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In the weeks following 9/11, the federal government took a number of extraordinary steps to reassure and better protect terror-shocked Americans. International flights were suspended. Border security was tightened. And on October 26th, 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act with little discussion and virtually no dissent. The House passed the measure 357 to 66, and in the Senate, only Russ Feingold of Wisconsin voted no.
No doubt much of the unanimity lay in the fact that few lawmakers understood the entire bill. It was, after all, more than 300 pages long and filled with details about electronic surveillance technology. And in the wake of September 11th, few would question the basic objectives of the bill: to increase the tools available to federal law enforcement agencies as they tracked down suspected terrorists.
In the simplest terms, the Patriot Act made it easier to tap people's phones and laptops; it enabled federal agents to more quickly access a wide range of materials that might provide information concerning terrorists and their plots—travel and rental records, telephone and internet logs, medical records, even library and bookstore records.
But in the months and years that followed, this national security measure drew enormous criticism. The consensus that surrounded its passage collapsed and, instead, critics labeled the bill a clumsy violation of civil liberties, a misguided encroachment on fundamental rights in the name of national security.
Critics of the Patriot Act argued that it violated the First, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Yet most of the criticism focused on alleged violations of the Fourth Amendment, the part of the Bill of Rights that provides protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Section 215, which authorizes federal agencies to gather all sorts of confidential personal records during an investigation, drew the greatest attention. Whereas older measures granted these agencies considerable investigatory powers—for example, the authority to obtain documents relating to the rental of vehicles and storage facilities—the Patriot Act went much further. It empowered federal agencies to obtain medical records, library records, bookstore accounts, and internet search histories. Federal investigators could monitor the websites a suspect visited and the books a suspect read.
Federal agencies didn't have unchecked authority to obtain these records, though. Like most laws of this sort, the Patriot Act acknowledged that federal agencies had to obtain court approval before initiating a search. However, critics argued, the amount of court oversight was too small. To obtain a court order or warrant, the agency needed only to show that the search served an authorized investigation. The agency didn't need to demonstrate that the individuals being targeted were part of some criminal activity—only that their records were "relevant" to an ongoing investigation.
Moreover, critics added, all of this was shrouded in secrecy. The doctor, librarian, or bookstore owner ordered to provide information was forbidden to disclose the request to anyone—even a lawyer.
Other critics focused more on the increased latitude given federal agencies in conducting electronic surveillance. In the past, authorities had to obtain separate warrants for each electronic device they sought to tap—a cell phone, a laptop, an iPad. Under the Patriot Act, however, one warrant would allow authorities to tap multiple devices—in other words, set up a "roving wiretap."
The provision seemed logical enough. And in fact, agencies investigating many more conventional crimes were already allowed to secure these one-warrant-fits-all court orders. But as with Section 215, critics argued that the language of the provision was so vague that innocent parties only loosely connected with a suspected terrorist could become subject to this sweeping intrusion on their privacy.
Still, other critics objected to the "sneak and peek" provisions of the Patriot Act. These allowed investigators to search now and inform the suspect later. Once a warrant was obtained, federal agencies could secretly enter—a.k.a. break into—a suspect's home or business and search the premises without giving immediate notice of their act. Again, only the scope of this authorization was unprecedented. Law enforcement agencies were already granted "sneak and peek" authority in certain situations, but these situations were very rare and carefully defined by the courts.
Under the Patriot Act, however, more widespread use of this practice was permitted. According to critics, the imprecise language of the act extended the power to "sneak and peek" to the investigation of even minor crimes.
One other aspect of the Patriot Act drew significant criticism—a provision outlawing "material support" for terrorist organizations.
The provision was designed to shut down the flow of money to radical groups from donors around the world. And even critics of the Patriot Act conceded that the objective was reasonable, but as with other parts of the law, "material support" was defined so vaguely, critics argued, that many otherwise protected and legitimate activities might be criminalized.
The prohibition against "expert advice and assistance" was deemed particularly problematic. Not every piece of assistance or expert advice furthered the illegal activities of an organization. Yet as one legal scholar explained, the Patriot Act made no attempt to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate advice or speech. Instead, it criminalized "pure speech, without any requirement that the government show that the speech has any connection to furthering terrorism."
As criticism of the Patriot Act mounted, members of Congress made several attempts to revise the measure, and portions of the controversial bill were eventually changed.
The "gag orders" preventing librarians and others from discussing an order to turn over materials were partially revised—now individuals could consult a lawyer before complying with these requests. And libraries, while operating in their "traditional roles," were no longer forced to surrender information as they were when the bill first passed. Defenders of the Patriot Act cited these revisions as examples of the internal checks within the legislative process. Perhaps, the bill as originally passed was imperfect, but through practice and debate, its flaws were revealed and corrected.
Critics answered, however, that some of the most problematic features remained. And they argued that the real danger lay within a further erosion of formerly protected rights under the mantle of national security. As even some of the bill's supporters acknowledged, during the excited, somewhat panicked months following September 11th, mistakes were made. What would happen if these wartime excesses quietly became peacetime practice?
It's not uncommon for the federal government to curtail civil liberties during wartime. For the sake of national security, presidents from John Adams to Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt, all approved restrictions on rights of speech, privacy, and due process during wartime, and granted greater protections during time of peace.
Nor is it uncommon for these actions to provoke heated controversy. The Sedition Acts of 1798 and 1918 are now all but universally condemned as flagrant violations of the First Amendment. The internment of the Japanese during World War II is now considered a national disgrace—a misguided decision fueled by racism and paranoia. Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War has drawn more mixed reviews. Some consider his decision heavy-handed but necessary in order to save the union; others have labeled it unconstitutional and more damaging than beneficial.
