One of the far-flung places in which the U.S. government acquired a stake after World War II and reinforced during the Cold War was the Middle East. The attraction was oil and domestic politics, specifically regarding support for the new state of Israel and control of the region. Contrary to common misconception, Soviet expansion was a minor concern compared to awakening Arab nationalism, which was by nature hostile to both Soviet communism and American hegemony.
The supposedly vital U.S. interest in the Middle East easily rationalized the sacrifice of taxpayers treasure on behalf American allies. It also created enemies who would not always distinguish between the U.S. government and the American people.
The combination of oil and Israel motivated advocates of an expansionist U.S. foreign policy to favor bold measures to gain influence and power in the Middle East. The United States thus had to have a hand in every intra-regional conflict, picking clients and undermining any rivals. A key example is Iran, where the United States backed a brutal, but pro-U.S. monarch, the Shah--helping him return to power in 1953 after a popular middle-class movement drove him from power. Predictably, when the Shah was overthrown in 1979 by Islamic radicals, the U.S. government was targeted for retribution. The American embassy was seized and dozens of hostages were held for a lengthy period. With the Iranian regime now seen as the chief threat to U.S. interests in the region, the policymakers predictably favored Iraq when it went to war against Iran in 1980. The new leader of secular Iraq, and the latest American client, was Saddam Hussein, who received vital U.S. intelligence and other valuable assistance during the conflict.
When the devastating ten-year war ended in a stalemate, the newly prestigious Hussein aspired to lead the Arab world. High on his agenda were long-time grievances with Kuwait. When the U.S. ambassador told Hussein that his dispute with the Kuwaiti monarchy was a purely Arab affair, he invaded the emirate. Exaggerating the threat to the West, American policymakers, with U.N. cover, assembled a coalition of nations to drive Iraq out of Kuwait and demand that Hussein, now the bête noir of the U.S., destroy weapons of mass destruction. To that end, the United States stationed troops in Saudi Arabia, including near holy Islamic sites; bombed the Iraqi civilian infrastructure to rubble; and imposed an economic embargo on Iraq killing over 500,000 children and lasting more than ten years after the Gulf War ended.
The result of the war was an on-going U.S. garrison in Saudi Arabia, ten years of low-level but civilian-killing warfare against Iraq, and increased military aid to Israel, despite unrelenting occupation of Palestinian territory, and almost every other regime in the entire region.
Although justified as democratizing Iraq and eliminating a despotic dictator who could give terrorists weapons of mass destruction (an unlikely senario according to the CIA), the invasion of Iraq in Gulf War II was more likely about improving Israels security, obtaining a central U.S. military outpost in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region, and settling old scores wih Saddam Hussein from Gulf War I and the ensuing decade of containment. After invading Iraq, the United States is faced with the unpleasant choice of a long military occupation and expensive reconstruction of the country or letting it disintegrate into chaos.
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