Skip to main content
Review by Amb. (ret.) William A. Rugh

Scripting Middle East Leaders: The Impact of Leadership Perceptions on US and UK Foreign Policy, edited by Lawrence Freedman and Jeffrey H. Michaels, ISDN 13: 978-1441191656:  New York: Bloomsbury, 2013, 194 pp., $87.60 list, $9.99 Kindle.

This collection of essays edited by Lawrence Freedman and Jeffrey H. Michaels is a valuable contribution to the study of Western policy toward key Muslim nations of the Middle East. Written by thirteen scholars and university professors – nine British, three American and one Canadian – each essay focuses on a single Mideast leader. The basic question they all ask – how do American and British leaders see that leader, and how does he see them – is a valid one, because perceptions are very important in diplomacy. This study also fits nicely into the debate over whether it is the individual leader – on both sides – who is decisive in shaping policies or is the leader simply a representative of societal and political realities in his own country that compel him to follow the foreign policies that he does. They come to different conclusions on that main question.

David W. Lesch, for example, in his essay on Syria, argues that Syrian policy under both Hafiz al Assad and under his son Bashaar, should be understood not so much in personal terms but rather as men who presided over a political system that had become stagnant, immune to innovation, dependent on control and repression, focused on competition with Israel and convinced of foreign conspiracies against it. The West misjudged Bashaar when he came to power after his father because they saw him as different, a Western-leaning technocrat seeking modernization. But he was not able or willing to change in the direction the US and UK wanted. In fact, he was prisoner of circumstances as was his father, although Hafiz had helped to create those circumst6ances.

William B. Quandt’s essay on Yasir Arafat also comes to the conclusion that “perhaps personalities are less important than policy and politics”. Quandt points out that the American public knew very little of the man who dominated Palestinian politics from the time he took over as Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1969 until his death in 2004. But Quandt provides an extremely insightful and fascinating portrait of how American and British officials viewed Arafat. His analysis is based in part on the author’s personal involvement as an NSC senior staff member who worked closely with top US officials while they were making our Mideast policy, and in part on his careful research into and extensive writing on the Arab-Israel peace process.

The essays on Nasser and Sadat by Nigel Ashton and Dena Rezk, focus more on the personalities of these two men rather than so much on the circumstances they found themselves in. The American and British leaderships were on several occasions puzzled by the behavior of these Egyptian leaders, either seeing them in benign terms or as threatening to Western interests. Early enthusiasm for Nasser evaporated as he became closer to the Soviet Union during the escalating Cold War. Sadat was at first seen as weak and a temporary caretaker of Nasser’s policies but then as a courageous and independent leader who expelled Soviet advisors and travelled to Jerusalem, finally concluding a peace treaty with Israel that cost him pan-Arab support. Western analysts had to develop new theories to catch up with changing policies and in some cases they found explanations in “early signs” that had been missed.

Changing perceptions is indeed a recurring theme in this book, and the chapter by David P. Houghton on the Ayatollah Khomeini also chronicles the changing official Western views of the man whose successful revolution in Iran have left a legacy that has stayed with us to this day, nearly a quarter century after his death. When Khomeini was living in exile, Western analysts thought he was irrelevant and ignored him; when he came to power in 1979, some in the Carter administration at first had a benign view of him; but the embassy takeover and the failure to resolve that standoff dashed American hopes for good relations. The confrontation that has continued is based in large part on deep mutual distrust between the leaderships on both sides, with the West believing the mullahs are developing a nuclear weapon despite Tehran insisting it is not doing so.

As with most edited works by different authors, the essays in this book are somewhat uneven.  The chapter by the British scholar Toby Dodge on Saddam Hussain adds little to what we already know about the Iraqi leader from many published accounts. Moreover, it misses some key points affecting American perceptions of Saddam. The author claims that the first President Bush, more than his advisors, personalized the confrontation with Saddam in 1990, and simply called him “another Hitler”. Most observers agree however that this president was quite deliberate and careful in his handling of that crisis. The author should have said that it was instead the second President Bush (whom he mistakenly calls “George Bush Jr.”) who acted emotionally and without much consultation.  In both cases, however, the author is correct that the two presidents failed to prepare properly for the aftermath of war against Saddam because they had flawed expectations of what would happen after they invaded.

The chapter on Osama bin Laden by Peter R. Neumann and Fernande van Tets is also disappointing.  Despite the extensive writing on al Qaida and bin Laden that has been published since 9/11, Neumann and van Tets do not even attempt to draw a portrait of the mastermind of that terrorist attack. Instead, they simply undertook a review of reporting on bin Laden in six mainstream newspapers – three each from the US and the UK – during the period 2002 to 2010, and for that study they only looked at a total of 54 articles.  Their report sheds little light on perceptions of bin Laden that prevailed among the leaders in Washington or London. Moreover, it missed major elements in the story that could have helped in doing so, such as an analysis of the wave of popular Islamophobia that swept the US during this period.   One of the few comments they made about leaders’ perceptions was to say that both Bush and Blair “portrayed the ‘Global War on Terror’ as a police action”.  In fact, Bush and Blair both saw their confrontation with bin Laden as much more than that, namely a worldwide threat to Western civilization led by a man who they thought “hates our values”.

Christopher Andrew’s portrait of Qaddafi also is somewhat more superficial than analytical. It dwells for example on the Libyan leader’s unusual styles of dress, at least as much on his policies, which certainly concern Washington and London policymakers much more.  But this author hints at the difficulty of the task of accurately describing Qaddafi’s views when he notes that during the three years that British Ambassador Peter Tripp spent at his post in Libya he had “never spoken to a single member of the Libyan government.” Even when official bilateral relations exist, they do not guarantee accurate assessments from first-hand observation.

Despite its few weak spots, this book however is a useful addition to the huge literature on the Middle East. It approaches relationships between key leaders in a new way, isolating the elements of their perceptions of each other so that we have a better idea of how their various policies developed. Some authors observe that there have been many occasions when serious misperceptions on both sides hampered cooperation or misled the actors into making serious mistakes. Others point out the dangers of grasping at historical analogies that do not properly explain the puzzling behavior of foreign leaders. And some described how generalized portraits of others can change quickly, as circumstances change. These are helpful reminders for anyone seeking to understand our relations with significant actors on the international scene.End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

William Rugh who holds a Ph.D. in political science is the author of “Arab Mass Media” and many articles on Middle Eastern subjects, as well as two books on public diplomacy. He was a U.S. Foreign Service officer for 30 years, and during that time he served at embassies in six Arab countries, including as American Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (1992-95) and as Ambassador to Yemen (1984-87). During his career he held several public diplomacy positions, including Area Director for Near East and South Asia (1989-92), and PAO in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Between 1995 and 2003 he was President of AMIDEAST, an American non-profit organization. He is currently the Edward R. Murrow Visiting Professor of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a member of the board of directors of the Public Diplomacy Council.

Comments are closed.