The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Years Conflict with Iran
Relations with Iran have challenged every U.S. administration since the 1979 revolution, and all U.S. presidents since Jimmy Carter have had to address the regime’s attempts to export its Islamist revolution abroad, its fierce opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process,
and its dogged nuclear quest. As President Barack Obama begins a second term in office, it would serve the president and those advising him well to truly understand the mindset of the revolutionary regime in order to avoid repeating past mistakes.
The task of untangling that history, facilitated by such books as Kenneth Pollack’s The Persian Puzzle and Patrick Clawson and Michael Rubin’s Eternal Iran, has now received a major boost with David Crist’s excellent new title The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Years Conflict with Iran. Based on twenty years of archival research and four hundred interviews, it is a serious contribution to our understanding of the turbulent relations between Washington and Tehran during the past three decades. Crist highlights both the immaturity of the revolutionary regime in Tehran and errors in judgment by Washington that have led to numerous missed opportunities to normalize relations over the years.
The book’s most important shortcoming, however, is its lack of primary source material in the Persian language. In most cases, this material would have reinforced Crist’s arguments, yet in a few important instances, this deficiency leads to questionable conclusions. In particular, his judgments about the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88)—the formative experience shaping the minds of the current crop of Iranian decision makers—would have greatly benefited from the use of such sources. Its proper understanding offers insights into the Islamic Republic’s strategy today that might help avert looming catastrophes.
The Iraqi Invasion
According to official Islamic Republic historiography, the war with Iraq began on August 22, 1980, when Iraqi forces conducted a surprise invasion of Iranian territory. Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself made a point of stressing the element of surprise when addressing ambassadors of Islamic countries in October 1980: “The usurping government of Saddam attacked Iran from the sea, air, and on the ground without any excuse acceptable to the governments of the world and without prior information or warning of conquest.”
Notwithstanding Khomeini’s public pronouncement, he had been warned of an imminent Iraqi invasion well in advance. Crist perceptively cites a meeting on October 1979 between CIA officer George Cave and then-foreign minister Ebrahim Yazdi, in which such a warning was given. Cave also instructed Yazdi to reactivate a signals intelligence collection station in Ilam to “find out what Iraq is up to,” but Yazdi dismissed the advice saying: “They wouldn’t dare!”
Persian language primary source material reveals other early warnings ignored by the supreme leader. In a September 22, 1991 interview with the weekly Payam-e Enghelab, Ahmad Khomeini, son of the grand ayatollah, disclosed that Shapour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister of the shah, had reached out to Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris through his chief of staff. When denied an audience with Khomeini, Bakhtiar’s chief of staff met with Ahmad and warned him of suspicious movements by Iraqi forces detected by Iran’s military intelligence. Ayatollah Khomeini dismissed Bakhtiar’s warnings as a scare tactic.
On June 15, 1980, Iran’s first post-revolutionary president, Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, sent a letter to Khomeini warning of suspicious movements of Iraqi forces. A September 19, 1980 letter from the president is even more revealing:
I don’t know what happened at your residence last night and what the army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] discussed with you. But I find it necessary to report this: … One month ago I sent you the exact same commanders who passed you information about today’s conspiracy. Afterward you told me that you didn’t believe in such intelligence. Today the intelligence has been proven right, and there is a strong possibility of an extensive battle from the Turkish border to Pakistan.
Why did Yazdi dismiss the CIA’s alert? Why did Khomeini ignore Bakhtiar’s, Bani-Sadr’s, and the army commanders’ reports on developments on the Iraqi side of the border? And why did the grand ayatollah isolate Iran diplomatically by continually threatening its neighbors with “export of the revolution” at a time when he was perfectly aware of the Iraqi threat?
Crist correctly concludes that the Iraqi invasion provided Khomeini with an opportunity to consolidate his rule. This is further confirmed by a 2008 interview in Persian between political scientist Sadeq Zibakalam and former Iranian president Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In the course of the conversation, Zibakalam told Rafsanjani: “My conclusion is that deep down, the imam [Khomeini] was happy about the war. He never said so directly, but deep down he thought that it was not us who wanted to attack the Baath regime of Iraq, but now that they have attacked us, we will pursue it [the war] to the very end.” To which Rafsanjani responded: “I agree with your view. But it is not true that it was deep in his [Khomeini’s] heart. He would also say that aloud. He did not hide it. … The war gave us a path to solve the regional problems and build our nation. We all said this, and the imam too was of this belief.”
Thanks to the Iraqi invasion of Iran, Khomeini was able to rally a fragmented nation around the revolutionary leadership and hoped to use the war to overthrow the Baath regime in Baghdad. The revolutionary leadership also used the war instrumentally, to keep the remnants of the shah’s army busy at the front and effectively out of politics. Finally, the invasion gave the Islamist regime the necessary excuse for suppressing popular demands for political freedoms by imposing a state of emergency. The war, indeed, proved a “divine blessing” for the regime—one actively sought and called for by Khomeini.
Why the War Continued after 1982
On April 3, 1982, Saddam Hussein offered a cease-fire, which was dismissed by Tehran. Not long thereafter, on May 24, Iranian forces liberated the border city of Khorramshahr, ending Iraqi occupation of Iranian territory. Why then did the war continue?
According to Crist, a “divided Iranian leadership” debated its next steps in the war, but “[n]o one advocated accepting the cease-fire.” He claims that Ahmad Khomeini pressed for continuing the war on Iraqi soil, but then-president Ali Khamene’i, foreign minister Ali-Akbar Velayati, and Rafsanjani (then parliamentary speaker) were “less sanguine about invading Iraq proper.” Most importantly, he suggests that to some degree, Khomeini himself opposed an invasion of Iraq.
Access to Persian language documents corroborates this. In his September 22, 1991 interview with Payam-e Enghelab, Ahmad Khomeini revealed,
The imam believed that it was better to end the war, but those responsible for the war said that we had to move toward Shatt al-Arab so that we could demand war reparations from Iraq. The imam did not agree with this line at all and used to say that if … one didn’t prevail in the war now, this war couldn’t be ended at all. We must continue this war to a certain point. Now that Khorramshahr had been liberated, it was the best time to end the war.
Rafsanjani’s memoirs also stress Khomeini’s opposition, conveyed through his son on March 26, 1982, and at a meeting with military commanders on June 10, 1982. According to Rafsanjani, three days after the liberation of Khorramshahr, the grand ayatollah argued against invasion before the Supreme Defense Council, stating that
(1) After invading Iraq, the Arab countries will support Baghdad more overtly and will display Arab extremism.
(2) The people of Iraq have not supported Saddam until now because he was on our soil. But should we invade Iraq, they will support him; we should strive not to drive the Iraqi people to oppose us.
(3) Should we invade Iraq, the Iraqi people will be harmed. Thus far, those Iraqis who have not fought have not been harmed.
(4) The world will present us as invaders and will subject us to propaganda pressure.
If Grand Ayatollah Khomeini was so adamantly opposed to an invasion of Iraq, how and why did the war drag on for another six years? Who were the supporters of the continuation of the war?
Persian language primary source material shows that it was the Revolutionary Guards’ leaders who managed to persuade an unwilling grand ayatollah to continue the war. And in contrast to Crist’s view, they were supported in this position by Rafsanjani himself.
In his April 18, 1982 diary entry, Ayatollah Rafsanjani writes:
The country’s warlike atmosphere and the high expectations of the people, especially the combatants, are such that they ridicule such propositions [of peace negotiations] and do not consider immediate but conditional withdrawal enough and criticize those responsible for the war effort … [as to] why they don’t immediately enter Iraqi soil.
