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Course Description:  The Middle East has been a major focus for U.S. foreign policy since the Second World War.  Over the past few decades, the Middle East has gained increasing salience for policymakers in Washington.  The region receives the lion’s share of U.S. development and military assistance, and beneficiaries U.S. aid include Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen.  More arms flow into the Middle East than any other part of the world, and the United States is the leading arms provider in the region (and in the world).  U.S. allies in Europe and Japan are heavily dependent upon oil from the Gulf and North Africa, American oil companies have an enormous economic stake in the area, and the unimpeded flow of petroleum from the region is crucial to the strength of the domestic U.S. economy.

Throughout the 1950s and the 1980s, the Middle East was the site for a Cold war struggle for influence and position between Washington and Moscow.  Middle East wars in 1956, 1967, and especially 1973 quickly became major international crises.  When the Cold war ended, the Middle East remained a region of enormous geopolitical significance.  After the demise of the Soviet empire, the geographic dimensions of the region expanded to include the Muslim societies of Central Asia, which once again routinely interact with the Arab world, Israel, Turkey and Iran.  Particularly since September 11, 2001, the U.S. has become acutely aware its leading role in the Middle East brings with it serious threats of violence, which stem in part from advocates of a radical Islamist worldview that is hostile to the presence of the U.S. (among others) in the region, as well as broader resentment of U.S. policies and actions, such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict.  

From the standpoint of U.S. foreign policy, there are four fundamental interests: access to Middle East oil, ensuring that the region does not fall under the sway of a hostile power, reducing if not eliminating terror-violence emanating from the region, and insuring the security of Israel.  

The United States, like its major European allies, avows a commitment to the promotion of democracy in the Middle East, but this commitment has been inconsistent and has periodically been set aside in the service of other interests. This raises the question of whether the promotion of democracy is feasible or prudent.  For many years, the “drug of choice” for U.S. policy was regional stability and the promotion of reform was viewed as a potential source of instability.  That perspective was rethought since 9-11, but there remains a debate about the merits of political reform. Many observers argue that Islamist political forces pose a major challenge to U.S. interests in the region.  Does the U.S. have a fundamental interest in seeing that Islamists do not come to power?  Much of this debate rendered academic by the stunning upheaval of 2011 that led to the toppling of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and perhaps Yemen.  The reverberations of the upheaval continue to shake the foundations of power in a variety of states, not least Syria but also in many other countries in the region (e.g., Bahrain and Yemen). 

For more than four decades the U.S. has been concerned about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.  Israel already has assembled a nuclear arsenal, notwithstanding its official posture.  Other states, including Iran, and for certain periods, Iraq and Libya, have programs underway that may lead to the acquisition of nuclear weapons.  Should the U.S. support an Israeli monopoly on nuclear arms, or should it move for the establishment of the nuclear-free zone in the region?  For many years, Iran was a close U.S. ally, but with the revolution of 1979, a hostile regime came to power in Tehran.  Now, after much anguish and several foreign policy disasters fomented by Iran, the U.S. is pursuing a policy aimed at isolating Iran.  Is this a credible and sensible policy, given expressed U.S. interests in fostering a security regime in the Gulf?  These questions, and others, are central to any exploration of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

After laying the groundwork with a discussion of U.S. foreign policy since the Second World War, we shall explore these questions with a view to understanding the underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and thinking creatively about the dilemmas of present U.S. policy.