Origins of US Foreign Policy towards the Middle East

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

7 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Ever since the United States ended the Second World War in 1945 every administration has found itself involved more and more in the affairs of the Middle East. Over the decades this engagement in the orient has changed due to the new realities of the post-World War era and the evolving relations between the USA and Arab nations. Today in 2004, no other foreign policy matter could be more crucial than the issue of United States foreign policy toward the Middle East. After the horrific and tragic terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11th, 2001 the relevance of the issue gained a dramatic new dimension. For decades the US-Arab relation has been the focus of recent scholars, especially the never-ending Israel-Palestinian conflict has had its share of the research that has been conducted. In the first years of the twenty-first century the urgent need to comprehend US-Arab relations is understandably dominant.

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks a wave of historical and scientific works were published. Most of the historians were still in shock from the events that had occurred and therefore not willing to reflect upon past experiences with Middle Eastern nations. But eventually the pressing question arose that puzzled so many minds: Why do they hate us? A project by many respectable scholars involved a website devoted to the American values where they posted several essays in trying to answer that question. By raising it, they automatically came across the path of self-definition and self-defense. As the Bush Administration articulated its first response to the attacks of 9/11 with the retaliatory strike against Afghanistan, the scholars of defended the action by publishing a kind of declaration of self-defense in order to protect the values of America and the values of the free world.[1] In it, they clearly distanced themselves and America from barbaric terrorist attacks and declared that they were meant to destroy American values which led them to answer the next fundamental question: Who are we then? In the end, this proclamation served as a reassurance of the existing belief of what the USA is NOT according to the scholars, which is totalitarian, oppressive, hegemonic and barbaric. A third question which has been raised by Saudi scholars responding to the charge of barbarism is the question of coexistence. While Saudi scholars see potential of a peaceful coexistence between the USA and the Middle East, American scholars in light of recent events stated pessimistic tones regarding a chance of peaceful coexistence.[2]

This debate which certainly has been going on in many other forums is at the core of the matter of US-Arab relations. In order to understand the attitudes of both major players in the field, the USA and the Arab nations, one must take a look at their origins and the surrounding circumstances of the foreign policies since 1945. This essay will focus on these origins and look for explanations to foreign policy attitudes even before World War II where some historians have spotted many influences on the American mindset that might have shaped past and even current views on the Arab world.

The Middle East has not always been the focus of United States foreign policy. In fact, quite the opposite. Only after World War II the USA became deeply involved in the Middle East. Over the last 60 years the importance of the Middle East has dramatically increased which resulted in much more attention devoted to the issue within the national security and interest agendas of the various administrations. Before 1939 the Middle East was mostly unknown to Americans or as Douglas Little terms it in his essay Gideon’s Band: America and the Middle East since 1945 “terra incognita”.[3] In his essay he mentions how US presence until 1939 was mainly of cultural and religious nature. Political ambitions or strategic concerns, which would eventually play a much bigger role with respect to foreign policy approaches toward the Middle East, were nonexistent. The only actors that came from America were ministers, merchants or adventurers attempting to explore the orient. Additionally, the Middle East was seen by the US officials in Washington as European sphere of influence which they respected; only a few private companies invested in the region’s oil. The discovery of oil resources in the Persian Gulf and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire tempted Woodrow Wilson and his successors to become more involved in the region but until the eve of World War II no substantial commitment materialized.[4]

World War II changed the priorities of US policymakers. David Painter argues in his book Oil and the American Century that the recognition of the vital role of petroleum in modern warfare and economic life by US officials, coupled with the fear of no longer being able to self-sufficiently provide oil for America, forced them to expand interests into the Middle East. He explains how US policymakers first utilized private oil corporations “to protect and promote the national interest in foreign sources of petroleum.”[5] Painter develops a corporatist approach towards the US-Arab relations and identifies “a symbiosis [which] developed between public and private interests that safeguarded and advanced the private interests of the oil companies while furthering U.S. efforts to control world oil reserves, combat economic nationalism, and contain the Soviet Union.”[6] Other scholars have focused more on the latter part of his argument as a reason why the USA became more involved in Middle Eastern affairs, namely the growing Arab economic nationalism and Soviet containment. Salim Yaqub for instance elaborates in his essay Imperious Doctrines: U.S.-Arab Relations from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush on the importance of the Cold War setting within which most of the conflicts developed and the danger that growing nationalist sentiments in Arab countries posed to the stability of the region. He argues that the main concern for US officials was the combination of Arab nationalists joining Soviet ideology and purposes which led them to formulate a Middle East agenda to keep the Soviet Union out of the region. Although he recognizes that some administrations- the Eisenhower administration in particular- probably confused Arab nationalism with communist-initiated revolutions a few times, he nevertheless acknowledges that both threats were existent.[7] Douglas Little has formulated a more recent approach to the US-Middle East relation in his book American Orientalism where he stresses the importance of ideology and the well-embedded conviction of a racial hierarchy in dealings of US policymakers with the orient. He refers to the originator of the theme of the “hierarchy of race” Michael Hunt, who has argued that as early as 1900,

