S. opposed Britain, France, and Israel’s invasion of Egypt in 1956 over Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. Yet the continuing growth of Arab nationalism and the fear of possible growing Soviet influence in the region prompted the U.S. to rely more closely on Israel’s “watchdog” capabilities. “By 1958,” writes Mark Curtis, “the U.S. National Security Council concluded that the ‘logical corollary’ of opposition to radical Arab nationalism ‘would be to support Israel as the only strong pro-Western power left in the Middle East.’” He continues:

During the “crisis” in the Middle East of 1958, when Britain landed troops in Jordan and the United States did likewise in Lebanon, President Eisenhower on several occasions considered the merits of “unleashing” Israel (along with Turkey) against Egypt. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Nathan Twining, proposed that Israel should seize the West Bank of Jordan as part of a regional offensive that would include British intervention in Iraq and Turkish intervention in Syria. In all, it has been little wonder that the building under British auspices of a national home in the region for Jews was regarded by Arabs as a “permanent imperialist bridgehead.” [9]

By the 1960s, as aid to Israel increased, U.S. officials realized that Israel could be counted on to work, mostly covertly, to curb the expansion of Arab nationalism in the region. But it was with Israel’s role in the June 1967 Six Day War, when the Israeli army proved itself superior to the combined forces of several other states and expanded its territory into the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai peninsula, that the U.S. cemented its special relationship with Israel. In fact, 99 percent of U.S. aid to Israel has come in the years since the Six Day War. That aid has been, in the eyes of U.S. imperialism, a very good investment. Stephen Zunes recounts the importance of Israel to the United States:

Israel has helped suppress victories by radical nationalist movements in Lebanon, Jordan, and Yemen, as well as in Palestine. The Israeli military has kept Syria, for many years an ally of the Soviet Union, in check, and its air force is predominant throughout the region. Israel’s frequent wars have provided battlefield testing for American arms. Israel has also served as a conduit for U.S. arms to regimes and movements – such as apartheid-era South Africa, Iran, Guatemala, and the Nicaraguan contras – too unpopular in the United States for overt and direct military assistance. Israel’s military advisors have assisted the contras, the Salvadoran Junta, and other governments allied with the United States; its secret service has assisted the United States in intelligence gathering and covert operations. Israel has hundreds of intermediate-range ballistic missiles and has cooperated with the U.S. military-industrial complex regarding research and development for new jet fighters, antimissile defense systems, and even the Strategic Defense Initiative. No U.S. administration wants to jeopardize such an important relationship. [10]

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi makes a similar point:

An American military expert – Major General George Keegan, a former air-force intelligence officer – has been quoted as saying that it would cost U.S. taxpayers $125 billion to maintain an armed force equal to Israel’s in the Middle East, and that the U.S.-Israel military relationship was worth “five CIAs.” There can be no doubt that from the U.S. point of view, the investment in Israel is a bargain, and the money well spent. [11]

Of course, the interests of Israel and the U.S. do not always exactly coincide. Sometimes, in fact, Israel’s aggressive posture toward the Arab states must be curbed in order to foster closer relationships with the Arab ruling classes. George Bush, for example, during the 1991 Gulf War, had to restrain Israel from attacking Iraq for fear of upsetting Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two crucial regional anti-Iraq coalition members.

But it was Israel’s military muscle in the Six Day War, and again in the 1973 war that pitted Israel against Egypt and Syria, that helped to bring Egypt into the U.S. fold. Under President Anwar Sadat, Egypt became the first country to recognize the state of Israel. Ever since, Egypt has become the second largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel.

In that sense, Israel is a watchdog, but like a watchdog, it must sometimes be kept on a short leash and sometimes tries to slip that leash. This has been a constant tension in U.S. policy toward the Middle East, and thus explains Clinton’s eagerness for the “peace process.” The peace process is not aimed at securing justice for the Palestinians, but at bringing Palestinian Authority head Yassir Arafat under control, eliminating the “Palestinian problem,” and thereby facilitating further cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors. As it stands, the resilience of the Palestinian movement continually upsets these calculations.


