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The US Influence on the Middle East in the Post-Cold War Era Analytical Essay

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Updated: Aug 14th, 2019


The international system after the Cold War changed the appearance of the world order drastically. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States of America remained the most powerful country in the world. Thus, the post-Cold War era is characterized by the so-called unipolarity.

The dominant position of the United States is a distinctive feature of the post-Cold War period. The relationships between the US and the Middle East underwent significant modifications too. The shift from bipolar to unipolar international system gave the USA possibility to promote the peaceful coexistence of countries in the Middle East, but the failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and the terrorist attacks on 9/11 made the USA prove its supremacy as a superpower.

The International System during the Cold War

The aim of the essay is to evaluate the impact of the shift from bipolar to the unipolar international system on the Middle East. Consequently, it is necessary to provide an overview of the Cold War period first. The Cold War commenced after the end of the Second World War. The timeframe of this period is 1945-1989. After the overthrow of the Nazi’s Germany, the whole world expected to enter the era of democracy.

Nevertheless, the most devastating human war gave rise to the next conflict. The principal feature of the Cold War world was the rivalry between the United Stated of America and the former USSR (Phillips 2001). One should understand that the Cold War was not a conflict only between the USA and the USSR. The whole world was divided into two parts. It was the conflict of ideologies.

Several reasons preceded the development of the world order during the Cold War. The role of the USSR in the Second World War predetermined its future position. Thus, the country enlarged its territories after the war. Besides, the USSR’s army achieved the victory at Stalingrad, and it became the watershed moment of the war.

This event changed the perception of the USSR. It was known as the country that changed the march of history. Also, the USSR’s ideological system began spreading in European countries. The last significant factor was that the demobilization did not concern the Red Army at the end of the war.

The Soviet Union had a superiority regarding military power (CVCE 2015). At the same time, the Soviet Union damages were the most devastating. The country lost almost thirty million people during the war. Its industry was utterly ruined. The USSR had no air or navy forces. It had no nuclear weapon too. Despite all these disadvantages, the country remained the other significant power due to its contributions to the war (Painter & Leffler 2005).

The role of the United States of America in the WWII was also significant. Although the country did not have substantial losses, it contributed substantially to the achievement of the common victory. Almost all US Army was demobilized a few months before the end of the war. Nevertheless, the US Army remained the strongest in the world. The US’ air and navy forces were incomparable to any other in the world.

Also, the economy of the country was the most powerful. The war destroyed everything in other European countries while the US retained its industrial and agricultural capacities. As a result, the dollar became the primary international currency, and the country established its position in the arena of global politics (CVCE 2015).

Even more, the country benefited significantly from the war. Thus, its gross domestic product almost doubled during the period of the WWII. The country was the only producer of nuclear weapons until 1949 (Painter & Leffler 2005).

National Interests in the Middle East

The Cold War did not begin in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the Middle East always a played a substantial part in the international affairs. Khalidi (2009) provides readers with four main points concerning the role of the Middle East in the international system during the Cold War.

The author starts with the fact that territories of the Middle East have always been used for particular activities of European states. Khalidi (2009, p. 15) writes that ‘the Middle East was an important arena for the operation of the traditional European state system, but Middle Eastern countries were not fully accepted as a part of that system’. The author provides the Ottoman Empire as the example. The Empire controlled vast areas in the southern Europe.

Although European states participated in the intensive rivalry with the Ottoman Empire, the latter was not regarded as a part of the international system despite its might. Khalidi (2009) also emphasizes the fact that the European countries do not want to recognize non-Christian societies as equal.

The second point refers to the idea of the promotion of independence and integration. During the Cold War period, the United Nations Charter and the Covenant of the League of Nations were proclaimed. According to these treaties, countries unified as participants in the new international order. Again, some states of the Middle East were not included in these agreements. For example, the Palestinians, the Armenians, and the Kurds were not given the possibility to enjoy the international world order (Khalidi 2009).

The third idea of the author concerns the role of the Middle East’ territories in Western rivalries. Despite changes in the international system, the Middle East remained the primary field for the struggle between two supreme powers — the US and the Soviet Union. Thus, both states aimed at achieving dominance over the region. Khalidi (2009, p. 16) claims, ‘states and peoples in the Middle East were essential objects but were generally not allowed to be subjects, of international relations’.

The bipolar Cold War engaged such countries as Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Israel, and Egypt in the rivalry. Consequently, people and weak states were victims of the polarized world. Finally, the author points at the ineffectiveness of the international systems. The task of the international unions such as United Nations is to promote a peaceful existence of all countries.

