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United States  in the Middle East
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed


History may or may not repeat itself. But its lessons endure. The deepening involvement of the United States in the Middle East invites an examination of historical patterns that repeat. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Ottoman Turks exhausted themselves in Central Europe while Europeans on the Atlantic seaboard went on to discover America and capture the Asian trade. Does the analogy hold for the involvement of the United States in the Middle East in the first half of the twenty-first century?
Let us first look at the Turkish experience. It was the year 1529. The Ottoman forces under Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to the Hapsburg capital of Vienna. Winter set in early that year and snowfall was heavy. To avoid getting trapped deep in mid-winter deep in enemy territory, Suleiman called off the siege and the Ottoman armies retreated towards Belgrade.
Over the next hundred and fifty years, the Ottomans were heavily engaged in Central Europe, fighting no less than six major wars and scores of minor ones. Indeed, one may summarize the military history of Central Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the Turks advancing up from Istanbul and the Austrians stopping them short of Vienna.
This pattern continued until the second siege of Vienna in 1683 when the ill-fated and ill-planned advance on the Hapsburg capital by Grand Vizier Mustafa Pasha was smashed by a contingent of Polish troops. While the thrust of Ottoman power was towards Europe, there was continuous warfare with Safavid Iran to the east for control of Iraq and Azerbaijan, with the Russians for control of the Caucasus and with the navies of Venice, Portugal, Spain and the Vatican for control of the seas. The battle of Lepanto (1571) effectively contained Ottoman naval power in the Eastern Mediterranean. The bloody conflicts with Safavid Persia ended only after 1639. Warfare with Russia to the north and the Hapsburgs to the west continued, on and off, well into the twentieth century. .
The continued warfare required the Ottomans to expand and maintain a large army placing an enormous burden on the treasury. During the same period, shiploads of silver, looted by the Spanish from the Aztecs in Mexico (1519-1540), arrived in Europe and gradually traveled eastward from Spain, France and Austria into the Ottoman Empire. Silver was the basis for the currencies of Europe, and the infusion of such large quantities of the metal debauched their currencies. Inflation went up. The Ottomans were forced to devalue their currency. This only made matters worse for the army. The amount of cash required for defense became excruciatingly painful. Discipline in the army suffered as the soldiers, unable to feed their families, resorted to occasional extortion.
While the Turks were so preoccupied with Central Europe, Europeans on the Atlantic seaboard were rewriting history. Columbus discovered America in 1492. Vasco de Gama sailed around the tip of Africa and journeyed to India in 1496. The Spaniards enslaved the Aztecs, Incas and Mayas, looted their gold and imposed an empire on the New World. The Portuguese destroyed the Indian Ocean trade which was until that time controlled by the Muslims and set up colonies all along the rim of the Indian Ocean. Traditional trade routes between Asia and Europe which had passed through the Middle East were cut. The Islamic world which had bottled up Europe until the fifteenth century was itself circumscribed and cornered. New world powers emerged riding on the wealth of the Americas and on trade with the littoral states of the Indian Ocean. First it was Spain. Then, it was the turn of the Dutch. And finally England became the mistress of the world supplanting both the Spanish and the Dutch.
In historical hindsight, the great battles between the Turks and the Habsburgs come across as border skirmishes on the global stage. While the Turks were exhausting themselves in Central Europe, the Europeans were making a bold gambit to conquer and rule the world.
Some historians hold the first siege of Vienna in 1529 and the second siege in 1683 as the high points of Ottoman power. In fact, the decay of the empire started with the Ottoman thrust into Austria and was complete with the defeat of the Turkish armies in 1683.
Move the clock forward some three centuries plus. Towards the end of the twentieth century, the United States became the sole global superpower. Currently, it is heavily engaged in the Middle East. More than a half a dozen American military bases dot the Persian Gulf region. Some 150,000 troops are on active duty in Iraq. The cost of the war exceeds 200 billion dollars. The American involvement shows no sign of abating. Instead, there is a possibility that it may expand even further.
There are three strategic interests at stake in the Middle East. First, it is control of oil resources. Second, it is defense of the dollar. Third, it is support for Israel. The first two are interrelated. The third is a reflection of American internal politics.
Control of oil resources is driven not just by the profits of giant oil companies and the love of gas guzzling SUVs. Larger issues are at stake. To understand the genesis of these issues one should go back to the end of World War II when the United States emerged as the only major industrial power unscathed from the ravages of war. The US also became the principal creditor of the world. The US dollar, tied to a fixed gold conversion rate for government-to-government transactions, was the de facto international currency.
