Ruling on Behalf of the “National Interest”, Post World War II U.S. Foreign Policy
in the Gulf and its Long-term Outcome
Lord Palmerston, imperialist Britain’s Prime Minister from 1855-1865, is famously quoted as
saying, “nations have no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests.” An analysis of
U.S. foreign policy with relation to the Gulf region since World War II suggests that this axiom
holds true and that the United States, gradually assuming an enhanced role as imperialist power,
conducted a consistent policy dedicated to preserve Western access to the region’s rich oil
reserves alongside lucrative contracts for Western corporations, prevent the spread of any
alternative ideology, and support for regimes that would serve U.S. interests. These objectives
have led to serious contradictions in the commonly expressed intention of fostering
democratization and led to an increasing American involvement and presence in the region. As a
result, today the United States stands on the threshold of having to advance upon a traditional
imperialist path, continuing a potentially unsuccessful subversive policy of influencing the
region through proxy and aid or as in recent time’s costly, direct intervention, or complete
reversal and substantial withdrawal thus letting the region mostly alone to develop
autonomously. The potential ramifications of these tracks are severe and suggest that U.S. policy
towards the Gulf will play a primary role in shaping the world to come.
During World War I, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson enunciated his Fourteen Points
policy that called for a greater American influence internationally and at the same time a
commitment to self-determination, the right of nations to rule themselves. In the Middle East,
peoples affected by an era of colonialism expressed great support for the notion of autonomy.
They did not realize that the principles were to apply only to European states as Middle
Easterners began what would become long-standing support for United States assistance and
forms of intervention1. Domestic politics in America forced a tendency toward non-
interventionism however and constrained U.S. ambition. Consequentially, U.S. influence in the
Middle East between the two world wars was limited.
U.S. “national interests” at this time were predominantly confined to domestic affairs as
the pre-World War II circumstance was marked by interests inconsistent with those that would
develop later. The U.S. was the world’s leading oil producer. Its corporations had limited
opportunity or prospect in the Gulf and public opinion overwhelmingly opposed U.S. power
projection and thereby limited U.S. influence internationally. F. Gregory Gause explains that,
“Only when the constraints associated with the domestic politics paradigm are neutralized or not
present...do bureaucratic and foreign pressures begin to weigh on the decision maker.2” The era
between World War I and World War II would witness the progressive alteration of this non-
interventionist domestic outlook and eventually the induction of bureaucratic pressures that
helped formulate interests that would go on to define policy-making through to the modern day.
The increasing role of the United States as imperialist power created an arena for a gradually
augmented U.S. presence in the Gulf.
America first made major inroads into the Gulf by way of Saudi Arabia in 1933 when
Standard Oil Company of California, known as Chevron today, obtained 60-year oil
see the history of the King Crane Commission to document desire for U.S. assistance but only in the event Israel
was not supported
F. Gregory Gauss. “British and American Policies in the Persian Gulf, 1968-1973” Review of International
Studies, (1985). p.268
expropriation rights in exchange for 35,000 British pounds. This marked the initiation of major
American influence in the region as Aramco, the Arabian-American Oil Company, was formed
and led to lucrative contracts for many Western firms developing the Saudi state, thus creating
the “special relationship” that carries through today. By the end of World War II, with Europe
essentially destroyed by the Nazis and thereby a weakening of the traditional imperialist powers,
the United States found itself with a firm and intact domestic society and as the most powerful
economic force in the world. Along with this newfound position, American foreign policy
doctrine essentially did away in practice with much of what was expressed in the Atlantic
Charter, the policy document signed by Woodrow Wilson and FDR at the conclusion of World
War II that pronounced an intention for decolonialization and the “right to self determination 3.”
U.S. foreign policy was instead based on a primary realism that emphasized the protection of
“national interests,” and marked the unfolding of what has become a normal perspective today.
In 1944 Franklin Roosevelt announced that, “the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the
defense of the United States.4” By 1948 George Keenan, regarded as one of America's greatest
foreign affairs specialists summed up a position representative of what would become the
general U.S. stance. He claimed,
We have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This
disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this
situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the
coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain
this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so,
we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention
will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need
not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-
From that time on, American foreign policy tended less towards the idealism expressed
previously and closer to that driven by concern for self-interest. A three-ship Middle East Force
was set up in 1949 as the first American naval presence in the region docked in Bahrain but the
role of the U.S. was limited and basically subordinate to a continued British domination that had
been present in the Gulf for 150 years.
