The Middle East: Must We Fight Forever?

News Abroad
tags: Middle East, foreign policy, diplomatic history

Harlow Giles Unger is author of 27 books, including a dozen biographies of the Founding Fathers. Among them is the best-selling James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness.


As the United Nations General Assembly approached adjournment without a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, world leaders left New York wondering if and how President Donald Trump will respond to Iran’s alleged missile-and-drone attack on Saudi-Arabian oil facilities earlier this month.


Mr. Trump has already announced plans to add 1,000 more troops to the 20,000 American troops already on the Arabian peninsula and the more than 35,000 deployed across the Arab world. With his latest deployment, Mr. Trump will have increased America’s military presence in Arab states by 37.5% since his Inauguration Day pledge to reduce American involvement there. 


Incredibly, expansion of America’s military involvement in the Arab states comes nearly 235 years since the prescient John Adams tried stifling Thomas Jefferson’s ambitions for war against Arab pirate fleets in the Mediterranean Sea.  “We ought not to fight them at all,” Adams warned, “unless we determine to fight them forever.” 


Elected President in 1800, Jefferson ignored Adams’s warning and embarked on the first of two Barbary Wars with Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya (then called Tripoli). Until America’s War of Independence, the British navy had protected American cargo ships against piracy, but U.S. independence left her ships fair game. America cargo ship losses soared above 10 percent, with untold thousands of American seamen captured, often tortured, and sold into slavery.


When Congress refused to go to war, Jefferson ignored lawmakers and the Constitution by ordering the Navy to the Mediterranean. By the time congress discovered Jefferson’s usurpation of power, the fleet had sailed too far to recall. When American warships entered the Mediterranean in the spring of 1801, Tripoli (now Libya) humiliated the American Navy by capturing the spanking new frigate Philadelphia, then the pride of America’s “new navy.”


After an outraged American public forced Congress to strengthen the American fleet, American Commodore Edward Preble raided Tripoli harbor, destroyed the Philadelphiaand opened the way for Captain Stephen Decatur to attack and destroy much of  Tripoli’s port. In June 1806, Tripoli’s ruler sued for peace, and the United States established a naval presence in the Mediterranean that has continued almost without interruption to this day.


One brief interruption came after President James Madison declared war on Britain in 1812. With American and British navies too busy fighting on the Atlantic to guard cargo ships in the Mediterranean, the Arab states resumed predations on foreign merchant vessels. By 1815, however, America had recovered from the war with Britain, and President James Madison ordered Commodore Stephen Decatur to sail into Algiers harbor and destroy the Arab fleet. In 1816, the Barbary states sued for peace and ended piracy on the Mediterranean.


In 1823, President James Monroe adopted a new foreign policy to protect the merchant fleet by expanding American military might beyond its borders to protect foreign trade. In a seldom recognized extension of his famed Monroe doctrine, the President not only declared the American continent’s shores closed to foreign incursions, he extended government protection to American cargo ships on the high seas by ordering expansion of the Navy and its global deployment to protect American ships at sea.


Assured of improved ship safety around the globe, President Andrew Jackson signed a trade agreement in 1833 with Muscat and Oman, on the southeastern rim of the Arabian Peninsula—America’s first significant commercial penetration of the Middle East. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln expanded American foreign commerce farther into the Arab world, signing a Treaty of Commerce and Navigation with the vast Ottoman Empire and opening American trade in present-day Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria.

Then, in 1908, the discovery of oil in Persia—present-day Iran—changed the world.


After World War I had showcased the importance oil would play in modern transportation, the British, Dutch,  French, and American oil companies rushed to find and claim Middle East oil fields—most of them along the rim of the Arabian peninsula. But World War II changed Middle East boundaries into a patch-quilt of independent, often feuding Arab states, whose governments seized ownership of oil fields, granting only exploitation rights to the foreign oil companies that had originally owned the properties. 


The creation of the independent Jewish state of Israel and Soviet Union efforts to gain influence in the region turned the Middle East into a perennial war zone. 



To ensure the flow of Middle East oil to America, President George H.W. Bush sent 200,000 American troops into Kuwait in 1991 and expelled an Iraqi army from oil-rich Kuwait. In 2003, President George W. Bush sent 170,000 mostly American troops into Iraq to dislodge President Saddam Hussein and restore access to Iraqi oil fields by American and western oil companies. Although Saddam died in 2006, more than 5,000 American troops remain in Iraq.



And after fundamentalist Muslim terrorists based in Afghanistan attacked New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the American government sent an army of more than 140,000 troops to Afghanistan to crush an insurgency linked to the terrorists. By 2017, Washington had claimed enough victories there to reduce its troop strength in Afghanistan to about 8,500.



Since then, the Trump Administration has rebuilt American troop strength by 50 percent and will raise the total to more than 15,000 by the end of this year. Meanwhile, American troops remain in Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrein, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, and Egypt. 



Given America’s new-found self-sufficiency in almost all essential natural resources, the motives for continued American military involvement in the Middle East have become less clear.  

Indeed, decades of dependency on Middle East oil ended two years ago with the development of advanced fracking techniques for recovering shale oil in America and the discovery of vast new oil reserves in the Permian Basin of southwest Texas and New Mexico.


The United States military now has nearly 200,000 service personnel deployed at about 700 bases in 177 countries at a cost of at least $100 billion annually. Nearly 70,000 American troops are in Asia and the Pacific, more than 60,000 are in Europe, at least 35,000 are in Arab states, and 100,000 others are scattered across Africa and South and Central America—an indeterminate number of them on ill-defined missions. 


For the Arab world, the pervasive American military presence represents a cultural and religious as well as military affront. As long as enough Arabs adhere to the law of jihad that enjoins them to kill nonbelievers in their lands, there would seem to be little hope that American fighting in  Arab states can end.  


Almost 235 years have elapsed since John Adams warned against America’s first military involvement in the Arab world. The United States today seems well on the way to fulfilling Adams’s prophecy that we will have to “fight them forever.”

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