It is logical that United Nations should restrict USA’s intentions to became a dominant power in the Middle East. On the contrary, it seemed that such actions were even favored. The degree to which the US was allowed to act in Iraq and Palestine should serve as examples of the statement.

Plans for the Middle East

Both the United States of America and the Soviet Union had particular intentions concerning the Middle East. However, their targets were not interconnected initially. Before the development of rivalry with the USSR, America’s primary interest in the Middle East concerned oil.

According to Sasley (2014), the United States produced two-thirds of the total oil output in the world. A few years later, the government realized that the source of petroleum was not endless. The only solution was to look for foreign sources of oil. Otherwise, America would lose its power.

Initially, the Soviet Union had domestic motives for the expansion in the Middle East (Dannreuther 2012). As Sasley (2014) writes, all Russian czars shared the idea of the necessity to expand Russian territories. Central Asia and the Middle East were ideal areas for expansion.

However, the plan was difficult to realize because of crucial differences between nations. Also, Communists were afraid of potential rebels. The competition between countries began when both the US and the Soviet Union realized the need to prevent the expansion of the rival state. Haliday (2005) differentiates four stages of the Cold War that are characterized by particular effects on the Middle East.

The first phase commenced immediately after the end of the WWII in 1945 and lasted until 1955. The conflict occurred in the “northern tier” — non-Arab countries (Turkey and Iran) that underwent massive devastation from both the USSR and the USA (Harbutt 2010). During the second stage, the USSR enhanced the power of several radical countries of the Middle East including Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. At the same time, the USA supported Jordan and Saudi Arabia (conservative countries).

This period resulted in deep crisis known as the “Arab Cold War” (Immerman & Goedde 2013). The next stage started in 1975 and lasted until 1985. It was the period of the most intense rivalry between the US and the USSR. During that phase, the relationships between countries of the Middle East aggravated. It resulted in the protracted Afghanistan war. According to Ajami (1978), such situation led to the end of the pan-Arabism.

The decline of the Muslim order and unity was caused by rivalry between the US and the USSR, the Palestine defeat, the Six Day War, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The last stage had positive effects on the Middle East. Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the USSR.

He promoted the idea of “new thinking”. As Zubok (2007, p. 304) writes, ‘this man [Mikhail Gorbachev] did more than anyone else to the end of the Cold War between East and West’. Gorbachev’s political activity resulted in the recognition of Israel by PLO, the end of the Iraq-Iran war, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, and the unity of two Yemens (Haliday 2005).

The International System during the Post-Cold War Period

The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result, only one major power left — the USA. The international system shifted from bipolar to unipolar. The end of the Cold War had both positive and adverse effects on the world and the Middle East, in particular. On the one hand, the rivalry between ideologies ended. Consequently, conflicts between them ended too. On the contrary, other conflicts arose, especially in post-Soviet areas (Yilmaz 2008).

Monteiro (2012) defines three distinctive features of the unipolar system. First, an inter-state system presupposes the peaceful coexistence of many states. Second, the unipolar system is anarchic. Anarchy means the inability to control all places in the world at the same time. Third, power is not balanced in the unipolar system due to the lack of competition. Once there is a competitive force, it is no longer a unipolar system.

The impact of the USA’s dominance on the Middle East

The history of the Middle East changed drastically since the end of the Cold War. The United States of America increased its hegemony in the Middle East region. There were no rivals to oppose the country. As a result, countries of the Middle East fell under the influence of the US. The history of the USA’s impact on the Middle East during the post-Cold War era concerns four major events.

These events include the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles, terrorist attack on September 9 in 2001, and the occupation of Iraq in 2003. All these experiences are extremely controversial from the point of view of their effectiveness and necessity.

On the one hand, the US promoted peace in the Middle East and opposed terrorist organizations. On the contrary, the US followed particular national purposes and interfered in the political system of the Middle East. In the following part of the paper, all main events will be examined separately.

The Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait

Saddam Hussein, being the president of Iraq, initiated the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi troops in 1990. Hussein engaged one hundred thousand troops to invade small Kuwait. The latter had no more than fifteen thousand troops to oppose Iraqi forces (Rice 2009). The reason for conflict referred to Iraq’s urgent need to stabilize its economy. After the war in 1988, Iraq was bankrupt. Kuwait was rich in oil resources.

Iraq’s government claimed to Kuwait as a territory of Iraq. Initially, the United Stated did not interfere in the conflict. Together with UN, they imposed sanctions on Iraq and followed the policy of condemnation. Nevertheless, such reaction did not bring any result. Later, Saudi Arabia, the neighbor of Kuwait, asked the US to provide military assistance. The US became interested in the protection of Kuwait as far as it was close to Saudi Arabia.

