Ethics haven't played much of a role in foreign affairs over the last century. Since the end of World War II, the United States modeled its positions in the Middle East around Cold War strategic interests and economic objectives. In a struggle to assert itself as the single greatest power in the world, the United States dealt with major leaders in the region in a way that attempted to expand American influence. Decades later, we can look back on a series of instances in which American intervention has caused devastating or counterproductive, long-term repercussions in the region.
These seven seemingly obscure photos are key evidence of how foreign intervention has inevitable long-term ramifications, for the good or the bad.
In 1945 Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia on board of the U.S.S. Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal. The relationship began with a direct discussion of the Palestinian issue and a hollow promise of non-assistance to the Jews in Palestine by Roosevelt.
Saudi-U.S. relations have been the 70-year-old backbone of U.S. foreign policy in the region, leading to military successes such as the First Gulf War and economic catastrophes like Saudi Arabia’s developed ability to control oil supply at the expense of the West in order to assist Arab neighbors against Israel.
This may be the most curious picture out of the whole series, since it does not figure any American. It was taken in 1964 and features Nasser, president of Egypt, and Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, inaugurating one of the first parts of the Aswan High Dam. However, it is in fact the very lack of an American presence that is important. The Aswan Dam was the embodiment of Nasser’s vision for the industrialization of Egypt. However, part of the funding relied on foreign investment, which was constantly used by the United States as a form of leverage. As tensions grew in 1956 and the United States withdrew its funding, leading to the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Nasser and the 1956 Suez conflict, U.S.-Egyptian relations collapsed, marking the beginning of closer Egyptian ties with the Soviets and a long series of conflicts in the region.
When Mohammed Reza Shah Palavi inherited the Iranian throne in 1941, U.S.-Iran relations began going through a long period of solidity. While this picture shows charismatic President Kennedy at a reception with the king, the photo symbolizes a relationship that had dramatic repercussions in Iran. 1953 marked the year in which Eisenhower orchestrated, along with the CIA and British intelligence, the overthrow of Mossadegh’s government in Iran. The illegitimate intervention, moved by concerns over the oil market, proved fatal for Iran, sparking anti-American sentiment that has continued to echo to this day.
This picture shows a congressman next to some of Afghanistan’s mujahideen. Some of them will become part of the Taliban government years later. Others will even join Osama Bin Laden’s band of followers. Some of these will try to build a country out of a divided territory. The congressman is Charlie Wilson, the main proponent of CIA funding of the Afghan opposition to the Soviets in the 1980s war. While such a convenient alliance may have made sense in what had become one of the longest proxy conflicts of the Cold War, America’s arms went directly to the same people the United States later found itself fighting against.
Wait, what? An American representative is shaking Saddam Hussein’s hand? Is that Donald Rumsfeld? Yes. Welcome to diplomacy. Similar to many other situations, in the 1980s the U.S. supported a repressive regime as a means to a bigger end. As the Iran-Iraq War went on, the United States decided to pick a side. Reagan wrongly believed that Hussein could destabilize the Iranian regime and allow for the toppling of the Islamic Revolution. Yet, this did little more than prolong a war that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths on both sides and kindle further anti-American sentiment in Iran.
Here instead is a more typical photo — a U.S. president hosting an Israeli prime minister in the Oval Office. Reagan met with Yitzhak Shamir in 1987. While Shamir often took harder lines on issues than his predecessor, Menachem Begin, Reagan and Shamir allegedly enjoyed a direct and honest relationship. Here's the problem though: Reagan utterly underestimated the importance of expanding Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories. While the Reagan administration supported Israeli endeavors, the presence and expansion of Israeli areas in the West Bank remains one of the key obstacles to the peace process.
Finally, here is an example of not so much meddling but failing to understand key Middle Eastern interests by an American administration. While Bill Clinton had the best intentions and was quite optimistic entering 2000's Camp David meetings, his staff had probably misunderstood the problems that had been left untouched since the previous accords in Oslo.
Oslo had in fact left unsettled fundamental issues such as the Palestinian refugees' right to return to Israel, the expansion of the Israeli settlements, and the question of East Jerusalem, claimed by Palestine as well as Israel. Because of a lack of coherent strategy in framing both sides' demands at the meetings, Camp David's sessions fell apart rapidly, leaving little hope for a satisfying solution.