Matthew F. Jacobs: Imagining the Middle East – An Excerpt

In Imagining the Middle East: The Building of an American Foreign Policy, 1918-1967, Matthew F. Jacobs illuminates how Americans’ ideas and perspectives about the Middle East have shaped, justified, and sustained U.S. cultural, economic, military, and political involvement there. He demonstrates that an analysis of the intellectual roots of current politics and foreign policy is critical to comprehending the styles of U.S. engagement with the Middle East in a post-9/11 world.

“Jacobs takes a novel, compelling approach to the broad American experience in the Middle East during the formative years of U.S. national involvement there. This book makes a major contribution to the growing literature on the history of U.S. official and non-official interaction with the Middle East in the middle twentieth century.”
–Peter Hahn, professor of history, The Ohio State University

The following is an excerpt from Imagining the Middle East: The Building of an American Foreign Policy, 1918-1967 (pp. 3-4).


The book’s thematic organization makes it possible to read each chapter independently, but several threads tie the chapters together into a cohesive examination of how professional Middle East watchers imagined the region. First is my broad methodological interest in combining approaches that focus on national security concerns, diplomacy, and economics with interpretations that emphasize the cultural, ideological, or intellectual contexts, as well as the nonstate actors who influenced the course of U.S. foreign relations. Too often, scholars view these approaches as mutually exclusive, rather than mutually supportive. A more useful formulation might recognize that the protection or pursuit of national security concerns or economic interests often motivated policymakers, but that cultural, ideological, or intellectual contexts impacted how those interests were defined, articulated, and pursued.[1]

There can be little doubt that scholars must combine the two approaches when wrestling with the history of U.S.-Middle East relations. U.S. policymakers clearly focused on economic interests, especially during and after the Cold War with the Soviet Union. But culture and ideas were central to how policymakers and average Americans understood both economic and security issues. Oil quickly became the most critical feature of increasingly mechanized and technologically advanced militaries, as well as of a new consumer culture that first expanded rapidly across the United States, then Europe, and eventually other parts of the world in the twentieth century. Access to Middle Eastern oil for the United States and its allies therefore became crucial, in both economic and military terms, to preserving what policymakers and scholars have referred to as “the American way of life.” Americans understood the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union in similar ways, as a contest for the survival of the U.S. cultural, economic, and political system at home as well as a concomitant universalist vision of the world as a whole. Hence, as U.S. policymakers, and the academics, journalists, and businesspersons who supported them, working to define and protect those national security interests in the Middle East, they were forced to try to understand the region itself. That effort, in turn, brought them face to face with their own ideas about the people, religions, social structures, political movements, and other aspects of the Middle East. It was virtually impossible to design policies without taking such ideas into consideration.[2]


From IMAGINING THE MIDDLE EAST: THE BUILDING OF AN AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY, 1918-1967 by Matthew F. Jacobs. Copyright (c) 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Matthew F. Jacobs is assistant professor of history at the University of Florida and author of Imagining the Middle East: The Building of an American Foreign Policy, 1918-1967.

  1. [1]4. The essays in Hogan and Paterson, Explaining the History of U.S. Foreign Foreign Relations, provide a good sense of these tensions within the field. See, in particular, Robert McMahon, “Toward a Pluralist Vision: The Study of American Foreign Relations as International History and National History,” 35-50.
  2. [2]5. On the rise of oil, see Yergin, The Prize. On the rise of consumer culture, see Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic, de Grazia, Irresistible Empire, and Hoganson, Consumers’ Imperium. Two works that place these developments in a broader interpretive framework are Hunt, The American Ascendancy and Bacevich, The Limits of Power.