Further, Khomeini withdrew his opposition since the “armed forces made solid military and technical arguments, and the imam, in a limited and conditional way, capitulated to their view.”
In his memoirs and interviews, Rafsanjani has deftly avoided clarifying his own position concerning the continuation of the war after Khorramshahr, but Mohsen Rezaei, then-commander of the Revolutionary Guards, shed light on this in his own war memoirs:
Following the liberation of Khorramshahr, the imam said: “You stay at the border and fight here” … [but] Rafsanjani said that we should move beyond the international borders. Should we desire to end the war, we need to have something we can use in the [cease-fire] negotiations.
Rezaei also claimed that Rafsanjani had urged the military to occupy Basra, to be used as a bargaining chip.
Different proponents of continuing the war had their own motives for doing so, but the Revolutionary Guards had the strongest. When Rezaei was appointed commander on August 24, 1981, there were only “20 to 30,000 members of the Guards and the Basij [its closely allied paramilitary force].” That number increased to a quarter of a million members by 1988 with the lion’s share of Iran’s military budget allocated to it. This development would not have been possible had it not been for the continuation of the war. The IRGC essentially sacrificed Iran’s national interest and hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives for the sake of its corporate and organizational expansion.
Apart from this, Khomeini’s acquiescence in the IRGC’s demands for continuing the war after Khorramshahr’s liberation illustrates the clerics’ dependence on the IRGC to suppress domestic opposition. Beyond its historical relevance, this mechanism may also in part explain Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i’s position on the nuclear crisis today.
Why the War Ended
In The Twilight War, Crist echoes the widely held belief that the accidental and tragic July 3, 1988 downing of Iran Air flight 655 by the USS Vincennes convinced the Iranian leadership to end the war with Iraq. Yet while Khomeini’s July 20, 1988 acceptance of the cease-fire agreement happened in the immediate wake of the civilian airliner tragedy, Persian primary source material reveals that the decision had been maturing for quite some time prior to the incident.
On June 3, 1988, Rafsanjani was appointed commander-in-chief. In his account, Ayatollah Abd al-Karim Mousavi Ardebili, the judiciary’s chief, President Khamene’i, Ahmad Khomeini, and Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi had all concluded by June 1988 that “they [the West in general and the United States in particular] will not allow us to win in the war.” A number of Revolutionary Guards commanders endorsed this view, and on June 10, 1988, Ali Shamkhani, then-Revolutionary Guards ground forces commander, urged Rafsanjani to end the war.
On June 16, Rafsanjani met with Khamene’i, Mousavi, and Ahmad Khomeini and concluded that Iran would either have to mobilize all the resources of the state for the war effort or end the conflict. Despite their passing this on to the grand ayatollah, Khomeini still opted for total war. However, barely a month later, on July 14—eleven days after the downing of the Iranian airliner—Khomeini decided to end the war. Yet rather than being impelled by the civilian disaster, this decision was based on a letter Khomeini had received from Rezaei in which the Revolutionary Guards commander confessed there would be no victory in the next five years unless almost unlimited resources were to be directed to the IRGC and the military and unless Tehran developed a nuclear bomb and managed to force the United States to leave the Persian Gulf. Since none of these options seemed realistic, Khomeini chose to drink from the poisoned chalice and end the war with Iraq. Thus, the IRGC had the final say in both continuation of the war after 1982 and its end in 1988.
Iranian archives remain closed to scholars, and few individuals involved in the shaping or execution of Tehran’s policies are willing to risk their lives giving interviews. Outside of Western intelligence experts with access to classified documents, there is little that academics or nongovernment analysts can rely on for accurate information. In spite of the lack of Persian source material, Crist’s Twilight War is among the best works we have.
What is most sobering is that twenty-four years after the end of the war with Iraq, the leadership of the Islamic Republic faces many of the same challenges seen during that conflict. The regime in Tehran combines an incredible degree of unpreparedness for conflict with the greatest degree of provocation against regional countries and great powers alike. Threats to annihilate Israel, rivalry with Sunni Arab states, systematic provocations against the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with its clandestine nuclear program, have left Tehran largely isolated and friendless in a dangerous world. The regime hopes to rally a fragmented nation around the flag by maintaining Iran in a permanent state of crisis, just as it did during the Iran-Iraq war. Yet in the midst of the crisis, political factions, in particular the Revolutionary Guards, sacrifice the welfare of the Iranian nation on the altar of their own narrow interests, following the exact path as in the 1980s.
In the meantime, the Iranian regime’s occasional offers of rapprochement, such as the much debated May 4, 2003 fax to the U.S. State Department, carry little weight in reality. Civilian leaders may have sounded out Washington at a time when the U.S. military surrounded Iran, but were the officers of the Revolutionary Guards on the same page? Even if they were, would Tehran have honored its obligations once the vulnerabilities of the U.S. positions in Afghanistan and Iraq had become apparent? On the whole, one cannot help but think that the fundamental obstacle between the two states is the nature of the regime in Tehran. Absent external enemies, how else can Iranian leaders legitimize their repression of internal opposition?
The balance between bellicosity and faux rapprochement is delicate. One day Tehran will cross the red lines of Washington and its allies thereby igniting a disastrous war, which is likely to prove another poisoned chalice waiting for Iranian leaders to drink.
Ali Alfoneh is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
 Random House, 2005.
 Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
 New York, Penguin, 2012.
 “Aghaz-e Jang-e Tahmili-ye Eragh Alayh-e Iran Va Hafteh-ye Defa’-e Moghaddas,” Markaz-e Asnad-e Enghelab-e Eslami website, Tehran, accessed Sept. 13, 2010.
 Moassesseh-ye Tanzim Va Nashr-e Asar-e Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, CD-ROM, Tehran, vol. 13, p. 276.
 “Toward an International History of the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988: A Critical Oral History Workshop,” Cold War International History Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C., July 19, 2004; David Crist, The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Years Conflict with Iran (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 87.
 Crist, The Twilight War, p. 87.
 Moassesseh-ye Tanzim Va Nashr-e Asar-e Emam Khomeini, Majmou-eh-ye Asar-e Yadegar-e Emam—Hojjat al-Eslam va Al-Moslemin Hajj Seyyed Ahmad Khomeini (N.P., 1996), p. 715.
 Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, Nameh-ha Az Agha-ye Bani-Sadr Be Agha-ye Khomeini va Digaran (Frankfurt Am Main: Enghelab-e Eslami Zeitung, 2006), p. 55.
 Ibid., p. 156.
 See Khomeini’s Dec. 17, 1979 interview quoted in Moassesseh-ye Tanzim Va Nashr-e Asar-e Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, vol. 11, p. 290; idem, Dec. 19, 1979 interview quoted in Sahifeh-ye Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, vol. 11, p. 336; idem, Jan. 5, 1980 interview with Time quoted in Sahifeh-ye Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, vol. 12, p. 37; idem, Mar. 21, 1980 new year address quoted in Sahifeh-ye Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, vol. 12, p. 202.
 Crist, The Twilight War, p. 89.
 Sadeq Zibakalam and Fereshteh Sadat Ettefaghfar, Hashemi Bedoun-e Routoush (Tehran: Rowzaneh, 2008), p. 277.
 Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami, Gozari Bar Do Sal Jang (N.P.: Daftar-e Siasi-ye Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami, n.d.), p. 21.
 Crist, The Twilight War, p. 94.
 Khomeini, Majmou-eh-ye Asar-e Yadegar-e Emam, pp. 716-17. The same claim was also made in the memoirs of Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, Khaterat-e Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri (Los Angeles: Ketab Corp., 2001), p. 330.
