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Schwarzkopf and US Hegemony in the Middle East

Juan Cole

 by Informed Comment

Gen. Norman H. Schwarzkopf is dead at 78. He died of pneumonia.

Schwarzkopf was among the military leaders who repositioned the United States as a Middle Eastern hegemon.

The US had interests in the Middle East from World War II forward, but the region was frankly on the back burner. The central American military and diplomatic commitments were dictated 1945-1991 by the Cold War. Thus, American tanks were assembled in Germany to face down the Red Army’s armored division. US interest in Lebanon and Iran were all about the possible spread of Communism and Soviet influence in the area. The US of course also wanted to keep the Middle East’s petroleum out of Moscow’s hands and freely flowing to capitalist allies such as France, Britain and Japan.

When he was Israeli ambassador to Washington in the early 1970s, Yitzhak Rabin complained that he had difficulty getting appointments in the American capital. US officials were preoccupied with Vietnam, and just not that interested in the Middle East.

It was the Gulf War of 1991 that changed everything and brought the US into the Middle East as a Great Power. In 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had invaded and annexed Kuwait, in part over disputes on oil policy.

Iraq’s action underlined how vulnerable the small oil emirates of the Persian Gulf were. In Europe, smaller principalities had been absorbed by larger nations through the nineteenth century, through war or diplomacy. Bismarck crafted German unification, incorporating many small polities into the new country.

But in the Gulf, British naval power advanced by a series of treaties with the small principalities along its Arab littoral, turning them into protectorates. They were thus called trucial states.

Britain withdrew from the Gulf gradually through the 1960s, and pulled out altogether in 1971, as part of decolonization. In the meantime, many of the former trucial states had discovered petroleum and were getting rich just as their Great Power patron was departing.

Rich, tiny countries with no armies of their own to speak of were vulnerable to being annexed by the larger states in the region. Iraq claimed Kuwait, Iran claimed Bahrain, and even the somewhat larger Saudi Arabia was not secure from annexation.

It was not inevitable that the US should fill the power vacuum left behind by the British. President Richard M. Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, attempted to arrange for the king of Iran, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, to replace Britain. The Shah sent forces to Oman to put down an allegedly Communist tribal insurgency. But then he was overthrown by Imam Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, and the Iran proxy plan crashed and burned.

Then from about 1983, President Ronald Reagan attempted to replace Iran as guardian of the Gulf with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

But Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait made him unsuitable to the task from the point of view of Washington.

In deciding to push Iraq back out of Kuwait and guarantee the status quo ante in the Gulf, George H. W. Bush and his Centcom commander Gen. Schwarzkopf took the fateful step that would lead to the US replacing Britain as the Great Power in the Gulf. Schwarzkopf is said to have helped convince Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd to allow the pre-positioning of hundreds of thousands of US and allied troops on Saudi soil in advance of the 1991 invasion of Kuwait.

Once the US pushed Iraq out of Kuwait, it established a no-fly zone in the south of Iraq, and ultimately another one in the north. The Shiites and Kurds had rebelled against a humiliated Saddam Hussein in spring of 1991, and the regime used helicopter gunships to crush the protesters. In the aftermath of that PR embarrassment, the US had little choice but to put in the no-fly zones to prevent the Baath regime in Baghdad from further massacring the Shiites and the Kurds. Washington leased the Prince Sultan airbase from Saudi Arabia, and did the overflights over Iraq from there. The US was stuck

The US also had leased a naval facility at Manama, Bahrain, taking over from the British in 1971. But from 1997, the US presence at the base was much expanded.

The US thus become the guarantor of Gulf security, finally replacing the British.

Usama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda fighters, who had been allied with Ronald Reagan in the quest to evict the Soviets from Afghanistan, really, really minded Gen. Schwarzkopf and his troops being in the Muslim Holy Land (i.e. Saudi Arabia, the site of the holy cities Mecca and Medina). That outrage against the Americans led, along with other causes, to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Tower.

President George W. Bush took advantage of public anger in the US over the September 11 attacks to launch a war of choice against Iraq, which had had nothing to do with September 11.

Schwarzkopf made it clear that he disapproved of the invasion of Iraq and that he thought the Bush team was under-estimating how difficult the task would be.

The Obama administration says it wants to ‘rebalance’ toward East Asia, which makes a lot of sense. But because of oil, Israel and naval routes, the US is likely to be a hegemon in the Middle East for some time to come.

The turning point was the Gulf War, and the late Gen. Schwarzkopf was among the architects of the new American military role in the Gulf.

By 2018 or so, by which time solar panels will likely be cheaper than petroleum and gas, the importance of the oil in the Gulf will decline rapidly. Perhaps a Green America can finally come home and leave the Middle East alone.

© 2021 Juan Cole
Juan Cole

Juan Cole

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His newest book, "Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires" was published in 2020. He is also the author of  "The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East" (2015) and "Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East" (2008).  He has appeared widely on television, radio, and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. 

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