Allen Mikaelian is a DC-based editor and writer. He received his history PhD from American University and served as editor of the American Historical Association’s magazine, Perspectives on History. The Political Uses of the Past Project collects and checks statements by elected and appointed officials. This is the first installment of what will hopefully become a regular feature of the project. Read more about the project here. Contact the editor of the project here.
Vice President Pence: "For nearly 200 years, stretching back to our Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Oman, the United States has been a force for good in the Middle East"
Eight historians responded to our request for comment; their full statements and recommended sources are on the Political Uses of the Past page).
The vice president starts with the 1833 treaty with Oman, and so shall we, even though it’s an odd place to start. As Will Hanley of Florida State University noted in his reaction to Pence’s claim, the treaty itself is a piece of routine boilerplate, not so different “from dozens of other 1830s agreements between Middle East authorities and representatives of American and European states.” But there was at least one innovation, as Hanley explains: “The Sultan of Muscat inserted a clause saying that he, rather than the US, would cover the costs of lodging distressed American sailors. A more accurate statement [by Pence] on this evidence would be ‘For nearly 200 years, stretching back to our Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Oman, representatives of the United States have pursued standardized agreements in the Middle East and enjoyed meals that we haven't paid for.’”
Vice President Pence made this broad statement at a ministerial meeting on terrorism, but his mind was primarily on Iran. His intent was to draw a contrast between the United States and Iran, with the former being a “force for good” in the region and the latter being a perpetrator of continual violence. But by going back to 1833 to reference a routine and fairly boring trade agreement with a minor kingdom, he appears to be grasping at straws.
If Pence was looking for good done by the United States in the Middle East, he could have asked some of the historians who reacted to his statement. He may have learned from Joel Beinin how “American missionaries established some of the leading universities in the Middle East: The American University of Beirut, The American University in Cairo and Robert College in Istanbul. The Medical School of AUB is among the best in the region.” He may have been interested to hear from Indira Falk Gesink that "after World War I, most of those polled in the regions surrounding Syria wanted the US as their mandatory power (if they wanted any)." He may have learned from Lior Sternfeld how the United States has sponsored “schools, universities, and orphanages” and took a stand against its European allies and Israel during the Suez Crisis of 1956.
But if he had asked and had learned about these efforts, he would also have learned from Professor Beinin that many of the missionaries who established these schools went to work for the CIA in the postwar period, “so even the very best thing that Americans have done in the Middle East since the early 19th century was corrupted by government efforts to exert power over the region in order to control its oil.” And Pence would have also had to hear Professor Sternfeld tell about the 1953 coup in Iran that cemented a brutal regime in place for the next quarter-century and how, as described by Professor Gesink, "from that point on, US actions in the Middle East were guided by demand for oil and anti-Communist containment." Finally, he would have had to hear about how much that 1953 coup has to do with our relations with Iran now.
Historians who replied to our request for comment could not find much “force for good” in the historical record. Instead, they find “death, displacement, and destruction” (Ziad Abu-Rish), support for “the most ruthless and brutal dictators at every turn” and the “most fanatical and chauvinistic nationalist and religious forces at every turn” (Mark Le Vine), “intense and destructive interventions … characterized by public deception, confusion, and mixed motives” (Michael Provence), "a moral compromise with authoritarianism" (Indira Falk Gesink), and actions that have “contributed to breakdowns in security, widespread violence, and humanitarian disaster” (Dale Stahl).
|Homage to the Shah after coup d'état, 5 September 1953, The Guardian - Unseen images of the 1953 Iran coup.
Three historians below recommend The Coup: 1953, The CIA, and The Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations by Ervand Abrahamian, and this book is incredibly pertinent today. Previous historical accounts and justifications by 1950s policymakers made the coup all about Mosaddegh’s unwieldiness to compromise or said it was all about winning the Cold War. Abrahamian instead shows that it was about oil, or, more specifically, “the repercussions that oil nationalization could have on such faraway places as Indonesia and South America, not to mention the rest of the Persian Gulf.” And for this, Iran and the Middle East got, courtesy of the United States, the brutal Mohammad Reza Shah. The shah crushed the democratic opposition, filling his jails with thousands of political prisoners, and left “a gaping political vacuum—one filled eventually by the Islamic movement.” And so here we are.
Mike Pence’s incredibly blinkered statement can be viewed as an extreme counterpoint to the right-wing view of Obama’s Cairo speech, in which the president mildly acknowledged that the US had not always been on the side of right in the Middle East, and that its history of actions have come back to haunt us all. Such things, it seems, must not be spoken in the muscular Trump administration, even if it means abandoning an understanding that might actually be useful. “For me as an historian,” Mark Le Vine notes below, “perhaps the worst part the history of US foreign policy in the region is precisely that scholars have for so long done everything possible to inform politicians, the media and the public about the realities there. Largely to no avail.” Indeed, Mike Pence here appears intent on utterly blocking out history and historical thinking, even as he dreams of a long and glorious past.
Ziad Abu-Rish, Assistant Professor of History at Ohio University
I'm only going to tackle the "force for good" claim, without getting into the claims about Trump compared to his predecessors or the notion of "radical Islamic terrorism." Let's give Vice President Pence a chance at being correct... Read more
Joel Beinin, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History, Emeritus, Stanford University
American missionaries established some of the leading universities in the Middle East: The American University of Beirut, The American University in Cairo and Robert College in Istanbul. The Medical School of AUB is among the best in the region... Read more
Indira Falk Gesink, Baldwin Wallace University
I think this is a much more complicated question than is generally acknowledged. On the one hand, some American private citizens have had long-lasting positive impact—for example the founding of educational institutions such as Roberts College, the American University in Beirut (originally the Syrian Protestant College), and the American University in Cairo. At that time, the US generally was viewed positively in the region. ... Read more
Will Hanley, Florida State University
It's not possible to use historical evidence to support a black-and-white statement like "The United States has been a force for good in the Middle East." Even if it were possible, the slim 1833 treaty between the US and the Sultan of Muscat is meager evidence. ... Read more
Mark Andrew Le Vine, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, UC Irvine
This statement is ridiculous even by the standards of the Trump administration. The US has been among the most damaging forces in the Middle East for the last three quarters of a century. ... Read more
Michael Provence, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, University of California, San Diego
The United States had no role in the Middle East before 1945, apart from private business and educational initiatives. Within a couple years of 1945, the US tilted toward Israel in its first war, began overthrowing democratic Middle Eastern governments, and propping up pliant dictators. ... Read more
Dale Stahl, Assistant Professor of History, University of Colorado Denver
I see this statement as "more or less false" because there are clear examples where the United States has not had a positive influence in the Middle East. One needn't reflect very far back into that "nearly 200 years" of history to know that this is so. ... Read more
Lior Sternfeld, Penn State University
While the US had some moments where it was a force for good, with projects like schools, universities, and orphanages, it was also a source for instability in cases like the 1953 coup against Mosaddegh that overturned the course not just of Iran but of the region in its entirety. Read more