Militarization of the Middle East and the Church’s Economic Leverage

Militarization of the Middle East and the Church’s Economic Leverage

A resource prepared by the Middle East and Europe Office of the Common Global Ministries Board

A resource prepared by the Middle East and Europe Office of the Common Global Ministries Board


The Middle East is the most heavily militarized region in the world, and the United States is the single largest contributor of military aid to the region. Military aid to the Middle East can only result in the constant potential for conflict—conflict that would have grave implications for the people of the region, the great majority of whom wish only to live in peace.

As taxpaying citizens of the United States, it is a portion of our income that contributes to this heightened level of tension and threat. At the United Church of Christ’s 25th General Assembly, delegates overwhelmingly adopted a resolution entitled, “Concerning the Use of Economic Leverage in Promoting Peace in the Middle East.” In this resolution, the General Synod called upon the many settings of the church to “advocate the reallocation of US foreign aid so that the militarization of the Middle East is constrained….” Such advocacy is part of the work the UCC already does on many issues.

This resource is intended to illustrate the extent of the US involvement in providing military aid through the Middle East and to present ideas for effective advocacy with elected US government officials to change this continued pattern.

A timeline of US involvement in the Middle East

The emergence of the United States as a global superpower in the aftermath of World War II, combined with the swift decline of European colonialism in the 1950’s and 1960’s, meant that the context of the Cold War and bipolarity was prevalent for much of the second half of the 20th century. The “Great Game”—the US and USSR strategic competition for influence in different regional settings—meant that the Middle East, a region in the Soviet Union’s backyard, was a theater for superpower standoffs. Combined with efforts to ensure access to expanding oil reserves, the Middle East became a prize coveted by both powers.

Several watershed events mark the US’ military involvement in the Middle East in the last half century. Many volumes have been written about this history, and indeed about particular events, so they will not be narrated here. Instead, a timeline highlights significant historical moments when the US clashed in the Middle East.

1953     The CIA supports the overthrow of elected Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mussadeq, and helps to bring to power the Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi

1956     The US opposes a tripartite attack (France, Great Britain, and Israel) on Egypt for control of the Suez Canal, which Egypt nationalized. US decides not to sell arms to Israel.

1966     US sells bomber jets to Israel.

1967     The June, 1967 war results in Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golon Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. US support for Israel in the war results in a Kuwaiti and Iraqi oil embargo of the US.

1973     The 1973 Arab-Israeli war includes US support for Israel, resulting in Arab oil embargo of the US.

1978     Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel are brokered by the US.

1979     Islamic revolution in Iran brings Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni to power. US embassy falls to revolutionaries and embassy personnel are taken hostage.

1982     US participates in peacekeeping mission in Lebanon following Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

1983     241 US Marines are killed in a truck bombing in Beirut, leading to a US withdrawal from Lebanon.

1986     US suspects Libya of involvement in a nightclub bombing in Berlin and responds by bombing Libya.

1991     Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the US-led coalition liberates Kuwait in Desert Storm, a swift and overwhelming military operation.

1991-2003     US leads campaign to keep pressure on Iraq through a heavy sanctions regime.

1996     US military personnel are killed in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, a result of a truck bomb at a US base.

1998     Simultaneous explosions at US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania attributed to Osama bin Ladin.

2001     September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC carried out by hijackers, most of whom were Saudi Arabians

2003     US launches military campaign against Iraq, resulting in the overthrow and capture of Saddam Hussain.

2006     Escalation in brinksmanship between US and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program.

US military presence in installations throughout the Middle East have been deployed to support policies that, in the words of the UCC’s General Synod 24 (2003), “are inconsistent, especially through selective reference to U.N. resolutions, and that have grave implications for the nations and peoples of the Middle East and thus threaten to compromise responsible U.S. leadership.” That same resolution “calls on the U.S. government to base its Middle East policies on principles of human rights and human justice and to refrain from narrowly acting with U.S. economic interests in mind.” The background to the 2003 resolution states,

The United States has pursued a policy of heavy militarization, especially of those countries in the Middle East with expendable oil wealth and those dependent on U.S. aid and security. This policy has greatly increased the profits of the U.S. defense industry and the influence of American intelligence and technology systems among those countries. Recognizing that there is variance in weapons capability among Middle Eastern states, the United States has nonetheless provided weapons capabilities, including in some cases weapons of mass destruction, to current allies such as Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, as well as to former allies, now enemies, such as Iraq and Iran.

Iraq, no longer an enemy, is the cornerstone of a vision for a new Middle East. Ironically, this cornerstone is lain with an enormous amount of military expenditure; the war and subsequent US occupation of Iraq has cost US taxpayers nearly $300 billion in emergency military expenditure, with a debatable benefit. US involvement has therefore been a topic of intense debate, not only in recent years, but throughout the course of the past half century, at least.

The extent of US military aid to the Middle East

To understand the magnitude of US military aid in the Middle East, it is perhaps helpful to begin by noting that the US military budget is by far the largest in the world. In 2002, for example, US military spending was roughly $335 billion, accounting for 43% of total global expenditure; the second and third highest spenders, Japan and Great Britain, allocated $49 billion and $36 billion respectively. [1] These amounts represent the total military expenditures for the governments in question.

