Updated: Jun 21, 2020
Imagine a chess board. It’s okay if you don’t know how to play chess. You can picture the board, right? It looks a little like this:
Today's topic is about the struggle that emerged between the United States and the Soviet Union during the second half of the 20th Century. Some people like to call it the Cold War.
And the Cold War was a lot like that chessboard you see above.
If you're still struggling to understand the metaphor, allow me to illustrate the example by using Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin of the Netflix documentary series Tiger King:
But the area we're going to be discussing today is the Middle East. Since, you know, this post is about the Middle East.
The Cold War's struggle in the Middle East was an intricate and complicated tug-of-war match that very few people have a complete grasp of. Unless you're a PhD candidate who is focusing on the geopolitics of the Middle East during the Cold War, I don't trust you!
The tug-of-war match in the Middle East was an intricate and complicated struggle because both the United States government and the Soviet Union government are made up of thousands of individuals with different goals and different styles of leadership.
Additionally, each country in the Middle East is also made up of thousands of individuals with different goals and different styles of leadership.
Because of this, the United States and the Soviet Union never had complete control of any specific country in the Middle East.
Sure, they became allies with and influenced certain countries (and even pressured others by sheer force), but neither the United States nor the Soviet Union ever completely dominated any one country.
And since the Cold War was so long (over 40 years!), I can't think of a single country under the United States' or Soviet Union's influence that remained consistent throughout the span of the Cold War. Relationships between the two superpowers and the Middle Eastern waxed and waned, and many Middle Eastern countries even flipped sides at one point.
For example, Egypt was originally aligned with the Soviet Union but they became a pretty close US ally by the end of the Cold War.
This is why it's useful to think of the Middle East and the Cold War as the most intricate game of chess ever played.
The Pillars of Creation
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's review what we've discussed so far.
The Founding of Israel and the Six-Day War. Israel was founded as an official country for the Jewish people. Most of the Middle East don't like this and some violence occurs. Israel wins and makes most of the Middle East even more angry.
The Growth of Ultra-Conservative Islam and Salafi-Jihadism. Colonialism, Western influence, and the Six-Day War leads to violent extremism in the Muslim world.
But we're still missing one large piece of the puzzle: the fourth pillar.
This fourth pillar takes everything we've learned so far and wraps it up in a nice little bow of instability and anger:
The Influence and Intervention of the Cold War in the Middle East.
A Chilly, Chilly War
The Cold War was a war in the loosest sense of the word. There weren’t any formal conflicts between the Soviet Union and the United States. Instead, it was a war of ideologies: Socialism vs. Capitalism.
For the United States, the goal of the Cold War was to spread Capitalism. Capitalism was a movement of the people. The people dictated the market. The people ran the country. The people all had the same, equal opportunity (in theory).
For the Soviet Union, the goal of the Cold War was to spread Socialism. Socialism was also a movement of the people. Instead of giving people the same opportunities, socialism placed people at the same socio-economic position. If everyone had the same life outcome, then everyone would be happy (in theory).
Both the United States and the Soviet Union disagreed with each other and both sides saw the Middle East as an opportunity to advance their ideologies. Remember, the Middle East is made up of a bunch of new countries at this point and what better way to spread influence than by influencing infant governments!?
Now let's return to that chessboard for another metaphor.
To better understand the impact the Cold War had on the Middle East, let's review what the Middle East looked like in the early 1900s:
The Middle East was divided up (mostly) evenly by the European powers.
But remember, this doesn't last long. The European powers eventually pull out of the Middle East, and suddenly, the Middle East is left all alone. Now, it must fend for itself. This leads to massive instability throughout the Middle East.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union saw this instability as a great opportunity to spread influence and obtain resources (like oil, which was ALL over the Middle East).
At the start of the Cold War the chessboard looks like this:
Basically, the United States and the Soviet Union begin to duke it out over the Middle East. Britain still has some influence over certain areas in the Middle East, but their power is definitely waning.
To make it a little easier to understand, allow me to illustrate the situation using another Tiger King metaphor:
Okay, so Joe Exotic is Britain. He's got a lot of power in the Middle East. A big enemy of Joe is Carole Baskin (the Soviet Union). Jeff comes to Joe's tiger park and starts to help Joe out, kind of like how the US originally was helping Britain out.
But a few years later, Britain has given up its influence in the Middle East almost entirely. Almost like how Joe gives up his tiger park to Jeff.