 Fatemeh Hashemi, ed., Pas Az Bohran. Karnameh va Khaterat-e Hashemi Rafsanjani Sal-e 61, (Tehran: Daftar-e Nashr-e Ma’aref-e Enghelab, 2000), pp. 40, 137.
 Zibakalam and Ettefaghfar, Hashemi Bedoun-e Routoush, pp. 285-6.
 Hashemi, Pas Az Bohran. Karnameh, pp. 68-9.
 Zibakalam and Sadat Ettefaghfar, Hashemi Bedoun-e Routoush, p. 286.
 Mohsen Rezaei Mir-Qaed, Jang Be Revayat-e Farmandeh, Pezhman Pourjabbari, ed. (Tehran: Bonyad-e Hefz-e Asar va Nashr-e Arzesh-ha-ye Defae-e Moqaddas, 2012), pp. 140-1.
 Ibid., p. 42.
 Crist, The Twilight War, pp. 370-1.
 Moassesseh-ye Tanzim Va Nashr-e Asar-e Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, vol. 21, p. 95.
 Rezaei, Jang Be Revayat-e Farmandeh, p. 289.
 Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Payan-e Defae—Aghaz-e Bazsazi, Ali-Reza Hashemi, ed. (Tehran: Daftar-e Nashr-e Maaref-e Enqelab, 2012), p. 163.
 Ibid., pp. 171-2, 210.
 Hossein-Ali Montazeri, Khaterat-e Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, pp. 571-2.
 Crist, The Twilight War, p. 476.
Can the U.S. afford to lose the Middle East?
If a nation aspires to attain global power status, any location across the globe can assume strategic significance for that nation. Undoubtedly, at different historical junctures, Vietnam, Cuba, and other locations have garnered significant significance within the framework of United States’ interests. Nonetheless, following the culmination of the Second World War, Europe and the Middle East assumed a paramount position in American foreign policy.
The significance attributed to Europe stemmed from two primary factors. Firstly, Europe served as the domain wherein the United States fostered its closest alliances. Secondly, Europe confronted an imminent threat posed by the Soviet Union, which stood as a global adversary to American leadership. Had the United States not undertaken the defense of Europe through the establishment of military bases and other forms of support, Western and Southern European nations might have met the same fate as their Eastern European counterparts, potentially succumbing to becoming Soviet satellites.
The significance attributed to the Middle East also emerged as a paramount priority for the United States, driven by three key factors. The first factor pertained to the region’s abundant oil reserves. During the Cold War era, more than half of the world’s oil and gas resources were concentrated in the Persian Gulf, thus rendering the security and stability of Middle Eastern energy supplies critical for Western industries. Secondly, the establishment of a strategic buffer zone in the Middle East and the Islamic world aimed at containing the Soviet Union and impeding its access to warm sea routes played a crucial role in sustaining American global leadership. Lastly, the indispensable nature of the Middle East for the United States stemmed from the imperative of ensuring Israel’s security. These three strategic considerations have rendered Middle Eastern affairs the most prominent focal point of American foreign policy for several decades. Consequently, American policymakers have dedicated substantial energy and effort to managing relations with key Middle Eastern actors such as Lebanon, Iran, and Palestine.
The profound ramifications of the Iraq War and subsequent Afghan retreat following the traumatic events of 9/11 have significantly undermined the self-assurance of the United States as a superpower, fostering a surge in isolationist inclinations within the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. The perception of American global leadership also suffered from the notion that the country, which reached its apex in the 2010s, was in a state of decline, further exacerbating its negative impact. Consequently, the United States began perceiving itself as considerably weaker than its actual capabilities. The Trump era further solidified the notion that America had transitioned into an ordinary power, leading to the prevailing belief that maintaining a widespread military presence worldwide was wasteful. President Trump, operating under the paradigm of running the state akin to a corporation, argued that the allies of the United States were enfeebling the country by burdening it with the majority of defense expenditures. He particularly singled out Germany and Japan, urging them and others to assume responsibility and augment their defense budgets to at least 2 percent of their respective GDPs.(1)
Within academic and think tank circles, a prevailing notion emerged regarding the unnecessary expenditure of energy and resources by the United States in the Middle East. Questions arose regarding the purpose and reason of American soldiers sacrificing their lives in the quagmire of the Middle East. The significant financial losses incurred by America in the region also came under scrutiny. Despite the assumption that the inauguration of Joe Biden as President on January 20, 2021 marked the end of the Trump era, many of Trump’s perspectives persisted and gained influence within American discourse, permeating various domains. One such idea entailed the diminishing power of American global leadership, suggesting that it would no longer suffice to extend its influence over every region
CHINA: RISE OF DRAGON
The perception of inadequacy regarding the capacity of American power to extend influence across all regions was primarily bolstered by the unprecedented economic ascent of China, which stands as the most significant contributing factor in history. Over a span of 23 years, China’s GDP surged from a mere 1.2 trillion dollars in 2000 to approximately 20 trillion dollars, marking a remarkable sixteen-fold increase. In contrast, the US GDP only grew 2.6 times during the same period, reaching 26.8 trillion dollars. In 2000, the US economy surpassed the Chinese economy by a factor of 8.5. However, as of 2023, the US economy stands at a mere 1.3 times the size of its Chinese counterpart. Economists assert that if this trajectory persists, it is merely a matter of time until China surpasses the United States as the world’s largest economy. The disconcerting transformation evident in GDP figures is not the sole cause for concern, as alarming data pertaining to US leadership emanates from nearly every sphere of the economy. During the pandemic period, a discernible weakening in the hegemony of the US dollar, which represents a paramount source of American power, became evident as its share among world reserve currencies dwindled to 59 percent by 2023. Notably, the process of dedollarization has favored China’s currency, the yuan, as the primary beneficiary. China’s influence now extends across diverse regions, from Brazil to the depths of Africa, challenging the United States at every turn. China engages in treaty negotiations, fosters reconciliation between previously hostile nations, and most significantly, conducts extensive trade with nations across the globe. Presently, there are only a handful of countries that do not count China as their largest trading partner. The growth in China is not limited to its economic and trade prowess; its military and defense capabilities are also expanding. China presently ranks as the second-largest country in terms of defense expenditure globally, with a defense budget surpassing the combined defense budgets of Britain, Germany, France, and Japan. These figures raise concerns for the United States, given the realization that no nation would allocate nearly $300 trillion towards armaments solely for the protection of its trade interests.
UKRAINE WAR AND RISE OF THE AMERICAN SENSE OF INADEQUACY
Amidst mounting concerns surrounding American global leadership, the eruption of the Ukraine War in February 2002 rendered the European continent a battleground once again. Despite the passage of a year, neither party involved in the conflict in Ukraine managed to achieve a decisive advantage. This prolonged stalemate has led experts to express concerns regarding the potential protraction of the war, with apprehensions mounting over the prospect of its spillover into other European nations. Throughout this period, the United States extended considerable support to Ukraine, offering military aid amounting to tens of billions of dollars, establishing itself as Ukraine’s primary benefactor. While there appears to be no significant opposition within America to this support provided to Ukraine, numerous experts in the field of International Relations argue that as the Chinese dragon strengthens its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, it would be ill-advised to unnecessarily fragment American power between engagements in Ukraine or the Middle East with Asia-Pacific. For instance, according to John Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, the United States should refrain from depleting its power in the Ukraine War or any other conflict, urging a swift shift in focus towards China. (2)
In alignment with Mearsheimer, Elbridge A. Colby, a former US Assistant Secretary of Defense, the contention arises that the United States lacks sufficient and appropriate military capabilities to effectively address all the threats that impinge upon its interests. Colby asserts that it is imperative for America to prioritize the mitigation of the China-induced threat within the Asian region. According to Colby, Asia stands as the “decisive theater” on a global scale, with China indisputably representing the preeminent formidable state worldwide. (3)
In conclusion, Republican politicians and realist political scientists posit that the United States has experienced a decline in energy and power due to its entanglement in Europe’s inefficient rivalries, exemplified by the ongoing Ukraine War. In contrast, they argue that China is poised to exceed the United States in the global leadership competition. Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State, coined the term “the necessity for choice” to describe such circumstances, emphasizing the importance for decision-makers to prioritize based on their country’s strength. (Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, 1994). Under these circumstances, what type of regional emphasis should the United States prioritize? Would traditional focal points of American foreign policy, namely Europe and the Middle East, now take a backseat in this regard?
