In December 1979, Leonid Brezhnev was told by his policy planners that the Americans were trying to create a “new Ottoman Empire” in the Middle East. The policy planners believed that once the Americans had established their Ottoman Empire, they could take advantage of the political instability in Afghanistan to gain power in that country, which would then become a base for their anti-Soviet missile systems. The Soviet Union did not have an air-defense system in its southern frontier and this meant that the instability in Afghanistan was a threat to the security of the Soviet Union. Two days after his meeting with the policy planners, Brezhnev ordered the invasion of Afghanistan. On December 24, 1979, Soviet fighter planes, tanks, and 80,000 troops invaded Afghanistan.
There might be some truth in the notion that America was aiming to create a new Ottoman Empire. After the British left the Middle East, between 1945 and 1950, various American governments had invested a massive amount of resources in trying to dominate this region. It was hard to guess what direction the politics of any Middle Eastern country would take—but the American way was to muddle through by playing all the factions.
President Carter did not trust Saddam Hussain’s Iraq. But in 1980, when Iraq suddenly attacked Iran, Carter’s administration saw it as a blessing. They were convinced that the Iraqi military would weaken the power of the Iranian theocratic regime and that would help in getting the American hostages released. When Reagan became the president in 1981, he started the policy of supporting Iraq through sale of weapons and by bolstering its oil revenues. Then in 1985, he declared that the goal of American policy was to remove the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. There was a dramatic escalation in the arms that his administration was providing to the Afghan insurgent groups which were fighting the Soviets. The biggest arms sales to Middle Eastern and Afghan groups in American history have happened during the Reagan administration.
On November 13, 1986, Reagan made a speech which was probably more shocking to Iraq’s political establishment than to the Americans. He said:
“Iran encompasses some of the most critical geography in the world. It lies between the Soviet Union and access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Geography explains why the Soviet Union has sent an army into Afghanistan to dominate that country and, if they could, Iran and Pakistan. Iran's geography gives it a critical position from which adversaries could interfere with oil flows from the Arab States that border the Persian Gulf. Apart from geography, Iran's oil deposits are important to the long-term health of the world economy.”
Reagan revealed in his speech that something was sent to Iran in a cargo plane—but he did not specify what was sent. He said: "These modest deliveries, taken together, could easily fit into a single cargo plane. They could not, taken together, affect the outcome of the 6-year war between Iran and Iraq nor could they affect in any way the military balance between the two countries.” This speech was the first insight into what would later morph into the Iran-Contra scandal and lead to the indictment of several senior figures in the Regan administration. It soon became clear that not one but several cargo planes with American weaponry had been sent to Iran. The Iraqi leadership was apoplectic. They had been led to believe that they had America’s support in their war against Iran. In their interviews, they said that they had been “stabbed in the back” by the Americans, who have behaved like a “typical imperialist power.”
In February 1989, the Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, and on 26 December 1991, the Soviet Union fell. President Bush announced: “By the grace of God, America won the Cold War.” A few days later, he said, “The world was once divided into two. Now there was one sole preeminent power: the United States of America.” In the 1990s, most politicians and intellectuals failed to notice the weaknesses of the country that had won the Cold War. America could not be the world’s only superpower for too long. Instead of creating a new Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, America had itself become like the Ottoman Empire—its political culture was decadent and ossified. In the twenty-first century, this new Ottoman America is facing challenges from China, Russia, and the Middle East. This time the battleground is America’s own population and territory.