Reviewed by Curtis F. Jones
The Middle East and the United States: History, Politics and Ideologies, Fifth Edition, Edited by David W. Lesch and Mark L. Haas. Westview Press, 2012. ISBN-13: 978081334529, 540 pp. $50
This work is a compilation of 28 articles on various aspects of the gigantic topic that is its title. It is the fifth in a series of such anthologies dating back more than a decade. Aside from a piece on the Musaddiq era in Iran by a retired British diplomat, all were written by academic specialists, many of them well known in the field. The articles include one each by the editors, and one by Rashid Khalidi, whose personal endorsement of the collection appears on the back cover. The articles are extensively end-noted, and there is a 17-page index to the whole volume.
At the time this review was written, the book was not yet on the shelves of the local Barnes and Noble. Its scattershot approach suggests to the reviewer that its purpose is less to enlighten the general reader than to provide a home for worthwhile pieces not published elsewhere. Even for academic use, the book poses something of a problem. In the absence of each article’s date of completion, it is difficult to assess how up-to-date the scholarship really is. In fact, the way the region has started to move, no last-year’s analysis is likely to have academic relevance except to clarify areas of mystery – of which there are many in the field of U. S. Middle East policy.
Many of the articles are outside the narrow scope of this reviewer’s research, but he presumes to deal with two of them:
“The Iraq War of 2003; Why Did the United States Decide to Invade?” by Steve A. Yetiv, Professor of Political Science at Old Dominion University
Since the desk officer for Israel and matters directly concerning Israel is usually the President himself, a better title might have asked “Why did George Bush Decide to Invade?” Professor Yetiv mentions seven possible motives:
Alleged Iraqi program to acquire WMD’s
Yetiv hazards no guess on when Bush decided to invade Iraq, nor does he mention the report from then Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill that Bush announced his decision – to invade – at his first cabinet meeting (eight months before the attacks of 9/11/2011).
Yetiv cites a report that at some point the administration switched to non-WMD rationales for the invasion. He does not mention the report in the May 2003 Vanity Fair that Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz had said “we settled on [WMD’s] as the one issue that everyone could agree on.”
Alleged Iraqi complicity in 9/11
Yetiv notes that Bush and Wolfowitz leaped to an early conclusion of Iraqi collusion with Al Qa‘idah, and quotes Rumsfeld as saying that “We saw the evidence [against Iraq] through the prism of 9/11.” Yetiv reaches the conclusion – now widely held – that this thesis didn’t make much sense, but he clouds his presentation by citing without evaluation a book by Laurie Mylroie, whose partisanship for Israel colors all her writings.
Democratization of Iraq
Yetiv perceives signs of an administration principals’ view of early invasion as a timely means of converting Iraq from dictatorship to democracy. In the reviewer’s opinion, Bush and company deserve much sharper condemnation for their ignorant and simplistic approach to Iraqi politics.
Yetiv sensibly dismisses the popular thesis that the invasion was largely motivated by intent to monopolize Iraqi oil. He speculates on the possibility that the invaders saw ancillary advantage to nailing down Iraq as a back-up producer in the event of Saudi collapse, or at least installing in Baghdad a government that would exploit Iraqi reserves more efficiently and abandon the perennial claim to Kuwait. He notes Cheney’s link with Halliburton, but makes no invidious judgments.
Bush family ties
Yetiv touches on the speculation whether Bush saw himself as avenging the alleged plot to assassinate his father in Kuwait, or as completing the job in Iraq that Bush 41 left unfinished.
Yetiv does well to avoid the inclination of many of us old Middle East hands to be mesmerized by the lofty profile of the Zionist lobby, while overlooking the insidious influence of the military and industrial complex, whose operations behind the scenes conceal an organization whose political influence pulls strings – nobody knows how many – in fifty states. Without elaboration, Yetiv is prepared to concede the complex a decisive role in Washington’s decision to invade.
As a born-again Christian, Bush has projected a prominent image as a believer that the resurgence of Israel is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Yetiv cites some of Bush’s statements that adduce a vision of a Judeo-Christian war against the “axis of evil”. However, he rejects the thesis – to which this reviewer subscribes – that Zionist pressure was a central motive for invasion.
