Over the past week I have read a remarkable book, A World of Trouble, on the United States and the Middle East, by a journalist, Patrick Tyler, that combines both serious historical research and Tyler’s own reporting from the 1980s to early in the decade that is now coming to an end. Covering half a century of history, it runs to 554 pages of text and extensive and impressive endnotes that draw about equally from primary sources (including Henry Kissinger’s telephone conversations), a wide range of secondary sources, and the author’s own interviews. (Some parts of the book reflect Bob Woodward’s techniques, and those who granted lengthy interviews—led by Prince Bandar, the long-time Saudi Ambassador to the United States—play leading roles in the story.) It would be quite easy to write a review essay of at least thirty pages on the book, but I will try to keep my remarks relatively brief and general.
Tyler has one recurring theme: that with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter and, briefly, George H. W. Bush, no President has ever really understood the Middle East, largely because none but Carter (whose interest in the Holy Land was a big help) has ever devoted the time and energy to understanding its complexities. (This failure also extended to Gerald Ford, whom the book almost entirely ignores. A well-connected CIA analyst once told me that Ford’s briefers had never managed to get the President much beyond the essential differences between Arabs and Israelis.) Thus he implies that greater concentration might have produced better results, and with respect to one crisis—the fall of the Shah in 1979—he implies that more forceful advice from President Carter might actually have changed the outcome—an idea I find debatable in the extreme, not least because of his own evidence.
Although Tyler focuses on presidential leadership, the book has another related subtheme—the anarchy of US policy towards the region. So many Presidents have been distracted by so many problems—Johnson by Vietnam, Nixon by Watergate, Reagan and Bush II by their generally short attention spans, and Clinton by his personal scandals—that powerful officials—led by Secretaries of State Kissinger and Haig—have often been able to go off on their own, with highly negative results. Kissinger, Tyler shows clearly, lied to Nixon during the Yom Kippur War, promising to work for an immediate cease-fire while telling the Israelis to push their counterattack. Haig seems to have told the Israelis to go ahead and invade Lebanon in 1982 without trying to explain to Reagan what this was going to mean. Under Bush II—in an episode I have mentioned here many times, but which Tyler, surprisingly, leaves out entirely—a neoconservative gaggle within the Administration apparently persuaded the President to announce publicly that Israel could not be expected to return to the 1967 borders and could keep any settlements it wanted in a possible peace. Both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict have contributed to our confused policies by cultivating influence wherever they could. The Israelis, of course, have focused on the Congress, where they now enjoy an extraordinary stranglehold over both parties through AIPAC. Some Arabs—in particular the Saudis, led by Bandar—have focused on Presidents and potential Presidents, resorting more than once to disguised forms of bribery. I did not know, for instance, that the Saudis had presented Ronald Reagan with some fine native racehorses and Nancy Reagan with $2 million worth of diamonds while he was in the White House. Because the US Constitution prohibits such gifts, they were initially transferred to third parties, with the Reagans taking full possession after they left office. Bandar and his superiors in Riyadh—who seem to become quite sophisticated in reading American political tea leaves—actually anted up $3 million for Middle Eastern studies program at the University of Arkansas while Clinton was still governor. After his election to the White House they added the additional $14 million that the governor had asked for.
I learned a very great deal from this book, which deserves a much wider audience than it is likely to get, but I think that Tyler has missed a larger and more critical point. The United States (and its ally Israel) have failed repeatedly in the Middle East because “progress,” from their point of view, depends on that region being something other than it is. Again and again, both Washington and Tel Aviv have acted as though they could bribe, covertly influence, or militarily compel Middle Eastern leaders into doing their bidding—and most of the time they have made things worse than before they started. The obvious solution, clearly, would be to leave well enough alone, which for the United States would also involve substantially reducing our dependence on oil. President Obama’s decision to escalate in Afghanistan unfortunately shows that we have embarked upon the same disastrous course once again, in the groundless hope that this time, things will finally turn out differently.
