Vice President Pence: "For nearly 200 years, stretching back to our Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Oman, the United States has been a force for good in the Middle East"

Michael PenceFor nearly 200 years, stretching back to our Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Oman, the United States has been a force for good in the Middle East. Previous administrations in my country too often underestimated the danger that radical Islamic terrorism posed to the American people, our homeland, our allies, and our partners. Their inaction saw the terrorist attacks from the U.S.S. Cole; to September 11th; to the expansion of ISIS across Syria and Iraq — reaching all the way to the suburbs of Baghdad. But as the world has witnessed over the past two years, under President Trump, those days are over.

—Vice President Michael Pence, Remarks, Warsaw Ministerial Working Luncheon, February 14, 2019

Historians say…

Updated to include an additional response. Eight historians responded to our request for comment; their full statements and recommended sources are below (click the headline above and the headers below to show full statements).

The vice president starts with the 1833 treaty with Oman, and so shall we, even though it’s an odd place to start. As Will Hanley of Florida State University noted in his reaction to Pence’s claim, the treaty itself is a piece of routine boilerplate, not so different “from dozens of other 1830s agreements between Middle East authorities and representatives of American and European states.” But there was at least one innovation, as Hanley explains: “The Sultan of Muscat inserted a clause saying that he, rather than the US, would cover the costs of lodging distressed American sailors. A more accurate statement [by Pence] on this evidence would be ‘For nearly 200 years, stretching back to our Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Oman, representatives of the United States have pursued standardized agreements in the Middle East and enjoyed meals that we haven’t paid for.’”

Vice President Pence made this broad statement at a ministerial meeting on terrorism, but his mind was primarily on Iran. His intent was to draw a contrast between the United States and Iran, with the former being a “force for good” in the region and the latter being a perpetrator of continual violence. But by going back to 1833 to reference a routine and fairly boring trade agreement with a minor kingdom, he appears to be grasping at straws.

If Pence was looking for good done by the United States in the Middle East, he could have asked some of the historians who reacted to his statement. He may have learned from Joel Beinin how “American missionaries established some of the leading universities in the Middle East: The American University of Beirut, The American University in Cairo and Robert College in Istanbul. The Medical School of AUB is among the best in the region.” He may have been interested to hear from Indira Falk Gesink that “after World War I, most of those polled in the regions surrounding Syria wanted the US as their mandatory power (if they wanted any).” He may have learned from Lior Sternfeld how the United States has sponsored “schools, universities, and orphanages” and took a stand against its European allies and Israel during the Suez Crisis of 1956.

But if he had asked and had learned about these efforts, he would also have learned from Professor Beinin that many of the missionaries who established these schools went to work for the CIA in the postwar period, “so even the very best thing that Americans have done in the Middle East since the early 19th century was corrupted by government efforts to exert power over the region in order to control its oil.” And Pence would have also had to hear Professor Sternfeld tell about the 1953 coup in Iran that cemented a brutal regime in place for the next quarter-century and how, as described by Professor Gesink, “from that point on, US actions in the Middle East were guided by demand for oil and anti-Communist containment.” Finally, he would have had to hear about how much that 1953 coup has to do with our relations with Iran now.

Historians who replied to our request for comment could not find much “force for good” in the historical record. Instead, they find “death, displacement, and destruction” (Ziad Abu-Rish), support for “the most ruthless and brutal dictators at every turn” and the “most fanatical and chauvinistic nationalist and religious forces at every turn” (Mark Le Vine), “intense and destructive interventions … characterized by public deception, confusion, and mixed motives” (Michael Provence), “a moral compromise with authoritarianism” (Indira Falk Gesink), and actions that have “contributed to breakdowns in security, widespread violence, and humanitarian disaster” (Dale Stahl).

The particulars are in the historians’ longer statements below, and in the sources they cite. But we can pause to reflect on one example: whether the United States was a force for good in the region when it overthrew Iran’s prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, primarily for the crime of wanting to see Iranian oil in Iranian hands.