Roughly 1% of the US federal budget is designated for international affairs. This is defined as what is spent on “everything from U.S. diplomacy to the Peace Corps, humanitarian aid, debt relief, the United Nations, and … weaponry for foreign militaries.” In 2002, one-fourth of the international affairs budget allocation was designated for military aid to the Middle East. [2] Three categories of Military Assistance are included in a federal budget: International Military Education and Training, Foreign Military Financing, and Peacekeeping Operations. Looking at Military Assistance figures from 2001 to 2007 (requested), of the average $4.4 billion allocation, just over 90% has been allocated to the second category, Foreign Military Financing. Of that, approximately 90% has been designated for the Middle East. [3] The Foreign Military Financing grants provide funds “to buy defense-related goods and services primarily from U.S. contractors.” [4]

ccording to the Center for Defense Information, during the 1990’s, the United States was the Middle East’s most important source for weaponry, and the trend for US military aid to the Middle East has been upward. [5] In that decade, “the U.S. delivered $74 billion worth of military equipment, services and training to countries in the Middle East.” The leading purchaser of arms was Saudi Arabia, [6] largely because of its ability to pay for weaponry, as a result of its oil revenue. Between 2000 and 2003, the US accounted for more than three-quarters of all arms transfer agreements in the Middle East (with Russia accounting for 8.1%; Western Europe, 4.5%; China, 2%; and all others, 9.8%). [7] Given these trends, it is no surprise the the Middle East as a region spends a disparate proportion of national GDP on military expenditure (6.3% in 2001, 7-8% in 2004) than other regions of the world (North America, 3%; Central and Eastern Europe, 2.7%; Africa, 2.1%; Western Europe, 1.9%; Asia, 1.6%; and Latin America, 1.3%), and far more than the global average, 2.3%. [8] The combination of an upward trend in US military aid to the region and a general feeling of insecurity among some of the region’s powers has led to a 40% increase military expenditure by Middle Eastern countries, compared with a 23% increase worldwide. [9]

Ironically, in the wake of the Camp David Peace Accords and the peace they promised, Israel and Egypt became the largest recipients of US foreign and military aid in the region, as a reward for their efforts. Just under half of the Foreign Military Assistance the US spends in the region goes to Israel and roughly one-quarter is allocated to Egypt.

The countries of the region who have access to US military equipment either through direct purchases or through military aid, much of which is designated for use in the US, include Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. [10] It could be argued that all of these countries, and others, have developed at least a sufficient military infrastructure to meet their defense needs. It could also be argued that each country in the region could rely on a militarily powerful ally from outside the region if threatened. Further, the concentration and availability of arms in the region has not led to peace, but perhaps has led to a standoff between regional countries at war with one another, a kind of deterrence that appears to be averting conflict but actually is a very tense situation of mutual suspicion and fear, threatening rhetoric and occasional action.

The case of Iraq in the War on Terror era is both special and exceptional. All of the financing and provision of military aid discussed above does not include anything for Iraq. Since the George W. Bush administration made the case for the war and prosecuted it, the funding for the war has come from Department of Defense budgets as well as from a separate category of allocation: a supplemental budget request to Congress. Of the four supplemental requests presented by the White House from 2003-2006, two have been exclusively been for the War on Terror and Afghanistan and Iraq operations. The requests have been for $62.6 billion in 2003, $87 billion in 2004, $75 billion (of a total request of $80 billion) in 2005, and $65.3 billion (of a total request of $91 billion, with $20 billion for Hurricane Katrina relief) in 2006. Estimates put the daily cost of war and occupation in Iraq at about $150 million. The US plans to have its newest and most advanced (and best protected) military and diplomatic facilities in Iraq as a result of its efforts there.

Recommendations for Advocacy

Given the overwhelming portion of the US’ international affairs budget spent on military aid, and the apparent over-saturation of the Middle East in military equipment and presence, it would be prudent for the US to consider a major realignment of it international aid away from military expenditure and toward other programs of development, conflict resolution, diplomacy (both political and public), and social services. Such a position is especially appropriate for the United Church of Christ to take, as a Just Peace church, for which war and the preparation for war is an absolute last resort.

When thinking about alternative approaches in the Middle East, we ought to consider the conclusion of an essay on arms control:

The United States has a significant stake in promoting peace throughout the Middle East and in seeing its allies are stable and strong. But sustainable regional peace is more likely to blossom and be sustained if it rests, first and foremost, on trust, mutual respect, and confidence, not military weapons. Selling weapons of increasing sophistication to the region can only lead to the continued reliance on military means to solving the political problems that have plagued the area for centuries. The U.S. should encourage the Middle East to spend resources on good governance, strengthening the judiciary and civil society, and supporting existing and future peace processes. [11]

Indeed, when the world’s most militarized country (the US) plays a major role in making the Middle East the world’s most militarized region, the result cannot be short of calamitous. Since military aid is paid directly from tax revenue, we are in a position to advocate with elected officials in Washington for:

  • A reallocation of tax dollars for productive efforts to bring peace, not war, to a troubled region;
  • An immediate reduction of military aid to the entire region of the Middle East, to defuse the heightened level of possibility for armed conflict there;
  • An immediate increase in budgetary allocations for conflict resolution and peacebuilding, including consistently high and sustained diplomatic initiatives to work to resolve the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to nurture positive relationships with the countries of the region;


[1] Thalif Deen, “U.S. Military Budget Heading Towards Cold War Levels.” Inter Press Service, June 18, 2003.

[2] Federation of American Scientists, “Fast Facts.”

[3] Ibid.and US State Department budget request for 2007.

[4] Rachel Stohl, “Middle East Remains Attractive Market for U.S. Arms.” Center for Defense Information.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Brian Awehali, “New World Disorder: How U.S. Arms Dealers & Their Cabinet-level Cronies Profit from the War on Terror,” in LiP Magazine, November 11, 2002.

[7] “Arms Transfer Agreements With Near East,” a chart from a Congressional Research Service report (unidentified report in an unpublished document).

[8] Deen.

[9] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “World and regional military expenditure estimates, 1995-2004.”

[10] Awehali.

[11] Stohl.