This article appeared in Massachusetts Peace Action’s Summer 2018 newsletter
Now that Donald Trump has withdrawn the US from the Iran nuclear agreement, repeatedly bombed Syria, unreservedly backed every Israeli demand and continued the US involvement in the Saudi-UAE war on Yemen, tensions in the Middle East are escalating more than ever. We have to ask what role our country is actually playing there – and how we can act to avert more violence in that war-torn part of the world.
The US military has divided the entire planet into what it designates as regional “Commands.” The Middle East is known as Central Command or CENTCOM. There, 7500 miles from CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida, the US maintains a huge air base in Qatar, and a major naval facility in Bahrein, both on the Persian Gulf and together housing tens of thousands of US military personnel and civilian contractors. There are major US bases too in Turkey, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Pakistan, not to mention numerous continuing war-fighting outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US has also created bases — entirely illegally — in various parts of Syria. When smaller covert programs and military supply, training or exchange facilities are added, it can be said with confidence that the US maintains a significant military presence in every single country of the Greater Middle East – with the exception of Iran.
Why is that?
The Simple answer can be expressed in three words: OIL, EMPIRE and ISRAEL – with an important undercurrent of profits for US arms manufactures in each category.
First OIL. While the US is not directly dependent on imported Middle East petroleum, production of oil there remains an enormous source of profit for US-based oil companies. In addition, billions of dollars in oil revenues are cycled back to the US through investments from oil-rich Gulf monarchies and multi-billion dollars in purchases of advanced US weaponry.
But over and beyond profit, US control of a major energy resource is an enormous strategic asset.
Which brings us to EMPIRE. The US military presence in the Middle East is a major component of a globe-straddling network of 800 military bases, large and small, in more than 70 countries. But the US military footprint in the Middle East is particularly large, reflecting ongoing wars and its importance as a region with huge and strategically important petroleum resources. “We” don’t need Middle East oil, but many significant allies – and potential adversaries like China – are lacking in their own sources of petroleum and highly dependent on the production and transport of oil from the region.
It is no accident that the major oil-producing countries outside of direct US control – Iran, Russia and Venezuela — have become “official enemies.” The list used to include Iraq and Libya, which were the targets of direct US military attack. It is worth noting that despite our rhetoric of supporting “freedom” in the in the Middle East when it comes to adversaries like Syria or Iran, none of the US regional allies can be considered fully democratic. They range from military dictatorships like Egypt, to autocratic and highly repressive monarchies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrein, to increasingly autocratic (and NATO member) Turkey.
Finally, there is ISRAEL, which is a democracy for its Jewish citizens but not for the Palestinian majority that it rules. During the Cold War, Israel was a major strategic US asset, regularly defeating its neighboring Arab neighbors then armed by the Soviet Union. Since then, Israel has lost much of its strategic importance to the US, though its military retains intimate ties to the Pentagon, especially in the areas of military technology and warfighting knowhow.
But these considerations alone would not account for the outsized influence of Israel — a distant country with a population smaller than Guatemala’s – on US military and policy considerations. Instead, we may point to the powerful impact of Israel and its major lobbying allies, led by AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee), on the US political system. AIPAC was a chief promoter of the Iraq War and a relentless opponent of the Iran Nuclear agreement. AIPAC is not just an Israel Lobby, but also a war lobby.
Israel’s US lobby has also been instrumental in securing more than $4 billion in annual US military aid to Israel, a relatively rich country with a European-level per capita GNP. When added to the $billions of military assistance to neighboring Egypt and Jordan, which are rewarded for signing peace treaties with Israel, the total is far greater. than all the US economic and humanitarian support for the world’s developing and impoverished countries. Needless to say, most of the military aid winds up in the pockets of enormously profitable US arms manufacturers.
The gigantic US footprint in the Middle East has not benefitted the people of the region – nor the citizens of our own country. These wasted $billions — trillions if we include the cost of US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – could have been used to improve the standards of living in the Middle East and in the US.
Winding down US military involvement in the Middle East and dealing on the basis of equality and international law with supposed adversaries — instead of foolishly withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Agreement and continuing illegal military interventions in Syria and Yemen — will not solve all the region’s problems, nor will it immediately lead to universal peace and prosperity. But a US withdrawal and an end to the flooding of the region with US arms will at least stop making things worse. That is what the peace movement should be demanding.
Jeff Klein is a Board member of Mass. Peace Action and is active with Dorchester People for Peace. He travels frequently to the Middle East, and writes and speaks often about the region.