If the United States diverts a portion of its influence from Europe towards the Asia-Pacific region, it is conceivable that US allies and partners such as Britain, Germany, and France could fill the resultant power vacuum in Europe. However, can a similar scenario be anticipated for the Middle East? However, in the event that the United States withdraws from the region, would American allies and partners regain dominance in the Middle East?
THE MIDDLE EAST: NO LONGER IMPORTANT TO AMERICA?
According to Ambassador Martin Indyk, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the United States has unnecessarily suffered huge and unnecessary losses in the Middle East. In his article featured in the Wall Street Journal, Indyk asserts that the objectives set by the United States in the Cold War era no longer hold relevance in the present day. For example he contends that the United States’ dependence on Middle Eastern oil has reached its conclusion, and emphasizes that Israel has achieved a level of capability to ensure its own security. (4)
According to Indyk, neither the Palestine problem nor Syria should be the problem of the Americans anymore. “After the sacrifice of so many American lives, the waste of so much energy and money in quixotic efforts that ended up doing more harm than good, it is time for the U.S. to find a way to escape the costly, demoralizing cycle of crusades and retreats,” Indyk says.
According to Indyk, both the Palestinian issue and Syria should no longer be the concerns of the United States. Indyk argues that after the significant sacrifice of American lives and the squandering of substantial resources and efforts in misguided endeavors that ultimately resulted in more harm than good, it is imperative for the U.S. to seek a means to extricate itself from the costly and demoralizing cycle of crusades and withdrawals.
Indyk‘s perspective finds resonance among others who share similar viewpoints. They posit that the Middle East no longer holds paramount importance for the United States, and that the American economy is no longer reliant on oil from the Persian Gulf. Even among a diminishing minority in Washington who continue to emphasize the significance of the Middle East, the prospect of ceaseless Arab disputes, Arab-Israeli conflicts, and conflict-ridden regions such as Lebanon, Syria, Libya, and Iraq evoke aversion and reluctance. Numerous political analysts and scholars now grapple with comprehending the purpose of America’s presence in the Middle East.
The distressing failures in Iraq and Afghanistan loom large in the minds of policymakers in Congress and the White House. These unnecessary wars resulted in the loss of thousands of American lives and the expenditure of trillions of dollars, yielding minimal returns for such sacrifices. Moreover, these endeavors failed to contribute positively to the region, leaving behind a trail of hundreds of thousands of casualties and devastated cities.
It can be said that the trend that the Middle East is not a priority for America started in the Obama era, accelerated during the Trump presidency, and became clearer in the emerging Biden Doctrine. (5)
In recent months, there has been a growing chorus advocating for the United States to disengage from the Middle East, with some experts asserting that this withdrawal has already been accomplished. The Newsweek news magazine, in its commentary on March 5, 2023, went so far as to proclaim that the American century in the Middle East has come to an end and that the United States has exited the region. (6) The question arises: has the United States truly departed from the Middle East? As the United States seeks to rebuild its global leadership, has it relinquished the Middle East to concentrate its power exclusively on Asia, particularly China? Can one effectively assume the role of a global leader without exerting dominance in the Middle East? This essay aims to explore these inquiries and provide insights.
THE MIDDLE EAST OR THE CENTER OF THE WORLD
To address the question of whether the United States should withdraw from the Middle East, it is imperative to first examine the region’s strategic and economic significance. In a historical context, it is noteworthy to mention that astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth suggested in 1864 that the Great Pyramid of Giza (30°00′N 31°00′E) in Egypt represented the center of the world based on his calculations of the Earth’s landmass. However, in 1973, physicist Andrew J. Woods utilized a digital global map and employed mainframe systems to determine coordinates, concluding that the center of the world was located at 39°00′N 34°00′E, near the district of Kırşehir and Seyfe Village in present-day Turkey, approximately 1,800 km north of Giza. Alternatively, there exists another perspective proposing that Mecca, which holds symbolic importance as a religious site, is considered the center of the world, akin to the significance attributed to the Earth’s two poles.
The precise identification of a geographically central town or village remains uncertain; however, upon examining the world map, it becomes apparent that the region commonly referred to as the Middle East occupies a prominent position at the global center. It serves as the converging point, or even collision point, of three ‘old’ continents: Asia, Europe, and Africa. Egypt represents the junction of Africa and Asia, with a portion of its territory situated in Asia and the remaining part in Africa. Observing the Sinai Peninsula on a map, one might perceive it as a piece of land that Asia and Africa have claimed for themselves, unable to share it. Similarly, the continents of Asia and Europe intersect through the nation of Turkey, where the Thrace region lies within Europe while the Anatolian lands extend into Asia. Spanning across Istanbul, one of the world’s most densely populated cities, the Bosphorus strait bisects the city into distinct European and Asian sectors. There is no other city in the world on two separate continents.Given the geostrategic significance of the Middle East, it becomes readily apparent why numerous major powers throughout history, ranging from the Hittites aspiring to exert dominance across Asia, Africa, and Europe, to the ancient Greeks, Pharaonic Egypt, and the Roman Empire, sought to seize control of this region.Historical evidence demonstrates the formidable challenge faced by a state aspiring to achieve and sustain “superpower” status in the absence of a dominant position in the Middle East region.
The Middle East region serves as a vital nexus, connecting not only continents but also the world’s most significant waterways and seas. Positioned amidst the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Indian Ocean, it encompasses a strategic location. The region is intersected by critical maritime passages and bodies of water including the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman, Turkish Straits, Aegean Sea, and Black Sea, scattered throughout its expanse. These waterways hold immense importance for global maritime trade and military operations.
The Middle East occupies a central position in the world, encompassing not only its geographical significance but also its profound cultural and historical influence. While other regions were still inhabited by cave-dwelling societies, it was in the Middle East where the Sumerians made notable advancements, such as the development of writing, the introduction of the calendar system, and the initiation of foundational mathematical calculations. As the birthplace of humanity’s earliest civilizations, including the Assyrians, Babylonians, Akkadians, ancient Egyptians, and Hittites, the Middle East stands as the cradle of human civilization.
Furthermore, it is within the Middle East that the three prominent monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—found their origins and thrived. This region bears immense importance as the spiritual birthplace and focal point of these religious traditions. Revered cities like Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, and Ephesus persistently attract countless devoted pilgrims, serving as profound hubs of religious reverence and cultural legacy.
To sum up, given the geostrategic and cultural significance it embodies, it would not be an overstatement to assert that sustained global leadership is unattainable for any power that fails to exert dominance over the Middle East region in the long term.
CENTER OF OIL AND PETRO-DOLLARS
Following the discovery of oil in the early 20th century, the Middle East gained increased significance for major global powers. Notably, oil production commenced in substantial reserves in Iran in 1908, followed by Iraq in the 1920s, and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the 1930s. As the prominence of the oil-based industry grew, industrialized nations became heavily reliant on Middle Eastern oil. The escalating utilization of natural gas for residential heating and electricity generation further solidified the West’s indispensable dependence on the region. While oil initially served as fuel, its applications in modern society have expanded significantly over time. Petrochemicals, encompassing plastics, synthetic fibers, rubber, solvents, paints, detergents, fertilizers, and pharmaceuticals, as well as lubricants, asphalt, bitumen, and other petroleum-derived products, permeated various aspects of daily life. Presently, petroleum products find widespread utilization, spanning from cosmetics to automobile components.
