Opportunities and limitations of external intervention

'The US is the only external force that can change conflicts in the Middle East.' Discuss the opportunities and limitations of external intervention.

On 26th December 2008, ten days after the expiry of a ceasefire agreement between the Israeli government and Hamas, the Israeli air force began to mount sustained air attacks on the Gaza strip. By the third day of fighting the attacks, launched in response to the continued firing by of rockets from Gaza into Israel by Palestinian militants, had killed approximately 345, including Palestinian civilians.[1] The Israeli government made clear that its intent was to remove Hamas from power, with the Defence Minister Ehud Barak claiming that Israel had embarked upon 'an all-out war against Hamas,' and the deputy chief of staff of the army, Brigadier-General Dan Hamel, threatening that 'after this operation there will not be a single Hamas building left standing in Gaza.[2]' So far, international responses to the renewal of violence in the perennially troubled region have been largely critical, although many have avoided direct condemnation of Israel; the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, for example, has called the attacks 'a very dangerous and a very dark moment ,' whilst Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General, has said that he has been 'saddened profoundly' by the 'suffering caused to civilians as a result of the large-scale violence and destruction that have taken place over the last few days.'[3] (Arab League). There has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been one nation that has not joined the international clamour for the airstrikes on Gaza to be halted - the US. Neither President Bush nor US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have yet made a public statement on the issue, and the only formal statement from the administration so far has been by spokesman Gordon Duguid, who told reporters that the US held Hamas responsible 'for their policies of confrontation.'[4] The Israelis have been eager to interpret such silence as a mandate for the strike on Gaza, and have resisted EU and UN calls for an immediate ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to reach the Palestinians.

The events of recent days certainly point to the key role that the USA plays in the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict; despite the attempts of the EU to assert itself as a peacemaking force in the region, with President Sarkozy of France using France's capacity as holder of the EU presidency to attempt to persuade the Israeli leadership towards a ceasefire, Israel has recognised that as long as the USA tacitly supports the strikes it can safely ignore the opinion of other powers. As we shall later examine, America's pre-eminence of influence in this conflict has not necessarily contributed to peace; indeed, despite the periodic rounds of peace talks there appear to be some grounds for advancing Noam Chomsky's argument that the US' partisan stance towards Israel has actually fanned the flames of conflict.[5] What, however, of other conflicts in the Middle East? Is the US the only power able to intervene, and, if so, have its interventions contributed to peace or themselves provoked further conflict? To analyze the question, this essay shall look at three different types of outside intervention in Middle Eastern conflicts since 1945; firstly, political intervention, covering both formal diplomatic activity and more informal political relations with combatants; secondly, economic intervention, covering actions such as sanctions, blockades and the provision of aid, and thirdly, direct military intervention. The essay shall examine how the US and other powers have deployed these interventions, how effectively these instruments have promoted peace, and what other consequences have resulted from their use. One cautionary note is that not all - indeed, not the majority - external interventions in the Middle East have been provoked by great powers' desire to stem military conflict; with regard to the Middle Eastern, foreign policy still seems to largely conform to realist models, and most interventions have been taken with at least one eye firmly fixed on the power in question's own political, strategic and economic interests. Nevertheless, such interventions remain relevant in that, although primarily motivated by great power interests, they retain the capacity to either promote peaceful relations in the region or to provoke further instability. Which, so far, has generally been the case?

The majority of direct interventions by external powers in Middle Eastern conflicts take the form of diplomacy. Whilst Cold War diplomacy was driven by the political and economic rivalry between the US and the USSR, and rival states such as Israel and Syria were encouraged in enmity by their respective patrons[6], conflict resolution has had a larger role in Middle Eastern diplomacy since the early 1990s, with the US as hegemon attempting to broker ceasefires and settlements between opposing parties. In the case of Israel and Palestine diplomatic intervention has been continual in recent decades, with every successive US administration sponsoring 'talks,' 'roadmaps' and similar activities. Despite numerous ceasefires and occasional hopes of a lasting peace being established, all efforts have so far failed, with the expiry of the latest six month ceasefire brokered in June 2008 leading to the renewal of violence on a larger scale. Chomsky has argued that the US's role in the 'peace process' has been one of unconditional support for aggressive Israeli actions and the continual building of settlements[7], an argument that would seem to be vindicated by US silence on Israel's recent behaviour. Attempts by the US to broker a workable solution between the two parties are evidently limited by its use of Israel - an armed nuclear power - as a strategic ally in the region. As Chomsky argues, Israeli politicians have continually manipulated US support of them as a strategic ally to achieve their own ends of expansion and security, building settlements and pursuing aggressive action against Palestinian militants.[8] Such action has often been in contravention of peace accords such as the Oslo Agreements, and many would argue, with Chomsky, that it aids the cause of Palestinian radicals. If, as I think that recent events have shown, Chomsky is right to argue that the US's relationship with Israel is hindering, rather than promoting, peaceful settlement, is there then a prospect of another power taking over the role? The immediate answer is no; whilst the EU has clearly signalled its wish to become involved in the peace process, with moves such as the appointment of former British prime minister Tony Blair as Special Envoy to the Middle East in 2007 demonstrating the importance that European governments place on a peace between Israel and the Palestinians, its attempts to assert itself as a player have been vigorously rebuffed by Israel, with Israeli politicians rejecting the efforts of French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to push for an immediate ceasefire. Although the UN has taken an increasing role as an alternative authority to the US, and was responsible for brokering the ceasefire that ended hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, the current urges for Israeli restraint by the UN have been similarly rebuffed. Whilst other powers are taking an increasing role in the region, it appears to remain that the US is the only power with sufficient leverage over its nuclear ally to effectively restrain Israeli belligerence. The extent to which it will do so in the future largely depend on the policies taken by President-Elect Obama, who will have to reconcile growing international censure of Israeli policies with US strategic interests and the strength of the pro-Israeli lobby at home. At best, the inauguration of Obama could mark an important opportunity to develop a new policy with regards to Israel and Palestine, and to break the cycle of rocket attacks, short-lived ceasefire and strikes that has destabilised the region since the start of the first intifada.

