Above the Fold: Why the US cares about the Middle East

Middle East USA World
Jared Kushner

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner delivers remarks on the Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East region at the Saban Forum in Washington, US, December 3, 2017.. (photo credit: REUTERS/JAMES LAWLER DUGGAN)

Sometimes one has to wonder: Why does the United States care about peace in the Middle East?

I have pondered this question over and over in recent years. The phenomenon dubbed the “Deal of the Century” just adds to my curiosity.

The question is worthy of analysis. But to do that, everyone needs to be on the same page about one indisputable fact. Everyone must clearly understand that the United States has displayed interest in the Middle East for a long time – a really long time.

What has been happening over the past several US presidential administrations is not a modern phenomenon. Starting back in the days of the Barbary Wars (the war that started in 1801 when the United States was a mere 25 years old and continued into the Second Barbary War which began in 1815), the US was involved in the Middle East. It was the first overseas war in which the US was engaged.

US merchant ships were being kidnapped by Barbary pirates – pirates from Algiers, Morocco, Tunis and Tripoli, known as the Barbary States. The pirates would only release the ships after their ransom demands were met. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison refused to pay, and went to war to protect US mercantile maritime interest in the Middle East. One of the first major tasks of the United States Marines was to keep these ships safe. The mantra of the time was “millions for security, not one cent to ransom.” Interestingly, there were Jewish pirates, too. One named Sinan Reis was dubbed “The Great Jew.” He flew what his compatriots called the Flag of Solomon and what today is called the Star of David. This Barbary Corsair pirate is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Albania.

The US has been involved and interested in the region long before 1948 and the creation of the State of Israel. Following the Holocaust and the birth of a democratic Jewish state in the ancestral homeland of the Jews, the US proceeded to play a special role in the region, not just an interested role, in the Middle East. This role continues today.

Part of the decision to be so involved in the Middle East in modern times was part moral and part was strategic. The moral role is obvious, although less central than simply the decision to support a valued democratic ally in the Middle East. The strategic element centered on the fight the US was having with “The Red Menace.” The US was fighting Soviet encroachment and Israel was a block against that encroachment. Israel was the United States’ sole bulwark against the USSR in the region.

ANOTHER REASON is oil. For some, protecting US oil interests was reason enough to throw Israel under the bus. Regardless, the US was engaged in the region.

A myth believed by many was that the problems of the Middle East all stemmed from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to that myth, resolving that conflict would resolve the problems of the region. Of course, that was not true then and it is not the truth now. But it did drive many American leaders on both sides of the proverbial political aisle to try to resolve the issue.

For some US presidents, the Middle East issue and the quest for peace in the Middle East became their whale, much as with Ahab in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. For others, it turned into their windmill, as in Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. When you think that the leader who visited the Clinton White House more than any other leader – not just any other Middle Eastern leader – was Yasser Arafat, it tells you a lot.

American presidents want to leave an imprint – a strong footprint in history not just a simple foot note in history – and they are consumed by the legacy historians will assign to them. Bringing peace to the Middle East, solving the intractable problem that has confused and derailed and frustrated so many of their predecessors would insure them a strong place in the annals of world history.

But idealism and self-motivation aside, sometimes problems are not ready to be solved. And sometimes, the involved parties don’t want their problems solved.

The US loves an underdog. After all, that’s how the United States began. That love is a double-edged sword, and Israel has felt the impact of both sides of it. During Israel’s fledgling years, the US supported the image of tiny Israel struggling against a sea of enemies. But Israel not only survived, Israel thrives, and now the imagery is reversed and Palestinians take the underdog position in many American eyes. 

Donald Trump has his eye on history, his mind on oil economics and his heart in Israel.

Much has changed since the days of the Barbary pirates, but I have a feeling that the issues that motivated Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe continue to motivate today’s president of the United States. And I hope that future US presidents will continue to feel and behave the same way. “Peace in the Middle East” is still an ideal and far from a reality.

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