The U.S. and the Middle East Since 1945 to 2008

A Guide to Mideast Policy From Harry Truman to George W. Bush

U.S. President George W. Bush looks downward as he listens to a question about the war in Iraq during a press conference July 12, 2007
President Bush Holds Press Conference On Iraq. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The first time a Western power got soaked in the politics of oil in the Middle East was toward the end of 1914, when British soldiers landed at Basra, in southern Iraq, to protect oil supplies from neighboring Persia. At the time the United States had little interest in Middle East oil or in imperial designs on the region. Its overseas ambitions were focused south toward Latin America and the Caribbean (remember the Maine?), and west toward east Asia and the Pacific.

When Britain offered to share the spoils of the defunct Ottoman Empire after World War I in the Middle East, President Woodrow Wilson declined. It was only a temporary reprieve from creeping involvement that began during the Truman administration. It’s not been a happy history. But it’s necessary to understand that past, even if only in its general outlines, to better make sense of the present -- especially regarding current Arab attitudes toward the West.

Truman Administration: 1945-1952

American troops were stationed in Iran during World War II to help transfer military supplies to the Soviet Union and protect Iranian oil. British and Soviet troops were also on Iranian soil. After the war, Stalin withdrew his troops only when Harry Truman protested their continued presence through the United Nations, and possibly threatened to use force to boot them out.

American duplicity in the Middle East was born: While opposing Soviet influence in Iran, Truman solidified America’s relationship with Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, in power since 1941, and brought Turkey into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), making it clear to the Soviet Union that the Middle East would be a Cold War hot zone.

Truman accepted the 1947 United Nations partition plan of Palestine, granting 57% of the land to Israel and 43% to Palestine, and personally lobbied for its success. The plan lost support from U.N. member nations, especially as hostilities between Jews and Palestinians multiplied in 1948 and Arabs lost more land or fled. Truman recognized the State of Israel 11 minutes after its creation, on May 14, 1948.

Eisenhower Administration: 1953-1960

Three major events marked Dwight Eisenhower’s Middle East policy. In 1953, Eisenhower ordered the CIA to depose Mohammed Mossadegh, the popular, elected leader of the Iranian parliament and an ardent nationalist who opposed British and American influence in Iran. The coup severely tarnished America’s reputation among Iranians, who lost trust in American claims of protecting democracy.

In 1956, when Israel, Britain, and France attacked Egypt when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, a furious Eisenhower not only refused to join the hostilities, he ended the war.

Two years later, as nationalist forces roiled the Middle East and threatened to topple Lebanon’s Christian-led government, Eisenhower ordered the first landing of U.S. troops in Beirut to protect the regime. The deployment, lasting just three months, ended a brief civil war in Lebanon.

Kennedy Administration: 1961-1963

John Kennedy was supposedly uninvolved in the Middle East. But as Warren Bass argued in “Support Any Friend: Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance,” John Kennedy tried to develop a special relationship with Israel while diffusing the effects of his predecessors’ Cold War policies regarding Arab regimes.

Kennedy increased economic aid toward the region and worked to reduce its polarization between Soviet and American spheres. While the friendship with Israel was solidified during his tenure, Kennedy’s abbreviated administration, while briefly inspiring the Arab public, largely failed to mollify Arab leaders.

Johnson Administration: 1963-1968

Lyndon Johnson was absorbed by his Great Society programs at home and the Vietnam War abroad. The Middle East burst back onto the American foreign policy radar with the Six Day War of 1967, when Israel, after rising tension and threats from all sides, preempted what it characterized as an impending attack from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.

Israel occupied the Gaza Strip, the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank and Syria’s Golan Heights. Israel threatened to go further. The Soviet Union threatened an armed attack if it did. Johnson put the U.S. Navy’s Mediterranean Sixth Fleet on alert, but also compelled Israel to agree to a cease-fire on June 10, 1967.