The U.S. debacle in Vietnam convinced U.S. planners in the late 1960s of the importance of securing control in the Middle East without direct military intervention. The new “Nixon Doctrine” looked to local powers to be America’s regional police force. In the Middle East, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia became the three “pillars” on which U.S. power rested in the region. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird explained, “America will no longer play policeman to the world. Instead we will expect other nations to provide more cops on the beat in their own neighborhood.” In addition:

U.S. Senator and oil expert Henry Jackson noted in 1973 that Israel and Iran under the Shah were “reliable friends of the United States” who, along with Saudi Arabia, “have served to inhibit and contain those irresponsible and radical elements in certain Arab states...who, were they free to do so, would pose a grave threat indeed to our principal source of petroleum in the Persian Gulf.” [12]

The U.S. sold $8.3 billion worth of arms to the Shah between 1970 and 1979 and sent more than 50,000 U.S. advisers to train the Shah’s army and secret police.

Saudi Arabia has long been considered the most important Arab ally of the U.S. in the Gulf. Economically, it is the lynchpin of Gulf oil production. If 65 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves are in the Gulf region, 38 percent of that is in Saudi Arabia. [13] When oil was discovered there in 1938, U.S. oil companies like Socal, Texaco, Mobil, and Standard Oil of New Jersey quickly gained lucrative concessions by forming the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO). A draft state department memorandum in 1945 described Saudi Arabia’s oil resources as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” [14]

To secure what was initially an impoverished and weak state, the U.S. gave Marshall Plan funds to Ibn Saud. Until the 1950s, when regional rulers began to assert more control over oil revenues, Ibn Saud and other local sheiks sustained themselves from royalties handed to them by the oil companies. To give some sense of how this tremendous oil wealth was spent, while Ibn Saud spent $2 million in 1946 to maintain his garages, Saudi spending on education in the same year amounted to $150,000. [15] Today, the ruling Saud family, for whom Saudi Arabia is a piece of family real estate, consists of several thousand members. Of them, more than 50 are billionaires. The king’s palace alone is estimated to be worth $17 billion, and the royal family’s budget is $6 to $7 billion.

Protecting the Saudi Arabian “prize” became a chief aim of U.S. policy in the Gulf. President Truman wrote a letter to King Saud in 1950 in which he said, “No threat to your kingdom could occur which would not be a matter of immediate concern to the United States.” [16] After the oil-producing states, eager to gain a greater share of revenue from their oil, formed the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1960, keeping Saudi Arabia in America’s corner became even more important. As the world’s largest single oil producer, Saudi Arabia can be relied upon to use its leverage to ensure, among other things, that enough oil flows to keep prices down.

The U.S. has sold billions of dollars in military hardware to Saudi Arabia throughout its history, not only to protect the Saudi “prize” from outside intervention, but also from internal dissent. The fact that Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive societies in the world has not concerned U.S. officials one iota. Writes Saïd Aburish:

Amnesty International, Middle East Watch, the Minnesota International Lawyers Association and other human rights organizations have documented endless cases of imprisonment, torture and elimination within the kingdom. Solitary confinement for years on end is a regular happening ..., kidnappings and disappearances are common ..., political executions without proper trial are frequent ... and even women are not spared torture and humiliation ... In February 1996 a ten-year-old child was left in the sun tied to a rope in front of a police station. In six hours he was dead, the victim of the merciless desert sun. The boy had criticized the House of Saud. [17]

Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record doesn’t even appear on U.S. public radar, reflecting a long-standing double standard whereby enemies are demonized and friends are whitewashed. U.S. military assistance helps to keep this reactionary, repressive monarchy in power.

Though the U.S. now views Islam as a grave threat to its interests in the Middle East and the U.S. press regularly pumps out racist anti-Islamic stereotypes, Islamic Saudi Arabia remains completely unscathed. Ironically, at one time the U.S. actively promoted Islamic fundamentalism as a counterweight to Arab nationalism. The CIA, for example, cooperated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Nasser’s Egypt and provided Muslim movements with operating bases in Pakistan. Osama bin Laden is a former U.S. ally, the product of U.S. efforts to arm and train Islamic fundamentalist forces fighting the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Even Israel once funded the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas in Palestine as a way of undermining the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO’s) strength. Islam, now considered one of the most formidable threats to U.S. interests in the region, was once promoted by those same interests. [18] What is consistent in U.S. policy is its need to strengthen its strategic, economic, and military control over the flow of oil. How it does this changes with the times.

