Since the discovery of oil in the desert wastelands of the Middle East, the region has remained at the centre of geopolitical focus and strife. Oil, to a large extent outlines the region’s importance to the United States. Oil accounts for nearly 40 percent of the US energy needs and it accounts for 89 percent of net US energy imports (National Energy Policy Development Group, 2001, pp. 1-10,1-11). Oil drives almost 100% of the transportation industry in the US and of course its means to global power – the US military. Brzezinski postulated that the key to control the Eurasian landmass rested in the control over central Asia (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 31) that acted as a guard post over American control of the oil. This essay outlines how events in the Middle East in the 1980s shaped American foreign policy.
Two main events that shaped American foreign policy in the Middle East were the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution, both of which took place in 1979. The Soviet action directly threatened America’s pre-eminent position in the Middle East as it would have allowed the Soviets to further expand their conquest to gain access to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea as also a greater say in the Persian Gulf Oil dynamics. The Iranian Revolution, at one stroke removed a friendly American backed government of Reza Pehalavi in Teheran and a loss of American control over the second largest OPEC producer. The Iran hostage crisis further degraded American standing in the Middle East and led to the downfall of the Carter administration. The Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) threatened to upset the ‘Balance of Power’ in the Middle East. The Israeli Lebanon war of 1982 brought widespread condemnation from the Arab world and gave rise to further anti-Americanism due to America’s support of Israel.
Faced with such diverse set of challenges to American national interests, the Reagan administration embarked on a proactive policy to contain the Soviet Union in the Middle East. Top priority was given to wage a proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. In the process, the U.S. supported Osama bin Laden and the Taliban with massive influx of arms and money that led to the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and ultimately its demise. To counter Iranian threat, America supported Iraq in the eight year long Iran-Iraq War, imposed a sanctions regime against Teheran, augmented troops in Saudi Arabia and increased the US naval force levels in the CENTCOM area of operations based at Bahrain. In the case of the Lebanon conflict, the U.S. continued its support of Israel while bringing diplomatic pressure on Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to moderate the voices in the Muslim World.
In conclusion it can be emphasized that American foreign policy in the Middle East has been shaped by it’s overtly ‘Realist’ approach to Geo-politics. In the 1980s, the main threats to U.S. interests were the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution. Both these events threatened to reduce American influence in the Middle East. American support to Israel in the Lebanon war only served to inflame anti-Americanism in the Middle East. To counter these multifarious challenges, American foreign policy supported rebel Taliban fighters to fight a proxy war against the Soviets, limiting Iranian influence by supporting Iraq and a sanctions regime against the theocracy, bolstering its force levels in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and unleashing a proactive diplomatic initiative in the Arab world to shape pro-American public opinion.
- Brzezinski, Z. (1997). The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives. New York: Harper Collins.
- National Energy Policy Development Group. (2001). National Energy Policy. Washington: US Government Printing Office.