How will history judge the Patriot Act? Will it be judged necessary and effective—an important tool in the War on Terror? Or will it, like the Sedition Acts, be judged misguided and excessive, a fear-driven abuse of civil liberties?
Within hours of the attacks on New York and Washington, American intelligence had identified Al Qaeda and its leader Osama Bin Laden as the terrorists responsible. Intelligence agents also quickly concluded that that while hiding in the remote mountains of Afghanistan, Bin Laden would be difficult to find and apprehend.
But President George W. Bush soon warned that the United States wouldn't differentiate between terrorist organizations and the governments that harbored them—and so, when Afghanistan's Taliban government refused to cooperate with efforts to locate Bin Laden, the United States prepared to invade.
The invasion, labeled Operation Enduring Freedom, was launched on October 7th, 2011, less than a month after the 9/11 terror attack. Massive air strikes on the Afghan capital of Kabul and Taliban strongholds in Jalalabad and Kandahar preceded land campaigns waged mostly by the Taliban's domestic enemy, the Northern Alliance, with support from American Special Forces. In just five weeks, the Taliban was driven from Kabul and the Northern Alliance had taken over the capital—or viewed from a longer perspective, America's newest Afghan ally succeeded in driving America's former Afghan ally back into the mountains.
The Taliban emerged from the chaos of Afghanistan's war against Soviet occupation during the 1980s. In an attempt to control its borders, the Soviet Union had installed a communist puppet government in Afghanistan in 1979, but resistance to this government within Afghanistan was widespread, and soon, this national conflict had acquired international meaning.
For the United States, Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation became a critical Cold War encounter. For the Arabs, Persians, and other natives of the Middle East, it was a vital war against foreign occupation. For fundamentalist Muslims, the war in Afghanistan provided an opportunity to impose an Islamic theocracy. The mujahedeen who led the fight against the Soviets, therefore, drew widespread and disparate support. The United States provided billions in weapons and cash to the anti-Soviet "freedom fighters," and so too did the communist government of China. And Islamic traditionalists like Saudi millionaire Osama Bin Laden also donated money and recruited men for the Afghanistan war.
By 1989, the Soviets had been forced to withdraw, but the violence in Afghanistan persisted as the factions that drove the Soviets out now battled for power. Divided by ethnicity, tribal affiliation, and region of origin, these factions waged war until the Taliban, an organization of Pashtun Sunnis, primarily from the southern part of the country, took Kabul in 1996.
Once in power, the Taliban strictly imposed ancient Islamic law based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic tradition. The creeping impurities of the modern world were forbidden—rock music and Western clothes; even cassettes and playing cards were banned. Men were forbidden to trim their beards and women were forced to encase their bodies in burkhas, essentially full-body veils. And in Afghanistan's remote mountainous regions, the Saudi millionaire Osama Bin Laden built training camps from which he continued his broader campaign to drive the United States and all that it represented—modernization, Christianity, commercialism—from the Islamic world.
America's rapid success in driving the Taliban from power in 2001, therefore, only achieved one of its goals. The government that had harbored terrorism had been overthrown, but the terrorist that the government had harbored still remained at large.
Bin Laden would remain free, and relatively comfortable, in hiding for another decade, when careful American intelligence work finally tracked him down to a suburban compound in the quiet town of Abbottabad, Pakistan. U.S. President Barack Obama ordered a daring helicopter raid by Special Forces, who executed the plan to perfection, killing Bin Laden in a firefight on May 2nd, 2011.
But Osama's death is the end of this story. Let's go back closer to the beginning.
Over the several next months, American efforts to locate Bin Laden proved futile. But in the fall of 2002, President Bush began to hint that merely bringing Bin Laden himself to justice would not end the War on Terror. Iraq was, he said, like Afghanistan, guilty of supporting Al Qaeda. Some of the 9/11 terrorists may have been trained in Iraq and, therefore, Iraq too must be held accountable for the attack on America. Moreover, Bush added, Iraq was building chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons contrary to the terms of the ceasefire established at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Since 1991, Iraq had been on short leash. In 1990, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had invaded his neighbor, Kuwait, claiming historic territorial rights over most of the small country. The United States and a host of other countries protested the invasion. Iraq's move was an unprovoked assault on a peaceful country. More pragmatically, Kuwait had huge oil reserves. A successful absorption of Kuwait would boost Iraq's influence over oil prices and give the unpredictable Hussein control over almost 20% of the world's known reserves.
After building an impressive coalition that included seven Arab countries, American president George H.W. Bush issued an ultimatum to Hussein: withdraw all Iraqi forces from Kuwait by January 15th, 1991 or face overwhelming attack.
When Hussein refused to retreat, the United States launched a massive air attack, followed a month later by an invasion of more than 500,000 coalition ground troops. Within a hundred hours, Iraqi forces had been driven from the field and President Bush had declared a ceasefire. Hussein was left in power—Bush feared the social and political chaos that might follow the removal of the heavy-handed dictator. But severe sanctions were imposed and Hussein was ordered to terminate his weapons programs, subject to inspections by the United Nations.
A decade later, in the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush—the eldest son of the first President Bush—argued that Iraq was violating these prohibitions and covertly building chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Hussein, said Bush, was playing cat and mouse with the UN weapons inspectors and preparing for another move against his neighbors as part of a larger goal of establishing regional hegemony.