Rapid deployment

When the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979, U.S. policy in the Middle East faced a severe crisis. It had lost one of its key pillars in the Middle East. Joe Stork and Martha Wenger describe the problem:

The revolution which overthrew the Shah in 1979 radically changed the strategic equation in the region. Sparsely populated Saudi Arabia was never a serious candidate to play a role comparable to Iran. The real “second pillar” of U.S. strategy in the Middle East was Israel, but Israel’s political liabilities severely limited its usefulness in the Gulf. [19]

The “Nixon Doctrine” was now replaced by the “Carter Doctrine,” which placed emphasis on the need to use direct military force if U.S. interests were threatened in the region. Accordingly, President Jimmy Carter promoted the idea of a U.S. “rapid deployment force” that could intervene quickly in the region. Such a strategy required the U.S. to line up local regimes to allow U.S. military bases on their territory. Saudi Arabia became the lynchpin of this strategy. Unable to openly declare support for the U.S. and Israel for fear of alienating their own populations, Gulf rulers were forced to act discreetly, allowing U.S. air and naval forces limited use of military facilities in the region. This forced the U.S. to depend heavily on more remote bases in Kenya and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, as well as on deployment of aircraft carriers.

The outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 provided the U.S. with the perfect opportunity to bring Saudi Arabia into even closer military collaboration. As Stork and Wenger explain:

Saudi fears of an expanded war gave the U.S. leverage to extract more intimate Saudi collaboration with U.S. military plans. The centerpiece of this effort was the sale of five AWACS planes and a system of bases with stocks of fuel, parts, and munitions. “No conceivable improvements in U.S. airlift or USAF rapid deployment and ‘bare-basing’ capability could come close to giving the U.S. this rapid and effective reinforcement capability,” wrote military analyst Anthony Cordesman. An added advantage was that the Saudis paid for it all.

Over the course of the decade, Saudi Arabia poured nearly $50 billion into building a Gulf-wide air defense system to U.S. and NATO specifications, ready for U.S. forces to use in a crisis. By 1988, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had designed and constructed a $14 billion network of military facilities across Saudi Arabia. [20]

U.S. policy during much of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, which cost a million lives on both sides, was to encourage it as a means to weaken both Iran and Iraq. Western powers and Russia each sold arms to both sides. But when in 1987 it appeared that Iran might win the war, the U.S. tilted toward Iraq, seeing an Iranian victory as the greater evil. The U.S. gave Iraq military aid, agricultural credits, and crucial intelligence information, and used the pretext of “freedom of navigation” in the Gulf to mobilize a massive armada to attack Iran’s navy.

After Iran’s defeat in 1988, U.S. support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein increased. “Between 1985 and 1990,” writes Lance Selfa,

U.S. firms sold almost $800 million in “dual use” aircraft – ostensibly to be used for civilian purposes, but easily convertible to military use. In 1988 and 1989 alone, the U.S. government approved licenses to U.S. firms to sell biological products to the Iraqi Atomic Energy Agency and the electronics equipment to Iraqi missile-producing plants. In July 1988 – two months after Saddam used chemical weapons to wipe out the Kurdish village of Halabja – the California-based Bechtel Corp. won a contract to build a petrochemicals plant. Iraq planned to produce mustard gas and fuel-air explosives in the plant. The Bush administration doubled agricultural credits to Iraq to $1 billion a year.... U.S. business created a virtual “Saddam lobby” to press for greater ties with Iraq. [21]

The 1991 Gulf War

The 1991 Gulf War marked the first time since 1958 that the U.S. launched a full-scale invasion of the Middle East in order to protect its interests. Up to the day that Iraq invaded Kuwait, Saddam Hussein was under the impression that his actions would be acceptable to Washington. Bled dry by the war with Iran, Iraq was angry over Kuwait’s insistence on dumping oil on the world market when Iraq needed better oil revenues to pay for the war. When Iraq began threatening Kuwait, U.S. ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam, “We have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” [22] But when Iraq invaded Kuwait soon after, the U.S. completely reversed its position. The U.S. could not allow Saddam Hussein to upset the balance of power by taking control of a quarter of the Gulf’s oil. Saddam Hussein was a brutal military dictator long before he tried to get control of Kuwaiti oil. The only difference is that pre-invasion, he was a friend of the United States, whereas post-invasion, he had suddenly become the “new Hitler.”