If there was a period where U.S. foreign policy was improvisational, it was the era from the
end of World War II until the withdrawal of British military presence in 1971. It could be argued
that during this era, U.S. policy-making was reactive and that the era was marked by policy shifts
and influenced by variables outside the realm of simple realism. While it is true that some
alterations and discontinuity occurred over the period and that, at its onset, U.S. interests were
somewhat indefinite; the reality is that the same objectives defined as the national interest today
overwhelmingly influenced policy then as well. As the “mantle of leadership” gradually passed
from Britain to the U.S. over time, the U.S. adopted a position that resembled very much a
see the third of eight principles outlined in the Atlantic Charter available at
Douglas Little. American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945. Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 2002.
see United States Department of State Policy Planning Study No. 23, 1948. Available at http://www.j-bradford-
continuity of the imperialist attitude expressed by Lord Palmerston some 100 years earlier as
perception of just what U.S. national interests were drew directly from Britain’s experience.6
In 1951 President Truman dispatched a committee to explore the prospect of economic
control over the Middle East region. However, the financier that he sent to assess the situation
quickly identified heavy risks involved and attributed them to a rising sentiment of Arab
nationalism.7 By 1952 National Security Council Archives relate that securing the allegiance of
Arab countries to the West was essential and especially because they control a large portion of
the world’s oil reserves essential in times of “war and peace.” The report concludes that, “In the
past the U.K. has played the major role in the maintenance and defense of Western interests in
the area...” but there is a need for, “a review and restatement of U.S. policy toward the area,” as
the U.S. “has major military and economic interests, as in the case of Saudi Arabia, U.S.
influence has largely replaced the U.K..8” While Britain was present, the stability of western
interests was preserved and so the balance of power created by the presence of the British
Empire was sufficient to attain U.S. interests. Still, at that time the objective of preventing any
ideological opposition to the free flow of oil and the continuation of business opportunity
remained the primary concern of U.S. policymakers.
In 1953 Dwight Eisenhower ordered the covert operation AJAX that removed Prime
Minister Mohammed Mossadeqq from power in Iran and installed Reza Shah. The covert
operation marked an increasing role for the U.S. and highlights the consideration of oil interests
with relation to policy formulation. Prior to the coup, the Anglo-Persian oil company was
maintained and controlled solely by the British. Operation AJAX established a 40% share for the
Anglo-Persian company, which changed its name to BP, a 14% share to Royal Dutch Shell, and
a newly established 40% share to a group of American firms for their support of the covert
operation. In 1958, in reaction to Iraqi revolution and efforts to nationalize their oil the U.S.
chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff stated, “be prepared to employ, subject to the President’s
approval, whatever means might become necessary to prevent any unfriendly forces from
moving into Kuwait.9” Obviously oil and protecting its flows in directions consistent with U.S.
interests played a major role in these decisions.
The U.S. may have had little desire to take over for Britain in the region but by the time
Britain announced its intention to draw down its presence, the United States had developed
crucially important relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia. These countries represented major
inflows for U.S. industry as the majority of development conducted by Reza Shah, the dictator
the U.S. helped impose with the removal of Mossadeq, and the House of Saud, the feudal
monarchy the U.S. supported, not only gave contracts to U.S. firms but also invested a large
portion of oil revenue in the United States through public and private investment. The region also
produced one-third of the “free world’s oil requirements” and policy planners recognized that the
Arab-Israeli issue may give rise to “radical elements,” “fewer major contracts,” and a reduced
“U.S. influence on host governments.” The risk of radicalism posed a great threat to U.S. oil
Gary Sick. “An American Perspective.” in Great Power Interests in the Persian Gulf, New York: Council of
Foreign Relations, 1989. p17-18.