The history of misadventures goes back at least until 1954-5, when the Egyptian nationalist leader Gamel Abdel Nasser decided to expel the British Army from Egypt. The Israelis, who in the first five years of their existence had depended partly on the British to keep the weak Egyptian monarchy of King Farouk in line, actually reacted by starting a Mossad terror campaign in Cairo against British and American targets, in an effort to estrange the British from Nasser and get them to stay or overthrow him. When the plot was uncovered and several Israeli agents executed, cross-border incursions into the Gaza strip began. The Israelis, as has been their custom ever since, escalated these raids when they sent a military unit into Gaza, attacked an actual Egyptian military camp, and killed more than 30 soldiers. (I remember a shocked Jewish-American grad student telling me that story thirty years ago.) Those events made Nasser a more determined enemy of Israel. When he nationalized the Suez Canal and began flirting with the Communist powers, the Israelis made an alliance with the British and French (who wanted the canal back) and seized the Sinai for the first time, only to have President Eisenhower force them out of it.
A similar round of provocations led in 1967 to the Six Day War. Many historians have now concluded that Nasser did not want war—although he did expel UN peacekeepers from Sinai and move troops into it—but the Israelis decided to take advantage of the dangerous situation to launch an attack and take the Sinai, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. This time Washington was much too distracted to head the war off because of Vietnam, and when the Soviet Union stepped in to re-arm the Arab powers, the second phase of the Arab-Israeli struggle began. Between 1968 and 1973 the Egyptians and Israelis fought a “war of attrition,” mostly in the air. I did not know until I read Tyler that Golda Meir’s government was telling the US that bombing Egypt proper would bring down Nasser’s regime, a necessary precondition, they said, to peace. Perhaps that argument appealed to Americans because of our parallel effort against North Vietnam—but both attempts to win decisive victories with air power failed. The breakthrough in relations with Egypt came first because Anwar Sadat, who took over when Nasser died suddenly in 1970, initially surprised the Israelis with his attack across the Canal in 1973, and then, in 1977, dramatically offered to come to Jerusalem, addressed the Knesset, and offered peace and full recognition of Israel in return for land.
The move towards peace was short-lived. In the same year, 1979, in which the Egyptians and Israelis signed their peace treaty and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the United States lost the Shah of Iran, its most prized Muslim ally, to a broad-based popular revolution of which religious forces managed to seize control. That should have been a lesson: the Shah had owed his throne to an American and British sponsored coup in 1953, something Iranians have never forgotten. An excessively pro-western orientation had already emerged as a danger to Arab rulers in 1957, when military officers had overthrown the Hashemite King Faisal of Iraq, paving the way within five years for Ba’ath Party rule. Two years later, Sadat, still a pariah among the Arab world, was assassinated by dissident Arab Army officers. In that same year, 1981, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attacked Iran. Tyler presents extraordinary new data on the extent of American involvement on Saddam’s side of that war later in the decade, when unofficial American advisers were using satellite imagery to plan attacks on Iranian positions and doing nothing to stop Saddam’s extensive use of chemical weapons. He does not however answer another question that has bothered me for years: how much encouragement Saddam might have gotten from western powers for the decision to start the war in the first place. By 1988 the US Navy was effectively fighting alongside Saddam as well, engaging in April of that year in perhaps its biggest surface engagement of the post-Second World War II era against Iranian ships.
Egypt managed to make peace with Israel for two reasons: virtually no one in Israel could seriously claim (although David Ben Gurion once did) that the Israelis had any Biblical claim to Egyptian territory, and the Egyptians had by Middle Eastern standards a relatively strong state, in part, perhaps, thanks to 70 years of British occupation. There was initially no such strong state in Jordan, where beginning in 1967 the PLO began to struggle with King Hussein for leadership. He eventually attacked their military camps and drove them into Lebanon, where they helped plunge a relatively western country (albeit a very fragile one politically) into civil war. And that, as Tyler shows, led to one of Israel’s most serous mistakes: Menachem Begin’s dreadful decision in 1982, backed by Alexander Haig, to invade Lebanon in hopes of turning it into a Christian-led regional ally. Begin and Ariel Sharon drove the PLO out, but not before the ghastly massacres in Palestinian refugee camps (which led to the temporary end of Sharon’s political career). The invasion also brought Iranian intelligence services into Lebanon, where they masterminded the deadly attack on the US Marine barracks in 1983 and the kidnapping of various Americans during the next few years. They also helped form Hezbollah, whose lengthy terror campaign eventually drove the Israelis out of Lebanon in the late 1990s. (I had forgotten, by the way, that the Israelis had undertaken a major punitive campaign against Lebanon in the late 1990s, as well as in the 1980s and in 2006.)
