Innocents Abroad

  Enlarge Photo    
Reviewed by Fredrik Logevall
Sunday, July 6, 2008


America Confronts the Middle East

By Lawrence Freedman

PublicAffairs. 601 pp. $29.95

The timing is right for a major new history of America's engagement with the contemporary Middle East. Admittedly, key archival documentation remains under lock and key and will be inaccessible for a long time to come, both in the United States and elsewhere. But enough material is available, in the form of declassified documents, memoirs, oral histories and journalistic treatments, to begin to piece together the story of how we came to our current predicament.

Enter Sir Lawrence Freedman, a specialist on nuclear strategy and the Cold War and co-author of a useful study of the Gulf War of 1990-91. His new book, A Choice of Enemies, is a richly detailed and carefully argued study of the evolution of U.S. policy in this part of the world, with particular emphasis on the last three decades. The geographic reach is broad: Freedman includes within his purview the whole of what some observers call the Greater Middle East, a region that includes southwest Asia.

The heart of the book is concerned with what Freedman identifies as the "second radical wave" in the Middle East, which was led by Islamists and which gained momentum with the Iranian revolution of the late 1970s. This followed a "first radical wave" spearheaded by secular Arab nationalists in the 1950s and '60s. Both waves were anticolonial and anti-Zionist, and both grew substantially out of political developments in Egypt.

In 1979 -- the real starting point of the book -- the two waves came up side by side, one receding and one gaining strength, as upheavals shook Afghanistan and Iran. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ouster of the shah in Iran were vital in setting the terms of greater U.S. involvement in the region, as was a pivotal event the previous year: the Camp David Accords signed by Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat. (A fourth development in 1979, Saddam Hussein's assumption of power in Iraq, would also have momentous consequences.)

To a degree that is striking in retrospect, American officials failed to see the second wave coming. The full meaning of the Iranian revolution and the rise of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan was lost on them, not only in 1979 but for years thereafter. Capitalism and socialism, the great answers that the two superpowers offered to the problems of modernization, had not delivered as advertised. Nor had they soothed deeply held feelings of humiliation generated by centuries of Western domination and, more recently, Israel's rise. Consequently, Islamic orthodoxy found broad backing for its message: Secular leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and the shah in Iran had taken their people down the wrong road, necessitating a return to conservative Islamic law and Islamic values.

Parts of this story are familiar, but it's helpful to have Freedman link the strands together in one narrative, the better to show the difficult dilemmas that U.S. policymakers have often faced. A Choice of Enemies is political history, not much concerned with broader cultural, social and economic factors. Even on politics the perspective is quite narrow -- there is little discussion here of party politics and its impact on Middle East policy over the decades, or of the role of lobbying groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which is only mentioned briefly. Overall, the book is stronger on the early and middle period than on the recent past -- a notable exception being the treatment of Osama bin Laden and the lead-up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in a superb chapter titled "Choosing America." Freedman's account of the road to war in Iraq is unduly equivocal on the key interpretive questions -- When and why did Bush choose war? Might the invasion have been prevented? -- and moreover misses the extent of the apprehension among many informed observers outside the Bush administration (including, not least, in the uniformed military) about launching preventive war against Iraq. His attempt to identify a "third radical wave" after 9/11, this one headed by George W. Bush and aimed at promoting liberal democracy, seems half-hearted.

What the past three decades in the Middle East show, Freedman sensibly concludes, is that America's ability to effect change is ultimately limited. The peoples there, even those with whom the United States has been ostensibly allied, have their own agendas that don't necessarily coincide with Washington's. Some problems in the region, moreover, are so complex and deep-rooted as to defy solution; they can only be managed or endured.

This puts a premium on diplomacy, which to Freedman's mind is something of a lost art among Americans. "During the cold war," he rightly reminds us, "many U.S.-Soviet diplomatic encounters had no tangible outcome at all, other than a deeper appreciation of patterns of thinking and the development of lines of communication which sometimes turned out to be useful when a crisis suddenly broke." In the same way, talking to Iran today "may end in bad temper but until it is tried it is hard to know. The key point is to reduce the symbolic significance of the fact of the conversation and present it as no more than normal diplomacy." Exactly right. ยท

Fredrik Logevall is professor of history at Cornell and co-editor of "Nixon in the World: American Foreign Relations, 1969-1977," out this month.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company