09 April, 2009

How We Got Where We Are In Iraq

A Brief History of Western Involvement in the Persian Gulf

Since, for once, I am trying to write a historical piece and not an opinion piece, I will attempt to keep it factual and not bias the history with my personal opinions, but I am human. 

You’ll find that the links here, in many cases don’t give additional information on these topics. My knowledge comes from a variety of history books and research done over the course of years on this topic, and at this time I’m not all that interested in hunting down every link to provide source context. If I have time later, I’ll update the post with that.

In the middle of the twentieth century, Great Britain and the United States decided that it was important to have a consistent ally in the Persian Gulf.  This ally would be counted upon to protect western oil interests, and to maintain some stability in a region famous for its instability.  Also, one other possible reason was to limit Communist influence in this region.  One could easily argue that the U.S and Great Britain should not meddle in the internal affairs of other governments, but one could also argue that instability in that region is in no one’s self-interest.  I’m not going to argue either side. 

Anyway, one of the results of this was something called “Operation Ajax”.  “Operation Ajax” restored the Shah of Iran to power, after he had been forced into exile by some nationalist-communist extremists in his own country. This was in 1953, under the Eisenhower administration. Some people blame all later anti-American sentiment in the region on this event, but that’s naive to say the least. There were plenty of events both before and after this to cause Islamic nations to be distrustful of the West.

The Shah was a dictator, but apparently a relatively benevolent one, at least by Middle Eastern standards.  During his rule, Iran became a very successful and rich country.  However, he was far too progressive for some Islamic extremists in his country.  He thought that women should have rights, the nerve of him!  Anyway, as he continued to move his country towards pro-Western ideas, and continued to drag them into the twentieth century, he angered more and more of the Islamic extremists.  This led to him constantly having to put down uprisings in his country, occasionally rather ruthlessly.  He also occasionally called upon support from the West to quell these uprisings.  These requests were usually granted, either openly or secretly.

Once again, one could argue that the West shouldn’t meddle in the internal affairs of a country, particularly in trying to support an increasingly dictatorial regime.  And one President did in fact argue just that.  During his administration, Jimmy Carter turned his back on the Shah.  Carter, a man of strong faith himself, felt that the uprisings backed by the Ayatollahs, the Shi’a religious leaders, might be a better fit for Western interests than this dictatorship. So he let things play out and didn’t offer any support to the Shah, and in fact, rejected requests from the Shah for such support.  One could argue that the events that followed should’ve been surprising to no one.  One could also argue that the U.S. was finally, thankfully, minding our own business.  I’m not going to argue either side.

Anyway, in 1979 or so, the Shi’ite Ayatollahs brought about a theocratic rule based on Islamic fundamentalism.  They saw the Shah’s ties to the West as a failing, and rejected any further Western influence.  Relations between the West and Iran became very tense despite the fact that the Ayatollahs really owed their rise in power to President Carter.  The Shah was exiled and President Carter refused him admittance to the United States, finally allowing a brief stopover for medical reasons.

The result of all of this was that the West lost its strong longtime ally in the region.

Now, at about this same time, Iraq was going through some upheavals of its own.  The new man rising to the top was a military man named Saddam Hussein.  Saddam Hussein promised democratic rule and a government with none of the theocratic basis of neighboring Iran. Given how poorly the theocracy had worked for the West, the Reagan administration looked to Saddam with hope for a new ally. We helped him stay afloat during the early days of his rule and helped him with the eight year long Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).  Saddam, however, was already showing his practice of saying what he thought his audience wanted to hear (a practice that would serve him well dealing with later U.N. sanctions), and then doing what he wanted.  The promised democratic elections and freedoms never came, and he eventually used some of the weapons and technology we’d given him (usually covertly) against his own people and against our other “friends” in the region.  Some of this technology was in the form of Weapons of Mass Destruction.  One could easily argue that once again the West should’ve minded its own business then Iran might’ve taken out Saddam, and he never would’ve had a WMD program to worry about later, etc.  One could also argue that given the hostility of Iran to the U.S., a re-united Persia under Ayatollah rule would’ve been the worst thing possible. Such a reunited Persia would be either first or second in the world in petroleum reserves (between 15%-20% of total). I’m not going to argue either side.