In 1990, having finally forced Iran to make peace with so much American help, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. This time, for once, the United States stumbled upon a sensible policy: the recovery of Kuwait (a relatively straightforward military operation) without an attempt to install a more friendly regime in Iraq. (Tyler, who covered the war, notes however that the US air campaign was much more destructive, and had much more long-lasting effects on the Iraqi people, than Americans understood.) But the Bush and Clinton Administrations could not stop there, and began encouraging various disastrous attempts to overthrow Saddam with the help of Kurds, exiles, and Iraqi generals willing to defect. The defeat of Saddam, on the other hand, forced Yassir Arafat and the Palestinians to give up any dreams of Israel’s imminent defeat, and serious peace talks began. Here emerged the second doomed hero of the story, Yitzhak Rabin, an old soldier who had decided that Israeli military power had done all it could do for the Israeli people and that the time had come for retrenchment and peace. Substantial Israeli constituencies, both religious and political, were now determined to keep the entire West Bank, but he began giving parts of it up. For this he, like Sadat, was assassinated in 1995. Arafat proved unable to control Palestinian terror as well, and more warlike elements on both sides moved into positions of power.
The idea that Arabs could be compelled to behave as Israelis and Americans would like took over the White House in 2001-2 under George W. Bush, who decided that Arafat—who had actually always been a moderate by Palestinian standards—had become the key obstacle to peace, and demanded that the Palestinians elect a more pacific successor. Instead they elected Hamas, forcing the Americans, Europeans and Israelis to support Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, while undermining his legitimacy. Realizing that he had angered the Arabs, Bush called publicly for a Palestinian state, but also announced that Israel would keep settlement blocs in a peace. After September 11 Bush threatened to take down any Arab regime that supported “terrorism”—which, thanks to the now-unchallenged conventional military supremacy of the Americans and the Israelis, had become the only option other than submission for any opponents. He did remove the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam in Iraq, with incalculable human cost and little observable gain for American interests as yet. But despite the complete failure of the policy of acting militarily against Islamic regimes that directly challenge our interests and trying to replace them with clients—a disaster in both Palestine and Iraq—President Obama has now decided to invest more heavily in it in Afghanistan. That policy, like reflexive anti-Communism in the 1950s, seems to have become a new Washington consensus, and the President is a consensus-builder. .
In my opinion, American military action in the Muslim world—the enterprise which General Petraeus’s mentor, retired General Keane, successfully urged Petraeus to take over as CENTCOM commander in 2008—will inevitably make terrorist attacks on the US more, not less, likely. The Nigerian who tried to blow up a an airliner on Christmas day came, like many of the 9/11 hijackers, from a well-off family and had lived in the West. He was presumably inspired by the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those wars make tens of millions of Muslims very angry; of those, a few thousand, perhaps, become willing to commit a terrorist act; and of those, a few manage to find their way to somewhere (in this case, not Afghanistan or Pakistan, but Yemen) where they can be trained to do so. In this case the training was evidently inadequate, for which we can be thankful. But there will be more. In Israel, for more than half a century now, the government has repeatedly responded to terrorism with conventional military action. It hasn’t worked. The United States has already taken responsibility for Afghanistan and Iraq, which have more than 50 million people, and Yemen has 20 million more. We simply cannot stop terrorism by intimidating those populations or establishing friendly, cooperative, effective governments within them. Tyler’s story proves that.