The possession of this invaluable resource naturally enriched the countries of the Middle East. Nevertheless, during the initial years, Arab nations grappled with the question of how to manage their newfound petrodollars and opted to deposit their earnings in Western banks. The West, in turn, purchased oil with dollars, while Arab and Iranian nations, who exchanged oil for dollars, deposited their funds in Western banks or imported consumer goods from Western nations. Ultimately, both money and oil predominantly resided in the hands of the West. Following bitter experiences, this arrangement underwent a transformation, leading Arab nations to diversify their sources of income. Presently, oil-rich Arab countries own numerous Western companies. Moreover, wealthy individuals from Arab nations, bolstered by petrodollars, have invested in symbols of Western culture such as sports clubs like PSG and Manchester City. Gulf states such as Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have also effectively succeeded in attracting the world’s wealthy to the region by constructing entertainment and grandiose shopping centers in the world’s tallest buildings next to oil wells…
In summary, as a result of capital accumulation derived from oil and gas exports, numerous Middle Eastern nations have emerged as significant importers and foreign investors on the global stage. The Arabian Peninsula accommodates nearly 20 sovereign wealth funds (SWFs), responsible for overseeing approximately $3.7 trillion in assets, which accounts for roughly one-third of the total state fund assets globally. For instance, the Kuwait Investment Authority stands as the sixth largest government investor worldwide, managing assets worth $769 billion as of 2022. As a result, Arab funds and investors represent coveted capital owners that each country seeks to attract to its domestic market. Similarly, the commercial cities of the Gulf have assumed a pivotal role in the global economy. Consequently, it becomes evident that any global power incapable of exerting influence in the Middle East would be excluded from highly consequential economic opportunities.
LAND OF TERROR OR OPPORTUNITIES?
Presently, if an average American or English individual were to be queried regarding their perceptions of the Middle East, their associations may encompass terms such as “terrorism” or “conflict,” portraying the region as a domain inhabited by adversarial forces. Nevertheless, over the course of the 20th century, the Middle East has significantly contributed to the economic and security realms of Western nations. Every impartial and non-ideological assessment unequivocally acknowledges that the Middle East has undergone a transformation, emerging as a region that mitigates the burdens on the United States and Europe, instead of serving as an additional source of obstacles or challenges across diverse domains. I do not find it realistic that the U.S.’s regional interests during the Cold War years are no longer valid in the new world order. If the U.S. still claims global leadership, it has and always will have vital interests in the Middle East.
Following the 9/11 attacks, President George Bush issued a cautionary statement that “America is addicted to oil” and advocated for a substantial reduction in imports from the Middle East. Since then, there has been a significant decline in U.S. imports from the Middle East; however, a complete reset has not been achieved. Nevertheless, refraining from importing oil specifically from Middle Eastern countries does not imply a lack of dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Irrespective of the source of oil procurement, oil carries a price like any other commodity, with oil prices predominantly influenced by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), comprising primarily Middle Eastern nations. Consequently, all nations worldwide, regardless of whether they import oil from the Middle East or elsewhere, remain reliant on the Middle East for oil, and this scenario shows no signs of imminent alteration. In fact, the U.S. President, seeking to curb escalating oil prices resulting from the Ukraine War, appealed to Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia as the largest global oil producer. However, the Arab oil producers did not heed these requests, and oil prices soared once they collaborated with Russia. The surge in oil prices impacts every facet of the economy, given that oil serves as a fundamental raw material for numerous end products and constitutes a substantial portion of transportation and distribution costs. High oil prices have been one of the main contributing factors to the global inflation observed in recent years.
IS THERE A GLOBAL LEADERSHIP POSSIBLE WITHOUT THE MIDDLE EAST?
For a state to uphold its claim to global leadership, it will face significant challenges if it fails to establish a presence in the Middle East, given the region’s strategic location, abundant natural resources, and financial power. Moreover, a global power that attains influence over the Middle East does not merely shoulder new burdens, but rather discovers numerous sources of material and spiritual power that augment its influence in the region. The intentional or inadvertent creation of a substantial power vacuum by the United States in the Middle East has been recognized by China, which has discerned the region’s importance and fertility in global competition.
When China hosted the inaugural Sino-Arab Summit with Arab states in December 2022, the international media primarily emphasized the political aspect of the event. Similarly, when China successfully brokered reconciliation between long-standing rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia in February 2023, global public opinion centered on China’s potential political and military objectives in the Middle East. While it would be incorrect to assert that China’s new policies toward the Middle East lack political motivations, Beijing’s primary objectives for engaging with the region are driven by economic interests and energy security, rather than purely political ambitions. China’s annual crude oil imports from Middle Eastern countries exceed $170 billion, with Saudi Arabia alone exporting approximately $65 billion worth of crude oil to China in 2022. If China intends to sustain its economic growth, establishing a presence in the Middle East becomes imperative.(7)
Furthermore, the combined GDP of Middle Eastern countries surpasses $5 trillion, exceeding the combining GDP of both Japan and Germany. In essence, the Middle East region represents a prosperous market for Chinese goods. Notably, oil and natural gas-rich nations within the region possess investment funds worth trillions of dollars, as well as companies capable of making foreign investments. For instance, Saudi Arabia’s Aramco, a prominent petrochemical giant, has invested over $10 billion in refinery projects in China and is engaged in ongoing negotiations for further investments. As China currently serves as the Middle East’s largest trading partner, it aims to expand its sales to the region, increase oil purchases, and attract the trillions of dollars amassed within the region, which predominantly flow to Western markets, to the mainland Chinese economy.
In summary, China views the Middle East through an economic lens rather than a political one, offering a cooperative approach that benefits all participating nations. Unlike US-Middle East relations, this cooperation does not entail mutual political expectations between the involved parties.
Middle Eastern countries are presently content with China’s interest in the region, as it presents an alternative power capable of balancing Western policies in favor of local powers. Leveraging the global competition between China and the United States, local states will strive to assert their desires upon the major powers.
In order for the United States to uphold its position of global leadership, it appears impracticable to relinquish the Middle East to its adversaries. This is because the power that exercises dominance in the Middle East not only enhances its own power but also assumes a decisive role in global economies. It is evident that the United States has encountered a crisis of self-confidence in the region following its setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, what is expected from the United States is not to repeat the mistakes of its past experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, but rather to approach the region by assimilating lessons from those failures.
In his book titled “Grand Delusion” (Penguin, 2023), Steven Simon elucidates why America has sustained losses in the Middle East over a span of four decades. He identifies the crucial factor as Americans’ lack of comprehension regarding the region. If Washington desires to secure success in the Middle East, it must abandon its unilateral impositions and instead prioritize listening to its allies in the region.
(1) “President Trump Reportedly Wants Allies to Pay Full Cost of Hosting U.S. Troops Abroad ‘Plus 50%’”, Time, 8 MArch 2019.
(2) Steve Kraske, Zach Wilson, “Why one political scientist says the U.S. should focus on China instead of Russia’s war in Ukraine”, NPR, February 22, 2023, https://www.kcur.org/podcast/up–to–date/2023-02-22/why–one–political–scientists–says–the–u–s–should–focus–on–china–instead–of–russias–war–in–ukraine
(3) Elbridge A. Colby, “The U.S. Must Support Ukraine, But China Must Be Our Priority”, Time, 27 February 2022; Elbridge A. Colby and Alex Velez-Green, “To Avert War with China, the U.S. Must Pprioritize Taiwan over Ukraine”, The Washington Post, May 18, 2023.