By January 2003, the Bush Administration had built an elaborate case for war against Iraq and its president. In his State of the Union Address, President Bush warned that Hussein was amassing "a full arsenal of chemical and biological weapons" and was plotting "conquest in the Middle East and [...] deadly havoc in that region."
The United States, Bush declared, wouldn't wait until it was too late to derail the Iraqi madman. "America will not accept a serious and mounting threat to our country," the president said.
On March 19th, 2003, President Bush made good on the threat implicit in the "Bush Doctrine."
Arguing that a first strike or preemptive action was justified when launched in order to protect national security, the president ordered American planes to bomb the Iraqi presidential palace and other sites in Baghdad, in a massive display of "shock and awe." A day later, forces from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Poland crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq, while another batch of commandos secured the oil fields bear Basra.
Within a month, Baghdad, Iraq's capital, was in American hands and Saddam Hussein had gone into hiding. On May 1st, President Bush, standing beneath a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished," announced that the war in Iraq was essentially over. "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed," he said.
So, quickly and with little resistance, the United States succeeded in two wars in two different Middle Eastern countries. The Taliban was overthrown in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein was driven from power. Bin Laden remained at large, but the capture of Hussein in December 2003—the one-time dictator was taken into custody while hiding in a cellar near Tikrit—led many to believe that Bin Laden would soon be similarly apprehended.
But over the ensuing months, this confidence faded as American policymakers and ordinary citizens came to realize that the War on Terror would be far more enduring and complex than these early victories suggested.
In Afghanistan, the native forces that had allied with the United States in ousting the Taliban did begin the process of forming a new government. Hamid Karzai, a former mujahedeen and disillusioned Taliban supporter, was selected to head an interim government and in January 2004, Afghans adopted a new constitution and elected Karzai to serve as the nation's president.
But in the more remote regions of the country, the Taliban regrouped and mounted increasingly deadly attacks on U.S. and NATO forces assigned to safeguard the transition to a more moderate government. In the southern regions of the country, in particular, near the Pakistan border, Taliban forces proved impossible to dislodge. In 2009, eight years after being driven from power, the Taliban appeared stronger than ever, forcing new President Barack Obama to commit another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, bringing the U.S./NATO forces to more than 140,000.
In Iraq, American efforts to complete the task launched by the invasion ran into even more complex challenges and criticism. For starters, the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that had played such a large part in the American rationale for invading the country were nowhere to be found. After exhaustive searches, American officials were forced to admit that their fears had been exaggerated. Before the war, Hans Blix, the head of the United Nations inspection team, had reported that they'd discovered neither stockpiles of weapons nor evidence of weapons being moved or hidden. More investigatory work had to be done, he said, but Iraq was showing increased cooperation to the UN team. Many of America's Western European allies—most notably Germany and France—had subsequently urged that America show restraint. Now that Bush officials had to admit that their intelligence was flawed, these nations increased their criticism of the American invasion.
Nor did the invasion yield any evidence that Al Qaeda had established a significant presence in Hussein's Iraq. This piece of the administration's rationale for invasion also appeared rooted in poor intelligence. But the president largely dismissed the resulting criticism. Saddam Hussein had been overthrown and Iraq was building a new government. In time, Bush insisted, the country would become a source of stability and progress in the region. But this optimistic prophecy proved hard to accept as the war between the United States and Iraq was replaced by a more deadly civil war between Iraqi Sunnis and Iraqi Shiites, with American forces often caught in the middle.
The conflict between Sunnis and Shiites goes back more than 1,000 years to a 7th-century dispute over who should be the successor to the prophet Mohammed.
By the 21st century, the dispute had passed through a complex evolution, leaving the Muslim community theologically divided amongst Sunnis and Shiites much like Christians are divided amongst Catholics and Protestants. In Iraq, moreover, there was still a political dimension to the Sunni/Shiite split. The majority of the population was Shiite, but under Saddam Hussein (a Sunni), Sunnis controlled the government and the economy. Moreover, since Hussein mistrusted the Shiites, believing that they were more loyal to the Shiite clerics governing Iran, he responded to their political challenges with brutal force.
Consequently, when Hussein was overthrown and the American liberators promised a new democratic government in Iraq, the Shiite majority enthusiastically prepared to assume power. Shiites formed new political parties and pressed for the rapid adoption of a new constitution. Militant Shiites also embraced violence, attacking Sunni mosques and "reclaiming" old Shiite neighborhoods.
The Sunni retaliation was inevitable. Fearing the rising Shiite majority and anxious to restore their former hegemony—even if not Hussein himself—Sunnis attacked their old Shiite enemies as well as the American troops they blamed for the Shiite insurgence.
By 2006, the violence exchanged between sectarian militias had become a full-out civil war. And in this volatile environment, outside players began to assume larger roles. Al Qaeda, a Sunni organization, may have had only a small presence in the country prior to 2003, but now it funneled men and resources to Sunni militia. Meanwhile, Iran, still governed by Shiites, provided aid to Shiite militias.
By 2007, President Bush was able to point to some progress in the Iraq. Most notably, in 2005, more than 12 million Iraqis voted in the first general election held under the nation's new constitution. But four years after declaring the war "essentially over," American troops were still under heavy attack. The total American death count in Iraq climbed over 3,000 during 2006, and the United Nations calculated that close to 35,000 Iraqis had been killed by the sectarian violence during the same year. Other estimates of Iraqi casualties ranged much higher, into the hundreds of thousands.
