Obama’s Middle East (Part One)

The modern Middle East was the creation of three heads of state following in the aftermath of World War I. President Woodrow Wilson (USA), Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau (France) and Prime Minister Lloyd George (UK) gathered in Paris in 1919 and essentially redrew many of the world’s borders. Both the French and the British had long standing interests in the Middle East, and once the Middle East power, the Ottoman Empire, collapsed, both countries saw opportunities. Coupled with these blatant political aspirations was President Wilson’s insistence upon implementing his vision for world peace, encapsulated in his 14 points for world peace. One of these, the right of self-determination, became and continues to be a driving force in modern national development.  

The problem arose in the Middle East and elsewhere that borders that were ultimately drawn creating new nations covered different and often very competitive ethnic groups. As an example, the new nation of Iraq included three major ethnic/religious groups, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Kurds, all of whom had their unique histories and identities. Following the creation of most of the new Middle Eastern countries, the democratic ideals embodied in other sections of Wilson’s 14 points were ignored, and the new countries were ultimately taken over by autocrats.

Throughout the years US and European policy towards Middle East governments were harmonious as autocrats were placated to ensure free flowing and cheap oil. That began to change with the frequent Israeli/Arab wars as Arab countries ultimately used their combined clout following the 1973 Yom Kippur War to pressure US policy by limiting oil production and embargoing US imports, dramatically driving up oil prices.

Two unrelated events in 1979-80, however, sparked changes in the Middle East that have reverberated since: 1) 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran (overthrowing an important US ally) and 2) the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan to quell rising Islamic unrest in the southern Soviet republics. In the case of Iran, for the first time in the modern era one of the Middle Eastern countries was now led by Islamic fundamentalists, whose goal, in part, was to spread that fundamentalism far and wide. The US now became the “Great Satan” with Israel dubbed the “Little Satan.” Suffice it to say, US influence with Iran was now minimal.

With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US saw an opportunity to undermine Soviet ambitions by arming and training Afghan resistance groups. On the surface the US efforts were successful, and the Soviet Union got bogged down in Afghanistan. However, one of the Afghan resistance groups later morphed into Al Qaida, a sad example of the law of unintended consequences. In the vacuum of post Soviet war effort, another radical Afghani Islamic ethnic group arose to conquer the country, the Taliban, which granted sanctuary to the more radical Al Qaida operatives.

Also, during the 1980’s Iran and Iraq fought a long and bloody war. US policy supported Iraq. In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait, later pushed back by a quick US led coalition of forces invasion. The world altering event, however, occurred on September 11, 2001, when Al Qaida operatives attacked critical US institutions on her homeland, killing more Americans on US soil than anytime since Pearl Harbor, 1941. The response by the US was overwhelming. Quickly, the Afghan government (Taliban) was confronted by the US with relinquishing the Al Qaida network. The government refused, so the US invaded. US forces combined with other Afghani resistance groups to quickly smash the Taliban and put Al Qaida on the run. Many Al Qaida operatives were killed or captured. Some escaped, including the leader Osama Bin Laden, and were later hunted down.

Unfortunately, the attack on US soil put the US on a war footing, ultimately leading to relying on poor intelligence and strategic planning. Iraq was now seen as another fomenter of terror and the destruction of the world order, especially with the false claim that Iraq was harboring weapons of mass destruction. Consequently, the US again led a coalition of forces to attack and ultimately overthrow the Iraqi regime. The result was the unleashing of ethnic forces in Iraq bottled up for decades by the brutal regime of former dictator Sadaam Hussein. The US cobbled together a “democratic” government, brought some semblance of civil order, trained a new and “enlightened” Iraqi military and gradually began to reduce forces. However, with the US withdrawal came an increasing Iranian influence, using its connections to the large Iraqi Shiite Muslim community, previously severely persecuted by Sadaam Hussein.

The 2008 US Presidential election was a watershed election. US citizens were sick of war and the then collapsing economy and voted for a young, inexperienced African-American US Senator from Illinois to be the new President, Barak Obama. Obama promised early on to change international perceptions of US power and “exceptionalism,” including its perception in the Muslim world. Obama’s father was an African Muslim, and although some claimed the President himself is one, he was raised and identifies as a Christian.

Click here to read part two of “Obama’s Middle East”.