(4) Martin Indyk, “The Middle East Isn’t Worth It Anymore”, Wall Street Journal, 18 January 2020.
(5) Jonathan Panikoff, “Shifting Priorities: The US and the Middle East in a Multipolar World”, The Atlantic Council, 12 July 2022.
(6) Tom O’Conner, “The End of the American Century Begins in the Middle East,” The Newsweek, 3 May 2023.
For U.S. politicians, a free Honduras should be a bipartisan priority
Since Xiomara Castro was sworn into office as Honduras’ first female president, she has chosen to align the country with backward regimes such as Cuba and China. At the same time, she appears to be moving away from trade partnerships with forward-thinking countries like the US and Taiwan.
If Castro is successful, it would be an unmitigated disaster for Honduras and the entire free world, reversing decades of economic and social progress that the country has made.
It would also be a hammer blow for the US, both politically and economically. After all, America is Honduras’ biggest trading partner, accounting for $5.2 billion in exports and $6.4bn in imports in 2021, while it also provides a host of much-needed educational opportunities.
In addition, it would play right into China’s hands as the global superpower strives to broaden its geographic footprint and influence. Were Castro to get her way, it would also undoubtedly result in a mass exodus of Honduran migrants, who would head straight for the US border in search of a better life.
US should support a free Honduras
The only way to stop Honduras from going down the same path as some of its neighbors is for the US Republicans and Democrats to join forces to defend the country’s freedom. Only the newly-elected speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, has the power and drive to bring the two sides together to save the Honduran people from their perilous plight
Only through public diplomacy can the US Government alter Honduras’ economic course for the better. But it needs to make sure that it works alongside and cooperatively with President Castro. A recent letter from Senator Elizabeth Warren and more than 30 anti-trade Democrats urging the U.S. Government to intervene against fellow Americans in a case brought against Honduras by American firm Honduras Prospera has only served to worsen the ongoing dispute.
Castro has already taken steps to shut down foreign investment in Zones for Employment and Economic Development (ZEDEs), signing a measure to repeal the legislation governing them. The direct result has been to economically disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of hard-working Hondurans and, in effect, stall the economy.
The fact of the matter is that ZEDEs will raise the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita to $36,000 by 2050. That’s more than 10 times above the current GDP of $2,772.
ZEDEs are already having a big impact on Honduras’ economy, driving GDP per capita growth by 17% between 2020 and 2021. A shining example of this is Prospera, a ZEDE on the island of Roatan, which has attracted almost $100 million in US private investment, with that figure expected to reach $500m by 2025.
The bottom line is that free trade zones are key to attracting foreign investment, and creating jobs and prosperity in developing countries such as Honduras. This investment is vital to kick-start a flagging economy that is still getting over the cost of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Castro’s plans to close ZEDEs are ill-conceived and, if followed through with, they will cause untold damage to both the economy and jobs. They will also scare off any potential long-term investors looking for a stable environment in which to do business that abides by the rule of law.
Honduras’ future is in the balance. It can’t afford to make the same mistakes as its Latin American counterparts Venezuela and Bolivia, both of which are now mired in poverty and corruption after decades of mismanagement by the government.
ZEDEs represent a unique opportunity to lift millions of Hondurans out of poverty. Shutting them down will only put their workers back to square one, at the worst possible time, with the world facing 40-year record inflation and a deep cost of living crisis.
America Vs America
A novel global landscape is currently being forged, and the United States, recognized as the unequivocal leader of the preceding world, understandably harbors concerns regarding its ability to uphold its established position within the emerging order. In the ongoing discourse that has persisted since the conclusion of the Cold War in the late 1980s, a wide array of divergent proposals have been put forth to address this apprehension. Some have advocated for the containment of potential adversaries, while others have advocated for the division of the world into distinct civilizations, necessitating confrontations with each. Consequently, the question arises: What measures can America adopt to sustain its global leadership in this new era? Conceivably, the answer may still reside within the annals of America’s own historical trajectory.
WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS
When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered his armies to invade Kuwait on August 2, 1990, he could not have imagined that the whole world would unite against him. The unanimous backing of all permanent members resulted in the adoption of U.N. Security Council resolution 678, authorizing a collective intervention against Iraq. As the United States deployed troops during the Gulf War of 1991, an overwhelming majority of nations rallied behind the military intervention. No American foreign intervention has ever been done with such great consensus. The level of agreement achieved was so extensive that it surpassed even the united front against Hitler’s Germany during the Second World War. Excluding instances like Yemen and Cuba, it could be argued that, perhaps for the first time in human history, all nations were uniting against a tyrant, with the U.S. spearheading the effort.
In the realm of International Relations literature, the extraordinary consensus witnessed during the Gulf War is often attributed primarily to the conclusion of the Cold War. While this assertion holds some truth, it alone falls short of fully elucidating the remarkable unity witnessed during the initial Iraq War. In addition to fortuitous circumstances and unfolding events, the significant role played by the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon in fostering the extensive consensus cannot be understated. Diplomatic efforts were deployed, accompanied by a range of incentives, promises, and even veiled threats, aimed at securing a unanimous UN vote. As an illustration, the US achieved a noteworthy agreement whereby the Saudi government committed to providing $1 billion in aid to the Soviets throughout the winter. (1)
Although certain endeavors may be deemed unethical, I find the United States’ pursuit of global approval commendable. Prior to and during the operation, President George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) and the secretaries engaged in dialogue with key Middle Eastern leaders, emphasizing the significance of consultation. As an illustration, Turgut Özal, the Prime Minister of Turkey at that time, took pride in being seen as a guiding influence to the US President due to their frequent bilateral phone calls and in-person meetings. Özal‘s sentiment was not unfounded, as President H. W. Bush demonstrated a genuine concern for the perspectives of Middle Eastern nations and the international community regarding the Iraq War, readily engaging in consultations with global leaders.On November 29, 1990, the United States secured the approval of a resolution from the UN Security Council, authorizing the use of “all necessary means” should Iraq fail to withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, 1991.
Upon obtaining UN support, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney expressed the view that he did not require Congressional approval. Cheney’s rationale behind this stance was to avoid unveiling anti-war sentiments and potentially reawakening memories of the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, President H.W. Bush demonstrated wisdom in rejecting Defense Secretary Cheney‘s perspective. In embarking on the path to war, the President endeavored to secure not only global support but also the backing of American society and institutions. Ultimately, Congress sent a powerful message to the world by granting approval to the President’s request. In fact, what President H.W. Bush accomplished in the early 1990s was akin to “winning hearts and minds,” a feat that subsequent U.S. Presidents, including his son, George Bush, should have pursued in the 2000s but unfortunately fell short of achieving.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States emerged as the sole and unrivaled global superpower. Such was its dominance and influence that even French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, in the late 1990s, referred to the United States as a “hyperpower,” underscoring its unparalleled standing in the international sphere. (2)
CLINTON ERA: A HUMANITARIAN FOREIGN POLICY?
Regardless of whether labeled as “super” or “hyper,” the US foreign policy during the 1990s was not characterized by aggression or arbitrariness. Quite the opposite, under the presidency of William J. Clinton (1993-2001), the United States predominantly pursued its objectives through peaceful and soft power means. Bill Clinton‘s foreign policy was marked by a notable emphasis on international engagement, diplomacy, institutions, values and multilateral approaches.