The persistent violence led many to call on President Bush to withdraw from Iraq, or at least articulate an exit strategy. But instead, he announced in January 2007 that he would send an additional 20,000 troops to Iraq. The "surge," as this new commitment was labeled, represented more, however, than additional troops. The focus of American military strategy would also change. Rather than combat sectarian violence through mobile patrols, American troops would pacify and protect individual neighborhoods. Rather than retreat at the end of each day to a fortified base, these troops would remain deployed within neighborhoods, maintaining a constant deterrent presence.
As Bush left office in 2009, the effectiveness of his surge was still hotly debated. Supporters argued that sectarian violence fell dramatically within areas of American troop concentration. Yet others argued that this violence had already played itself out—Iraq's Sunni and Shiite populations had by 2007 already been forced by the violence into segregated and thus more stable neighborhoods.
As the War on Terror was handed to a new president, Barack Obama, many questions remained unanswered.
The world got its answer, to the last question at least, out of the blue, late on a Sunday evening in early May 2011. Television viewers tuned into American Idol suddenly found their show pre-empted by breaking, stunning news: Osama Bin Laden was dead.
Years of hard, old-fashioned intelligence work finally turned up a hot lead to a quiet compound in the Pakistani resort town of Abbottabad. After mulling over whether to order airstrikes or send in Special Forces, President Obama opted for the latter, riskier option. Using assault helicopters to violate Pakistani airspace from bases in Afghanistan, a U.S. Navy Seal team flew into Osama's compound, engaged in a brief firefight, and ultimately shot the Al Qaeda leader dead.
For many, Bin Laden's death meant the end of the War on Terror. The mastermind of 9/11 would never harm another innocent civilian. Justice had been served.
But wars still waged in Afghanistan and Iraq. Al Qaeda continued to exist. Conflict continued to simmer throughout the Muslim world, from Tunisia through Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran, all the way to Pakistan (where Osama's success in hiding for years, just a few hundred yards from the Pakistani army's main training center, raised all kinds of uncomfortable questions).
So, the War on Terror, it seemed, hadn't ended, even with the demise of Osama Bin Laden. The bigger question: could it ever end?
The terrorist attacks of September 11th sent shock waves through Israel. The Jewish state understood better than any other player in the various affected groups the psychological and physical costs of terrorism.
But more than sympathy shaped the Israelis' response. Israel quickly began to worry that this unprecedented attack on American soil might dramatically affect future relations with the United States.
On the one hand, the 9/11 attacks might help Americans better understand the pressure, fear, and heartbreak that Israelis experienced on a daily basis. Since its founding in 1948, more than 1,300 Israelis had been killed in hundreds of terrorist attacks. As a percentage of its population, that figure is the equivalent of 55,000 Americans dead from terrorist attacks.
But the attacks on America, and the highly visible trauma they induced, might also inspire other terrorists to multiply their efforts—against Israeli as well as American targets.
The United States was one of Israel's earliest and most ardent supporters in part as a reaction to the guilt the country felt in doing little to change the outcome of the Holocaust despite President Roosevelt's knowledge of the Nazi atrocities at that time. President Harry S. Truman recognized the Jewish nation immediately after it declared its independence in 1948, and the United States quickly became Israel's most important ally on the global stage.
But the extent and form of American support varied over time. Initially, American support was primarily economic in nature. Believing that Israel could defend itself, America offered little direct military assistance. And realizing that lopsided policies might push Arab countries into the Soviet orbit, tilting the balance of power in the Cold War, the United States carefully balanced its aid to Israel with comparable foreign aid packages to friendly Arab states.
The move was economically strategic—the Arab states had oil that the burgeoning U.S. auto industry desperately wanted liquid (so to speak), globally available, and relatively inexpensive.
But during the 1960s, American Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were convinced to increase their aid to Israel—both military and economic—by evidence that the Soviets were building stronger ties and stronger militaries in the Arab world. American Hawk anti-aircraft missiles and Phantom jets added technological muscle to Israel's defense. And American economic aid to Israel roughly doubled. It was during this era that Israel began to develop sophisticated technology development skills and a healthy working partnership was created between the Department of Defense and the IDF where military intelligence in a variety of forms was shared.
Yet even while America's assistance to Israel increased, the United States still tried to carve out the perception of a position of neutrality in the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. During the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel defeated the allied military forces of virtually every Arab nation, the United States refused to provide Israel direct support.
In 1973, however, the United States was forced into a position of more direct and overt support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War—a war in which Israel was caught largely off guard and in a demonstrably weak position of defense. As Egyptian and Syrian armies pushed deep into Israel following a surprise attack during the Jewish high holidays, American policymakers hesitated only briefly before providing crucial logistical assistance—airlifting supplies to the besieged Israelis—and pledging to provide all the planes and tanks needed to rebuild Israel's army once the fighting ceased.
That the Vietnam War was in full tilt at this time and the U.S. weapons manufacturing facilities had scaled to produce large volumes of defense equipment made these pledges easier to fulfill.
Driving President Richard Nixon's decision to intervene on Israel's behalf in 1973 was the conviction that the Soviet influence in Egypt had to be countered by a strengthened pro-American Israel. From this point forward, American-Israeli relations were on a different plane. Economic aid increased dramatically to $1.2 billion annually and military assistance increased even more, to $1.8 billion a year. In addition, the United States abandoned its more balanced policies of the past in favor of ensuring that Israel's military maintained a "qualitative edge" over its Arab and Iranian neighbors.
Toward this end, moreover, the United States offered more than money. Israel was granted NATO-like status and invited to participate in joint military exercises. To this day, there remains an Israeli-American "top gun school" air fight which happens annually over the Dead Sea.
From this point forward, Israel became a vital and overt bastion of America's global security network.