Paul Krugman. “The Ambassador of the Arabs: The Locke Mission and the Unmaking of U.S. Development
Diplomacy in the Near East, 1952-53.” In David Lesch (ed.). The Middle East and the Unmaking of Development
see NSC Document 129, United States Objectives and Policies with respect to the Arab States and Israel, April 7,
William Quandt, “Lebanon 1958, Jordan 1970.” In Force without War (1979).
companies, already threatened by rising public sentiment for oil nationalization. Based on this
threat, the U.S. decided to support “conservative” rather than radical regimes10. U.S. propaganda
efforts were having a minimal effect11 and so U.S. planners adopted the notion that U.S.
influence would have to increase after British withdrawal in order to protect “national interests”
from indigenous threats to them. A National Security Council memo from Dick Kennedy to
Henry Kissinger outlined three options for a response to British withdrawal: 1) promote self-
sustaining regionalism, a “low Western profile” or U.S. support that would create a balance of
power by propping up chosen regimes, 2) encourage a continued strong U.K. role, deemed
unlikely, or 3) a “high U.S. profile,” a decision based on a desire for “maximum freedom of
action in dealing with the region and protecting our interests” as “it may be the only way, in the
long run, to avoid exclusion from the area.12” The chosen means adopted, influenced largely by
domestic opposition to U.S. militarism amidst the Vietnam War, was a careful policy of
propping up friendly regimes through arms sales and strategic economic penetration as the U.S.
officially took over from the U.K as hegemonic power. The Nixon administration adopted a
Twin Pillars policy that would support the Shah’s Iran as regional power and also enhance
support for Saudi Arabia and other Arab sheikhdoms, a position that essentially set off a regional
arms race thus creating lucrative contracts for western defense companies and that guaranteed
the free flow of oil to the “industrialized world13” while minimizing the U.S. military presence.
At the same time, it can be argued, that while the Twin Pillars policy was unfolding, it would
have been impossible for the U.S. to move the world toward the post-Breton Woods economic
system without the allegiance of OPEC and its primary producer, Saudi Arabia. The House of
Saud made a choice in 1972 to sell all OPEC oil on the international exchange in dollar
denominated amounts, thus preventing a flight from the dollar that was unfolding as a result of
the Nixon administration’s choice to take the dollar off convertibility to gold amongst foreign
nations. This consequence of U.S. policy allowed an essentially bankrupt America to de-peg its
currency and run enormous current account deficits that continue to grow to this day, as oil
importing countries all over the world must hold dollars to get oil. Thus preserving this scheme
became in the “interest” of American policy-makers.
The United States established its first major military presence in the Gulf with the placement
of nuclear armed bombers at Dhahran Airbase in Saudi Arabia from 1952-63. While King Faisal
ordered the removal of American presence there in 1963 for use on a case-by-case basis, the new
base, renamed King Abdul Aziz Air Base, continued to house planes purchased from the U.S.
and so resembled no real Saudi takeover. The American military also enhanced its presence in
1965 when Diego Garcia, a British colony, was established as a U.S. military base on lease from
the U.K. The base was built after the entire indigenous population was forced off the island
through violent sanctions and attacks. A recent court case filed in the U.K. has awarded damages
to the ex-inhabitants, but the base still serves as a protectorate of “U.S. interests,” primarily due
to the hidden nature of its location; it is located well over 1,000 miles away from the Gulf. In
August of 1971, with Bahrain obtaining official independence from Britain and the other island
see National Security Council Review Group. “Future U.S. Policy in the Persian Gulf.” July, 1970. Document #
See for example “U.S. Propaganda in the Middle East: The Early Cold War Version” National Security Archive
Electronic Briefing Book No. 78. Joyce Battler (Ed.) December 13, 2002
See National Security Archive. “Long Term U.S. Strategy Options in the Persian Gulf” Dec. 30, 1970. p.17.
Michael A. Palmer, Guardians of the Gulf: The Growth of American Involvement in the Persian Gulf, 1833-1991,
The Free Press, 1992.
monarchies setting up the United Arab Emirates, the U.S. signed an agreement to maintain its
naval presence in the country for a payment of $4 million a year. These advancements were
justified by the increase in Soviet activity in the Indian Ocean. Still, there was a general
disinterest in expanding this presence and stability was preserved, in the short term, by means of
the Nixon Doctrine rather than direct intervention.
The 1973 oil embargo by Saudi Arabia against the U.S. due to American support for Israel
had already led U.S. government planners like Henry Kissinger and Arthur Schlesinger to
identify the oil of the Gulf as an official “national interest” and plans were already in order for
the U.S. to take over the oil fields of Saudi Arabia in the event of an emergency as the
concretization of U.S. interests were formulated by what was perceived to be the first indigenous
threat by an ally against U.S. influence. By the late 1970’s, with America increasingly relying on
oil imports yet still with lucrative contracts for American companies making up the difference in
balance of trade, the Carter Administration proclaimed the Carter Doctrine of Middle East Policy
in response to the Iranian Revolution saying, “Any attempts by any outside force to gain control
of the Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of
America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”
The unexpected Iranian Revolution sent the primary pillar of U.S. policy apart from U.S.