It's not a perfect metaphor, but you get the picture, right? (If you haven't seen Tiger King, you're shit out of luck, sorry.)
And just because the Soviet Union and the United States didn't engage in an actual war with each other (hence the term Cold War), this doesn’t mean there wasn’t any bloodshed.
Because there was a lot of bloodshed.
Instead of wasting their own soldiers, both the Soviet Union and the United States used the manpower of other countries to further their own agenda in the Middle East.
Remember the Six-Day War? The Six-Day War is a perfect example of how the Soviet Union and the United States pushed other countries into physical conflict to increase their influence in the Middle East.
As we discussed in Part 2, Israel was created by the UN as an official country for the Jewish people after WWII. Since the UN created Israel, Israel had a pretty close relationship with the United States.
The Soviet Union saw this relationship forming and decided to do something about it. They formed relationships with a number of Muslim-majority Countries: Egypt, Syria, Iraq. Unsurprisingly, many of these countries had already adopted a form of socialism called Arab Socialism, so they were ripe for the friendship.
Also, it wasn't like any of these countries were happy with the creation of Israel. Remember, Israel is the only non Muslim-majority country in the Middle East.
To fight back against the West, the Soviet Union urged these Muslim countries to push back against Israel. The Soviets actively urged the blockade that led to Israel’s attack on Egypt, and they actively urged both Syria and Jordan to attack Israel.
But this isn't the only place these showdowns happened. They happened over and over again throughout the Middle East.
The below map highlights the region's relationships during this time:
At the beginning of the Cold War, the United States had a close relationship formed with Israel, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.
The Soviets had a pretty firm grasp on the eastern edge of the Middle East: Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq.
But as we'll soon see, these relationships aren't permanent. A couple of decades later, the Soviet Union will lose its grip on Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq almost entirely.
A Few Decades Later...
A few decades into the Cold War a very, very complicated chess board began to form. It no longer looks like it did at the end of WWII. Here's that chessboard from the late 1940s again:
By the 1970s it starts to look even more strange...
On one end of the spectrum, you have two clear powers dictating the events of the Middle East:
And on the other end of the spectrum, every country in the Middle East is slowly becoming more and more independent and wants to separate itself from outside influence. They also start to have revolutions and wars of their own:
So maybe the board looks at little like this:
And since it’s a cold war…
And just to really make sure this metaphor is really, truly dead:
To summarize: The United States and Soviet Union still have influence, but these Middle Eastern countries are now doing what they want to do. And while the United States and Soviet Union can still influence them, it’s getting harder and harder to do so.
Additionally, these Middle Eastern Countries are NOT singular entities. Many of these countries are having their own revolutions and coups. For example, Iran is having it's own revolution:
The United States and Soviet Union has to keep an eye on all of this in order to maintain their influence. It's an ever-moving board that everyone must keep track of. It’s very confusing.
The Middle East in 1979
The Cold War becomes so confusing that by 1979 the chessboard metaphor just completely falls apart.
A couple of things happen in 1979:
1) The Soviet-Afghan War begins.
2) Saddam Hussein rises to power and invades Iran.
Let's take all this one step at a time. First, let's talk about the Soviet-Afghan War.
Let's Talk About the Soviet-Afghan War
The Soviet-Afghan War was the result of instability in Afghanistan.
In the 1970s the Soviet Union began to force itself into Afghanistan's politics, and, in 1978, they helped back a coup to put a communist leader in charge of the country.
A few military/political groups decided they weren't content with these results and began to fight for control of Afghanistan. This made life difficult for the Soviets.
In response, the Soviets send some troops down with the goal of quickly silencing the rebellion and placing a new communist leader in charge.
The Soviet Union's plan was to get in, get out, and keep Afghanistan on their side as quickly as possible. But like Joe Exotic planning Carole Baskin's murder, it all backfired for the Soviets.
The Soviet's plan was supposed to take six months.
But it turned into a nine-year war with over two million casualties.
How in the world did this plan fall apart so quickly?
Well, it was all thanks to the United States (and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Britain) who quietly funded the military/political groups fighting the Soviets.
Without this funding, the Soviets probably would have ended the entire charade in six months.
But the United States (and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Britain) continued to fund these Afghan groups who were fighting against the Soviet Union.