Homage to the Shah after coup d’état, 5 September 1953, The Guardian – Unseen images of the 1953 Iran coup.

Three historians below recommend The Coup: 1953, The CIA, and The Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations by Ervand Abrahamian, and this book is incredibly pertinent today. Previous historical accounts and justifications by 1950s policymakers made the coup all about Mosaddegh’s unwieldiness to compromise or said it was all about winning the Cold War. Abrahamian instead shows that it was about oil, or, more specifically, “the repercussions that oil nationalization could have on such faraway places as Indonesia and South America, not to mention the rest of the Persian Gulf.” And for this, Iran and the Middle East got, courtesy of the United States, the brutal Mohammad Reza Shah. The shah crushed the democratic opposition, filling his jails with thousands of political prisoners, and left “a gaping political vacuum—one filled eventually by the Islamic movement.” And so here we are.

Mike Pence’s incredibly blinkered statement can be viewed as an extreme counterpoint to the right-wing view of Obama’s Cairo speech, in which the president mildly acknowledged that the US had not always been on the side of right in the Middle East, and that its history of actions have come back to haunt us all. Such things, it seems, must not be spoken in the muscular Trump administration, even if it means abandoning an understanding that might actually be useful. “For me as an historian,” Mark Le Vine notes below, “perhaps the worst part the history of US foreign policy in the region is precisely that scholars have for so long done everything possible to inform politicians, the media and the public about the realities there. Largely to no avail.” Indeed, Mike Pence here appears intent on utterly blocking out history and historical thinking, even as he dreams of a long and glorious past.

Browse and download citations recommended by the historians below from our Zotero library, or try our in-browser library.

Ziad Abu-Rish, Assistant Professor of History at Ohio University
I’m only going to tackle the “force for good” claim, without getting into the claims about Trump compared to his predecessors or the notion of “radical Islamic terrorism.” Let’s give Vice President Pence a chance at being correct, and set aside the post-Cold War policies of the US in the Middle East. Those nearly thirty years alone are enough to undermine the validity of his claim given the amount of death, displacement, and destruction they involved. This includes leading the campaign at the UN Security Council to impose and uphold one of the most brutal sanctions regimes in human history (Iraq, 1990-2003), the entire package that is the US War on Terror (including its rendition and torture programs as well as elective wars by drone, covert forces, or the military), and the US backing for bloody counter-revolutionary measures to stem the tide of popular uprisings in Bahrain (2011), Egypt (2013-present), and Yemen (2011-present). Fortunately for the VP, ignoring the post-Cold War period would also “hide” the 2003 US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, which in addition to decimating the country’s infrastructure and leading to the complete fracturing of state institutions and the social fabric, facilitated the relocation of al-Qaida from Afghanistan to Iraq, and led to the emergence and spread of ISIS.
Yet even still, Pence would still need to account for all the alleged good the broader 20th-century record of US policies accomplished, including supporting or directly facilitating the post-World War I partitioning and European occupation of much of the Middle East, coup d’etats in Syria (1949), Iran (1953), and Iraq (1963), dictatorial regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Iran (pre-1979), and Iraq (when Saddam advanced US interests in the region), and Israeli policies of displacement, occupation, discrimination, and war. Yet we can even go further back in history to the second half of the 19th century, and explore the role of US-based and US-backed Protestant missionaries as they competed with French and British missionaries for the souls, minds, and hearts of Middle Easterners. And why stop at the early 19th century US-Oman treaty. Let us not forget Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s respective military campaigns in North Africa. Simply put, the claim that the US has been a force for good defies the archival record (including that of the US government), which historians have long analyzed, and does nothing but lend credence to what is effectively an imperial role the United States has played vis-a-vis the Middle East, particularly since the end of World War II through today.

