Shifting Sands

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Reviewed by Steven Simon
Sunday, February 1, 2009


The White House and the Middle East -- From the Cold War to the War on Terror

By Patrick Tyler

Farrar Straus Giroux. 628 pp. $30

Patrick Tyler, a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and The Washington Post, has written an engaging but idiosyncratic account of U.S. interactions with the Middle East from 1956 onward. He sums up this period as "a half century of costly miscalculations in the Middle East" and writes that it is "nearly impossible to discern any overarching approach to the region such as the one that guided U.S. policy through the cold war." Indeed, he says, "what stands out is the absence of consistency from one president to the next."

Many people, even many veteran U.S. diplomats, are likely to agree with this verdict. In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, echoing George W. Bush, maintained that U.S. policy toward the region was a 60-year record of failure because the United States had mistakenly pursued stability at the expense of freedom. The Bush administration acted on this diagnosis and jettisoned stability -- without, unfortunately, fostering freedom.

Critics of Washington's Middle East policy tend to fall into distinct camps. Those on the left blame the United States for supporting authoritarian regimes. Neoconservatives point a finger at feckless and often malign leaders in Arab countries. Neorealists argue that Israel has hijacked U.S. policy and redirected it against Israel's adversaries, to the detriment of American interests.

Tyler seems to occupy all three positions. Let's take them one at a time.

It is true that Washington has often treated the Mideast as a playing field in global conflicts. Until 1989, the United States and the Soviet Union cultivated client states and strove to ensure that their protégés were generously funded and well armed. The United States embraced Israel, Jordan, the conservative monarchies of the Persian Gulf and, until 1979, Iran. By the early 1970s, after Anwar Sadat threw 50,000 Soviet advisers out of his country, Egypt joined the list of U.S. dependencies. After 1980 and the eruption of Iran's Islamic revolution, Iraq was taken on board.

Washington's worries about Soviet intentions were understandable. We now know, for example, that the Soviets had contingency plans to invade Iran, take the Khuzestan oil fields and perhaps penetrate the Arabian Peninsula. Still, Tyler is right to suggest that the superpower rivalry obscured a clear view of the Middle East. Both the United States and the USSR missed opportunities to intervene constructively and to stave off conflict in 1967 and 1973. In the 1990s, with the disappearance of the Soviets and emergence of Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda, battling Islamist extremism replaced the Cold War as the organizing principle for U.S. action. But, as in the previous epoch, extravagant mistakes were made: The United States invaded Iraq and botched the occupation while allowing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fester.

At the same time, the people of the Mideast have been cursed with leaders who rule without governing. For all the blunders of successive U.S. administrations, one wonders how much better they could have done, given the corruption and oppressiveness of many Middle Eastern regimes. Tyler points to these problems but tends to attribute bad outcomes to Washington's mistakes.

The idea that Israel has led the United States into successive calamities is also key to Tyler's account. In his retelling of the 1967 war, he portrays the Israeli military as opportunistically plotting a war of conquest, as though Egypt's threatening rhetoric and its closure of the Tiran Strait to Israeli shipping were merely theater. Central to this interpretation is the visit to Washington of an Israeli intelligence official, Meir Amit, who was sent to assess Washington's willingness to muster an international flotilla to reopen the strategic waterway. Tyler argues that Amit falsely reported to the Israeli Cabinet that the United States was doing little, because he wanted to push Israel over the precipice to war. But, in fact, nothing much was going on, partly because the international community was not interested and partly because, as Secretary of State Dean Rusk said, "the Joint Staff has a bad case of [Gulf of] Tonkinitis." Amit's assessment was fundamentally correct, and Tyler fails to note that Amit tried unsuccessfully to persuade Israeli leaders to postpone an attack for yet another week, just to give Washington more time to intervene. Tyler also depicts Soviet behavior in the run-up to the war as sober and constructive, when it was anything but. As Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez explained last year in Foxbats Over Dimona, the crisis was heightened considerably by Soviet air force flights over Israel's nuclear reactor.

Tyler's chapter on the 1973 war also seems off-kilter. Here the villain is Henry Kissinger, whose allegedly strong sense of Jewish identity and emotional commitment to Zionism supposedly led him to press for a resupply of Israeli forces. This in turn empowered Israel to launch new wars of conquest, according to Tyler, such as the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Tyler seems to misunderstand Kissinger's objectives, which were to ensure that the Soviet-backed combatants would be clearly defeated -- but not destroyed -- by America's ally and to get a modicum of leverage over Israel after the shooting stopped. Kissinger was a consummate realist and highly unlikely to let sentiment undermine strategy. And as Jeremy Suri showed in his recent Henry Kissinger and the American Century, Kissinger's attitude toward his Jewish heritage was complicated and apparently untouched by the Zionist dream. His post-Holocaust concern for Israel does not seem to have been any greater than that of his non-Jewish colleagues. Tyler concludes that Kissinger "found it impossible to advocate a course in the Middle East that ran counter to the prevailing consensus of Israel's leaders, even to the detriment of U.S. national interest." This goes well beyond an accusation of dual loyalty.

Once he gets to Iran-Contra and the Gulf Wars, Tyler is on firmer and somewhat less eccentric ground. The narrative is also better informed, no doubt because he was a witness to some of the more recent events and his access to sources was direct. Some of his anecdotes are also good, because they illustrate larger themes of cluelessness and frustration: President Ronald Reagan and his national security adviser planning to rope Saudi Arabia's King Fahd into shaking the hand of Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres at a banquet; President Bill Clinton fretting about the possibility that Yasser Arafat might hug him in front of the media; a thoroughly soused CIA director George Tenet in the Saudi Arabian ambassador's swimming pool, railing about being set up by the Bush White House as the fall guy on Iraq. (Tenet denies that the incident took place.)

At the end, I was left thinking that, for all the frenetic inconsistency of U.S. policy toward the region, over the past 40 years Washington has steadily pursued two goals that were widely thought to be mutually exclusive: the security of Persian Gulf energy producers and the security of Israel. Each generated its own problems. Our commitment to the Saudis contributed to the rise of al-Qaeda, while support for Israel antagonized many Arabs and provided the rationale for an OPEC oil price hike (though that probably would have happened anyway). As a new administration takes office, there is no external threat to Gulf oil, and the United States has robust military bases on the Arabian Peninsula. Israel, though plagued by perennially weak political leadership and locked in a deadly embrace with the Palestinians, is militarily unassailable (short of Iran's development of a nuclear bomb).

Not everyone would agree that these two, overarching goals were the right ones. But they were the ones that Washington set for itself, and for all the oafishness often demonstrated by U.S. policymakers over the years, capped by the Bush administration's manic failures -- which Tyler describes so well -- we have largely achieved them. The Obama administration will likely adopt them, too. ·

Steven Simon is Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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