Clinton was the president of the only hyperpower on earth, and the power he controlled was incomparable to the power of any state. However, during his presidency, the United States did not appear to wield this power arbitrarily or solely for its own interests. Clinton‘s foreign policy agenda encompassed several crucial elements, including the promotion of democracy and human rights, bolstering international trade, facilitating the integration of global markets, pursuing diplomatic resolutions to conflicts, and participating in humanitarian interventions. Similar to his predecessors, President Clinton authorized military operations in various regions across the globe and assumed a role akin to the world’s police force. Nonetheless, unlike previous instances, the United States’ foreign interventions during the Clinton era were perceived as displaying less arrogance and self-interest.
Indeed, in Kosovo, Bosnia, and numerous other instances, American military interventions were designated as “humanitarian interventions,” and the concept of “humanitarian interventionism” gained prominence within Clinton’s foreign policy framework. The Clinton administration displayed a readiness to engage in situations where they perceived humanitarian crises to be unfolding, especially in instances involving genocide, ethnic cleansing, and severe violations of human rights. In the instances of Kosovo and Bosnia, the United States demonstrated a remarkable departure from religious solidarity norms by daring to challenge another taboo and providing protection to oppressed Muslims who were facing oppression from Christians. Regrettably, such instances of principled action are seldom witnessed throughout the annals of human history. These interventions were motivated by the conviction that the international community held a duty to safeguard civilians from egregious human rights abuses, and that the use of military force could be warranted to prevent or halt large-scale atrocities. The US doctrine of humanitarian intervention faced criticism from various quarters, particularly due to concerns over disregarding the sovereign rights of nations. Nevertheless, it also fostered aspirations that humanity could unite in a collective effort to safeguard and uphold human rights.
Undobtedly, certain circles labeled American foreign interventions during the Clinton era as “inhumane” or even “colonial.” Anti-American sentiment was pervasive worldwide, as is often the case in any given period. However, such criticism, when compared to the anti-American movements observed before and after that time, largely remained ineffective and marginal.
Under the Clinton administration, a remarkable wave of optimism and hope surged regarding the future of global affairs under American leadership. The average American saw themselves as citizens of the world’s sole hyperpower, unaware of the potential vulnerability and eventual decline of American power.
9/11: DEVASTATING ATTACKS THAT ALTERED THE COURSE OF A GLOBAL POWER
On September 11, 2001, the United States was subjected to a series of meticulously planned and coordinated terrorist attacks. Perpetrated by the extremist group known as al-Qaeda, these attacks involved the hijacking of four commercial airplanes. Targeting iconic structures that symbolized American power, the assailants strategically deployed the hijacked planes. Two of the aircraft, namely American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, were deliberately flown into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, resulting in the catastrophic collapse of both towers within a matter of hours. Another hijacked plane, American Airlines Flight 77, was intentionally crashed into the Pentagon located in Arlington, Virginia. The fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, intended for a target within Washington D.C., ultimately crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.
The attacks were appalling, resulting in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people from more than 90 countries, including individuals from various backgrounds and professions. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in world history and had a profound impact on global politics, security measures, and international relations. An additional significance of these attacks lay in the stark reality that enemy forces had struck the previously sheltered American homeland with unprecedented force and clarity. Even during the conflicts of World War II, the United States had not been subjected to such open vulnerability. Moreover, the U.S. experienced this attack at a time when it felt most powerful and unrivaled. The assailants nearly entangled the shoelaces of the colossal U.S. entity and successfully disrupted its entire equilibrium. The entangled giant, the United States, proceeded to respond precisely as desired by the attackers, fueled by anger and a thirst for vengeance, instead of employing rationality, reason, and caution as it should have done.
Right after the attacks, the sympathy of the whole world was with the Americans. While the attacks were taking place, I was on the streets of Türkiye and I did not see a single person rejoicing at the attacks. Instead, people were filled with compassion, offering their condolences and even uttering prayers for the victims of the 9/11 tragedy and their bereaved families.
A substantial majority of the global community, particularly the nations affiliated with NATO, elected to engage in cooperation with the United States and formally expressed their endorsement. But all these warm feelings did not satisfy the U.S. administration and President George Bush chose a confrontational language and said during his address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001 “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” as part of his declaration of a global War on Terrorism. Although the term “war on terror” is used very often, in practice this war cannot be waged against a concrete enemy. Terrorism embodies an elusive nature akin to that of a specter. Engaging in armed conflict against it not only fails to eradicate terror but inadvertently nourishes it, often resulting in harm to numerous innocent civilians. Interestingly, the United States had previously proffered such counsel to developing nations grappling with terrorism. However, when confronted with a similar predicament, Washington D.C. seemingly disregarded these fundamental truths, opting to combat terrorism through conventional methods of warfare. The endeavor, referred to by President Bush as the “war on terror,” resulted in the military interventions in Afghanistan and subsequently Iraq. Regrettably, in both conflicts, the United States failed to sufficiently prioritize the task of garnering global goodwill and public support. Largely attributing its actions to the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, the US exhibited a sense of entitlement rather than diligently seeking to win the hearts and minds of people worldwide. President George Bush, in contrast to his father’s diplomatic and political endeavors prior to the 1991 Gulf War, did not demonstrate an equivalent level of commitment in persuading the international community and the American public.
Thus, with a controversial decision taken from the U.N. and under the protests of millions of people, the US launched an unnecessary invasion of Iraq. The number of Americans who died in the invasion of Iraq even exceeded the number of Americans who died in the 9/11 attacks. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims lost their lives in Iraq, millions of people were displaced from their homes. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States found itself grappling with intangible adversaries, as its intent was to combat terrorists. Paradoxically, this inadvertently aligned with the terrorists’ objectives, leading to the inadvertent infliction of harm upon innocent individuals unaffiliated with terrorism. The American expenditure in Iraq amounted to trillions of dollars with little to show in return. Furthermore, allegations of corruption within the armed forces came to light, further exacerbating the situation. The U.S. gave a very bad test in Iraq:
The utilization of waterboarding, a practice commonly deemed as highly prohibited and classified as an extreme form of torture, emerged as a contentious issue in the United States during the 2000s amid the War on Terror. Following the revelation that the CIA employed waterboarding on certain Al-Qaeda suspects, media reports indicated that additional forms of torture were utilized on detainees in designated partner nations. Furthermore, American officials orchestrated covert transportation of suspects aboard planes to circumvent domestic laws and subject them to mistreatment. The disclosure of images depicting torture by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison, along with reports of human rights violations in Guantanamo Base during the United States’ administration, received widespread coverage in the New York and Washington press, leading to the rapid erosion of global sympathy for America and the emergence of hostile sentiments. It became evident that Americans were conforming to the terrorists’ methods, as the unresolved anger stemming from the 9/11 attacks persisted, clearly influencing the behavior of American officials. In the misguided pursuit of revenge, America, like other states engaged in misguided counterterrorism efforts, compromised its own principles and values.
AMERICA vs. AMERICA
Despite being underestimated, American moral values and democratic institutions serve as a significant source of power, setting an exemplary standard for the world. Many countries around the world teach how Congress, courts, and other American institutions work in their political science schools, and most other country elites feel that they need such institutions and living principles to be strong, like the United States.
However, as the media portrayed the ugly realities of the Iraq War and exposed instances where certain American officials failed to adequately uphold their own values and institutions, the Congress building gradually lost its symbolic significance of representing freedom and the rule of law, particularly for many individuals in the developing world. The once-celebrated notion of the United States as a “superpower” in the 1990s crumbled amidst the rubble of Iraq and Afghanistan. Consequently, perceptions of the United States began to shift, characterizing it as a more ordinary power. These sentiments were not limited to international perceptions but were also observed within American society itself. This ongoing process can be described as the erosion of American institutions and values. America, driven by panic following the destruction of buildings on 9/11, inadvertently weakened its own power by undermining its foundational principles, values, and institutions. Remarkably, at that time, few were cognizant of the unfolding repercussions of these actions.
The terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks, with their aim to manipulate America’s conduct through the destruction of symbolic and monumental structures, unfortunately accomplished their objective and achieved success. The fabric of American society underwent a decline as its behavior shifted, characterized by a disposition towards anger rather than rationality. The once prevailing perception of America as an invincible force began to wane globally, but notably, it also diminished within the hearts of the American people themselves.
THE DECLINE OF AMERICA: REALITY OR ILLUSION?
In my scholarly perspective, the emergence of the “American decline literature” within the American press, political arena, and academic spheres during the 2000s can be attributed to a perceptual construct rooted in psychological traumas rather than materialistic factors.
The comparative economic and social analyses conducted for the aforementioned years fail to substantiate the alleged decline. Undoubtedly, the American economy experienced significant fluctuations during the 2000s, characterized by both favorable and unfavorable trends. However, it would be erroneous to interpret these oscillations as indicative of a sustained and irreversible “decline.” The occurrence of issues like the 2007 financial crisis cannot be attributed to the downfall of America as a civilization but rather to intermittent errors and unforeseen incidents. Empirical economic indicators consistently demonstrated that the United States remained the most prosperous, advanced, and productive nation globally.It would be unrealistic to talk about the economic collapse of a country whose GDP is higher than that of Japan, Italy, even in its poorest state, Mississippi
Indeed, it is verifiable that certain conventional manufacturing facilities have undergone closures, and several labor-intensive enterprises have opted to relocate to foreign nations, such as China, with the intention of mitigating costs within the United States during the 2000s. Nevertheless, contemporaneously, the American economy demonstrated remarkable ingenuity, emerging as the preeminent global creative economy: Prominent entities such as Apple, Amazon (established in 2006), Google (1998), Tesla (2003), Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005), Instagram (2010), Uber (2009), Netflix (1997), Microsoft, and numerous other renowned brands have exemplified the formidable potency of American creativity and entrepreneurial prowess. These enterprises have successfully engendered nascent industries hitherto inexistent, thus yielding substantial contributions comparable to the economic output of a medium-sized government to the American national economy. American companies have proven how dynamic humanity is still with discoveries never known before. As previously elucidated, it is incontrovertible that the American society, political landscape, and economy encountered a series of crises and confronted significant challenges during the aforementioned timeframe. However, these circumstances should not be regarded as substantiating evidence to support the assertion that the United States has undergone a state of collapse. Concurrently, it is evident that China and certain other competitor nations experienced a substantial upsurge in economic advancement. Nevertheless, the progress achieved by rival nations does not substantiate the notion that the United States has succumbed to decline or disintegration.
To summarize, the apprehensive assertions made during the 2000s, suggesting that “America is in decline” or “America’s societal and cultural hegemony is waning,” can be primarily attributed to psychological factors rather than being grounded in tangible evidence. These psychological factors stem from the profound impact of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, which proved to be not only unnecessary but also excessively burdensome in terms of cost. Following the catastrophic events of 9/11, the United States, driven by a vengeful sentiment, regrettably undermined its own foundational values and sources of power. Consequently, a disconcerting phenomenon unfolded, wherein the nation initiated an internal conflict against itself. In such circumstances, the predictable outcome of such a self-destructive war becomes apparent, as history demonstrates that defeat is inevitable in such situations.
A NEW COLD WAR?
Due to the Ukrainian War’s influence, the world is increasingly concerned about the possibility of a new cold war, and perhaps even a hot war. In Europe, countries are already experiencing a standoff between Russia and the US. However, it is the growing power of China that particularly concerns the United States. China, having emerged as the world’s second-largest economy through remarkable growth in recent decades, instills fear among its adversaries due to its substantial military investments, amounting to billions of dollars. Recognizing China as its potential global rival, the US is actively seeking methods to prevent China’s involvement in the production and supply chains of strategic products, such as semiconductors and chips.
It seems that the U.S. is trying to implement the old strategy of the Cold War years, namely the containment policy, against its new rival, China. China, on the other hand, is developing special friendships with strategic countries in very different geographies such as Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Republic of South Africa, as if to nullify such siege efforts. In contrast to the containment of the Soviet Union, isolating China does not seem like a straightforward task. Unlike the Soviets, China actively engages in the capitalist system, adhering to its rules and avoiding self-imposed isolationist errors.
Another concept influencing American foreign policy today, similar to the “containment policy,” is the notion of “the West and the rest.” This approach suggests that the West stands alone against the rest of the world, relying solely on itself for support.(3) As I previously attempted to explain, this assumption lacks factual basis and is merely an illusion. If the West succumbs to an idea that divides the world into factions, it will harm both itself and the global community. In the emerging nebulous world order, what the U.S. and the West will require most is not adversaries but rather new allies and friendships.
The concept of “winning hearts and minds,” which was commonly employed in the 2000s but fell short of achieving its goals, is the policy that the U.S. will require the most in this new era. In this context, the Middle East and the Islamic world, which the U.S. appears to have overlooked in recent years, also hold significant importance. I acknowledge that there exists considerable frustration and disillusionment within the American government and the Congress regarding the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. This sense of defeat is causing American policymakers to lean towards isolationism or harbor a hostile perception of the Muslim world. Nevertheless, it appears that Middle Eastern states and Muslim nations as a whole will wield a significant influence on establishing equilibrium in the emerging global order. This may explain why China is placing special emphasis on forging alliances with Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Muslim nations, possessing abundant natural resources and comprising a quarter of the world’s population, form a collective that any aspiring global leader would seek as a partner. While the Asia-Pacific region may serve as the focal point of the new global contest, it seems implausible to achieve success in this competition without securing the support of the Middle East, regardless of where the global rivalry unfolds.
NOT “WEST AND THE REST”, BUT “WEST AND THE FRIENDS”
In summary, the United States is not in decline. On the contrary, during the post-Cold War era, the U.S. successfully revitalized itself across various domains and retained its position as the world’s leading economy and political power. However, the global landscape is changing, with other nations experiencing growth and development as well. Given the rapid advancements in technology and evolving nature of global economic relations, the world has become too intricate for a single dominant state to manage alone.
In today’s interconnected world, the mere accumulation of power by the United States or any other global superpower is insufficient to address the collective global challenges. Consequently, both the U.S. and potential rivals require the involvement of regional powers and pivotal countries. The U.S. must now strive to win over more hearts and minds than ever before.
While it remains uncertain whether the newly emerging world order will be a multilateral world order in the classical sense, or whether a variant of the multilateral that we do not know is emerging. But one thing is certain; The United States must strengthen the values, principles, rules and institutions that have made it strong in the past.
An approach that divides the world along hostile civilizational lines, as suggested by Huntington and other thinkers, does not serve the best interests of the United States. On the contrary, it undermines its power. Similarly, it would be excessively optimistic to solely approach the newly formed world order with Cold War reflexes and hope for results by economically and militarily containing potential rivals. Washington must prioritize building friendships before fostering enmities to uphold its global leadership, adopting a mindset of “the West and its friends” rather than “the West and the rest.”
(1) Thomas L. Friedman, “How U.S. Won Support to Use Mideast Forces the Iraq Resolution: A U.S.-Soviet Collaboration”, The New York Times, 2 December 1990, A.1
(2) “To Paris, U.S. Looks Like a ‘Hyperpower'”, The New York Times, 5 February 1999.
(3) Samuel P. Huntington, Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, (London: Simon & Schuster, 2002).
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