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Saturday, January 02, 2010

History and the Middle East

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.


Anonymous said...

I agree that leaving the Middle East well enough alone would be desirable. The facts however won’t allow that to happen now or in the future.

Take Yemen for example. We hear that their oil reserves will run out in about 7 years, fresh water is in scarce supply and the population continues to swell. Even if the US pulled out of the Mideast entirely we would never be able to avoid the problems that will inevitably result from these forces. The world is just too small these days.

Disgruntled populations of Mideast countries will continue to immigrate to Western countries bringing their problems with them. France, Sweden and England illustrate this quite well.

So the issue now is not about trying to change Middle Eastern populations to become more Western, it’s how the West will assimilate these populations. I’m not optimistic about the outcome of this process. Islam does not appear able or willing to assimilate.

Dr.LeRoy said...

Dr. Kaiser, did you write the following e-mail when was sent to me under your name? I have to edit it to make it fit.

History Unfolding

I am a student of history. Professionally, I have written 15 books on history that have been published in six languages, and I have studied history all my life. I have come to think there is something monumentally large afoot, and I do not believe it is simply a banking crisis, or a mortgage crisis, or a credit crisis. Yes these exist, but they are merely single facets on a very large gemstone that is only now coming into a sharper focus.

Something of historic proportions is happening. I can sense it because I know how it feels, smells, what it looks like, and how people react to it. Yes, a perfect storm may be brewing, but there is something happening within our country that has been evolving for about ten to fifteen years. The pace has dramatically quickened in the past two.

We demand and then codify into law the requirement that our banks make massive loans to people we know they can never pay back? Why?

We learned just days ago that the Federal Reserve, which has little or no real oversight by anyone, has "loaned" two trillion dollars (that is $2,000,000,000,000) over the past few months, but will not tell us to whom or why or disclose the terms. That is our money. Yours and mine. And that is three times the $700 billion we all argued about so strenuously just this past September. Who has this money? Why do they have it? Why are the terms unavailable to us? Who asked for it? Who authorized it?

We have spent two or more decades intentionally de-industrializing our economy. Why?

We have intentionally dumbed down our schools, ignored our history, and no longer teach our founding documents, why we are exceptional, and why we are worth preserving.

We have now established the precedent of protesting every close election (violently in California over a proposition that is so controversial that it simply wants marriage to remain defined as between one man and one woman. and then mainstream Marxist groups like ACORN and others to turn our voting system into a banana republic. To what purpose?

Now our mortgage industry is collapsing, housing prices are in free fall, major industries are failing, our banking system is on the verge of collapse, social security is nearly bankrupt, as is Medicare and our entire government. Our education system is worse than a joke (I teach college and I know precisely what I am talking about) -
And finally, we have elected a man that no one really knows anything about, who has never run so much as a Dairy Queen, let alone a town as big as Wasilla , Alaska.

I have never been so afraid for my country and for my children as I am now.

And that is only the beginning..

As a serious student of history, I thought I would never come to experience what the ordinary, moral German must have felt in the mid-1930s In those times, the "savior" was a former smooth-talking rabble-rouser from the streets, about whom the average German knew next to nothing.
How did he get people on his side? He did it by promising jobs to the jobless, money to the money-less, and rewards for the military-industrial complex. He did it by indoctrinating the children, advocating gun control, health care for all, better wages, better jobs, and promising to re-instill pride once again in the country, across Europe , and across the world.

If you think I am exaggerating, look it up. It's all there in the history books.

David Kaiser
Jamestown , Rhode Island
United States

Anonymous said...

Dr.LeRoy said:

"We learned just days ago that the Federal Reserve, which has little or no real oversight by anyone, has "loaned" two trillion dollars (that is $2,000,000,000,000) over the past few months, but will not tell us to whom or why or disclose the terms."

You must know that the US has fallen, being professors/students of history. This is the plundering of the system before it declines into chaos.

A bigger question would be who is doing the plundering and what will happen to the people of the US afterward (since I care nothing for the elite, they sold us out before we were born).

Interesting that for many years we have pranced about claiming to 'be the world power' but the truth of the matter is that the US was the new kid on the block, and that while we fancied ourselves strong, majestic, and noble we are probably going to get a taste of the true power of the shadow government very soon.

I love history, but it falls on its face some of the time because as much as the victor takes the spoils, he also tends to write the history, thus incorporating the lies, half-truths and redirects that suit himself as the victor.