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War created the unique conditions that allowed the U.S. to assert its dominance in the region more directly than it had in the past. Bush took the opportunity to cobble together a military coalition – under United Nations (UN) auspices – that included not only European powers such as Britain, France, and Germany, but also Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria.

The U.S. freely used bribery and intimidation to create the anti-Iraq coalition. The U.S. pushed the Gulf states to give $4 billion to Russia; China, whose brutal suppression of the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square had left it isolated internationally, was now offered a place at the table; Egypt was forgiven $14 billion in debt; and Syria was given the green light to invade Lebanon. When Yemen voted against the UN resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, the U.S. cut off millions of dollars in aid, and Saudi Arabia promptly expelled 800,000 Yemeni “guest” workers.

Yet for all of the fanfare about the war pitting Iraq against the “international community,” the war was overwhelmingly fought by U.S. forces, for U.S. aims, with some backup from Britain and Saudi Arabia. U.S. pilots flew ninety percent of all combat sorties. The UN was used purely as a fig leaf to cover what was an American-led and American-fought war.

The Bush administration deliberately sabotaged every effort made by European and Arab countries to work out a peace settlement – vetoing, for example, a four-point peace proposal put forward by the French in the UN Security Council. The U.S. was itching to teach its former client a lesson. The month-long air war devastated Iraq’s infrastructure. More than 90,000 sorties dropped 88,500 tons of cluster bombs, fuel-air explosives, and other ordnance, destroying Iraq’s bridges, roads, power grid, and water processing capabilities, and killing tens of thousands of people.

Even though Saddam Hussein, after more than a month of bombing, agreed to accept the UN resolution calling for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait, the U.S. dismissed this gesture. Lance Selfa describes Bush’s brutal ground war that followed:

Saddam had essentially cried “uncle,” but the U.S. wanted to mount a ground offensive anyway. In six days, U.S. and coalition ground troops swept across Kuwait and southern Iraq, forcing Iraqi troops into a full-scale retreat. In the last 40 hours of the war, before Bush called a cease-fire on February 28, U.S. and British forces mounted a relentless assault against retreating and defenseless Iraqi soldiers. The road leading from Kuwait to Basra became known as the “Highway of Death.” Iraqi soldiers fled Kuwait in every possible vehicle they could get their hands on. Allied tank units cut the Iraqis off. U.S. warplanes bombed, strafed and firebombed the stranded columns for hours without resistance. In a slaughter that a U.S. pilot described as “like shooting fish in a barrel,” thousands of Iraqi conscripts were killed on a 50-mile stretch of highway. So many planes filled the skies over southern Iraq that military air traffic controllers maneuvered to prevent mid-air collisions. [23]

The endgame to then-President George Bush’s war was ironic. After calling on the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam Hussein, U.S. forces stood by as Iraqi troops put down an uprising of Kurds in the North and Shiites in the South. General Norman Schwartzkopf gave Saddam’s generals permission to violate the “no-fly” rule and use armed helicopters to put down the rebellion. Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser at the time, told Peter Jennings in 1998 that the U.S. wanted a military coup to oust Hussein, not a popular uprising: “I envisioned a postwar government being a military government.” [24]

In the years following the war, the UN-imposed sanctions on Iraq have not only prevented Iraq from rebuilding its infrastructure, but have resulted in the deaths of thousands of children every month who suffer from diseases related to malnutrition. Thousands of others suffer from various cancers caused by depleted uranium shells used by U.S. tanks in the ground invasion during the Gulf War. Whereas the war killed upwards of 200,000 Iraqis, the sanctions regime has resulted in the deaths of more than one million Iraqis. In addition, the U.S. has engaged in ongoing bombings of Iraq, which have rarely been considered newsworthy in the U.S. press.

