By: Brandon Wolfe-Hunnicutt and the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI)

The United States has been engaged in nearly continuous military conflict in Iraq since the 1980s. These interventions have shattered Iraqi political institutions, devastated the country’s infrastructure, sown the seeds of sectarian division, and destabilized the region causing untold millions to suffer and die needless deaths. What would cause the Americans to visit such violence on Iraq? The violent unmaking of social and political order in Iraq, and the larger region, did not happen overnight. It was decades in the making. The roots of American foreign policy in Iraq reach back to the post-WWI era, when American oil companies first imagined the country as a site of profitable investment. However, many Americans know little to nothing of this history. This is by design. American empire grows in the shadows; by covert means and always with plausible deniability. American government and media represent US interventions in Iraq as part of a good faith effort to advance democracy, human rights, and/or some vague and nebulous notion of American “national interests.” A politically sufficient segment of American society is happy to buy this narrative. Others, in the United States and around the world, have grown tired of American propaganda, and demand a truer account of the deep political and economic roots of American foreign policy. Fortunately, there is a growing body of high-quality scholarship for critical readers to consult. This post introduces some essential readings on the history of US-Iraqi relations to the late 1960s.


William Stivers in Supremacy and Oil: Iraq, Turkey, and the Anglo-American World Order, 1918-1930 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982).

Stivers offers one of the few in-depth analyses of US-Iraqi relations in the pre-WWII era. Though Iraq is only one aspect of a larger regional analysis, Stivers employs a “corporatist” analytical framework to illuminate the ways in which private corporations pressured the US government into pursuing an “open door” policy in Iraq that would afford American oil companies a share of the country’s oil production.


Simon Davis, Contested Space: Anglo-American Relations in the Persian Gulf, 1939–1947(Boston: Brill, 2009).

Christopher D. O’Sullivan, FDR and the End of Empire: The Origins of American Power in the Middle East (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). 

These books show a growing interest in US-Iraq relations during WWII. Both examine the US-British relations in the broader region and document what can be described as a kind of “Iraqi exceptionalism” in US policy toward the region. In contrast to arguments about an “Anglo-American special relationship” and common purpose in the war, these studies show that US-British relations were marked by friction (especially in Egypt and Iran) owing to pre-existing commercial rivalries, and clashing visions of postwar global order. However, both authors note that the United States showed a remarkable degree of deference toward British interests in Iraq. Neither author fully explains why the United States showed deference to Britain in Iraq while challenging British interests in Iran and Egypt.


Nicholas G. Thacher, “Reflections on US Foreign Policy towards Iraq in the 1950s,” in Robert Fernea and William Roger Louis (eds.), The Iraqi Revolution of 1958: The Old Social Classes Revisited. (London:  I.B. Tauris, 1991), 62-76.

Frederick W. Axelgard, “US Support for the British Position in Pre-Revolutionary Iraq,” in Robert Fernea and William Roger Louis (eds.), The Iraqi Revolution of 1958: The Old Social Classes Revisited. (London:  I.B. Tauris, 1991), 77-94.

Jeffrey G. Karam, “Missing the revolution: the American intelligence failure in Iraq,” 1958, Intelligence and National Security 32, no.6 (2017), 693-709

These articles show that the deference afforded to British interests during WWII continued into the postwar era. All three authors demonstrate that US support for the British position, and by extension to Britain’s client regime in Iraq, undermined the legitimacy of that regime and helped give rise to the 1958 Free Officers’ Revolution. Thacher’s article is unique in that he was a Foreign Service officer in the US embassy during the 1958 Revolution. Axelgard was the first to use US archival documents to largely substantiate Thacher’s recollections. Karam employs a political science methodology to analyze why US intelligence agencies were unable to predict the 1958 Revolution. Each in their own way comes to the same conclusion: the very factors that endeared Iraq’s Hashemite regime to Britain and the United States (its brutality, pliability, and repression of Communists and other democratic forces), were the very same factors that drove the people of Iraq to revolt.