Finally, in the late 80’s and the very beginning of the 90’s, it was becoming more and more obvious that Saddam Hussein would never be the ally we had hoped for.  We cut off our support to him, and tried to limit his aggressive moves and posture.  When he invaded Kuwait, Bush 41 went to the U.N. to get them to stop this aggression.  While there was not much Arab support for this endeavor, it was passed and “Operation Desert Shield” (eventually “Operation Desert Storm”) went into effect.  This U.N. operation pushed Iraq out of Kuwait and put severe sanctions on the country for its transgressions.  One of the sanctions was that the WMD program must be shut down and the weapons dismantled, and the evidence of this must be given over to U.N. inspectors (really little more than accountants).  One could argue that once the mission of removing Iraq from Kuwait was accomplished, the goal had been met and no further direct military action should be taken.  One could also argue that Saddam Hussein had shown nothing but aggression during his rule, and this was the perfect opportunity to remove him from power.  I’m not going to argue either side.

This led to twelve years of sanctions and increasing Iraqi resistance to the sanctions. They were never fully in compliance, and repeatedly kicked out the weapons accountants, claiming that the weapons inspectors were really spies planted by Great Britain and the U.S. Then, sometime later, he would appear very conciliatory to the U.N. and promise once again to obey the sanctions. By the late 90’s it was apparent that Saddam would never comply with the sanctions, and since he’d never been the ally we’d hoped for, “regime change” in Iraq became the official policy of the U.S. government, under the Clinton administration.  By the early 2000’s it became apparent that support for continuing the sanction was dying, either because the U.N. had become tired of trying to enforce them, or because Saddam was working secretly using whatever means he had at his disposal (i.e. “bribes”) to get them lifted.  We all know what happened after that.  Now, one could argue again whether “regime change” was the right policy, or whether we should try to enforce U.N. resolutions when the U.N. doesn’t want to itself, and various other things at this point. I’m not going to argue ANY sides of this issue.

I’ve really glossed over a lot of the details.  I suggest you read further if you’re interested in more information.  However, I suggest that since there’s quite a bit of room for interpretation on many of these points that you attempt to find references that have limited slant, or balance your research with slant from both sides.


UPDATE: I added in a few more details, most specifically relating to a bit better dating and references to what occurred during which U.S. Presidencies.


  1. Saddam, however, was already showing his practice of saying what he thought his audience wanted to hear, and then doing what he wanted

    Ha! Sound familiar? Seems some President in some first-world nation...oh maybe I'm just reading into it!

    Anyway, on to the stuff relevant to the post:

    First, this is a decent Cliffs Notes version of the Mideast since the end of WWII. I think some of the stuff missing that is extremely important to your synopsis is Israel. As much as we have had an Iran policy that Carter switched based on his world view, we have had as much if not more interest in an Israeli state; a pro-West foothold from the Med into the Mid East, with a similar socio-religious structure (Shi'a?? Sunni?? Huh?? Screw it...).

    I think it's important because the efforts from inside Israel and inside the U.S. to protect Israel from aggressors have every bit as much to do with our Iraq situation in terms of how we deal with Iran and everybody else in the Mideast.

    A reunited Persia under hard-line Muslim rule would indeed suck for us and our oil interest. It could suck for us in terms of our relations with Russia. And it would definitely present the largest threat to Israel.

    Like you in your post, I am not saying our Israel relationship is good, bad, neutral or anything. I am just saying that in a Cliffs Notes synopsis of the Mideast, U.S.-Israel relations deserves at least a paragraph! Could it be argued that the lines the UK and the US drew for Israel, and thus re-created the Israeli state, have something to do with regional instability, despite drawing those lines as an effort to create some sort of stability? I think it does to some degree. Again, this is not to fault anyone. Statement of fact. Arabs hate Jewish people in the Mideast, and vice-versa. That's been a...10,000 year struggle?

    Anyway...blah blah blah. You get my point.

  2. At any rate, again, I thought your cliffs-notes Mideast synopsis was informative, especially since a lot of other histories all but ignore the role of Allied (in the WWII sense of the word) involvement in Iran. I appreciated too the nod towards the danger of a "reunited Persia" under extremist rule. It's important that people have a good overview of the Mideast when we try to debate the merits of various policies there.


  3. You're probably right. Some words about Israel would help. also, as I read it now, I think it would probably help if I were a little more specific in a few places about years and Presidencies.

    And you got my point, that I really feel a little historical perspective helps immensely.
    You can't just pick a point in history and say "that's where the trouble started...we shouldn't have done that", without at least a basic understanding of how we got to that point in the first place and why it was felt (at the time) that such actions were correct ones.

    Even this cursory examination shows that in hindsight we may have made several mistakes in the region, and the mistakes were not limited to Democratic or Republican administration.