Direct peace brokering has been one of the main tactics practiced by the US - and other powers - with regard to the long-running conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, but elsewhere in the Middle East it is economic diplomacy that has proved one of the major ways in which outside powers affect Middle Eastern affairs. In its most political form, economic powers can provide military aid and equipment to allies in the region, and such a strategy was certainly favoured throughout the Cold War, with the US financing Israel and a shifting succession of various governments that the US has viewed as pro-American and relatively stable, including the Shah's Iran and Wahabite Saudi Arabia.[9] Throughout the Cold War, military and economic aid to potentially friendly nations was a cornerstone of both US and Russian policy, with both nations equipping regional clients as proxies to advance their interests in the region.[10] The counterpart, of the course, was the economic marginalisation of unfriendly governments through the imposition of economic sanctions and trade blockades, and this use of economic policy as a diplomatic weapon has continued past the end of the Cold War. It is now, however, not solely a bilateral action, with the UN taking the leading role in imposing multilateral trade embargoes on rogue states, such as those imposed on Saddam Hussein's Iraq following the failure of the 1991 military action to dislodge Saddam from power. There is little indication that these sanctions, despite being a near-complete financial and trade embargo imposed on Iraq by the UN under Resolution 687 had a particularly deleterious effect on Saddam's government - but they did have a disastrous effect on the Iraqi people, especially before the introduction of the Oil for Food programme in late 1997. Despite the failure of these extremely tough sanctions to oust Saddam, economic sanctions are still being used as a political weapon by the US against Iran, although continuing trade with the nation from other nations means that the US sanctions do not appear to have had the desired effect of advancing the cause of reformists against the hard-line Islamic government of Mahmoud Ahmedinijad. One problem with economic sanctions in the Middle East is that the strategic importance of Middle Eastern oil limits to a large extent the freedom of action that major powers have in this area: the Saudi Arabian government would in all likelihood have to adopt positively dangerous policies for the West to consider refusing to purchase abundant Saudi oil. The UN's trial elsewhere in the world of 'smart sanctions' that target elites and governments rather than general civilian populations may point the way to a future direction that could be used against recalcitrant or belligerent Middle Eastern governments, but as the situation currently stands it is not clear that sanctions have contributed much to Middle Eastern peace.

Of all types of intervention, direct military intervention by outside powers in Middle Eastern conflicts is the most dramatic and the most controversial, but such interventions have occurred fairly regularly throughout both the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. Rarely are they to do with peacekeeping or conflict resolution; whilst the rights and wrongs of outside military intervention in cases of war and humanitarian crises continue to be debated by international relations theorists, the incursions into the Middle East have been of a different character. Foreign policy towards the Middle East has tended operate in a largely realist mode, and most great-power incursions into the region have not been to stabilise existing conflicts but to secure strategic interests - as in the case of the failed British and French invasion of Egypt in 1956 - or to depose an unfriendly government, as in the bombing of Libya in 1986 or the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Covert or overt military or CIA operations to depose governments and engineer coups were a key element of US Middle Eastern policy in the Cold War years; one thinks, for example, of the overthrow of Mossadeq and the restoration of the Shah in Iran. The USSR was similarly ready to intervene militarily to secure friendly governments in important Middle Eastern states, which, given their proximity to Russia, could pose a security threat; Crockatt argues that the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was spurred both by the ideological desire to protect an increasingly unpopular leftist government and by the belief that an anti-USSR government so close to the USSR's own borders could prove a security threat.[11] On fewer occasions have military interventions been direct responses to aggression by a particular state against a neighbour, although Operation Desert Storm of 1991 was one instance in which a Middle Eastern aggressor was stopped by a broad, US-led military intervention to reduce Iraqi power.[12] Overt and covert military interventions by great powers have thus been key to changing the balance of power between and within Middle Eastern states over the last sixty years. It is important to note, however, that they do not always work, and can often provoke strong reactions against the invading great powers. The USSR's incursion into Afghanistan was an unqualified failure, and the current attempt by the US and its partners to build a functioning government appears to be stalling as warlords assert their power in Pashtun strongholds. The US attempt to restore the Shah resulted in the Iranian Revolution and the installation of a hard-line Shi'ite government that was antagonistic both to the West and to its Sunni neighbour, Iraq, resulting in a deadly eight year regional war between the two nations. Even the First Gulf War, although successful in ejecting Iraqi troops from Kuwait, did not successfully remove Saddam from power. Attempts at direct intervention in the region have often inadvertently worsened rather than improved the situation, and the US's interventions in the Middle East over the last sixty years have contributed to the rise of a popular anti-Americanism that renders populations more likely to support hard-line Islamists and terrorist groups.