Anglo-Saxon racism and Social Darwinism had fused in the collective mind of America to generate a powerful mental map in which, predictably, the “civilized” powers—the United States and Western Europe—controlled a descending array of underdeveloped, even “primitive” Asians, Latinos, American Indians, and Africans. Although Hunt discusses the Middle Hast only in passing, his references suggest that U.S. policymakers tended to place Arab nearer the bottom than the top of the hierarchy of race.[8]

He also refers to another book published under the same title Orientalism where the author Edward Said showed how eighteenth-century British officials embraced their version of “orientalism”- the hierarchy of races- in order to justify their own imperial ambitions for the Indian subcontinent all the way to the banks of the Nile. Little suggests that a similar belief seemed to subconsciously have shaped the US popular attitudes and foreign policy toward the Middle East.[9] He explains how certain media outlets such as the National Geographic supported already existing racial prejudices by specifically depicting the Muslim world as decadent and inferior to the USA. This helped to create a cultural stereotype of the Muslim population as fanatic and incapable of orderly running a state government, which shaped the US foreign policy toward that region as well.[10] But not only Arabs received their share of racist prejudices, American anti-Semitism during the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century was not uncommon. Even though they were not characterized as bad as the Muslims were, Jews still were portrayed as “greedy, greasy and grasping”.[11] Nonetheless, Americans felt much more connected to the Jews than the Muslims in the Middle East mostly because they knew more about the former culture than the latter. According to Little, two major developments contributed to the changing attitude of the American public towards Jews. The first one was the “unspeakable slaughter”[12] of Jews unfolding all over Nazi-occupied Europe which understandably embedded the Jew as the ultimate victim into American conscience. The news of the brutal reality coming from all parts of Europe across the Atlantic of over 6 million Jews killed created a wave of solidarity towards the Jews and ignited a strong call for a Jewish state among the American public. The state Israel was established in 1948 and immediately recognized by the US government, which not only led to Jewish sympathy but also to Arab disappointment and anger toward the USA. The second development occurred after the creation Israel when the US population and policymakers increasingly saw the struggle of the tiny Jewish territory with its surrounding Arab rivals as a re-enactment of the biblical story of David versus Goliath. Especially after the stunning Israeli victory of the Six Day War in 1967 Americans strongly felt sympathetic towards Israel’s efforts of self-defense and regarded the battle as evidence of a fulfilling biblical prophecy where good would prevail over evil.[13]



[2] and

[3] Douglas Little: Gideon’s Band: America and the Middle East since 1945. In Diplomatic History Fall ‘94, Vol. 18 Issue 4, p. 513.

[4] Douglas Little: Gideon’s Band. p. 514.

[5] David Painter: Oil and the American century: the political economy of U.S. foreign oil policy, 1941-1954. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. p. 1.

[6] Ibid. p. 1.

[7] Salim Yaqub: Imperious Doctrines: U.S.-Arab Relations from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush. In Diplomatic History Fall ’02, Vol. 26 Issue 4, p. 572-574.

[8] Douglass Little: American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. p. 9/10.

[9] Ibid. p. 10.

[10] Ibid. p. 11.

[11] Douglas Little: American Orientalism. p. 12.

[12] Ibid. p. 21.

[13] Ibid. p. 25.

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Origins of US Foreign Policy towards the Middle East
Indiana University  (History Department)
History H 650 ' U.S. Foreign Relations in the American Century'
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Origins, Foreign, Policy, Middle, East, History, Foreign, Relations, American, Century”
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Michael Schmid (Author), 2004, Origins of US Foreign Policy towards the Middle East, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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