Review by Norvell B.DeAtkine
The thesis of this book is that the Middle East is a cultural and political continent, a discrete segment of the planet that is irrevocably conjoined by valleys, plateaus, routes, and rivers, while separated from neighboring lands by deserts, seas and mountain ranges. This geography has given its inhabitants a sense of political and cultural commonality. To disregard this reality is to preordain failure something the author contends U.S. policy makers have continually done.
Curtis Jones, the author, is a well-respected and deeply involved observer of Middle Eastern affairs and political trends. His many years in the region have given him the nuanced insight that only on-the-ground experience and years of study can provide. It is also true to say that very few long-time scholars or observers of the region avoid developing deeply held points of view. Mr. Jones is no exception, nor is the reviewer. The reviewer has also spent many years in the Arab world and learning, teaching, or writing about it since 1966, which has led to a very fundamentally different viewpoint on the Palestinian issue and the attitude toward American policies than that of the author.
The book itself is indicative of a massive amount of research, albeit very selective and generally supportive of the author's point of view, particularly when it comes to Palestine or American policy in the Middle East. The writing style of the book is breezy and thankfully free of most of the poly-sci jargon that makes so many of the recent books on the Middle East unreadable. The nuggets of wisdom throughout the book in many ways incisively summarize an issue.
After a short chapter on general geopolitics and the Middle East variation, the author devotes chapters to some of the most pressing problems of the Middle East such as oil, water, Islamic fundamentalism, communalism, and the developmental stages of Middle East governments. He also takes on the issue of Iraq, and most of all, the perennially thorny problem of Palestine, to which he devotes a major part of the book.
Certainly, too much oil in too few places, the curse of sectarianism, (communalism), and too little water almost everywhere are all major problems, as is the issue of Palestine, which resonates not only throughout the Arab world but throughout the Islamic world as well. Mr. Jones approaches these problems and issues with precisely defined and strong opinions. The chapters on oil, the issue of sectarianism, Islamic fundamentalism, and his overall depiction of the cultural and political trends tend to be well presented and informative.
The problem I found with the book is that the convictions of the author led to very unbalanced depictions of the Palestinian issue and U.S. policies, and all too often the author lets strong opinion override objectivity. To be sure, within the American Middle East scholarly community there is no middle ground when it comes to the Palestinian issue. One is either pro-Zionist (a word which unfortunately has become a pejorative term) or pro-Arab. The over-emphasis on Israel and Palestine is reinforced by those on the other side of the great divide. The concern of the pro-Israeli academics and organizations for the welfare of Israel leads them to the only point they agree on with the pro-Arabs the centrality of the Israeli-Arab issue.
This is unfortunate because it has distorted the problems and issues of the Middle East for decades. The Palestinian problem does not define or even begin to address the myriad of problems that beset the region; it is simply one of a host of others and to a certain extent is has been kept alive by the rapacious and incompetent rulers of the Arab world to avoid addressing the overwhelming domestic problems. It is their bread and circuses to divert the attention of the Arab street from the increasingly wide gaps in their quality of life compared to other regions. The late Ambassador Hume Horan, one of the best Arabists of the State Department, once asked Saudi officials why they did not do more for the Palestinians and was told to never ask that question again because it was embarrassing to the Saudis. The official then added that if they (the Saudis) were more solicitous of the Palestinian plight, the Palestinians would forget their homeland. As the author later mentions in passing, the Arab attitude toward the Palestinians has been callous, depriving them of citizenship or work permits. In my own experience, I've found generally a very pronounced antipathy toward Palestinians by the people of their host country, an attitude I found among the East Bank Jordanians, Lebanese, and the Iraqis, especially the Shi'a who viewed them as agents of the hated Saddam Hussein regime. This callous attitude has been replicated more recently by the indifference and often hostility shown to Iraqi refugees by their fellow Arabs.
In this book too much is devoted to the Palestinian issue to the detriment of the greater Middle East. For instance in an eight-page chapter on water the author devotes a paragraph to the issue of Nile water allocation, a river which is critical to the needs of 80 million Egyptians, 40 million Sudanese, and a sizable percentage of the 70 million people of Ethiopia, and a page and a half to the all important water of the Tigris and Euphrates, which affects some 120 million people including Turks. He devotes four pages to the problem of water for the 15 million Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians.
The festering sore of Palestine is as much a product of Arab elite rapaciousness, self-indulgence and overweening ambitions as it is the imperial pretensions of the Europeans. The Western imperial greed so ably depicted by David Fromkin in his book, Middle East; A Peace to End All Peace, must be read in conjunction with the work of Efraim Karsh in his book, Empires of Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East 1789-1922. Karsh brilliantly pointed out that the Arab elite, being far from the naïve and gullible nomads of the desert, were every bit as rapacious in their dealings with Europeans.
Moreover, the sad plight of the Palestinians is only one of many equally sad chapters of population displacement since World War One: the Greeks of Asia Minor, the Armenians, the Assyrians, the Kurds, and an equal number of Jewish refugees evicted from their homes at the time of the establishment of Israel, most with only the clothes on their backs. Nor was the situation of the Jews prior to the establishment of Israel the harmonious one so often depicted in philo-Islamic tracts. The harsh reality of Jewish history under Islam has been well-documented by Bat Ye'or.
American policy in the Middle East also comes under fierce condemnation, mostly because of the connection with Israel. It seems every malady suffered by the people of the region and every outrage committed by Islamist terrorists has been in some way provoked by some nefarious Western plot or its baleful influence. In one sentence the author's viewpoint is made crystal clear: The Zionist and Evangelical [sic] Christian lobbies provided impetus for the illegal and probably ill-advised occupation of Iraq. This is without a reference. The liberation of Iraq may, of course, turn out to be ill-advised but it will be many years before we know that. The consequences of our intervention in Vietnam are by no means clear yet. As for illegal, we have not yet surrendered our sovereignty to the United Nations, an organization that in post war Iraq was revealed as corrupt from top to the bottom, enriching top officials in the Oil for Food program, at the expense of the Iraqi population.
Finally there was one passage in the book I found particularly repellent: Every Palestinian political suicide says something about the intensity of the human urge for liberty . ( p. 173). Blowing up babies in strollers is not an urge for liberty. It is a symptom of a sick society, alienated from their culture, ruled by megalomaniacs, both secular and clerical, and facilitated by far too many in the West who continue to make excuses for them.
In summary I found this book disappointing. The thesis led me to believe that it would be in the mold of Carleton Coon's classic Caravan, but unfortunately it is mostly another polemic work on Palestine.