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Almost 400 years before Columbus touched American soil, Pope Urban II decreed that the salvation of the West lay in the East. At the end of the 11th century he launched a campaign to conquer Jerusalem promising deliverance as collateral and escape from an unfertile, war weary Europe (Peters 28). For centuries Western civilization’s relationship with the Near and Middle East waxed and waned, always more complex. Like many international powers before, the United States now stands at the shore of a diverse region in light of a series of internal revolutions in Middle Eastern nations. While sometimes reluctant and other times zealous, the United States has intervened in the “recent” uprisings to protect its interests, allies, and spread of democracy.
The Crusade of Pope Urban II was hardly the beginning of international interest in Asia. Rome and Byzantium moved eastward before any significant Islamic expansion, and Persia ruled over Anatolia and the northern Arabian Peninsula for centuries. After an initial victory and subsequent failures to recapture the Holy Land and its neighboring principalities, Europe retreated and the Ottoman Empire safeguarded the door to the East for centuries.
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Later, in its decline, the Ottomans lost territories and became the target of attacks from Russia and Europe. In the early 1800s Russia mobilized troops in its attempt to gain control of the Caspian and Black Sea. At the same time Napoleon marched through northern Africa. From 1830 to 1880 France gained controlled of Tunis, Algeria, and Egypt. At the turn of the 20th century, Britain and France “managed” several countries in Northern Africa and in the Near East.
However, with the spread of Imperialism in the Muslim world, came the concept of nationalism. In Europe and America nationalism juxtaposed unity and discrimination. The reactions in the Middle East were similar, but internal conflicts varied among each nation. The Young Turks, for example, were a secular movement while many other national movements in the Arab world stemmed from religious beliefs. Never the less, these revolutionaries epitomized the growing resentment of foreign intervention in the region. This did not, however, deter the West from pursuing perhaps different interests in the East.
While the Near East experience volatile interference from the West, Persia (eventually Iran) and Iraq were able to keep sovereignty over their respective territories. Both World Wars would change that. From 1918-1934 Britain built a pipeline across northern Iraq even though both Britain and the U.S. were not heavily reliant on foreign oil yet. And, even though World War I scrambled alliances and redefined Asia and Europe, it was Hitler’s war would change the dynamic between East and West forever.
The U.S. emerged as a super power from World War II, and now searched for what other large nations had once sought from Asia and Africa, cheap natural resources. America became interested in cheap oil, supplied by Iraq and its Middle Eastern allies. But, a far more conflictive issue developed. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the international Jewish community demanded refuge and autonomy. What once appeared to be an accepted two state solution became and international crisis; as more people migrated to Israel, Palestinians felt displaced (Roberts 950).
For decades, countries in the region would change and alliances and opinions over the issue of Israel, and simultaneously oil became more valued by the West making certain countries rich in petroleum money. To complicate matters, conflicting ideologies would continue to emerge within individual countries. In fact, after Egypt made peace with Israel and allied itself with the West, some fundamentalists that denounced the Israeli state were still elected to positions of power in the Egyptian government. Furthermore, the once seemingly stable countries, Iran and Iraq became some of the most volatile in the region.
Iran experienced a revolution that dethroned the Shah, another American ally, and indefinitely severed diplomatic relations with the United States. Thus, when the Iraq-Iran War paralyzed the region, Iran found its new foe siding with Saddam Hussein. However, Iraq would then also antagonize the West and some of its neighbors after invading Kuwait in 1990. The U.S. quickly intervened in that situation and made another enemy in the process.
In another, perhaps shortsighted, scheme this country supported the Taliban against the Soviet Union with the intention of subduing the “menace” of communism. Like its previous allies, the Taliban moved on to support acts of terror against the United States and continue to fight against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Almost a decade after the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, a street merchant in Tunisia sparked a revolution. These two events are hardly related. Yet, some westerners have been quick to link the fall of Saddam Hussein and “propagation” of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq with the recent movements across the Middle East. Christopher Hitchens claimed that the “influence of Iraq on the Libyan equation has also been uniformly positive” (Hitchens). Many political pundits sighted President Obama’s speech in Cairo as a turning point in the Egyptian government. It is perhaps a misinterpretation of the motives behind certain revolutions in the Middle East that has led to the complex and diverse participation of the United States in this so-called Arab Spring.
It would be presumptive to assume that every revolution is connected and formed from the same ideology, even though correlations exist. American support for Tunis came after an overwhelming call for the removal of the country’s long standing ruler could not be ignored. Thus, President Obama resiliently stated that “the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people” (White House). The spread of democracy became America’s motto, and through organizations like NED (National Endowment for Democracy) and MEPI (Middle East Partnership Initiative) the west was able to catapult aid to the rebels on the streets.