Malik Mufti, “The United States and Nasserist Pan-Arabism,” in The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Reassessment, ed. David W. Lesch. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2003), 168-87.

Nathan Citino, “Middle East Cold Wars: Oil and Arab Nationalism in US-Iraqi Relations, 1958-1961,” in The Eisenhower Administration, the Third World, and the Globalization of the Cold War, ed. Kathryn C. Statler and Andrew L. Johns, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006), 245-69.

Mufti and Citino make a compelling argument that US policy to Abdel Karim Qasim and his Free Officers’ regime (1958-63) is best understood in the context of America’s larger approach to dealing with Nasser and pan-Arab nationalism. Mufti shows that American policy makers were divided with regard to Nasser. The John Foster Dulles Cold War faction insisted on seeing Nasser as a Soviet proxy (despite all evidence to the contrary). The rival State Department Arabist faction, on the other hand, insisted on pointing out Nasser was not a communist that that he was actively suppressing communists in Egypt and Syria, and was trying to overthrow Qasim, because of Qasim’s close ties to the Soviet Union and the Iraqi Communist Party.

Citino shows how American foreign policymakers in the Eisenhower administration were able to turn the “Arab Cold War,” between Nasser and Qasim, to their own advantage. The United States worked to exacerbate tensions between the two Arab leaders, so as to contain the Arab nationalist threat to Western oil interests in the region. Citino sees the formation of OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) in September 1960, which included conservative regimes such as those in Iran and Saudi Arabia, but excluded Nasser’s Egypt, as the culmination of this ultimately successful strategy.


Eric Jacobsen, “A Coincidence of Interests: Kennedy, U.S. Assistance, and the 1963 Iraqi Ba‘th Regime,” Diplomatic History 37, no. 5 (2013), 1029-59.

Brandon Wolfe-Hunnicutt, “Embracing Regime Change: U.S. Foreign Policy and the 1963 Coup in Iraq,” Diplomatic History 39, no.1 (2015), 98-125.

CIA involvement in the 1963 coup that first brought the Ba‘th to power in Iraq has been an open secret for decades. American government and media have never been asked to fully account for the CIA’s role in the coup. On the contrary, the US government has put forward and official narrative riddled with holes–redactions that cannot be declassified for “national security” reasons. Despite such gaps in the archival record, both Jacobsen and myself have read the documents “against the grain” to analyze the logic of American foreign policy, and to explore the motives of US foreign policy toward Qasim’s government. I focus on the Kennedy administration’s response to a 1961 oil nationalization law and see CIA collaboration with the Ba‘th as part of an effort to preserve existing oil concessions in the region. Jacobsen focuses on the delivery of arms to the Ba‘thist regime that replaced Qasim in February 1963. 


Weldon C. Matthews, “The Kennedy Administration, Counterinsurgency, and Iraq’s First Ba‘thist Regime,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 43, no.4 (November 2011), 635-53.

Weldon C. Matthews, “The Kennedy Administration, the International Federation of Petroleum Workers, and Iraqi Labor under the Ba‘thist Regime.”  Journal of Cold War Studies 17, no.1 (Winter 2015),  97-128. 

Matthews looks closely at the Iraqi side of the US-Iraqi relationship. His 2011 article shows that many of the key Ba‘thist commanders that carried out the February 1963 coup and an extensive communist purge received police and paramilitary training and equipment from the International Police Academy in Washington, DC (a counterinsurgency training center). His 2015 article analyzes the collaboration between American labor unions and Iraqi labor unions. While American labor enlisted in the Cold War struggle by attempting to organize “non-Communist unions” in the Third World, the effort failed in Iraq. Iraqi labor unions ultimately used ties to the Ba‘th to advance a radical agenda that entailed mobilizing a mass following to fundamentally alter social and property relations in the country. The internal divisions within the Iraqi Ba‘thist movement is an important factor explaining why the Ba‘this regime was overthrown by Nasserist rivals in November 1963.