Nixon-Ford Administrations: 1969-1976

Humiliated by the Six Day War, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan tried to regain lost territory when they attacked Israel during the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur in 1973. Egypt regained some ground, but its Third Army was then surrounded by an Israeli army led by Ariel Sharon (who would later become prime minister).

The Soviets proposed a ceasefire, failing which they threatened to act “unilaterally.” For the second time in six years, the United States faced its second major and potentially nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union over the Middle East. After what journalist Elizabeth Drew described as “Strangelove Day,” when the Nixon administration put American forces on the highest alert, the administration persuaded Israel to accept a cease-fire.

Americans felt the effects of that war through the 1973 Arab oil embargo, rocketing oil prices upward and contributing to a recession a year later.

In 1974 and 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger negotiated so-called disengagement agreements, first between Israel and Syria, then between Israel and Egypt, formally ending the hostilities begun in 1973 and returning some land Israel had seized from the two countries. Those were not peace agreements, however, and they left the Palestinian situation untouched. Meanwhile, a military strongman called Saddam Hussein was rising through the ranks in Iraq.

Carter Administration: 1977-1981

Jimmy Carter’s presidency was marked by American Mid-East policy’s greatest victory and greatest loss since World War II. On the victorious side, Carter’s mediation led to the 1978 Camp David Accord and the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, which included a huge increase in U.S. aid to Israel and Egypt. The treaty led Israel to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. The accord took place, remarkably, months after Israel invaded Lebanon for the first time, ostensibly to repel chronic attacks from the Palestine Liberation Organization in south Lebanon.

On the losing side, the Iranian Islamic Revolution culminated in 1978 with demonstrations against the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and culminating with the establishment of an Islamic Republic, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, on April 1, 1979.

On Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian students backed by the new regime took 63 Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran hostage. They’d hold on to 52 of them for 444 days, releasing them the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president. The hostage crisis, which included one failed military rescue attempt that cost the lives of eight American servicemen, undid the Carter presidency and set back American policy in the region for years: The rise of Shiite power in the Middle East had begun.

To top things off for Carter, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, eliciting little response from the president other than an American boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

Reagan Administration: 1981-1989

Whatever progress the Carter administration achieved on the Israeli-Palestinian front stalled over the next decade. As the Lebanese civil war raged, Israel invaded Lebanon for the second time, in June 1982, advancing as far as Beirut, the Lebanese capital city, before Reagan, who had condoned the invasion, intervene to demand a cease-fire.

American, Italian and French troops landed in Beirut that summer to mediate the exit of 6,000 PLO militants. The troops then withdrew, only to precipitately return following the assassination of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemeyel and the retaliatory massacre, by Israeli-backed Christian militias, of up to 3,000 Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, south of Beirut.

In April 1983, a truck bomb demolished the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people. On Oct. 23, 1983, simultaneous bombings killed 241 American soldiers and 57 French paratroopers in their Beirut barracks. American forces withdrew shortly after. The Reagan administration then faced several crises as the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite organization that became known as Hezbollah took several Americans hostage in Lebanon.

The 1986 Iran-Contra Affair revealed that the Reagan administration had secretly negotiated arms-for-hostages deals with Iran, discrediting Reagan’s claim that he would not negotiate with terrorists. It would be December 1991 before the last hostage, former Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson, would be released.

Throughout the 1980s, the Reagan administration supported Israel’s expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied territories. The administration also supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. The administration provided logistical and intelligence support, believing wrongly that Saddam could destabilize the Iranian regime and defeat the Islamic Revolution.

George H.W. Bush Administration: 1989-1993

After benefiting from a decade of support from the United States and receiving conflicting signals immediately before the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein invaded the small country to his southeast on August 2, 1990. President Bush launched Operation Desert Shield, immediately deploying U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia to defend against a possible invasion by Iraq.

Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm when Bush shifted strategy -- from defending Saudi Arabia to repelling Iraq from Kuwait, ostensibly because Saddam might, Bush claimed, be developing nuclear weapons. A coalition of 30 nations joined American forces in a military operation that numbered more than half a million troops. An additional 18 countries supplied economic and humanitarian aid.