I find that following the money and following the history is the best balance. Back to the money, why would we give away everything to the shadow government? Perhaps it is because the shadow government has no concern about what will happen to the US. They have no concern about even paying it back...for they know they will never be called upon to do that.

Indeed you would only have a complete lack of concern if you had a plan, it was in the works and you had zero concern that they (the US) would figure it out.

What is it that they plan for us that will render us a complete non-entity, completely in viable, not a problem?

You can't eviscerate an entire nation and leave it to fester and cause you problems later and what better way to demonstrate and consolidate the power of the shadow government than to completely destroy 'the greatest power in the world'.

Would you do battle with them if this were the case?

I worry for the future of the people of my country, but I probably won't get to worry for to long. Right now everything looks hunky (relatively) but there is simply no way around the time bomb that is ticking in our economic and financial system.

They gave away the economy to the shadow government and are metaphorically using band-aids to patch cracks in Hoover Dam...the funny part of this is that they have managed to convince themselves that band-aids 'work', 'there is no problem here', 'move along'. It was all vanity.


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Puffcat said...

I'm not really commenting about this article; although, I did read it. I'm commenting about an e-mail I received with your name on it about something historic coming. The entirity of this e-mail has been posted on this page by Dr.LeRoy. Like him, I'm leaving my comment here because I can't figure out how to reply to the e-mail.

I'm 58, and I sense it too. Our parents wouldn't recognize America as it is today, and I hardly recognize it. I realize from your writings that you are probably liberal. You complain about the Democrats, but never as vehemently as you complain about the Republicans.

I'm a Christian, and I look at things with a Christian slant. That is, I run everything that comes along through the filter of what I know of Christianity and the Bible to see if any matches or answers pop up. Sometimes they would seem to. As an example, 9-11. I know this sounds silly if you're not a believer, but I believe that God is mad at us, for all the immorality we now practice, and 9-11 was an announcement that he's going to strike our economic power (World Trade Center) because of it.

I'm sure you ponder the relative awfulness (is that a word?) of the national debt just like I do, and I'm fairly sure we're on an economic train we can't get off of that's going to end in ruin. How much more so countries like Japan, whose debt to GDP ratio is approaching 200%. Smaller countries, like Iceland and Dubai, are already defaulting on their relatively small debts. Dubai, as you know, was only saved by a $12 bn loan from its neighbor, Abu Dhabi. The point is, the world is lurching ever closer to a major (beyond belief) economic disaster (not crisis).

When, not if, this happens, the fabric of society is basically going to break down. Governments will collapse or just disappear altogether, the world's money and power will be concentrated in the hands of just a few people (George Soros as one comes to mind), and chaos and human misery will reign. To me, this sounds like the tribulation period mentioned in the Bible.

And as far as the Muslims and Israel, I believe that that conflict is the beginning of the titanic, end-times conflict between the nation of Israel and the rest of the world. I believe that that conflict will eventually involve the US in as a real adversary to Israel. Right now, conservative Christians (those against abortion, gay rights, etc., and for Israel) are increasingly being demonized and will eventually be persecuted wholesale. As proof, I offer George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Ronald Regan, all born-again Christians. I have never seen attacks on the scale leveled at them. The attacks on Sarah Palin, her husband, her children, and anything anyone can think of have been the worst I can remember. Personally, I believe that those demonizing them were compelled to do so and really had no choice in the matter. I know, because I used to be one of them.

At any rate,I'm not that worried (about the whole collapse thing) yet. I'll be worried later. I believe in God, and I believe he'll take care of me. He's done a great job so far. I've had a ton of trouble in my life, and he's brought me through all of it. And if he chooses not to, I hope he kills me with the first shot.

Bozon said...

I would say that the 'history of misadventures' goes back at least to the Crusades, rather than to this century.

'...but I think that Tyler has missed a larger and more critical point...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....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.'

I think some large points are that America's highest officials are generally inattentive amateurs; foreign officials and domestic interest groups have a stronger voice in policy decisions than average Americans; and supposedly well versed career higher officials often make bad decisions, which supposedly inattentive and distracted amateur top officlals might have corrected if uncovered.

Journalists often have anti government axes to grind; smearing government officials without suggesting a real reform alternative, is classic American journalistic free speech.
All the best,
Gerald Meaders