It is no small, let alone extremely obvious, observation that the cultures of the United States and the Middle East are extremely different. While in contact with one another throughout the history of the United States, it has become more and more apparent that the two diverse populations can sometimes clash, as is seen with fundamental Islamic extremists that carry out terrorist attacks or the way in which warfare is conducted by Western militaries. There are several reasons for the clash aside from cultural differences, including different and often conflicting goals between societies.
As America, or indeed any Western nation after the Industrial Revolution, grew in importance as a player on the international scene, the United States became increasingly involved in the issues in the Middle East. Natural resources there attracted the Industrial Powers, and as America’s power increased, so did its involvement in the Middle East, as was seen during World War II. The United States began to believe that the Middle East would be important to American security as a world power because of the oil and its geographical proximity to the rest of the world. Though Great Britain was the superior Western power in the Middle East before World War II, the United States began to replace that influence with its own, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, America’s status as the world’s premier superpower solidified its singular Western influence over the region.
On the contrary, as America’s power increased and their influence was felt over a larger area over time, societies in the Middle East, instead, were clamoring for their own political independence and wanted to free themselves of Western influences. There was little time in the first half of the 1900s, and arguably little since, that there was political independence from any of the states in the Middle East. After the Turkish Empire was broken up following World War I, those in the Middle East have been looking for solid political control over not only their own states but peaceable stability over the entire Middle East as a whole. As the United States became influential in this region, it became the aim of animosity as it represented an opposition to that political freedom.
One of the main themes of Woodrow Wilson’s World War I campaign was the idea that a nation should be have a right to self-determination and to decide how their government should be run, a freedom that is deeply seated in the American “ideal.” This idea of self-determination came at a direct conflict to allies Britain and France, who had empires that would be threatened overseas if Wilson came through on his idea of each country and self-determination. After World War II, however, despite the dissolve of the world’s greatest empires, America’s aim in the Middle East became less about caring about their self-determinism and more about protecting its natural resources, the Middle Eastern oil, from the reaches of the rivaling Soviet Union. As opposed to political influence because of oil, a military presence became increasingly necessary to protect ally Israel, who had come into existence following World War II and experienced fierce animosity from Islamic Middle Eastern countries.
Before these conflicts with the Soviet Union over the Middle East caused an increase influence in the states, the relationship between the United States and the various states of the Middle East was not hostile at all. Hostilities only ensued when America’s increase in power led to its influence in world affairs and in the Middle East, such as the creation of the State of Israel. Seen as an encroachment on Palestinian Arabs, the state of Israel, and the backing United States, was seen in a more hostile fashion than before. Because of terrorist attacks, including that on September 11th, Americans see Middle Easterners in a far more hostile light than they did before radicals took charge of attacking Western countries.
As the “empire” of the United States grew, the Middle East’s last great empire, the Ottoman Turks, was declining at the same time. Most Middle Eastern societies were under the influence and control of the Ottoman Empire, but this influence was under constant attack by the West in the form of French and British colonial aspirations and the need to feed their industrialization. Before the American government got involved in the Middle East like their Western allies on a large scale, the largest governmental involvement in the Middle East was ensuring the safety of American missionaries. Soon enough, after President Roosevelt settled a dispute between Spain and France over influence in Morocco, a direct blow to Moroccan political independence, America was beginning to get involved at a large political scale in the Middle East.
World War I was possibly the biggest blow to the Middle East in terms of dealing with Western cultures. It resulted in huge demographic changes and saw the dissolution of the empire that had control over nearly all the Middle Eastern societies. Famine and disease were not uncommon as the war touched aspects of not only European society but also that of the Middle East, disrupting trade and the peoples’ lives that depended on it. As the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East fell into turmoil, many Western nations vied for influence over the politically lost region, including the increasingly powerful United States.
Douglas Little’s “American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945”