There is an extensive literature in support of the view that George Bush came into office with the invasion of Iraq one of his top priorities, that he surrounded himself with people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Feith who agreed with him, that they welcomed opportunities – notably the attacks of 9/11 – to manipulate the intelligence, and that Bush and Cheney extracted a pro-invasion NIE from George Tenet’s organization. Prominent in this connection are Woodward’s Plan of Attack and NPR’s interview of 8/5/08 with Ron Susskind.
Yetiv is much more gracious in his treatment of these allegations. Although he mentions the UK’s “Downing Street Memo” (“intelligence fixed around the policy”), he seems to accord greater credence to two official commissions of 2004 and 2005 that found no evidence that political pressure contributed to the failure of the NIE to hit the mark – namely, it didn’t reflect any realization that Saddam had abandoned the nuclear-weapon program, but wanted Iran to have the opposite impression.
Yetiv’s conclusion: It’s too early to know, and we may never know.
Others, struck by the President’s personal theology, and by the supremacist tone of his “National Security Strategy” of 2002, think we already know.
“New US Policies for a New Middle East?” by William B. Quandt, Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia.
This last entry in the Fifth Edition seems to have been commissioned to lend the book authority and timeliness. William Quandt is highly regarded for his long and central contributions to the policy-making of Democratic administrations. In general, he is a defender of the standard policy to which administrations from both parties have long adhered.
The reviewer has been on record for the past fifty years as an unregenerate critic of that standard policy, root and branch. This review is a brief catalog of our differences.
Quandt cites “obvious flaws” in U.S. Middle East policy: support for repressive regimes, failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sanctions against Iraq. The reviewer would have wished he had gone further – as by condemning the insidious practice of taking sides in parochial conflicts, based on which side’s goals of the moment were closer to ours. Example: military support for Iraq against Iran.
Quandt’s criticism of failure to pacify Palestine misses the main point if, as the reviewer believes, the conflict will be insoluble until Israel radically modifies its basic laws to permit the country’s integration into its non-Jewish environment, and until Washington stops clinging to Israel in its Zionist configuration.
He is wrong to classify Al Qa‘idah’s attacks as “unsuccessful” if, as many believe, they trapped the ingenuous Americans in two attritional wars. Quandt accepts the reading that Bush did not decide to invade Iraq until 2002. In his view, the invasion planning was overoptimistic and incompetent. Let’s call a spade a spade. The invasion itself was the original sin – one of the most appalling blunders in American history.
It seems that the contradiction in our readings of that history are fundamental: they stem from incompatible definitions of the American national interest. To wit (in paraphrase): “Deny Middle East hegemony to the Soviet Union.” Washington perpetrated a farrago of diplomatic and subversive initiatives in the region in the hope of dispelling the threat of a Soviet takeover – a threat which, in retrospect, never existed. “Access to oil.” While America has spent trillions on military saturation of the region; China is becoming the leading consumer of Middle East petroleum without a base or a fleet. “Special relationship with Israel.” This is not a national interest. It is an adventitious political interest that conflicts with the national interest. “The misguided invasion of Iraq stemmed from the 9/11 attacks, neocon pressure, and Rumsfeld’s wish to disprove the Powell doctrine.” This list is fragmentary. See the preceding review.
“By mid-2004 Americans realized they had to put more of an Iraqi face on the government of Iraq.” No analysis of this topic is intelligible without a summary of major American errors in Iraq, and an explanation of the dominant role of Ayatollah Sistani.
“As of late 2010, Iraq had dropped off the American radar screen.” Another example of the perils of prediction in the Middle East. As of late 2011, Iraq is back on the screen: New York Times page-one headline, 11/6/11: “Leaving Iraq, US Fears New Surge of Qaida Terror”.
“The Olmert peace offer of 2008 failed because his government and the Palestine Authority were weak, and American mediation was ineffectual.” Another appearance of the false premise that reconciliation between Zionist Israel and its neighbors is feasible.
“Egypt has just seen the overthrow of an entrenched pro-American government.” Mubarak was overthrown, but the military establishment he set up (which may perpetuate his policy of collaboration with Washington, for the same opportunistic reasons) is still in power.
“The US did fairly well in protecting its core interest in the Middle East up until 2000. 9/11 changed all that.” The only American interest that Washington has effectively served is the domestic political interest in the survival of Israel.