Despite America's increased support for Israel, however, American policymakers still dreamed of negotiating more stable relationships in the region. Therefore, even while increasing its aid to Israel, the United States tried to establish itself as an "honest broker" in the Mideast conflict.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter climaxed an opening round of negotiations with an historic summit at Camp David, bringing together Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In the agreements they signed, Israel pledged to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula, seized from Egypt during Six-Day War, and the two countries adopted a framework for future discussions on Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—territories also seized by Israel during the Six-Day War, from Jordan and Egypt respectively.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton followed Carter's example by mediating talks, initiated months earlier in Norway, between Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. In the resulting Oslo Accords, Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and the PLO acknowledged Israel's sovereignty. The two leaders further agreed to a framework for future discussion surrounding the gradual withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank and the extension of supervised autonomy to the Palestinians.
The talks mediated by the United States in the 1970s and 1990s yielded significant breakthroughs in Israeli-Arab relations. Progress was painfully slow and gains achieved one year were often partially undone the next. Most dramatically, less conciliatory elements within both the Israeli and Palestinian camps have tried to derail, through assassination, the peacemaking efforts of their governments' leaders. In 1981, Egyptian President Sadat was killed by Arab extremists opposed to the Camp David Accords. In 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was killed by an Israeli hardliner who opposed all plans for the abandonment of the West Bank to the Palestinians.
Still, the progress advanced by American diplomatic efforts was real. Egypt formerly led the Arab coalitions determined to destroy Israel. More recently, the country has been a voice of moderation in the region. A few decades ago ago, neither Israel nor the PLO acknowledged the legitimacy or permanency of the other, while today, there are channels of communication, real if admittedly fragile, open between them.
Yet maintaining its status as an honest broker in this dispute has been difficult for the Americans—especially given America's historic commitment to Israel. On more than one occasion, the United States has had to carefully balance its commitments to Israel and its commitments to peace in the region. Sadly, the first foreign minister in Egypt's transitional government has promised to roll back many of the promises Egypt had made toward peace.
In an effort to strengthen moderate Arab governments and win their cooperation in the peace process, almost every American president has approved some sort of arms sales to Arab countries. And individual presidents have broken with Israel on specific issues. George H. W. Bush challenged Israel's permanent claim to all of Jerusalem in 1990; instead, he spoke out against settlements in the eastern half of the city, implying that the Holy ground should be part of future negotiations with the Palestinians.
And President Bill Clinton criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plans to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank as violations of the spirit of the Oslo Accords. In 2011, Netanyahu and President Barack Obama got into a very public argument over Netanyahu's objection to an Obama statement that a future Israeli-Palestinian settlement should be based on a two-state solution in which "the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed swaps." In addition, Obama never asked Palestinians to acknowledge Israel's right to exist or rescind their demands to flood Israel with Palestinians.
Obama's remarks and the backdrop of his 20-year relationship with his openly anti-Jewish church and its pastor marked an all time low in Jewish relationships with an American president.
The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 were thus framed by a long relationship between the United States and Israel. And as the Israelis soon realized, America's new War on Terror did add a new layer to an already complex situation.
Within months of the attacks on New York and Washington, Israeli officials did try to draw connection between their renewed battles with Palestinian nationalists and America's new war on Al Qaeda. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended an Israeli attack against PLO headquarters in language intended to resonate in post 9/11 America. "This will not be a short war," he said, "we will not have stability for a while."
But despite this overture, tensions between Israel and the United States grew in the years following 9/11. And the primary point of contention was an old one—new Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Palestinians argued that the new settlements violated the spirit of the Oslo Accords—they strengthened the Israeli presence in these disputed regions, contrary to agreements that more and more of the West Bank should eventually be turned over to the Palestinians for self-government.
In 2010, the issue brought U.S.-Israel relations to an unusually tense place. American officials denounced settlement plans as unacceptable and—more forcefully than in the past—suggested that Israel, not the Palestinians, might be the primary obstacles to peace in the region.
Israeli officials cried foul. They suggested that the new construction only allowed for the "natural growth" of existing settlements—and they argued that recurring Palestinian attacks had done far more than their settlements to derail the peace process launched in 1993. Israel tried to outline the difficulty in policing border smuggling of weapons without a meaningful presence in the West Bank—operationally the security of the country was noted as an almost impossible difficulty task to manage.
In waging the War on Terror, American troops were sent into combat in two Muslim countries. And the objective in both deployments was the establishment of a moderate government open to relations with the West and willing to take aggressive steps to control radical Islamic factions within its own population. These efforts could only be achieved if these moderate governments, and the population whose support they needed to cultivate, were convinced that the United States was indeed an honest broker.
The later discovery that Pakistan was harboring Osama Bin Laden and many other Al Qaeda players directly involved in the 9/11 bombings appears to have given resolution to America's commitment and need for a strong Israel.
Long before the attacks of September 11th, many Americans felt they were under assault from the Islamic world: by soaring prices at the gas pump, not by bombs on airplanes.
Since the 1970s, Middle Eastern nations, tied together within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, have worked to control oil prices, at times wreaking havoc on the American economy. In 1973, for example, an embargo on sales to the United States boosted prices 400%—from $3 to $12 per barrel. Between 1979 and 1981, Middle Eastern production cuts forced oil prices to $35 per barrel.
For many Americans, OPEC's manipulation of oil prices has been tantamount to economic terrorism—an unprovoked assault on innocent and unsuspecting civilians. Yet like everything else in the history of U.S.-Mideast relations, the story is more complex. During the 1970s, the United States didn't suffer through an unprovoked or unpredictable economic assault from the oil-rich nations. Nor has OPEC ever been quite the all-powerful cartel that many believe it to be.