As far as Kuwait was not far from Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, Hussein had the opportunity to seize them as well. Consequently, there was a need to react adequately. The US initiated the mission known as Operation Desert Storm to prevent the invasion (Gulf War, n.d.). Kuwait was liberated although the conflict was not resolved. This event aggravated the relationships between Iraq and the US. On the other hand, the US protected rights of the state and promoted peace in the Middle East.

The Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles

The US participated in the long-lasting Arab-Israeli conflict since its inception. In the post-Cold War period, the US aimed at promoting peace in both Israel and Palestine. The interference of the US positively affected this issue. The USA, being the superpower, did not need Israel to oppose the Soviet Union anymore. At the same time, Palestine lost the support of the USSR and was more open to collaboration (Ross 2010).

Consequently, the USA promoted the collaboration. The USA insisted on negotiations. As a result, both countries recognized each other according to the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles in 1993. (Beinin & Hajjar 2014). Unfortunately, armistice did not last for a long time. In September 2000, the second intifada (military resistance) started again. This event became one of the prerequisites that changed the US’s attitude towards the Middle East.

9/11 and the US occupation of Iraq in 2003

Terrorist attacks in 2001 altered the USA’s intentions towards the Middle East. At September 11, two hijacked planes were purposely directed into twin towers of the World Trade Centre (McGoldrick 2004). This event was extremely stressful for the whole world. It undermined hope into bright future. The superpower of the world, the USA, turned out to be vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

As Rice (2008, p. 5) stated, the United States of America supported the Middle East for sixty years, but ‘after September 11, it became increasingly apparent that this old bargain had produced false stability’. This event made President Bush proclaim the War on Terror and change the foreign policy towards the Middle East. The USA aimed at proving its superiority and ability to protect residents of the country.

Events of 9/11 were directly connected to the occupation of Iraq in 2003. President Bush accused Saddam Hussein in the organization of the terrorist attack. Nevertheless, these claims remained unproven though they led to the invasion of Iraq. According to Hinnebusch (2007), there were other motives for the invasion.

The advantageous location of the Middle East countries and the hegemony over oil market were unacceptable for the USA. Besides, the country faced the urgent need to increase its oil bases. Iraq had the second largest reserve of petroleum in the world. As far as Saddam Hussein hold the office of president, it was impossible to come to the agreement. Thus, the war with Iraq as a terrorist country was the ideal solution to the problem.


During the Cold War, the rivalry between the USA and the Soviet Union aggravated the situation in many countries in the Middle East. The end of the Cold War led to the formation of one superpower, the USA, and its dominance in the international arena. The USA assisted the Middle East in opposing Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nevertheless, the terrorist attacks on September 11 changed the USA’s foreign policy drastically.

Reference List

Ajami, F 1978, ‘The End of Pan-Arabism,’ Foreign Affairs, vol. 57, no. 2, pp. 355-373.

Beinin, J & Hajjar, L 2014, Palestine, Israel, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Web.

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Dannreuther, R 2012, ‘Russia and the Middle East: A Cold War Paradigm,’ Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 64, no. 3, pp. 543-560.


Haliday, F 2005, The Middle East in International Relations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Harbutt, F 2010, Yalta 1945: Europe and America at the Crossroads, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Hinnebusch, R 2007, ‘The American Invasion of Iraq: Causes and Consequences,’ Perceptions, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 9-27.

Immerman, R & Goedde, P 2013, The Oxford Handbook of the Cold War, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Khalidi, T 2009, Sowing Crisis, Beacon Press, Boston.

McGoldrick, D 2004, From 9-11 to Iraq War 2003, Hart Publishing, Oxford.

Monteiro, N 2012, ‘Unrest Assured,’ International Security, vol. 36, no. 3, pp. 9-40.

Painter, D & Leffler, M 2005, Origins of the Cold War, Routledge, London.

Phillips, S 2001, The Cold War: Conflict In Europe and Asia, Heinemann, Frankfurt.

Rice, C 2008, ‘Rethinking the National Interest: American Realism for a New World,’ Foreign Affairs, vol. 87, no. 4, pp. 1-10.

Rice, E 2009, Overview of the Persian Gulf War, 1990, Mitchell Lane Publishers, Inc., Newark.

Ross, S 2010, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Hachette, Paris.

Sasley, B 2014, The Cold War in the Middle East, Mason Crest, Broomall.

Yilmaz, M 2008, ‘The New World Order: an Outline of the Post-Cold War Era,’ Turkish Journal of International Relations, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 44-58.

Zubok, V 2007, A Failed Empire: A Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

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