The Middle East and the West: The U.S. Role Grows As World War II ends, the United States becomes the great outside power in the Middle East, with three main concerns: Persian Gulf oil; support and protection of the new nation of Israel; and containment of the Soviet Union. NPR's Mike Shuster continues his six-part series on the history of Western involvement in the region.
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The Middle East and the West: The U.S. Role Grows

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The Middle East and the West: The U.S. Role Grows

The Middle East and the West: The U.S. Role Grows

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Over the past week, NPR's Mike Shuster has been looking at the history of the Middle East and the West. The United States was a latecomer to that turbulent story. With Britain and France exhausted by World War II and their hold on their possessions in the Arab world all but erased, the United States stepped forward to fill the vacuum and play the role of outside big power. It was a natural role for the US, but as Mike Shuster tells us today, it proved to be far more difficult than many American leaders anticipated.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Oil has always been the first priority for the United States in the Middle East. It was an American oil company, Standard Oil of California, that received the first concession to search for oil in Saudi Arabia in 1933. And it was oil that President Roosevelt wanted to talk about when he met for the first time with the Saudi king, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, on a ship in the Red Sea just before the close of the Second War II. Zachary Lockman is a professor of Middle East history at New York University.

Professor ZACHARY LOCKMAN (New York University): The United States, during the war years, developed a close relationship with Saudi Arabia since it had been American oil men who found oil and began to develop it in Saudi Arabia, unlike other parts of the Arab world where it had been the British; and in Iran, as well, where it had been the British. But very soon, the Middle East, the Arab world, gets pulled into the Cold War conflict.

SHUSTER: Almost immediately, the United States faced challenges in the Middle East. In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition Palestine to create two states, one for the Arabs and one for the Jewish settlers there. The Arab world rejected the vote. The United States was the first nation to recognize Israel, even as war erupted.

(Soundbite of vintage news report)

Unidentified Man #1: After 2,000 years, a Jewish nation once again exists. And while there is a rattle of gunfire in the Holy Land, there is cheering in Washington and Hebrew dances of joy for a Jewish homeland that has been reborn.

SHUSTER: So from the outset, the United States was faced with three primary interests in the Middle East that have been so difficult to harmonize, according to Roger Owen, professor of Middle East history at Harvard University.

Professor ROGER OWEN (Harvard University): You have an American desire to prevent the Cold War, to bring as many Arab states into its alliance system as possible, and then you have this particular relationship in which they have to combine closeness with Israel and closeness with Saudi Arabia.

SHUSTER: Policy-makers in the Truman administration were aware at the time that it might not be possible for the United States to satisfy all parties in the Middle East, according to William Quandt, historian of US policy in the Middle East since World War II.

Mr. WILLIAM QUANDT (Historian): There was a real debate about it in 1947, and Truman himself even seems to have had some concerns about how we could uphold both parts of our regional interests: the commitment to Israel, or the new Jewish state, and our interests in the Arab world. And, of course, he, like many others, ended up kind of compromising. He recognized the new state, but he didn't want to send arms or very much economic aid to it.

SHUSTER: Despite this, many Arabs did see the US at first as an anti-colonial power, and there was considerable goodwill toward Washington in the Middle East. That began to change, though, in 1953, with the CIA coup against Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran after he nationalized British oil interests there.

(Soundbite of vintage news report)

Unidentified Man #2: Mobs overflow Tehran, capital of oil-rich Iran. Furious followers of Prime Minister Mossadeq topple a statue of the young shah's father screaming 'Death to the shah!' in two days of blooding rioting. The frenzied crowds demand that Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who has fled the country, be returned and hanged.

SHUSTER: These events would have unforeseen but long-lasting consequences, says historian Rashid Khalidi, author of "Resurrecting Empire."

Mr. RASHID KHALIDI (Author, "Resurrecting Empire"): Iran was the first place where the United States acted as had colonial powers in the past; overthrowing, in this case, a constitutional government, a popular government, a government that had a huge parliamentary majority. Prime Minister Mossadeq of Iran had had a referendum on his policy of nationalization of oil, and he overwhelmingly won it. And right after that, American and British intelligence overthrew his government and installed a very unpopular dictatorship of the shah, for which we are still paying in the Middle East.