Great Britain was the first Western country to fully appreciate the importance of the Middle East's rich oil resources. In 1901, British investors secured a concession from the Shah of Iran to tap into the nation's vast reserves and in 1908, these investors established the Anglo-Persian Oil Company—the forerunner of British Petroleum, now branded more simply as BP (the one with a cute sunflower logo).
National security concerns drove Britain's interest in Iranian oil. The island nation needed a reliable source of oil if its navy was to rule the seas as it had during the previous century.
In fact, Iranian oil was deemed so vital to British security that in the months before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the British government acquired a 51% interest in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. It also increased its control over the Turkish Oil Company, a consortium of British, German, and Dutch oil companies interested primarily in Iraq's rich reserves.
After World War I, however, Britain's monopoly over the region's black gold was challenged and the century's first "Mideast conflict" was born: between the United States and Great Britain.
Britain sought to retain control over its assets in Iran and Iraq, while the U.S. sought recognition of an open door policy. Local governments should be permitted to extend concessions to whomever they liked, Americans argued; no foreign power should be allowed to exercise a colonial monopoly. But Britain dug in its heels, arguing that its needs were vital and that the Americans already had access to vast resources on their own territory. America's domestic wells accounted for 70% of global production and American control over Mexico's rich oilfields added an additional 12%. In contrast, Britain's Anglo-Persian Oil Company only accounted for 4.5% of world production.
This Anglo-American "Mideast conflict" ultimately resulted in the 1928 "Redline Agreement." American companies were guaranteed a 23.75% share in the Iraq Petroleum Company (formerly known as the Turkish Oil Company) and all oil ventures in the other new nations carved from the former Ottoman Empire (most importantly, Turkey and Saudi Arabia). Britain, with its monopoly in Iran, still controlled the lion's share of the region's oil, but the United States had established a significant toehold.
Britain continued to dominate Middle Eastern oil production through World War II, but following the Allied victory in war, the United States government sought to win even larger access to the region's oil. And toward this end, the U.S. followed what proved a risky strategy.
As the countries of the region like Iran also sought to increase control over their own resources, the United States quietly promised them financial support. The intent was to drive a wedge between Middle Eastern countries and the British—and it worked. But perhaps it worked too well. In 1951, Iran nationalized its oil fields, excluding the British completely, and vowing to exclude other nations—including the United States—as well.
Iran's attempt to nationalize its oil fields forced the British and Americans back into the same camp. The reconciled Anglo-American allies first closed international markets to Iranian oil, then they engineering the coup that restored the west-friendly Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, to the throne. For the next quarter century, the Shah repaid his Western backers by supporting their geopolitical interests in the region and maintaining a steady supply of affordable oil.
In other Middle Eastern nations, however, American and British efforts to establish pro-western governments proved less successful. Most critically, in Iraq, Western attempts to control the country's oil backfired, leading to the nationalization of Iraq's oil and the formation of OPEC.
For most of this period, Iraq's oil production lagged significantly behind Iran's. This was due largely to a policy of slow development pursued by the foreign consortium governing the Iraq Petroleum Company. Since many of the IPC shareholders were also invested in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, they sought to maintain high prices by limiting Iraqi production. As a rule, the IPC developed only 5% of the fields granted to the company under its original concession.
During the 1950s, however, the Iraqi government grew increasingly impatient with IPC production and the small tax revenues generated. Therefore, in 1951, when Iran attempted to nationalize its oil, Iraq took advantage of the temporary instability to wrestle control over one production facility in Kirkuk. And the next year, Iraqi officials won even more concessions from the foreign oil companies anxious to avoid further trouble in the region: they imposed a much higher tax on foreign oil profits.
In 1960, Iraq took an even more dramatic step in calling for a meeting of all oil producing nations. This led to the formation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. And in 1961, Iraq completed its move toward oil self-government by expropriating all of the oil fields left undeveloped by the IPC. Over the next decade, foreign oil companies were driven completely out of Iraq and all production was turned over to the Iraq National Oil Company.
By the mid-1970s, therefore, Middle Eastern countries had, for the most part, seized control of their vast oil reserves. They'd also banded together in OPEC and established quotas that limited production and led to higher prices. Just as important, OPEC learned in 1973 that it could use its collective muscle to pursue political objectives in the region. When Israel defeated Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, OPEC punished Israel's supporters by embargoing sales of oil, leading to shortages and price hikes in dependent nations.
It was during this period that prices in the United States immediately jumped 400%, from $3 to $12 per barrel.
Prices might have risen still further over the rest of the decade had not Iran remained a loyal provider of oil to the West and a voice of moderation within OPEC. But in 1979, Islamic radicals drove the West-friendly Shah from power and took revenge against the Americans they held responsible for his antidemocratic regime. Student radicals stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and took more than 50 Americans hostage. The revolutionary government also suspended oil sales to the United States.
For many analysts, the fall of the Shah prompted fears that even more severe oil shortages and prices would follow. They envisioned a strengthened OPEC and a more united front on production and prices.
But these analysts proved only half right. Prices did soar between 1978 and 1981, more than doubling to $35 per barrel. But this was caused by increased conflict, not cooperation, within OPEC's membership. In 1980, old tensions between Iran and Iraq exploded into a war. During the conflict, production slowed and the resulting shortages sent prices climbing.