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Joel Beinin, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History, Emeritus, Stanford University
American missionaries established some of the leading universities in the Middle East: The American University of Beirut, The American University in Cairo and Robert College in Istanbul. The Medical School of AUB is among the best in the region. These and related initiatives were undertaken by private religious communities (Presbyterians), not the US government. When the US government became more intensely involved in the Middle East after World War II, many missionaries and former missionaries were recruited to the OSS and then the CIA. So even the very best thing that Americans have done in the Middle East since the early 19th century was corrupted by government efforts to exert power over the region in order to control its oil.
Among the “good” that the US government has done in the region since World War II are: support for Saudi Arabia as an absolute monarchy, a CIA-led coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953, landing marines in Lebanon in 1958 to support the pro-American side in the civil war, supporting the coup d’état of the Ba’th in Iraq in 1963, support for Israel in the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, acting as “Israel’s lawyer” (Aaron David Miller’s phrase) during the Oslo process, thereby insuring that an independent Palestinian state would not emerge from the process, the invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003, conducting a “Global War on Terror” that targeted Muslims and secretly tortured and detained hundreds of innocent Muslims from the Middle East and beyond, support for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak during the popular uprising of 2011 until it was clear he had to go, support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE in launching a war against Yemen in 2015. I could go on…

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Indira Falk Gesink, Baldwin Wallace University
Author: Islamic Reform and Conservatism (2009); Chaos on the Earth (2003); Islamic Reformation: A History of Madrasa Reform and Legal Change in Egypt (2006).

I think this is a much more complicated question than is generally acknowledged. On the one hand, some American private citizens have had long-lasting positive impact—for example the founding of educational institutions such as Roberts College, the American University in Beirut (originally the Syrian Protestant College), and the American University in Cairo. At that time, the US generally was viewed positively in the region. After World War I, most of those polled in the regions surrounding Syria wanted the US as their mandatory power (if they wanted any). That changed with US government/CIA ploy in 1953 to unseat the democratically nominated, popular Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, for the crime of challenging foreign control of Iran’s oil revenues. From that point on, US actions in the Middle East were guided by demand for oil and anti-Communist containment. The US made a moral compromise with authoritarianism in the Middle East—we looked the other way when dictators oppressed their people as long as the dictators were anti-Communist (Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran, the Saud family, the Khalifa family in Bahrain, the Sabah family in Kuwait, Hosni Mubarak, Zein al Abidine Ben Ali…). And the US supported the mujahidin in Afghanistan as long as they were fighting the godless Communists, but when the Soviets retreated, the US left Afghanistan in a power vacuum that the Taliban filled. US presidents, notably Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, did try to broker peace agreements between Israel, the Arab states, and the Palestinians, but great power intervention has also exacerbated those conflicts through sales of military hardware and funding. And let’s not forget, the US also sold military hardware to both sides in the Iran-Iraq War (the Iran-Contra Affair). Yes, the US (and 16 other countries) liberated Kuwait from Iraq’s domination in 1991, but only because, as Secretary of State James Baker said, he could never let Iraq control 20 percent of the world’s oil reserves. And Osama bin Laden formed al-Qaida (“radical Islamic terror”) in response to the US forces being in Saudi Arabia for Kuwait’s liberation as well as other US involvements in the region. So has the US been a force for good in the Middle East? I think, on balance, the US has been a force of blunders in the Middle East. And President Trump has done nothing so far to improve that legacy.

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Will Hanley, Florida State University
It’s not possible to use historical evidence to support a black-and-white statement like “The United States has been a force for good in the Middle East.” Even if it were possible, the slim 1833 treaty between the US and the Sultan of Muscat is meager evidence. The treaty uses boilerplate language, and is not significantly different from dozens of other 1830s agreements between Middle East authorities and representatives of American and European states. Edmund Roberts negotiated the agreement as part of a voyage to east Asia (the principal object of his mission); he’d previously concluded an almost identical treaty with Siam. The Sultan of Muscat inserted a clause saying that he, rather than the US, would cover the costs of lodging distressed American sailors. A more accurate statement on this evidence would be “For nearly 200 years, stretching back to our Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Oman, representatives of the United States have pursued standardized agreements in the Middle East and enjoyed meals that we haven’t paid for.”