The U.S. secured a bloody victory in the Gulf War. At the cost of a few hundred American soldiers, the U.S. demonstrated that it will stop at nothing to exercise its imperial prerogatives and strengthen its hold over the Middle East. With Russia out of the picture, the sole remaining superpower seemed set to impose its “Pax Americana” over the region.

U.S. policy since the Gulf War

The U.S. emerged victorious after the Gulf War, with its dominance over the region more firm than it had ever been. Iraq was destroyed and kept permanently weak, and the coalition allowed the U.S. to cement stronger ties with many of the Arab states. The success of the United States in the Gulf War sent the message, in George Bush’s words, that “what we say goes.” As Michael Hudson, professor of international relations at Georgetown University wrote in Middle East Journal:

Even critics, such as the author, of U.S. Middle East policy must agree that the United States today stands astride this unhappy region like a colossus. A half century of regional involvement in every conceivable way – through diplomacy, aid, culture, education, espionage, subversion and (not least) the projection of military power – has secured the “holy trinity” of American interests: Israel, oil and anti-communism. Those who said it could not be done underestimated the U.S. ability to achieve contradictory goals. Today, the American president can summon the leaders of most Middle Eastern governments to endorse his regional (and domestic) political agenda. American financial officials can write the domestic economic policy for most governments in the region. The U.S. military enjoys unprecedented access and acceptance from North Africa to the Gulf. [25]

But the U.S. suffers from two Achilles’ heels in its role as regional superpower. One, it has been unable to solve the Palestinian question, which again threatens to explode the delicate balance in the region. And two, its own massive military intervention has rendered the Gulf monarchies even more unpopular and – with the crisis of declining oil revenues over the last decade as oil prices have plummeted – more unstable.

The policy of “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran pursued by the U.S. after the 1991 Gulf War has been more or less abandoned, but no policy has replaced it. The sanctions regime against Iraq has eroded, and Arab states’ support for sanctions has weakened, while the changes in Iran have created an ambivalent relationship between it and the United States. The U.S. cannot decide whether to maintain a policy of sanctions against Iran or to shift to a policy of opening toward the country (“engagement”). Outside of the U.S. lapdog Britain, other European states are no longer interested in maintaining the sanctions against Iraq. Eager to make oil deals, Russia has recently expressed its intention to work to bring an end to the bombing and sanctions against Iraq.

The increasing suffering of the Iraqi people has weakened the ability of the U.S. to justify the sanctions, particularly within the Middle East. Arab regimes have begun to resume political and economic relations with Baghdad. Taking advantage of resumed civilian flights to Baghdad by several states, dozens of Middle Eastern officials and celebrities have broken the “no-fly” rule to fly to Baghdad. For all intents and purposes, it seems that the new UN inspection team will never even set foot on Iraqi soil.

The problem that the United States faces, even after its success in the Gulf War, is that, outside of Israel, it has no reliable “surrogates” in the Middle East, and Israel, as the Gulf War demonstrates, must sometimes be held at bay. Since the death of Nasser in 1970, the U.S. has successfully pulled Egypt into its orbit and neutralized it as a threat to Israel. But the U.S. cannot rely upon Egypt to discipline its Arab neighbors. The popularity of the Palestinian cause in Egypt has even compelled President Hosni Mubarak to withdraw Egypt’s ambassador from Israel.

The U.S. has, it is true, armed Saudi Arabia to the teeth, but Saudi Arabia is in no position to successfully project its military power beyond its borders. That is why Saudi Arabia has pursued a policy of détente with Iran. The United States must spend massive amounts of money to arm what are undemocratic, illegitimate Gulf monarchies. Even so, it cannot rely on them to police the region in U.S. interests. These regimes are armed to cement them as allies and to create the military conditions in those countries to allow rapid deployment of U.S. troops.

The U.S. must keep an expensive military presence in and around the region in order to maintain its interests. This not only leaves American troops open to military attacks, like the one recently in a Yemeni port against the U.S.S. Cole, but it also puts tremendous political strain on local rulers, whose own populations increasingly resent the U.S. imperial presence.