Many viewed the schism within OPEC during the Iran-Iraq War as a welcome surprise—an unanticipated chink in the cartel's armor of solidarity. But in fact, for all of OPEC's bogeyman status among Western oil importers, the cartel has enjoyed only sporadic success in regulating production and controlling prices.
One problem for OPEC has been its inability to control is own members. Small countries, in particular, have chafed at the restrictions set on their production—and they've frequently violated their assigned targets, flooding the markets with oil. For example, just four years after oil climbed to $35 in the early 1980s, increased production among member nations caused oil prices to fall to just $10 per barrel.
But OPEC's inability to control world prices goes beyond its members' lack of discipline. Larger market factors have also converged to shape oil prices and reduce OPEC's influence. Most critically, since the 1970s, when OPEC was able to send prices soaring through embargoes, oil production in other parts of the world—the North Sea, Alaska, China, and Mexico—has increased. Most recently, Russia has begun to produce at the sort of levels it did prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the late 1980s, Russian production was reduced by half but by 2000, all wells were back online, making Russia the third largest producer and the second largest exporter in the world.
As analysts considered how America's War on Terror would impact oil prices, that Middle Eastern oil is part of a global market provided some reassurance. Even if Arab nations were to decide to punish American consumers, their ability to target one part of the world and act without regard to broader market forces was limited.
But that didn't mean American consumers could look forward to a future of cheap energy. Global market forces may weaken OPEC but they also impact the price Americans must pay for oil—and over the past few decades, competition within that market has increased.
American consumption has grown significantly during this period. From 1980 to 1990, America consumption of oil held steady at about 17 million barrels per day, but over the next decade, American consumption increased to almost 20 million barrels. But that increase is nothing compared to growing energy consumption in other rapidly developing countries. Economic growth in India and China, in particular, has placed enormous pressure on oil supplies. Even when adjusted for inflation, China's per capita GDP quadrupled between 1990 and 2005 (from $1,103 to $4,088) and India's doubled (from $1,202 to $2,202).
And this economic growth has been accompanied by massive increases in these countries' consumption of oil.
Oil has been a critical factor in the history of U.S.-Mideast relations, but only the most shortsighted believe the power wielded by OPEC during the 1970s captures the complexity of this history.
Over the past century, all sides have taken turns controlling the vital resource and taking advantage of the leverage that control of oil provides. History therefore suggests that oil will continue to play a part in the geopolitics of the region, but history also suggests that the leverage wielded by one side or the other will be temporary, and that larger market forces will prevent any single player from exercising long-term control over production and prices.
For many Americans, September 11th brought back powerful—and awful—memories of another, earlier attack on America by Islamic radicals. On November 4th, 1979, several hundred Iranian students, loyal to the fundamentalist Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, stormed the United States Embassy in Iran and took 66 Americans captive. 15 were soon released, but the remaining 51 were held as hostages.
Americans were stunned by the brazen attack against their embassy in Tehran. Embassies were traditionally viewed as safe havens, sanctuaries respected by all civilized nations in deference to diplomacy over warfare. The attack, in other words, was an assault on civilized behavior. At a different level, the attack by unorganized, crudely-armed students on an American outpost represented an unfathomable assault on American power.
What were they thinking? The United States was the most powerful country in the world. Did these students think this would go unpunished?
But as days turned into weeks and weeks into months, Americans had to face the even more troubling suggestion that the students' attack would go unpunished. The students were unimpressed by American threats. They vowed that unless the deposed Shah, at the time seeking medical asylum in America, was returned to face punishment by his former subjects in Iran, they'd never return the hostages.
Instead of capitulation, they filled the evening news with daily demonstrations of anti-Americanism in the streets of Tehran. As Americans watched their flags burned and effigies of Jimmy Carter destroyed, they were forced to consider other questions.
The fact of the matter was that the United States had played a large role in the rise of the Shah to power in 1953.
Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, was nudged into power in 1941 by Britain and Russia, two countries worried that his father, Reza Shah, wouldn't be a cooperative ally in World War II against Germany. And indeed, the 22-year-old Shah did prove a more reliable asset during the war. Following World War II, moreover, the Shah proved just as reliable in support of pro-Western interests in the region during the Cold War.
Within Iran, however, the Shah's pro-Western policies generated considerable dissent and by 1951, widespread political opposition led by the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq. The European-trained lawyer opposed the Shah's too-cozy relationship with Western powers. In particular, he objected to the monopolization of the country's oil by British companies. As an alternative, Mossadeq urged nationalization of the vital resource.
The United States and Great Britain watched the ascendance of this popular nationalist with alarm. Mosaddeq was only loosely aligned with his country's Communist Party, but the Western powers feared that Mosaddeq might open the door to communist influence in the country, placing its huge oil supplies entirely outside the reach of the West. Alarm reached crisis levels in 1953, when clashes between the Shah and Mosaddeq's followers forced the Shah to leave the country.
In response, British and American intelligence agencies organized a coup—code-named Operation Ajax—that overthrew Mosaddeq and restored the Shah to power.
The Shah repaid the Western powers handsomely for their support. Over the next 25 years, he ensured a steady supply of affordable oil, and he pursued a series of "reforms" that suggested he was modernizing and westernizing the country. He granted women the right to vote and he mounted a high-profile literacy campaign.
But while some applauded the Shah's commitment to modernization, traditionalists opposed his "White Revolution." Hard-line Islamic clerics, led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, condemned the measures that they believed threatened the moral and religious values of Islam. And they criticized the Shah's tight relationship with the United States and conciliatory policies toward Israel.