control as the U.S. by necessity grew closer to Arab Gulf states. However, U.S. policy intention
was hardly altered; while the responses with regard to policy formulation during the period of
shifting ideological control from Nixon and Ford to Carter seem to suggest that transitions in
policy were dictated by unanticipated developments, their ultimate intention and objective
remained the same. President Carter organized the Rapid Deployment Force which would
provide immediate air attacks in the event a situation arose contrary to U.S. interests. In 1978 the
Joint Chiefs of Staff stated that American interests in the Middle East were, “to assure
continuous access to petroleum reserves, prevent inimical power or combination of powers from
establishing hegemony, and to assure the survival of Israel as an independent state.14” The Joint
Chiefs also recommended expanding basing facilities throughout the Persian Gulf. The direct
American military presence in the Gulf remained miniscule however.
The next significant local event, the Iran-Iraq War, also represents an example of U.S. policy
making based on the consistent interests of protecting oil flows and preventing the development
of an inimical power. While the United Nations called all member states to refrain from the
provision of arms to either country, the U.S., deciding that an Iranian victory would alter a
balance of power, provided military aid and intelligence to Iraq despite the fact that U.S.
policymakers knew Sadaam Hussein was using chemical weapons. A National Security Directive
from November 26, 1983 expresses clearly that national interests trumped notions of morality
and international law. It reads, “President Ronald Reagan directs that consultations begin with
regional states willing to cooperate with the U.S. on measures to protect Persian Gulf oil
production and its transshipment infrastructure. The U.S. will give the highest priority to the
establishment of military facilities allowing for the positioning of rapid deployment forces in the
region to guard oil facilities.15”
During the Iran-Iraq War, only seven smaller Navy ships based in Bahrain were able to patrol
the waters. However President Ronald Reagan ordered in 1983 that preserving the oil interest
see Review of US Strategy Related to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. (1978)
see National Security Directive #114 from Ronald Reagan. “U.S. Policy towards the Iran-Iraq War.” November
was the primary concern once Iran and Iraq started to attack ships sailing through the Gulf. He
claimed, “It is present United States policy to undertake whatever measures may be necessary to
keep the Strait of Hormuz open to international shipping.16” The 1987 Iraqi attack on the USS
Stark generated policies that would begin the initiation of an unprecedented American military
build-up from that point forward,17 and despite the Cold War ending, President Reagan sent
naval protection for Kuwaiti tankers under the pretext that it would prevent Soviet expansion.
The first Gulf War of 1991 was a response directly affiliated with U.S. interests. Sadaam
Hussein’s takeover of Kuwait represented a serious threat, namely that a force antagonist to the
U.S.’s Israeli ally would resurface that would be able to control a large portion of the world’s oil
reserves and thereby exert great influence on Arab oil-producing nations and perhaps even
expand its domination by invading Saudi Arabia. Sadaam had long expressed his discontent with
other OPEC nations overproduction and would have with near certainty decreased the free flow
of oil and perhaps even reconfigured much of what the petrodollar scheme, the notion that
because most oil is sold in dollar denominated terms and because most countries rely on oil
imports, they are forced to maintain large stockpiles of dollars in order to continue imports thus
causing demand for dollars to remain high regardless of economic conditions in the United
States.18 Indeed National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft claimed the invasion was motivated
by, “key interests in the Gulf which required that under no circumstances could Sadaam get
control of oil, and on top of that the horror of what Sadaam was doing in Kuwait.19” The horrors
Sadaam Hussein committed against his own population were not nearly as important; the Bush
Administration continued aid to Saddam right up until Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
For many, the Gulf War represented something of an enigma or aberration of U.S. policy
as the claim is made that the U.S. was acting more with regard to “collective security” rather
than its own interests20. However, the intervention was less about notions of principle based on
ideology and international law and more so in line with a continuum of general U.S. interest. The
potential ramifications led the U.S to advance its military presence in the region as thousands of
U.S. troops were housed in Saudi Arabia to fight the war. The troops would remain on Saudi soil
until 2003 when combat troops were forced to evacuate in the face of the violent reactions by
Saudi citizens, thus revealing the potential instability arising from an enhanced U.S. military
presence. From 1996 to 2002, construction at Prince Sultan Airbase was continuous and barracks
were constructed that resembled permanent housing units. In 2001, the Saudi regime permitted
use of the base in coordinating air operations against targets in Afghanistan. The U.S. also built
Udeid Air Base in Qatar as an alternative in the face of potential Saudi evacuation and there was
a proliferation of bases built in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, the U.A.E., Turkey, Egypt and
other places as threats to U.S. interests continued to draw the U.S. closer to the region.
see National Security Decision Directive 114, “U.S. Policy toward the Iran-Iraq War.” The White House.