Hypocrisy has always permeated U.S. policy in the Middle East. While some regimes, such as those in Iraq, Iran, and Libya, are dubbed “rogue states,” this has absolutely nothing to do with whether these regimes are repressive or invade their neighbors. When Israel – the only nuclear power in the region – invaded Lebanon in 1982 and killed 40,000 people in its efforts to smash the PLO, it had the backing of Washington. Though lip service is paid to helping the oppressed Kurds in Iraq, U.S. ally Turkey is given weapons to attack its own Kurdish minority. While Saddam Hussein is certainly a tyrant, he was every bit as much of a tyrant when he was Washington’s friend. While his invasion of Kuwait was condemned, the U.S. supports Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. The coalition lined up against Iraq in 1991 consisted of countries such as Kuwait, a monarchy that still does not grant women the right to vote; Saudi Arabia, which publicly executes its critics; and Egypt, which outlaws opposition parties, and sometimes murders them when they protest.

U.S. imperialism in the Middle East has always been naked and brutal. It is primarily responsible for upholding backward, dictatorial regimes that, without its help, would have been overthrown long ago. Middle East specialist Dilip Hiro spelled it out: “It is much simpler to manipulate a few ruling families (and to secure fat orders for arms and ensure that oil prices remain low) than a wide variety of personalities and policies bound to be thrown up by a democratic system.” [26] But such brutality always provokes a reaction – as the new Intifada shows. “If history is any guide,” writes Michael Hudson, “hegemony by the United States or any other party in the Middle East tends to produce resistance.” [27] That resistance is back – not just in the Intifada in Palestine, but in the large sympathy demonstrations throughout the region. The struggle against U.S. imperialism in the Middle East is intimately tied up with the aspirations of the mass of Arab workers and peasants in that region, not only against the American “colossus,” but against their own ruling classes.

* * *


1. Phillip Knightly, Imperial legacy, The Gulf War Reader, Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf, eds. (New York: Random House, 1991), p. 8.

2. Glenn Frankel, Lines in the Sand, The Gulf War Reader, p. 16.

3. Quoted in Mark Curtis, The Great Deception: Anglo-American Power and World Order (London: Pluto Press, 1998), p. 133.

4. Quoted in William Blum, The CIA: A Forgotten History (London: Zed, 1986), p. 96.

5. Micah L. Sifry, U.S. intervention in the Middle East: A case study, The Gulf War Reader, p. 28.

6. Sifry, p. 33.

7. Stephen Zunes, Continuing storm: The U.S. role in the Middle East, Global Focus: U.S. Foreign Policy at the Turn of the Century, Martha Honey and Tom Barry, eds. (New York: St. Martins Press, 2000), p. 248.

8. Phil Marshall, Intifada: Zionism, Imperialism and Palestinian Resistance (London: Bookmarks, 1989), p. 77.

9. Curtis, p. 133.

10. Zunes, p. 249.

11. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, The Israeli Connection: Who Israel Arms and Why (New York: Pantheon, 1987), pp. 196–98.

12. Quoted in Curtis, p. 129.

13. Anthony Cordesman, The Gulf and Transition: U.S. Policy Ten Years After the Gulf War (Working Draft), Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), October 2000, p. 32.

14. Quoted in Joe Stork, Middle East Oil and the Energy Crisis (New York: Monthly Review, 1975), p. 34.

15. Saïd K. Aburish, A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite (New York: St. Martins Press, 1997), p. 77.

16. Curtis, p. 159.

17. Aburish, pp. 242–43.

18. Aburish, pp. 60–61.

19. Joe Stork and Martha Wenger, From rapid deployment to massive deployment, The Gulf War Reader, p. 35.

20. Stork and Wenger, p. 36.

21. Lance Selfa, What We Say Goes, International Socialist Review 7 (Spring 1999): p. 23.

22. Selfa, p. 23.

23. Selfa, p. 25.

24. How the U.S. helped keep Hussein in power, International Socialist Review 4 (Spring 1998): p. 32.

25. Michael C. Hudson, To play the hegemon: 50 years of U.S. policy toward the Middle East, Middle East Journal, Volume 50, No. 3 (Summer 1996): p. 329.

26. Zunes, p. 251.

27. Hudson, p. 343.

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