After a 38-day air campaign and a 100-hour ground war, Kuwait was liberated. Bush stopped the assault short of an invasion of Iraq, fearing what Dick Cheney, his defense secretary, would call a “quagmire.” Bush established instead “no-fly zones” in the south and north of the country, but those didn’t keep Hussein from massacring Shiites following an attempted revolt in the south -- which Bush had encouraged -- and Kurds in the north.

In Israel and the Palestinian territories, Bush was largely ineffective and uninvolved as the first Palestinian intifada roiled on for four years.

In the last year of his presidency, Bush launched a military operation in Somalia in conjunction with a humanitarian operation by the United Nations. Operation Restore Hope, involving 25,000 U.S. troops, was designed to help stem the spread of famine caused by the Somali civil war.

The operation had limited success. A 1993 attempt to catch Mohamed Farah Aidid, leader of a brutal Somali militia, ended in disaster, with 18 American soldiers and up to 1,500 Somali militias and civilians killed. Aidid wasn’t caught.

Among the architects of the attacks on Americans in Somalia was a Saudi exile then living in Sudan and largely unknown in the United States: Osama bin Laden.

Clinton Administration: 1993-2001

Besides mediating the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, Bill Clinton’s involvement in the Middle East was bracketed by the short-lived success of the Oslo Accord in August 1993 and the collapse of the Camp David summit in December 2000.

The accord ended the first intifada, established Palestinians’ right to self-determination in Gaza and the West Bank, and established the Palestinian Authority. The accord also called on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.

But Oslo left unsettled such fundamental questions as the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, the fate of East Jerusalem -- which is claimed by Palestinians -- and continuing expansion of Israeli settlements in the territories.

Those issues, still unresolved by 2000, led Clinton to convene a summit with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli leader Ehud Barak at Camp David in December 2000, the waning days of his presidency. The summit failed, and the second intifada exploded.

Throughout the Clinton administration, terrorist attacks orchestrated by the increasingly public bin Laden punctured the 1990s’ post-Cold War air of quietude, from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing to the bombing of the USS Cole, a Navy destroyer, in Yemen in 2000.

George W. Bush Administration: 2001-2008

After deriding operations involving the U.S. military in what he called “nation-building,” President Bush turned, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, into the most ambitious nation-builder since the days of Secretary of State George Marshall and the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II. Bush’s efforts, focused on the Middle East, were not as successful.

Bush had the world’s backing when he led an attack on Afghanistan in October 2001 to topple the Taliban regime there, which had given sanctuary to al-Qaeda. Bush’s expansion of the “war on terror” to Iraq in March 2003, however, had less backing. Bush saw the toppling of Saddam Hussein as the first step in a domino-like birth of democracy in the Middle East.

Bush set in motion his controversial doctrine of preemptive strikes, unilateralism, democratic regime change and attacking countries that harbored terrorists -- or, as Bush wrote in his 2010 memoir, "Decision Points": "Make no distinction between terrorists and the nations that harbor them -- and hold both to account ... take the fight to the enemy overseas before they can attack us again here at home ... confront threats before they fully materialize ... and advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy's ideology of repression and fear."

But while Bush talked democracy regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, he continued to support repressive, undemocratic regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and in several countries in North Africa. The credibility of his democracy campaign was short-lived. By 2006, with Iraq plunging into civil war, Hamas winning elections in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah winning immense popularity following its summer war with Israel, Bush’s democracy campaign was dead. The US military surged troops into Iraq in 2007, but by then the majority of the American people and many government officials were widely skeptical that going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do in the first place.

In an interview with The New York Times magazine in 2008 -- toward the end of his presidency -- Bush touched upon what he hoped his Middle East legacy would be, saying, "I think history will say George Bush clearly saw the threats that keep the Middle East in turmoil and was willing to do something about it, was willing to lead and had this great faith in the capacity of democracies and great faith in the capacity of people to decide the fate of their countries and that the democracy movement gained impetus and gained movement in the Middle East."