November 26, 1983.
Harold Lee Wise. “Inside the Danger Zone: The U.S. Military in the Persian Gulf, 1987-1988.” Naval Institute
Clark, William. Petrodollar Warfare: Oil. Iraq and the Future of the American Dollar.” New Society Publishers,
Brent Scowcroft Frontline interview, January 9, 1996. Quoted in Steven A. Yetiv’s “The Absence of a Grand
Strategy: The United States in the Gulf1972-2005.” John Hopkins Press: 2008.
Steven A. Yetiv “The Absence of a Grand Strategy: The United States in the Gulf1972-2005.” John Hopkins
The Clinton era was marked by a dual containment policy that strongly supported the
continuation of the sanctions on Iraq and persuaded similar sanctions on Iran that sought to
isolate both states from a global community now dominated by the U.S. as the lone superpower,
something which Martin Indyk explained made the U.S. “uniquely capable of influencing the
course of events.” The policy was openly expressed as “a democracy-oriented foreign policy”
but also one devised to “protect American interests in the Middle East and to counter the threats
to those interests from radical regimes.”21 Little emphasis was placed on democratizing the
feudalist Arab sheikhdoms however and ultimately sanctions imposed to contain Sadaam led to
500,000 Iraqi child deaths. When Secretary of State Madeline Albright was asked whether the
deaths due to sanctions were worth the policy she replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but
the price is worth it,22” thus confirming the realist perception amongst policymakers.
Anthony Lake, then Assistant to the President on National Security Affairs, wrote in Foreign
Affairs in 1994 that the policy of dual containment was only made possible by the fact that “there
is no longer a need to depend on either Iraq or Iran to maintain a favorable balance and protect
U.S. friends and interests in the Gulf,23” thus documenting that dual containment was intended to
further realize U.S. national interests and not a shift in policy. Lake included Israeli, Egyptian,
and Arab feudal monarchies in his “family of nations now committed to the pursuit of
democratic institutions” despite the overwhelming documentation of their own anti-democratic
The justification for these Clinton-era sanctions was partly chemical weapons usage.
President Clinton stated about Sadaam that, “He has used them, not once, but repeatedly.
Unleashing chemical weapons against Iranian troops during a decade-long war, not only against
soldiers, but against civilians24” The second Bush administration would also go on to justify the
U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 partially due to the fact that Sadaam Hussein was a brutal dictator
who had used chemical weapons. Neither administration mentioned that the U.S. had supported
Sadaam while knowing he was using chemical weapons, thus further documenting that
preventing the growth of powers opposed to U.S. interests and preserving the free flow of oil
were the key factors of policy formation.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 marked the initiation of an enhanced military presence that
continues to this day. The proclamation that the Middle East would be democratized was utilized
to justify what appears to be a mere continuation of long-standing U.S. policy derived from
principle national interests. While the Bush doctrine suggests a radical alteration of U.S. policy
and while neoconservative ideologues that largely influenced the attack on Iraq represent a
particularly bold stream of thought, policymakers and politicians from across the political
spectrum saw the war as necessary and especially due to the threat to U.S. interests. The fact that
U.S troops secured Iraqi oil fields on the first day of the occupation shows that protecting the
Mid-East oil supply was one of the invasion’s chief objectives. Today, the Obama administration
is preparing to remove 100,000 troops from Iraq, yet 50,000 residual troops will remain behind
on six enormous military bases built around the world’s biggest foreign embassy located in the
heart of Baghdad. The Obama administration has maintained a policy of supporting regimes
friendly to U.S. interests as contracts to American arms, manufacturing and energy firms
Martin Indyk. “The Clinton Administration’s Approach to the Middle East.” The Washington Institute for Near
East Policy. 1993. Available at www.washingtoninstitute.org/C07&CID=61.
Madeline Albright interviewed by Leslie Stahl. American Broadcasting Company. “60 Minutes.” May 12, 1996.