Netanel Avneri, “The Iraqi Coups of July 1968 and the American Connection,” Middle East Studies 51, no.4 (2015), 649-663.

Brandon Wolfe-Hunnicutt, “Oil Sovereignty, American Foreign Policy, and the 1968 Coups in Iraq,” Diplomacy & Statecraft 28, no.2 (June 2017), 235-53.

In these articles, Avneri and myself examine recently declassified US State Department records to analyze American foreign policy toward the two-phase coup that brought the Ba‘th back to power in Iraq in July 1968. After seizing power in February 1963, the Ba‘th was overthrown in Nasserist counter-coup in November 1963. After five years out of power, Ba‘thist leaders Hasan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein allied with non-Ba‘thist military officers to overthrow the Nasserist regime that had been in power since 1963. Two weeks later, Bakr and Hussein launched a second coup that ousted their non-Ba‘thist collaborators. Both Avneri and myself see a significant American role in the events that brought the Ba‘th to power. However, whereas Avneri sees consistent US support for the Ba‘th, I focus on the divisions among policymakers and find that only one faction of the US government supported the coup. The more dominant faction within the Lyndon Johnson administration refused to accommodate the new regimes for fear of the threat that it might pose to Israel.

Brandon Wolfe-Hunnicutt, “US-Iraq Relations, 1920-2003,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History (January 2018). DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.463

In this article I elaborate on many of the themes briefly summarized above. I offer an overview of the history of US-Iraq relations to 2003, discuss major problems in the historiography, describe important primary source collections, and provide links to audio and visual materials.

Conclusion: Seeing Like a Democracy

Priya Satia, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Hugh Wilford, America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

Though it focuses on an earlier period of Iraqi history, prior to the advent of America’s “covert empire” in the Middle East, Priya Satia’s Spies in Arabia constitutes and essential conceptual foundation for understanding America’s subsequent involvement in the region. In this book, Satia develops the concept of “covert empire” to explain the British state’s response to calls from within British civil society to dismantle Britain’s formal empire and establish a truly democratic order at home. Given the lack of democratic legitimacy for British interventions in Iraq, British policymakers resorted to ever more secret, and ever more violent, means of social control. During the interwar period, British policymakers believed they could secure supposedly “vital” oil interests in Iraq by deploying airpower against rebellious Iraqi tribes. The efforts of British policymakers to retain their overseas empire in the face of an increasingly assertive and democratic civil society had predictably tragic human consequences in Iraq. The American effort to construct an empire in the Middle East without the American people learning of it produced an equally violent farce.

Much of the work that remains to be done in the field of US-Iraqi relations concerns the effort to tease out and catalog the atrocities underwritten by American foreign policy. It is important to recognize the ways in which US interventions have intersected with and exacerbated existing social and political divisions in Iraq while creating new ones. The best work in this vein will follow scholars such as Nathan Citino and Weldon Matthews in presenting close textual analysis of Iraqi and other Arabic materials. The most meaningful insights about American foreign policy may be written in Arabic. The truth of American power is always clearest on the receiving end.

Another area rich for further analysis is, following Satia, the cultural history of American imperialism, and the cultural worldview of American spies in particular. Hugh Wilford’s America’s Great Game presents an important analysis of the cultural make up of some of the most well-known American spies of the 1950s. New research could extend this analysis into the 1960s to reveal the cast of characters lurking in the shadows in search of new opportunities to expand America’s covert empire in the “age of modernization.” To truly “see like a democracy,” as Satia puts it, we must shine a light in those places that America’s covert empire-builders would prefer that we not look. We must also analyze and deconstruct the paranoid epistemologies that give rise to America’s violent pathologies, as well as the self-serving mythologies that are presented to the public to legitimate the exercise of American secret power abroad.