SHUSTER: Nationalism was sweeping the Arab world, as well, and it would prove to be an idea that the United States never got comfortable with. Gamel Abdel Nasser took power in Egypt, and a few years later formed a union with Syria calling it the United Arab Republic. Nationalists also took power in Iraq. US leaders tried to create alliances with the Arab world beyond the oil sheikdoms, but too often ended up viewing the Arab nationalists through the prism of the Cold War and their connections to Moscow, says Khalidi.

Mr. KHALIDI: One of the things that the United States came to do was to see Arab nationalism as aligned with the Soviet Union and communism, a piece of foolishness for which, I think, we're still paying, because the United States has acted as if these governments really were profoundly and fundamentally opposed to the United States. They were seen, in the days of the Cold War, as allies or clients of the Soviet Union.

SHUSTER: By the mid-1960s, says historian David Lesch of Trinity University in San Antonio, the US had failed to form close relationships with Arab nations beyond Saudi Arabia.

Mr. DAVID LESCH (Trinity University): What's interesting is that we relied, finally, on two countries to kind of be surrogates of the US interests in the region, and none of them were Arab, and that was Israel and Iran.

SHUSTER: Neither nation could help the United States improve its relations with the Arab world.

The outbreak of war between Israel and the Arab states would only harden Washington's stance. On June 5th, 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike on Egypt to stop an Egyptian invasion of Israel. In six days of war against the forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, Israel crushed the Arab armies and turned a new page in the history of the Middle East. The Six Day War was a profound shock to the Middle East. It left Israel in control of Jerusalem, the West Bank and other Arab territories, much of which it still occupies today. President Lyndon Johnson attempted to straddle the war; avoiding overt support for either side and welcoming a cease-fire resolution when it was adopted in the UN.

(Soundbite of 1967 address)

President LYNDON JOHNSON: The cease-fire vote of the Security Council opens a very hopeful path away from the danger in the Middle East. It reflects responsible concern for peace on the part of all who voted for it. The United States has warmly supported this resolution, and we hope that the parties that are directly concerned will promptly act upon it.

SHUSTER: The Six Day War left the United States with an even deeper policy dilemma: How now to reconcile American support for Israel with the need for good relations in the Arab world. When the next administration--that of Richard Nixon and his eventual secretary of State, Henry Kissinger--took office a year and a half later, the distrust between Washington and the Arabs had hardened, according to William Quandt.

Mr. QUANDT: In the Nixon period, Kissinger and Nixon see the Middle East largely in terms of the US-Soviet relationship, and that was probably the high point of the Cold War rivalry as seen in the Middle East.

SHUSTER: These policy dilemmas quickly developed into serious problems for the United States. In 1973, Israel and the Arabs fought another war. The Arab world believed the United States backed Israel and imposed an oil embargo. The conflict in the Middle East had come home to America, as President Nixon acknowledged in an address to the nation.

(Soundbite of 1973 address)

President RICHARD NIXON: Because of that war, most of the Middle Eastern oil producers have reduced overall production and cut off their shipments of oil to the United States. By the end of this month, more than two million barrels a day of oil we expected to import into the United States will no longer be available. We must, therefore, face up to a very stark fact: We are heading toward the most acute shortages of energy since World War II.

SHUSTER: Nixon and Kissinger, and then President Jimmy Carter after them, worked hard to put US policy in the Middle East back on track. Carter did manage to mediate a peace between Israel and Egypt, mainly through the efforts of Egypt's new leader, Anwar Sadat, who had turned his nation away from the Soviet Union. But too much damage had been done. US military aid to Israel skyrockets in this period, as it does to Egypt. By the end of the 1970s, there was not much goodwill toward the United States in the Arab world, according to Zachary Lockman.

Prof. LOCKMAN: And in that period, America came to be seen as being on the side of the forces of the status quo, the forces of conservativism, the forces opposing Arab unity and opposing the kinds of social change, social reform, even social revolution that many Arabs felt was necessary.

SHUSTER: It would even get worse, and 1979 would be a pivotal year. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

SIEGEL: There are historic photos, maps of the region and an interactive time line at our Web site,

(Soundbite of music)

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