Anthony Lake. “Confronting Backlash States.” Foreign Affairs. New York: Mar/Apr 1994. Vol.73, Is. 2; p.45-56
Bill Clinton – Remarks at the White House. December 16, 2008.
continue, large investments in the American economy comes from the region, and the free flow
of oil remains a primary concern. There is little mention of how to reconcile the stated policy of
democratization and human rights to the intimate relations the U.S. has with the Gulf’s
authoritarian regimes and it appears that the these national interests will continue to propel U.S.
policy on a continuum towards increased engagement.
The objectives of U.S. policy have largely succeeded in protecting U.S. interests
however. The U.S. helped prevent the spread of Communism and Arab nationalism, and except
for the 1973 oil embargo avoided any serious threat to the free flow of oil, but this has not come
without a price. The U.S. has a much more visible military presence in the region today and quite
naturally as a consequence of the very real atrocities it has committed in the name of its foreign
policy doctrine. In fact, maintaining foreign policy based on national interests that are not
congruent to the indigenous interests of the people as a whole necessitates increased perpetual
involvement. The threat of communism and nationalism may have diminished but militant Islam
is on the rise and spreading rapidly despite extreme military intervention in the region. From the
U.S.’s first interaction with Islamic extremism during the Hostage Crisis of 1980 through the
attacks of 9-11 and to today, a rising anti-Americanism has accompanied the increasing U.S.
role. Foreign military bases, support for authoritarian regimes, the War in Iraq and continued
sanctions alongside unconditional support for Israel have propelled an Islamic fundamentalism
that may be coalescing and effecting more popular populist movements to take directions that
may prove completely anti-American in years to come if they assume political control. Where
there was once an appreciation for U.S. non-interventionism and declared respect for self-
determination, there is now complete regional distrust and in man y circles absolute animosity.
Thus the long-term consequences of policy-making based on self-interest rear their ultimate
long-term outcome. With American power waning, unsustainable debt arising, and military
entanglement witnessing the costly intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, a vacuum of power is
beginning to rear its head and make way for radical political consequence in the coming era.
Today, the U.S. faces the choice of maintaining a continued military presence in the
region, gradual withdrawal while using diplomacy, continued support for loyal regimes, and
other tools to continue to pursue U.S. interests, or completely evacuating and returning to a non-
interventionist position, thus retreating from hegemonic status and giving up on imperialist
ambitions. The decision will be based largely on the interpretation of America’s role in the world
and the axiomatic underpinnings of policy intention. It seems unlikely that the domestic citizenry
will oppose the U.S. presence in the Gulf at this time or in the foreseeable future.
Two-thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves lie in the Gulf region. As the region plays
an increasing role of extreme strategic import, the implications of U.S. foreign policy will have a
great effect on the make-up of the future geopolitical reality. The contradiction in the U.S.’s
expressed intent of promoting democracy is evident and is a direct result of realist policy-making
based on national, self seeking interests much as George Keenan described, “We need not
deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.” It is
worth noting that the world generally rallied around the idealism espoused in Woodrow Wilson’s
14 points, the Atlantic Charter, and other documents like them. In retrospect, it is possible to
make the argument that grounding foreign policy in principles that preceded the national interest
may have generated similar or improved results and actually led to democratizing the region and
created a stable and sustainable Near East reality. Certainly there is the likelihood that
implementing policy derived from these ideals would create less animosity and perhaps a more
sustainable long-term state of affairs. The United States realized long ago that foreign support for
dictatorial regimes and control over oil income created “increasing hatred” and that “economic
and political stability in the area is dependent upon realistic policies with respect to oil. 25” So too
contemporary policies with respect to the regimes the U.S. supports, the economic control they
exhibit, and the military presence they have now expanded must be realistic. Deriving foreign
policy from the national interests of the United States and with less regard to proclaimed
democratic principles may create unrealistic and unsustainable policy that in the long run may
ultimately unhinge the intended objectives. With the Iranian nuclear issue increasingly coming
to the forefront of discussion and the U.S. still embroiled in the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq,
along with the expanding fronts of the War on Terror in Somalia and Yemen and long overdue
regime change on the horizon in states like Libya and Egypt, it is evident that very real
circumstances are present for igniting the whole region into another World War. Gulf policy will
necessarily have grave implications on the future stability of the Middle East as a whole.
