The foreign policy of the United States in the Middle East

This presentation will be about Arab nationalism, the emergence and policies of the Baath Party and how the foreign policy of the United States helped to bring about a climate of fear and mutual suspicion in the region, which ultimately helped the establishment of a totalitarian regime in Iraq.

Michel Aflaq and Salah Bitar originally founded the Baath Party in the early 1940’s on the basis of German nationalism. Although Arab countries were nominally independent during that time, they saw these states as merely a creation of British imperialism, and thus longed for “One Arab nation with an eternal mission” (Avi, S, War and Peace In The Middle East). These two founders compared the status of the Arab states to the status of the German states before 1871 to empathise their quest for Arab nationalism and unity, which are the core of Baathist ideology. The Baath Party further saw imperialism as a force that prevented Arab “awakening or renaissance” and unity (Jasim, 1984, p31). Aflaq described pan-Arabism as “the awakening of the Arab spirit, which is a decisive stage in human history” (Jasim, 1984, p31); while Nationalism was described as “the very same feeling that binds the individual to his family, because the fatherland is only a base household” (ibid, p31). The Baath Party thus brought up deep nationalistic feelings in Arabs, which were even more strengthened by American foreign policy in the region.

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Baath ideals spread in the 1950’s from Syria to Iraq and other Arab regions and in 1968 the Iraqi Baath Party staged a coup, which was supported by the military establishment and backed by a concrete party programme and objectives. However the radical goals of the party were demonstrated by President Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr’s declaration of Iraq being “a solid revolutionary base to support Arab liberation in the region and to fight imperialism and Zionism” (Shlaim, 1994, War and Peace In The Middle East). Yet looking at the jingoistic statements of Iraq’s President, it is all surprising that the CIA had been involved in bringing the Baath Party to power in Iraq. In his own words US Diplomat James Akins, who served in the Baghdad Embassy during the overthrow recalled:

“I knew all the Ba’ath Party leaders and I liked them. The CIA was definitely involved in that coup. We saw the rise of the Ba’athists as a way of replacing a pro-Soviet government with a pro-American one and you don’t get that chance very often….Sure, some people were rounded up and shot but these were mostly communists so that didn’t bother us”. (Source:

America thus ultimately supported a regime, which in its own declarations believed that the Arab nation is an indivisible political and economic unit and that no Arab country can live apart from the others. This proved to be totally contradictory to America’s own foreign policy and interest in the region.

American foreign policy in the Middle East was largely an extension of its Cold War strategy and the fear of the spread of Communism (Domino Theory). The following are the main reasons for US involvement and interest in the Middle East.

* To contain Soviet influence and expansion in the area

* To preserve Western access to two thirds of the world’s known petroleum reserves

* To curb Arab nationalism and sustain conservative, pro Western regimes in the area

* Because of the long-standing and deep commitment to the security and well-being of Israel

It is very important to ask ourselves the question why the United States specifically supported a regime, whose goals were totally opposed to the last two American principles. The Soviet Union saw America’s influence in the region as a serious liability to its own national interests. Moscow’s Minister of Foreign Affairs justified the Soviet Union’s concern by stating “the United States was not even in close proximity to the region, yet it influenced the balance of power within that region”. (Virth, p15, 1984)

Ultimately America’s association with Saddam Hussein and the Baath regime can best be traced back to its obsession with the containment of Communism by urging coups against pro-Soviet governments and offering military aid to the countries opposing Communism, although these arms eventually would be turned against the US. The House Select Committee on Intelligence Activities gives a wonderful example of US twists in foreign policy and relations in its report. Even during the Baath Parties rule, the US encouraged Kurds in the north to rise up against the Baath Party, because it had severed its relationship with the shah of Iran, another US key ally for a certain period of time. What later happened is best described by quoting from the report of the Committee.

“Documents in the committee’s possession clearly show that the president, Dr Kissinger, and the shah hoped that the Kurds would not prevail. They preferred instead that the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of our ally’s country Iraq. This policy was not imparted to our clients, who were encouraged to continue fighting.”


The United States of America thus betrayed the Kurds, which America used as allies as long as they were useful. From this, it is not hard to imagine why even conservative Arabs or Kurds would turn to more extremist policies, which the Baath Party had plentiful.

America’s unconditional support for Israel further infuriated Arab nationalists, who in return became very suspicious of US intentions in the region. As a result the Baath Party was able to grow in popularity even outside Iraq, which in effect made America’s goal of creating a bastion against Communism the more difficult. America’s support for Israel invited into the area the very Soviet presence the West sought so vigorously to exclude (Virth, p12, 1984) There is no doubt that Israel’s occupation of Arab land after the 1967 war and its refusal to recognize the national rights of Palestinians stirred up support for the Baathists. Proponents of US policy towards Israel believed justly that uncritical support strongly undermined America’s interests in the Middle East and thus drove the regimes towards Moscow. While these statements are indeed justified, it is the 1967 war and the resulting occupation of Palestinian land that contributed to America’s worries. For example after this war many Arab nations, including Iraq and Egypt, sought the closeness of the USSR. Iraq singed the Treaty of Friendship with Moscow in 1972, which increased US involvement with the Shah of Iran and thus further resulted in Saddam Hussein strengthening its grip on power.

US Foreign policy further infuriated Arab nationalists and even conservative pro-Western regimes like Saudi Arabia, when it increased military supplies not only to Israel, the obvious enemy of the Arabs, but also Iran, the traditional enemy of the Arabs. During a visit in May 1972 President Nixon promised the shah virtually any US conventional weapon he desired and even exempted US arms sales to Iran from the normal consultations with the Defense Department. It is estimated that more than $10 billion worth of weapons were sold to Iran between 1972 and 1976. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger saw Iran as “a pillar of stability in a turbulent and vital region. We now provide bank loans to assist Iran in purchasing both military equipment and services in the US”. (Jasim, 1984, p56) In addition Iran cooperated with other American allied countries in the region, including Israel and Turkey, under the shah. This ultimately added to the already deep resentment in the Arab world of both the Iranian Shah and the United States for its policies. This deep suspicion would ultimately lead to the First Gulf War, which not only reshaped the whole Middle East Region, but also had tremendous consequences for the rest of the world.

To thus revisit why the majority of people, including many in the Western world, supported Saddam Hussein and its party, it is important to look at the resurrection of Arab nationalistic feelings particularly after the Six Day War in 1967, which led to a humiliating defeat of the Arab world. This as well as American foreign policy of unconditional support for Israel and the creation and abandonment of allies, when they go past their use by date, helped bring about a totalitarian regime in Iraq. This regime, which was supported by Arabs and the West alike, eventually brought great misery and suffering to its people and others in the region.


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