Morning Brief

Is America's involvment in the Middle East based on democratic commitment or economic and political self-interest?

The continuities and discontinuities in US policies in the Middle East have always been shaped by the national interest
Published by
Central Office
on May 8, 2022
on May 8, 2022
Image Source:
The Mirror
Image Description:
US President George W. Bush aboard the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 following the US Army intervention in Iraq.

The US presence in the Middle East runs accordingly to the American national interest. But what exactly is the American national interest? Is it the diffusion of US values ​​and the spread of democratic norms aimed at increasing the US sphere of influence with the recipient countries? Or is it the result of an economic thinking aimed at securing American economic interests with the help of the big oil producing countries of the Middle East? The US strategies in Afghanistan might be an explanation for the former, while US implications in Kuwait and Iraq a case for the latter. But the American foreign policy agenda in these states has shown both continuity over time, which reinforces the initial reason behind the American presence there, but also discontinuities that reshape the continuous debate behind American rationality in international affairs: it is the conquest of oil, or the search for geopolitical greatness?

In Afghanistan, the American interference has always been about securing US national interests, from assuring an Afghan way out of the Soviet sphere of influence during 1979-1989, to obtaining the guarantee that Afghanistan is cleansed of any terrorist presence after Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, has for years been harboured by the Taliban in their strongholds in southern and eastern Afghanistan (Akbarzadeh, Baxter, p. 141). Even after the US abandoned Afghanistan with the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 followed by 12 years of internal infighting and political chaos that transformed Afghanistan into a failed state and a haven for international terrorist networks, Washington returned once the al-Qaeda 2001 attacks in the US have been linked to the place of their brainstorming, Afghanistan (Akbarzadeh, Baxter, pp. 141-142). It was not a counter-ideology (anti-communism) argument behind the US presence in Afghanistan since 2001, but the Bush-launched `War on Terror` that brough Kabul back into the paradigm of American national strategy (Akbarzadeh, Baxter, p. 141). Put it differently, the US 1991 intervention in Kuwait against the Iraqi invasion, followed by the 2003 US invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, were thought to be about the preservation of international law in the case of the former, and the imposition of democratic institutions and values for the latter (Akbarzadeh, Baxter, p. 148-151) (Isakhan Benjamin, 2015, p. 225). Over the years however there has been a discontinuity in such a US strategy. When in 2011 the Kuwaiti people demanded more democracy and a more balanced power sharing, Washington gave them the cold shoulder (Shafeeq Ghabra, 2014). Once Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003 and given the Sunni presence within the Baath regime, the US-imposed `de-Baathification` process equalled to `de-Sunnification`, where thousands of Sunnis (a minority within a majority-Shia Iraq) were disqualified from the army, police, and security forces on the presumption of alleged links to the Ba'athist regime (Akbarzadeh, Baxter, pp. 152-155) (Isakhan Benjamin, 2015, p. 226). Before the US intervention in Iraq in the name of eliminating authoritarianism and building democracy, there was an authoritarian Sunni regime under Saddam Hussein. Following the invasion, the US left behind a concentration of power in the hands of a Shia government unwilling to share power with the Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds and under the authoritarian rule of Nouri al-Maliki (Akbarzadeh, Baxter, pp. 160-161) (Isakhan Benjamin, 2015, pp. 227-228). Saddam Hussein empowered the Sunnis and disempowered the Shia and the Kurds, while the US invasion disempowered the Sunnis and empowered the Shia and the Kurd (Akbarzadeh, Baxter, p. 153) (Akbarzadeh, Baxter, pp. 153-154). This did not put an end to sectarian infighting within Iraq but continued it under changed roles.

The US strategies in the Middle East have presented continuities and discontinuities over the years. In the case of Afghanistan there has been a continuity in the US strategic thinking based on the US national interests related to the preservation of a democratic and capitalist society unlinked to international terrorist networks. Following the US 2003 invasion of Iraq, Washington`s strategic thinking switched from a democracy-imposition logic towards the `war for oil` argument, in which American national interests moved from regime change and the creation of a democratic Iraq towards assuring the US access to massive oil reserves through friendly governments (Akbarzadeh, Baxter, p. 152) (Matthew Kelly, 2014, pp. 76-77).  Washington could not see in Saddam Hussein a reliable partner when it comes to the US oil interest (Akbarzadeh, Baxter, p. 149). Because of this, the US supported Kuwait against Iraqi invasion in 1991, but not the Kuwaiti demands for democracy in 2011, and ousted the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein and empowered the Shia in a continuing sectarian divisive Iraq. Moreover, the US blessing for the creation of an autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq was based on the Kurdish support for the US against Saddam Hussein's regime, but mainly on the location of Kurdistan in northern Iraq where the country's largest oil reserves are located (Akbarzadeh, Baxter, p. 153) (Isakhan Benjamin, 2015, pp. 224-227). Washington not only assured a Shia-friendly government in Baghdad, but it was guaranteed an even friendlier government in Erbil.



Akbarzadeh, S & Baxter, K. (2018). Middle East Politics and International Relations(1eds). Routledge.

Ghabra, Shafeeq, `Kuwait: At the Crossroads of Change or Political Stagnation`, MEI@75, Kuwait: At the Crossroads of Change or Political Stagnation | Middle East Institute ( (Links to an external site.).

Isakham, B. (2015). ‘The Legacy of Iraq: From the 2003 War to the ‘Islamic State’. Edinburgh University Press.

Kelly, M. (2014). US Middle East Policy and the State-Capital controversy in Imperialism’s historiography, Middle East Critique, 23(1), 73-88.

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