The world would soon debate a separate question, one stemming from a century old problem. Would the newly liberated people support U.S. allies, especially Israel? Nowhere, would this dilemma be more prominent than in Egypt. And so democracy became the proverbial double-edged sword.
Egypt became the focus of American interests in the region by January 2011, when thousands gathered in Tahrir Square to announce a long list of grievances against President Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally. President Obama and Secretary Clinton assured the world that the United States would always rest on the side of democracy and that the “all governments must maintain power through consent, not coercion” (Lee). However, Egyptian rebels and even domestic media outlets would soon criticize a reluctance to show broader support of demands for democracy. Mubarak, after all, was an ally and friend of Israel. Allowing an undetermined faction to gain control of such a strategic location could have proven catastrophic. Amid concerns of the political growing in the midst of revolution a U.S. envoy was sent to Egypt. Although initial claims that the American team tried to persuade Mubarak to stay “angered” the white house, President Obama and Secretary Clinton also tried to persuade the international community that Mubarak’s vice president should stay in power in order to secure a stable transition to democratic elections (Fisk). Both plans eventually would fold under mounting pressure. President Obama finally addressed the world and said that Mubarak had to step down. By February 11, Mubarak would leave office and transitional military leaders would begin managing the country.
American intervention was perhaps easier to deploy and justify in Libya due to its antagonistic regime and more extensive support from international allies. Shortly after Mubarak “resigned” in Egypt, demonstrations began to emerge throughout Libya’s cities. These protests eventually coalesced into a unified rebellion and plunged the country into a civil war. The U.S. and the United Nations initially pressured Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi to abandon his position and cease all military action against rebel forces in his country. Gaddafi’s aggression against the rebels in Libya escalated and quickly NATO, predominantly American force, responded with a no-fly zone and subsequent attacks. After a brief period in hiding, Gaddafi was found and publicly executed. However, Libya still has not established a stable government, and conflicting reports mention Al-Qaeda members infiltrating the rebellion. Once again, America’s vision of democracy is tainted with the unpredictability of weak alliances and budding Islamic fundamentalism in the region.
Not all revolutions warranted such extreme action by the West. A relatively unreported and small uprising took place in the Arabian Peninsula. A small group of men marched to protest the incarceration of a few political prisoners, but with little support and a devastating unwillingness by the international community to acknowledge its legitimacy the movement dwindled. Ironically this action, or lack thereof, does not fall out of step with Obama’s initial promise to secure the region and its free-flow of commerce, for it is Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain that procure the commercial oil for so many western countries (Miller).
Syria now beckons the spotlight. However, President Obama finds himself in a difficult situation, for he has drawn a line in the sand. For the past months, Obama has proclaimed that use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would be a “game changer” and implied that the United States would be forced to intervene in its bloody civil war (Gladstone). Never the less, the American public, weary from two wars, does not support deployment of U.S. troops and the recent rebuilding of a weak economy defines priorities. Furthermore, it remains unclear whether the rebel forces who are trying to oust the autocratic President Assad, have also been infiltrated by radicalized Islamic militants or Al Qaeda operatives.
Historians have been cautious enough to avoid an exact comparison to Rome and other great empires that have ventured too far beyond its shores, but few deny that America must draw from the lessons of the past in order to place modern events into context. The United States will undoubtedly play an important role in the region in this seemingly repetitive quest for wealth and security. Then again, perhaps America will be the herald of a greater force for justice, democracy, and peace in the region, for when spring ends and the seasons of civilization turn, the labors of an entire world, east and west, will be harvested.
Fisk, Robert. “US Business Link to Egypt” The Independent 7 Feb. 2011. Web. 9 Apr. 2013. .
Gladstone, Rick and Mark Landler. “Chemicals Would Be “Game Changer” in Syria, Obama Says” The New York Times. 20 Mar. 2013. Web. 9 Apr. 2013
Hitchens, Christopher. “The Iraq Effect” Slate Magazine, 28 Mar. 2011 Web. 9 Apr. 2013. .
Lee, Jesse. “President Obama on the Situation in Egypt; “All Governments Must Maintain Power Through Consent, Not Coercion.” The White House Blog. Washington, D.C. 28 Jan. 2011 Web. 9 Apr. 2013.
Miller, Aaron David. “The Politically Incorrect Guide to U.S. Interests in the Middle East” Foreign Policy. 15 Aug. 2012. Web. 9 Apr. 2013 .
Office of the Press Secretary of White House. “Remarks by the President in the State of the Union.” Washington, D.C. 25 Jan. 2011. Web. 9 Apr. 2013.
Peters, Edward, ed. The First Crusade: The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1998. Print.
Roberts, J.M. The Penguin History of the World. 3rd ed. London: Penguin 1992. Print.
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