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Mark Andrew Le Vine, professor of modern Middle Eastern history, UC Irvine
This statement is ridiculous even by the standards of the Trump administration. The US has been among the most damaging forces in the Middle East for the last three quarters of a century. We have supported the most ruthless and brutal dictators at every turn, we have supported the most fanatical and chauvinistic nationalist and religious forces at every turn. We have used our unrivaled political, economic, and strategic power to push down every attempt at democracy in every country. We used our mafia-like influence with Saudi Arabia to create an arms petrodollar cycle that more than almost anything is responsible both for the climate change that threatens to make our species extinct and the weapons glut that has enabled so much war and depression across the region. And on top of everything we suckered Iraq, the cradle of civilization whose murderous dictator we had coddled and sold massive amounts of weapons to, into an invasion of Kuwait that led to a murderous war, a decade of even more destructive sanctions, followed by a truly nightmarish and utterly illegal invasion that not only killed hundreds of thousands of people all told but set in motion the rise and spread the Islamic State.
Perhaps the worst part about Vice President Pence’s statement is that it’s merely a retread of statements made by the last five administrations before his. It’s up to Americans to understand our miserable role in the Middle East all these decades and to finally pressure our government to change its policies to support freedom, democracy, and human rights for everyone everywhere. Until we do that the region will continue to suffer and Americans will suffer along with it. Don’t believe me? Ask the millions of servicemen and women who are living with the effects of our unending wars in the region.

Sources: For me as an historian perhaps the worst part the history of US foreign policy in the region is precisely that scholars have for so long done everything possible to inform politicians, the media and the public about the realities there. Largely to no avail. There are literally hundreds of amazing books out there which explain clearly and lucidly the history of the region and our role in it. Even decades after they were written the history of Arab peoples by Albert Hourani and history of Islamic societies by Ira Lapidus are probably the two best general histories of the region.
Cleveland’s A History of the Modern Middle East is a useful general reader. Avi Shlaim and Eugene Rogan’s The War for Palestine is a great example of how scholars can help provide a very different story about one of the most important events in recent history. Some of the best research in the last several decades has been done by anthropologists writing on gender and history of which writers like Lila a Blugold, Margot Badran, Leila Ahmed, Ziba Mir Hosseini, and Afsaneh Najmabadi are all worth reading regardless of the title. Those interested in globalization and culture in the region I might recommend my own 2005 book Why They Don’t Hate Us. And everyone should try at least once in their life to read Edward Said’s Orientalism.

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Michael Provence, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, University of California, San Diego
The United States had no role in the Middle East before 1945, apart from private business and educational initiatives. Within a couple years of 1945, the US tilted toward Israel in its first war, began overthrowing democratic Middle Eastern governments, and propping up pliant dictators. Increasingly intense and destructive interventions followed, all characterized by public deception, confusion, and mixed motives.

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Dale Stahl, Assistant Professor of History, University of Colorado Denver
I see this statement as “more or less false” because there are clear examples where the United States has not had a positive influence in the Middle East. One needn’t reflect very far back into that “nearly 200 years” of history to know that this is so. This is not to say that Americans, either individually or in larger groups or organizations, have never acted in ways beneficial to the people living in the Middle East. However, United States Government actions have over many decades favored authoritarian regimes in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jordan, and the Gulf States. US support for Israel, often as the country’s sole patron, has delayed and derailed peace in the eastern Mediterranean. The Palestinian people remain under Israeli military occupation and subject to Israeli settlement building in contravention of international law. This situation is to a large extent the product of US diplomatic protection. Finally, in more recent times, the US invasion of Iraq, extralegal drone assassinations, and support for the war in Yemen have contributed to breakdowns in security, widespread violence, and humanitarian disaster.

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Lior Sternfeld, Penn State University
While the US had some moments where it was a force for good, with projects like schools, universities, and orphanages, it was also a source for instability in cases like the 1953 coup against Mosaddegh that overturned the course not just of Iran but of the region in its entirety. There were a few exceptions in the second half of the 20th century. Most important among them would be the American ultimatum to Israel, Britain, and France to pull out of the Sinai peninsula in 1956 after attacking Egypt.

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