The historical record documents that U.S. policy-making was based on a continuum of
“national interest” and may have achieved the underlying objectives in the short term but that it
also led to harmful consequences for indigenous citizenry, policies that ran counter to the
expressed intention of promoting democracy and democratic institutions, and that created a
widespread anti-Americanism most evident in the attacks of 9-11 but not limited specifically to
them. The general stability and domination of the United States over the region has persisted,
despite many disturbances, over the last forty years. This is quite perplexing. The consequences
of future instability are no less than a complete reworking of the balance of power in the world.
If the United States continues to make policy based solely on national interests, it may help to
initiate the spark that leads to the ultimate exposure of the enormous potential volatility of the
Gulf. Generalization with regard to revolution was completely altered by the unfolding of events
in Iran in 1978, and increased opposition to U.S. national interests and rising resistance to
American involvement suggests that long term consequences could be severe in the event an
action or reaction sparks off region wide conflict or a new revolutionary wave. Few saw the
revolution in Iran coming in 1978 and minor events can have huge ramifications; for example the
assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria sparked World War I, a war the majority
of world powers eventually entered into and that took the lives of 70 million people.
The U.S. should reconsider its approach to the Gulf and pursue national interests derived
from principles that remain consistent with democratic ideals and that ultimately dictate U.S.
actions in the international arena. Otherwise the post World War II history of U.S. policy in the
Gulf could ultimately resemble the story of the British Empire; self-seeking nations tend to
overstretch themselves, destroy their currency, and retreat into a lesser role internationally.
Starting by discontinuing aid to the dictatorial regime of Egypt and also waving the billions in
military assistance given to Israel each year should be followed up in the Gulf by the
discontinuance of support for the corrupt and authoritarian House of Saud and negotiations and
open dialogue with Iran. These changes represent only the beginning of what would most
definitely lead to consequences America may have an issue dealing with. Firstly, an increasing
role for Islam would certainly be witnessed in the region and Palestinian rights of self-
determination may be realized. Secondarily, a rebirth of autonomy in the Middle East may lead
to a multi-polar world order. Other consequences would be realized as well, all of which would
see Conference of Middle East Chiefs of Mission. “Agreed Conclusions and Recommendations.” Istanbul:
February 14-21, 1951. p.28.
not necessarily hinder America realizing its “national interests.” Ultimately, there is no doubt
that the likelihood of terrorism would diminish, and there is even the possibility of potential
If U.S. foreign policy continues to try to subdue antagonist sentiment in the Gulf and
Middle East generally with force and coercion, there is little likelihood that it will continue as a
global power for long. Inevitably, an alteration of the state of affairs of the region will occur,
something along the lines of the Iranian Revolution, and with so much broiled antagonism at the
contradiction of U.S. foreign policy practice, there may be a complete shut out of U.S. interests
in the region at large. If the U.S. changes course now, it can avoid complete catastrophe. If it
continues in the direction of the past 60 years, then any alteration may complete shatter
America’s position in the world. The only option will prove to be increasing military and
economic involvement as a sustainable policy becomes untenable.
Many may downplay the importance of U.S. relations in the region; hindsight may prove
that underestimating the potential spark was catastrophic. However, discussing alterations in
policy today is the last thing anyone wants to discuss. The prices of oil have gone back down,
Iraq has a regime dedicated to the preservation of dollar dominance, Iran is apparently isolated
and going to be subject to heinous sanctions that will cripple its regime, many claim that global
economic prosperity is returning and that the terrorists are weakening. This view neglects to
realize the underlying volatility and the role of U.S. foreign policy in creating the conditions that
could ignite the entire Middle East. The inability to proactively discuss the future of these
relations will only prove to cause damage no longer in the long-term but now in the coming
months and years. Because there is no sustainability to policy that seeks to subjugate the
indigenous interests of others, it is only a matter of time before more drastic measures have to be
incurred in order to preserve this domination. There are many in the United States that are
capable of initiating such preemptive dialogue. It is best that they get started. Like friends and
allies, interests are also never permanent and the scope of interest today should be to shift the
perception of America in the Muslim world generally and to do so genuinely. Otherwise, the
fabric of international order may splinter and the world coming out as a consequence may prove
incredibly harmful to the interests of citizens across the world at large. On the other hand,
alterations that allow for more freedom and autonomy may initiate a renaissance of sorts and an
end to the hypocrisy of stated policy based in democratization with direct contradictions in the
actual record. Needless to say, it is time for the U.S. to alter its foreign policy practice
especially with regard to the Persian Gulf, or it may prove too late.