Skip to main content

Review by Curt Jones

The Contemporary Middle East, Third Edition, Edited by Karl Yambert with a contribution by Shibley Telhami, Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado, 2012, ISBN-13: 978-0813348391, pp. 448,  $40.00 (paperback), $ 27.00 (Kindle).

This publication is “A Westview Reader” – a chrestomathy of 31 chapters, most of them extracted from previous books published by Westview Press. The “contemporary” in the title is loosely applied, since 20 of the chapters, published before 2011, have been largely overtaken by events. All the chapters, written by respected contributors, have reference value. The chapters are assembled under 6 general headings. The first five are preceded by introductions, authorship unspecified. Telhami writes the sixth section, Chapter 31.

Chapter 1 (Held and Cummings) provides useful original background on the demography and linguistics of the region.

Chapter 6, the text of Obama’s Cairo speech of 2009, does not note subsequent shifts in US policy for the Middle East.

Chapter 8 (Reich and Powers) credits Truman’s motivations as humanitarian and moral, without citing Truman’s own admission that he was also motivated by practical politics. It clouds Eisenhower’s abrupt termination of the 1956 tripartite invasion of Egypt by an anodyne reference to “US and UN pressure”. The report on the groundbreaking sale of Hawks to Israel does not cite the earlier scene-setting sale to Jordan. The allusion to Secretary of State Rogers does not mention the extent to which the White House (Nixon and Kissinger) left him to flounder on his own. Carter gets too much credit for the Camp David deal in which Egypt and the US sold out the Palestinians. The authors make too much of American “negative reactions” to Israeli initiatives, notably the seizure of the Golan. They somehow saw the Madrid and Oslo charades as “progress” in the “peace process”, and seemed to put the entire onus on Arafat for the failure of “Camp David II”, and the outbreak of the subsequent “Second Intifada”. An extensive review of the rhetorical flourishes of the Obama administration in the cause of Arab-Israeli peace, Chapter 8, contains a laundry list of Israeli-American disagreements, but notes with approval American and Israeli success in “manag[ing] their differences”, while failing to mention that managing the Arab-Israeli dispute had not moved an inch since 1967.

Chapter 9 (Glenn Robinson) is an accurate summary of the Palestinians’ travails since they lost their country in 1948, although this reviewer would have stopped short of characterizing the 1993 Oslo accords as a “breakthrough.”

Chapter 13 (Hirsch Goodman) leaves open the possibility of a negotiated settlement between Israel and Syria. For this reviewer, that prospect is a non-starter because of the strategic value of the Golan to Israel as insurance against surprise attack from the Syrian quarter.

Chapter 14 (Steven David) on the Iranian nuclear threat is far and away the most informative and compelling analysis on that issue this reviewer has seen. Its conclusions: Neither diplomacy nor sanctions could dissuade the present Iranian regime from proceeding with its nuclear program; the United States, confronted by strong public sentiment against another military involvement in the Middle East, would be very unlikely to launch a military attack; an Israeli attack would be so dangerous, and so unlikely to achieve the termination of the Iranian program, that it is also improbable. If David is correct, the likeliest outcome is “containment” of a nuclear-armed Iran – a policy that Obama seems to have rejected in his public statements.

The introduction to Part III (10 chapters on Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan) opens by stating that Al Qaida “operated under the shelter of the Taliban,” when there is no evidence that the Taliban undertook military action in support of Al Qaida. The relationship seems to have been closer to the traditional tribal obligations of Islamic hospitality, repaid by some degree of support from Al Qaida. There is no evidence of Taliban advance knowledge of the 9/11 operation. The introduction also takes the position that the “surge” in deployment of American troops stabilized the military situation in Iraq – omitting American success in buying off Al Qaida’s Sunni rivals. In describing post-occupation Iraq as a “debilitated” state, the introduction cites “invasion, insurgency, and sectarian civil war”, but neglects to mention the devastating effects of 13 years of punitive sanctions imposed by the UN under American direction.

For Stephen Tanner (Chapter 15), the role of the Taliban vis-à-vis Al Qaida was “protection” – also a likely overstatement, given the rapid rout of Al Qaida personnel from Afghanistan.

In Chapter 19, Phebe Marr, a leading expert on Iraq, deals with Nuri al Maliki’s consolidation of power. She presents a forthright assessment of the ineptitude of the occupation, the reliance of Maliki on British and American forces to marginalize his rival for Shiite leadership, Muqtada al Sadr, and Maliki’s fortitude in obtaining a Status of Forces agreement that blew off Washington’s plans for a post-occupation military presence. Discussion of the continuing sectarian power struggle – Shia, Sunni, Kurd – concludes with recognition of one known (the pro-Iranian tilt of the regime) and one unknown (the political future of turbulent Iraq in its hyper-turbulent Middle East environment).

In Chapter 25, Marwan Bishara – senior political analyst for Al Jazeera – presents a lucid analysis of the rise of political Islam and the ideological dichotomy between the jihadists, best known from the violence perpetrated by Al Qaida, and the pragmatists, led by the 80-year-old Muslim Brotherhood in its many manifestations. Under the constraint of the death penalty in Egypt and Syria, the mainstream Brethren have pursued a strategy of caution, which brought them late to the Arab uprising that first erupted in Tunisia in January 2011, but they had constructed a formidable grassroots organization that has enabled them – in conjunction with the more liberal revolutionary factions – to take over nominal control of Tunisia and Egypt.

