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.