The Shah reacted harshly to these criticisms. Khomeini was arrested and eventually forced into exile. The Ayatollah's followers remaining in Iran faced even harsher treatment. The Shah built an elaborate security police—the SAVAK—that cracked down on further dissent with brutal force.
But these measures only increased opposition to the Shah and his program among Islamic traditionalists. And they also cost the Shah support among many moderates inside Iran. Even many of those supportive of modernization were horrified by the brutality of SAVAK and disgusted by the Shah's opulent lifestyle.
American policymakers weren't blind to the dark side of the Shah's regime, but he was too valuable an ally to be dumped. He was an ardent anticommunist and, since Iran bordered the Soviet Union, he represented a critical geographical ally. The Shah spent billions on American military hardware, boosting American industries and reducing America's trade deficit. Plus, he was a powerful and moderate force in OPEC, urging the oil producing nations to maintain reasonable oil prices.
In other words, there were plenty of good reasons to continue supporting the Shah, but there was a price.
As popular dissatisfaction with the Iranian leader grew, so too did hatred for the United States. It was America, after all, that had helped him into power...and then kept him there. And it was American weapons that armed SAVAK and consumed a disproportionate part of the national budget. For religious traditionalists, moreover, America and the Shah's modernization campaign were synonymous: America's ubiquitous commercial goods, its music, movies, and fashions were the insidious purveyors of destructive cultural values. Soon, Islamic traditionalists labeled America "the Great Satan."
By 1979, opposition to the Shah had reached revolutionary proportions.
From Paris, the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini orchestrated a campaign of strikes and protests that crippled the oil industry vital to the Iranian economy and the government's budget. Recognizing that his hold on power was untenable, and dying from cancer, the Shah fled the country on January 16th, 1979. Within weeks, the Ayatollah was welcomed back into Iran as a conquering hero.
Over the following months, American officials and Iranian revolutionary leaders eyed one another suspiciously. Many in Iran feared that the CIA would launch another coup in an attempt to restore the Shah to power yet again. President Jimmy Carter had no such intentions, but his decision to allow the Shah to enter the United States in October 1979 to seek medical treatment only strengthened Iranian suspicions.
The Shah checked into New York's Weill Cornell Medical Hospital on October 22nd. Two weeks later, the American Embassy in Tehran was attacked.
The ensuing hostage crisis all but destroyed Jimmy Carter's presidency. For more than a year, the dean of the evening news, Walter Cronkite, closed his broadcasts with a painful reminder of just how long Carter's policies had failed to win the release of the American prisoners: "And that's the way it is...the 222nd day of captivity for the hostages in Iran."
In reality, Carter was far from passive in his response to the crisis. He placed an embargo on Iranian oil, froze Iranian assets in American banks, and terminated all arms sales to the country. And in April 1980, he approved a risky operation by Special Forces meant to blaze into Tehran by helicopter gunship to rescue the hostages.
But months of diplomacy yielded nothing, and the military rescue operation proved a complete catastrophe when the helicopters broke down en route, malfunctioning in a severe sandstorm. Part of the problem for Carter was that the Iranian demands were all but impossible to meet. For example, initially they demanded the return of the Shah to stand trial, but within weeks of the American embassy's takeover, the Shah left New York, first for Panama and then for Egypt.
Even more problematic for American negotiators, in July 1980, the Shah died. That'll throw a wrench in things.
In the end, the hostages were released in exchange for the unfreezing of Iranian assets held in the United States. Although negotiated by Carter's administration, the release was timed to coincide with his departure from office, triggering all sorts of speculation that incoming President Ronald Reagan's campaign team had made some kind of deal with the Iranians. Those allegations remain unproven, but clearly, the hostage crisis did doom Jimmy Carter's campaign and ensure the election of the former California governor to the American presidency in 1980.
In January 1981, on the very day that Jimy Carter relinquished office, Iran set its captives free.
And so, the Iranian hostage crisis was over. But to a certain extent, the episode continues.
Decades later, the United States has yet to remove many of the economic sanctions against Iran first imposed in 1979. In fact, in recent years, the United States has only increased its economic pressure in hopes of forcing Iran to suspend its nuclear weapons program. In effect, Iran remains as committed to reducing American influence in the region as ever. In 1982, Iran was instrumental in the founding of Hezbollah, a political/terrorist organization responsible for attacks against American and Israeli interests.
Nor has the rhetoric exchanged between the two countries changed much since 1979. Iranian proclamations still refer to the United States as the "Great Satan." In 2002, President George W. Bush labeled Iran, along with North Korea and Iraq, part of the "axis of evil."
Yet, demonstrating just how complicated American relations with this part of the world are, the link between 1979 and 2001—between Iran and Al Qaeda—remains a huge mystery. Given the history of ill will between the United States and Iran, Bush administration officials immediately linked Iran to the September 11th attacks. But years later, it remains dubious whether Iran supported or was linked in any fashion to Al Qaeda.
Historically, Shiite and Sunni Muslims have been bitter enemies. In fact, to a certain extent, fundamentalist Sunni groups like Al Qaeda were formed as a reaction against Iranian claims that with the ascendance of an Islamic theocracy under clerical rule in Iran, Shia Iran had become the spiritual center of the Muslim world. The tension between these two claimants to fundamentalist leadership was made apparent when many Al Qaeda members who fled to Iran following the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 were promptly arrested by Iranian authorities.
But while sectarian differences may separate the two Muslim groups, their shared hostility toward the United States provides common ground. Understanding the region, and mapping a strategy for both national security and improved relations, rests on recognizing the complexities of the region—and perhaps most importantly, the possibilities as well as the dangers to be found in the centuries-old Sunni-Shiite schism.