In Chapter 26, Mark Perry advises governments to conduct dialogue with “terrorist” organizations that reciprocate. His thesis is persuasive. The vernacular use of the term terrorists for anti-Western Islamists is not. The simple definition of their strategy – shed of the legalistic jargon that suits Western propaganda – is illegal political violence. That language seems to apply with equal precision to many Islamist actions (such as the attacks of September 11, 2001) and to certain American actions (such as the Saudi-American attempt of 1985 to kill a Hezbollah principal in Beirut, and the assassination of Osama bin Ladin in Pakistan on May 2, 2011, by Navy SEALS). The bin Ladin killing was politicized by the US government, and even by the UN (by the endorsement of the Security Council and the Secretary General, without reference to relevant aspects of international law). The Obama administration cited Congressional passage on September 14, 2001, of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, which “authorized” the President of the United States to use force anywhere against anyone who he determined to have been involved in the attacks of September 11, 2001. The ability of the US government to bring a majority of governments along in America’s political wake does not make international law.

Chapter 27, adapted from The Arabs: A History, by Eugene Rogan, accurately ascribes the Arab uprisings of 2011 to overpopulation, endemic nepotism, and the deaths of Tunisian Muhammad Bu ‘Azizi and Egyptian Khalid Said. Neither Rogan nor Arthur Goldschmidt Jr. (Chapter 28 on Egypt) found space to cite localized precipitators like drought in Syria and the resentment of the Egyptian high command toward Mubarak’s grooming for the succession of his son Jamal – who was suspected of building a private cabal in the world of Egyptian finance. Historians may ascribe relevance to the abrupt switch of tank troops at Tahrir Square on February 3, 2008, from passive on looking to firing a warning barrage that scattered Mubarak’s thuggish mercenaries. In his account of Egypt’s “Black Saturday” (January 26, 1952), Goldschmidt doesn’t cite the dismemberment of British citizens at the Turf Club. Goldschmidt’s version of the expulsion of Arafat (and his forces) from Lebanon credits “a dissident Palestinian faction”. In the understanding of this reviewer, the expulsion was imposed by Israel.

I n Chapter 29, which deals with events in Syria up to May 2012, David Lesch paints a sympathetic picture of Bashar al Asad that is not validated by his regime’s subsequent brutality.

Looking Ahead

Chapters 30 (James Gelvin) and 31 (Shibley Telhami) suffer from their attempts to encapsulate Arab geopolitics at a time when the Arab World is engulfed in a regional power struggle whose only certainty is the rampancy of uncertainty.

The Telhami overview is authoritative, but shows that the regional situation is oscillating too rapidly for meaningful analysis. Example: Reference to George Mitchell is irrelevant, now that Secretary of State Kerry has taken over as Israel-Palestine mediator. Telhami’s nomination of Iran as the big winner from recent violence across the region made sense in 2011, but – as noted by Eric Margolis (Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2013) – a more up-to-date assessment identifies Israel – an oasis of business-as-usual in a Muslim wilderness of chaos – as the only winner.

David Gardner in the Financial Times of May 20, 2013 presented a more realistic hypothesis for the future of the Middle East. This reviewer would paraphrase (and expand) his article as follows:

The modern Middle East has transited two eras, and is now engaged in a multifaceted power struggle, which is plunging the region into the murky depths of a third.

  1. Circa 1500-1800, Era of Indigenous Imperialism – Rule by the Ottoman and Safavid empires.
  2. Circa 1800-2000, Era of Foreign Imperialism – Hegemony of Britain and France supplanted after World War II by the hegemony of the United States. Result: Nineteen artificial “states” loosely analogous to the Westphalian model.
  3. Impending Era of Communalism – Rearrangement of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and possibly other states along tribal or sectarian lines, in furtherance of numerous ethnic precedents:

1948 – American insertion of a Jewish state.
1967 – Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Syrian Golan.
1975 – De facto secession of northern Cyprus, under Turkish protection.
1990 – Conquest of South Yemen by North Yemen.
1993 – Armenian occupation of a chunk of Azerbaijan.
2006 – Emergence of an autonomous region in Iraqi Kurdistan, as a by-product of the American occupation of Iraq.
2008 – Soviet-backed secession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia.
2011 – Outbreak of a Sunni-Alawite war in Syria exacerbated in 2013 by an incursion by the Lebanese Hezbollah in support of Asad’s last-ditch Damascus-Tartus corridor strategy.
2012 – Sunni-Shiite power struggle in Iraq manifested to date by endemic bombings, sectarian clashes, a plethora of political hangings, and the flight to Turkey of a Sunni Vice President.
2012 – Imaginative Turkish switch from war against Kurdish nationalists to alliance with Kurdish nationalists (a development foreseen by the late Jim Akins, FSO retired).
May 2013 – Reported decline in the Middle East’s Christian community from 25% of the region’s population in 1900 to 3% today. Most of the remaining Christians are centered in Egypt, Georgia, and Armenia. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian Christians have lately fled into refugee camps or overseas (The Week, 5/31/13).




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

Curt Jones

Curt Jones, a member of this journal’s Board of Directors, has contributed frequent commentaries to American Diplomacy. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1975 after more than thirty years of service, including assignments to seven posts abroad.

Comments are closed.