One of these Afghan groups came to be known as the Taliban, which you've probably heard of since the United States went to war against them in 2001.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Because at this time, the United States wasn't thinking that far ahead. During the Soviet-Afghan War, they really just wanted to spite the Soviets. They didn't care about meaningless things such as "repercussions" or "terrorism".
But the United States (and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Britain) weren't alone in funding the Taliban. There was someone else. A piece of shit we all know quite well.
Enter: Osama Bin Laden.
But Osama Bin Laden did have two interesting things about him:
1) He was an extremely conservative Muslim, even by Salafi-Jihadist standards. And he was very vocal about his beliefs.
2) He was also flooded in cash and connections from his family's massive construction company.
Osama Bin Laden rose to prominence by using his family's cash and connections to help recruit and train the Taliban for Soviet-Afghan War.
Bin Laden had a unique approach when it came to recruitment and training for the war effort.
He recruited conservative Muslim men from all over the Middle East to aid in the Taliban war effort (he even "allegedly" received some cash from the United States for this training).
Because of Bin Laden's recruitment efforts the Soviet-Afghan War had become a fight for Islam itself.
Eventually, the war dragged on for so long that the Soviet Union decided to pull its troops out of Afghanistan and abandon the Middle East almost completely.
But the effects of Bin Laden's recruitment efforts had already spread all over the Middle East. He had trained and converted thousands of conservative Muslims to become guerrilla jihadists.
And while the war in Afghanistan continued (the guerrilla groups were still fighting each other), Bin Laden eventually turned his attention toward another enemy of Islam: the United States.
Bin Laden began to blame the United States for everything that had been going on in the Middle East, and he took the recruitment and training framework he had used during the Soviet-Afghan War and applied it to a new group he created. You've probably heard of this group. They're pretty well known: Al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda was a Salafi-Jihadist terrorist group created to wage a war on enemies on Islam. They would soon become the largest and most well-known terrorist group the world had even seen.
But that's a story for next week. Now it's time to talk about another piece of shit we all know and love.
Saddam Hussein and the Iran-Iraq War
This is Saddam Hussein:
You probably know him from the Gulf War that took place in 1990 and the Iraq War that began in 2003.
But he's been terrorizing people for a lot longer than that.
Back in 1968, Saddam took part in a coup to overthrow Iraq's government and instate an ultraconservative and socialist group named the Ba'ath Party. While Saddam didn't play an enormous role in the coup itself, he became one of the leading forces of the party soon after.
Saddam and the Ba'ath Party established a socialist dictatorship, repressed other dissidents and rebellions, took over private industries (like the oil industry), and modernized Iraq in the span of just a few short years.
He was also responsible for the death of at least 250,000 people and the violation of dozens of human rights laws.
Wikipedia states it so eloquently, I'm just going to copy what they've said and paste it right here:
"Iraq's era under President Saddam Hussein was notorious for its severe violations of human rights, which were perceived to be among if not the worst in the world. Secret police, state terrorism, torture, mass murder, genocide, ethnic cleansing, rape, deportations, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, assassinations, chemical warfare, and the destruction of southern Iraq's marshes were some of the methods Saddam and the country's Ba'athist government used to maintain control."
Saddam's brutality and lust for power eventually led him to invade Iran and Kuwait and create massive instability in the region for the next 25 years.
We've discussed a lot today, so here's a quick summary:
1) The Cold War created more instability and led to a number of wars in the Middle East. Many countries were also going through their own revolutions and civil wars at this time.
2) All of this instability led to a lot of anger in the Middle East. This anger allowed people like Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden to assume power.
And while Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden assumed power in the late 80s and early 90s, the Soviet Union did the exact opposite. They abandoned the Middle East completely, and by 1992, they had completely collapsed as a government.
But by the time the Soviet Union abandoned the Middle East, it was too late for the millions of people living there. A generation of conservative Muslims had grown up in violence and instability and were now turning to Salafism in response to the madness.
This new generation of conservative Muslims blamed the United States and the West for the unnecessary death of millions of people in the Middle East. The Salafists viewed the United States and West as the one true enemy of Islam. And if they wanted peace and stability, the Salafists would have to destroy the United States and the West to achieve this vision.
In Part 4, we'll explore the continued rise of Bin Laden, the military intervention of the United States, and the perfect storm that led to 9/11 and the fallout that emerged from it.
I promise it won't take as long to release Part 4, so please stay tuned!