However, there was insufficient gold in the world to finance expanding world trade plus the reconstruction of Western Europe and Japan. The dollar needed to be backed up by something else of value. And that something else was black gold, namely oil. The Bretton Woods agreement of 1945 established the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and solidified the position of the dollar, backed up by oil reserves, as the currency of exchange.
It was for this reason that President Roosevelt made a hasty detour immediately after the Yalta Conference of 1945 to meet King ibn Saud of Arabia in Suez. The strategic move was to secure the oil of the Middle East before someone else made a dash for it. The Americans guaranteed the protection of the Saudi monarchy in return for access to Saudi oil. The Saudi-American relationship has remained a cornerstone of American foreign policy in the Middle East since the end of World War II. The United States cannot tolerate a serious threat to the Saudis. That would be unacceptable to the vital interests of the United States.
Whatever remained of the convertibility of the dollar to gold was removed by President Nixon in 1971. It was an effective way of devaluing the dollar. Immediately, the price of gold shot up from $40 an ounce to $400 an ounce. The dollar value of real assets in the United States floated upwards. For instance, a three-bedroom house in Los Angeles that cost twenty thousand dollars in 1961 costs more than four hundred thousand dollars in the year 2006.
To complete the analogy of the United States in the twenty-first century with the Ottomans in the sixteenth century, the devaluation of the Ottoman currency took place because of the influx of Mexican silver into Europe and the extraordinary expenditures on the Ottoman war machine. The devaluation of the US dollar is taking place because of the voracious appetite of the American consumer and deficit financing in the Federal budget. The reasons are different but the end result is the same.
Just as new powers emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries while the Turks were preoccupied with Central Europe, new world powers are emerging today while the United States is focused on the Middle East. The Chinese economy, growing by over eight percent per year, is already the second largest in the world and is projected to overtake that of the United States within the next generation. The Chinese manufacturing industries dominate the world consumer markets. Whether you buy an ihram for hajj in Mecca or pajamas in Indonesia, you buy made-in-China products. Chinese cranes sail under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco even as California struggles with the Enron scandal. Simultaneously, India, riding on a vast pool of trained technical manpower, positions itself as the workhorse of the twenty-first century and the third economic giant after China and the US.
The rise of China and India in modern times is comparable to the rise of Spain, Holland and England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Just as the Turks paid scant attention to the changing power balance in the world in bygone centuries, the United States has devoted insufficient resources to countervail either the manufacturing capacity of the Chinese or the Indian gambit to become the technological services work horse of the world. Add to this the enormous energy and raw material resources of Russia and Brazil and you have before you the strategic power map of the twenty-first century.
The response of the United States to these emerging challenges has been disjointed. The educational infrastructure is in decline. Comparative scores of American children in math and science keep slipping. American industry is driven by a penchant for short-term profits. Deficits run high while savings and investments sag. The United States, which was the creditor nation of the world at the end of WW II, has become the largest debtor nation on the globe owing hundreds of billions to China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and India. Slogans of democracy fail to evoke a positive response in international affairs.
The question may be asked: Is the United States exhausting itself in the Middle East? Is history set to repeat itself?
The answers need not be negative. The United States will remain the principal agriculture powerhouse of the world for decades to come. It is blessed with a continent size landmass and enormous natural resources. Despite recent restrictions, it is still the only country in the world that welcomes tens of thousands of immigrants from around the globe. It remains the favorite destination of the educated elite of the world. For two hundred years, its political and social systems have demonstrated a remarkable resilience and have continually reinvented themselves. Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln are American icons not found elsewhere in the world.
What is needed is a judicious disengagement from the Middle East and a re-engagement with its own educational and technological infrastructures. Political engineering and the spread of democracy may not be ideal goals for America as it steps into a strategic competition with China and India. Oil interests can be protected, and the dollar defended, based on a strong, technologically dominant economy. Let the nations of the Middle East evolve their political and social systems on the basis of their own historical experience. Given the freedom to choose, they will opt for democratic, civil societies on their own.

 

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