Intervention in the Middle East by outside powers has a long history, with patterns of strategic action in the region dating back to the nineteenth and early twentieth century rivalry between Britain and France and, of course, to the Cold War rivalry of the US and USSR. Despite the claims of liberals that the fall of the Soviet Union would lead to the triumph of political and economic liberalism and thus the end of anarchy and conflict at the international level, Middle Eastern politics seems to take place largely still in the realist mould, with the involvement of formal international bodies being relatively low and the unilateral involvement of external powers comparatively high. Since Russian influence in the region declined at the end of the Cold War, the US has been the hegemonic power in the region, and has resisted attempts to constrain its actions; it was in this region that the US was willing to effectively disregard international law and the absence of a UN resolution to pursue its 2003 policy of ousting Saddam Hussein by direct military intervention. This vigorous defence by the US of its hegemony is largely because the Middle East, with its abundant supply of oil and its centrality to world shipping networks, remains so strategically important, although it has, of course, also been influenced by the rhetoric of 'war on terror' following the 9/11 attacks and by the political and ideological interests of the Bush administration. The backlash provoked by the continuing pattern of US intervention is considerable, but it is as yet uncertain what role there will be in the Middle East for the EU, for international organisations such as the UN, and for emerging powers such as China and an increasingly expansionist Russia. Much will depend on the outcome of the current violence between Israel and Palestine, and the foreign policy choices made by the Obama administration. What is clear, however, is that the continuing pattern in the Middle East of successive outside powers - Britain, France, Russia, the US - intervening to serve their own interests has not to date contributed to stability or lasting peace in the region. Whilst it would be vastly over-simplistic to attribute Middle Eastern instability to outside actors, for religious and political conflicts in the region of course have their own powerful internal dynamics, it is possible to argue that external interventions have rarely made things better and often made things worse. Quandt points out that US policy towards the Middle East since 1945 has been inconsistent and experimental in character, with different administrations trying different tactics and crises such the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait forcing reassessments.[13] That such economic, strategic and political considerations are taken into account by outside powers in determining the tenor of interventions is not necessarily bad - indeed, if one were to take a realist view of global politics, it is simply inevitable; the Middle East is too important to simply ignore - but it does place limitations on the effectiveness of outside interventions as means of securing a stable and peaceful regional subsystem in the Middle East.


Brown, L Carl; Diplomacy in the Middle East: The International Relations of Regional and Outside Powers (2004)

Chomsky, Noam; The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians (1983)

Crockatt, Chard; America Embattled: September 11th, Anti-Americanism and the Global Order (2003)

Efrat, Moshe and Bercovitch, Jacob; Superpowers and Client States in the Middle East: The Imbalance of Influence (1991)

Fawcett, Louise; International Relations of the Middle East (2005)

[1] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article5415759.ece

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7803711.stm

[4] http/firstread.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2008/12/29/1726174.aspx

[5] Chomsky, Noam; The Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel and the Palestinians (1983), passim

[6] See Efrat and Bercovitch (eds); Superpowers and Client States in the Middle East. The authors argue, however, that client states of superpowers are not uniformly subservient and themselves manipulate great powers to achieve their own interests. This asymmetrical but not one way relationship appears to be the case with regard to Israel and the US, and (formerly) Syria and the USSR.

[7] Chomsky; The Fateful Triangle p257

[8] Chomsky; The Fateful Triangle p469

[9] Chard Crockatt; America Embattled: September 11th, Anti-Americanism and the Global Order p95

[10] Efrat and Bercovitch (eds); Superpowers and Client States in the Middle East p5

[11] Crockatt; America Embattled p102

[12] Quandt; 'American Foreign Policy' p70

[13] Quandt, William B; 'America and the Middle East: A Fifty Year Overview, in C Brown (ed); Diplomacy in the Middle East p62

Please be aware that the free essay that you were just reading was not written by us. This essay, and all of the others available to view on the website, were provided to us by students in exchange for services that we offer. This relationship helps our students to get an even better deal while also contributing to the biggest free essay resource in the UK!