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Readings on non-specific countries, either contemporary or historical

 

Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East by Asef Bayat (Stanford University Press, 2010) 304 pages, index. Reviewed by Kaveh Ehsani.

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

What a timely book! Or should we call it prophetic? Published a year before the uprisings that have begun reshaping the contours of the region’s authoritarian politics, this book offers great insights into, and a provocative comparative and analytical framework for comprehending the often overlooked social dynamics underlying the current upheavals across North Africa and the Middle East. Bayat takes aim at debunking two prevalent tropes. The first is the idea of Middle Eastern exceptionalism, the widespread notion that the politics of this particular region is uniquely immune to democratization and popular sovereignty due to intrinsic political deficiencies and cultural inertia (read Islam, patriarchy, the corruption caused by petrolic wealth, etc.). The second is the notion that these societies are inherently weak and bereft of the autonomous social organizations and the culture of citizenship needed to challenge corrupt authoritarian states, the intolerant sectarian violence of radical Islamists, or the ravages of neo-liberal economics.

This book challenges the resulting conventional wisdom of many experts and pundits, both local and international, that in this region meaningful change can come only as a result of external pressure (military, economic, political) or internal violence. Instead, Life as Politics offers a brilliant alternative perspective on public life by taking seriously the daily lives and the social agency of ordinary people, hence its subtitle “How ordinary people change the Middle East.” Bayat’s central argument is that formal social movements, like trade unions, student organizations, political parties etc. have little chance of withstanding the repression of authoritarian states. When states are challenged openly, they respond with violence. This intolerance is not inherent to this region, but a byproduct of geopolitical calculations, especially of the self-interested western support of Israel as well as the dictatorial regimes that control the region’s oil resources. In spite of repression and chronic maldevelopment, the politics of the region are under constant challenge, not necessarily through the organized resistance of social movements, but through what Bayat calls the “non-movements” of ordinary people pursuing their self interests in the public domain.

By “non-movements” the author means “the collective actions of non-collective actors” (pp. 14-20) – the urban poor taking over public spaces for informal housing or street vending, the unemployed engaged in the informal economy, the housewives empowered through engagement in neighborhood and informal social services, young people aspiring to normal life chances by seeking fun in spite of the moral condemnation of Islamists or state authorities, etc. What distinguishes these non-movements from formal political challenges to the existing order is the fact that they are driven not by organized leadership, formal organization, or specific ideologies, but by the atomistic and self-interested practices of daily routines.  They involve vast numbers of ordinary urban subaltern subjects of all kind whose common practices of survival and their pursuit of individual life chances and material security undermine the rigid and undemocratic political architecture of police states. The recent events in Iran following the 2009 election, and then in Tunisia and Egypt, and the subsequent wildfires of public discontent across the region, seem to confirm Bayat’s arguments.

In spite of its theoretical contribution, especially the focus on the notion of “non-movements” of ordinary people as political agency, this is not a book of pure theory. Far from it! Bayat’s strength has always been a combination of accessible and lucidly argued theoretical sophistication, accompanied by rigorous comparative empirical research and analysis. Most of the chapters of this book have been previously published, but here they have been selected specifically to support and expand the book’s central theme. The introduction, titled “The art of presence”, is an original essay in which the author presents his main theoretical arguments. This important essay will become, rightly, the centerpiece of much debate about the nature of social agency in the region. Chapter 2 is a seminal critique and debunking of the 2002 UN Arab Human Development Report, an important document that supports the Middle East exceptionalism discourse. Part 1 of the book (chapters 3-7) titled “Social non-movements” analyzes the “quite encroachment of the ordinary” daily life by the young, the urban poor, social activists, and women. Part 2 (chapters 8-12) titled “Street politics and the political street” analyzes the spaces of urban life and how ordinary people’s activities reclaim the city and the streets from neo-liberal developers, intolerant Islamists, and authoritarian states. Part 3 looks at the prospects of political change, especially by focusing on the emergence and the discursive development of “post-Islamism”, the intellectual and social movement of the pious activists and thinkers who want a place for religion in political and public life, but not at the expense of human rights and democracy.

Life as Politics is written in a clear and accessible prose. It is a wonderful book to use in a multitude of interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate courses on social movements, the Middle East, urban sociology, and political economy. Its insights into the micro dynamics of the Middle East were prescient and anyone interested in finding a provocative, insightful, and timely analysis of the ongoing transformations in this region will be rewarded by reading this book. I cannot but endorse it most enthusiastically.

Having said this, I also have some critical remarks to make. Bayat’s notion of “non-movements” as a sort of emancipatory politics is certainly thought provoking, but also problematic. Liberal and utilitarian political theories are imbued with the notion of atomistic self-interested individuals who, while selfishly pursuing their personal happiness, inadvertently benefit the common good not through design and benevolence, but through the unintended consequences of their fragmented actions. These are the arguments of Adam Smith, J.S. Mill, and James Madison in the Federalist Papers (Not to mention Hayek). Indeed, it is hard to argue with the separate elements of Bayat’s argument: Which progressive person of the left would not support destitute urban squatters from claiming land for housing when the state fails miserably to protect their rights and ensure their entitlements as citizens? And it would be difficult not to support the rights of the young and the unemployed to don fashionable outfits and turn officially solemn religious festivals into public parties and festive occasions. But “non-movements” do not necessarily lead to democratic empowerment or a more just society. Urban squatters do not resolve the pressing housing question. At best, they alleviate the plight of the individual squatters by turning what had been common property into the private property of the lucky few. This is dispossession of the commons by another means. Young Iranian supporters of the Green movement may have displayed great integrity by their adherence to non-violence, but the apparent absence/rejection of serious ‘ideological’ debates within this movement may reflect the hegemony of neo-liberal ideas about the economy and the market rather than a sign of non-sectarianism.

To claim and to show how ordinary people’s daily routines undermine the tyranny of the markets, authoritarian states, and moralist Islamists is vitally important. Life as Politics convincingly debunks the orientalist myth of Middle East exceptionalism by showing that there is indeed politics and agency among the subaltern. Whether this political agency of ordinary people’s daily struggles can develop an institutionalized form of democratic politics, however, will require good old fashioned political organizing and ideological battles. I don’t think Bayat is advocating a liberal-utilitarian model of politics here, but the notion of ‘non-movements’ needs a more rigorous and critical articulation.

Kaveh Ehsani is an assistant professor of international studies at DePaul University and an editor of Middle East Report

Major Farran’s Hat: The Untold Story of the Struggle to Establish the Jewish State by David Cesarani (Cambridge, MA 2009) 218 pp.+71 pages of notes.. Reviewed by Paul Scham

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

“Serious” history and murder mysteries are generally considered two distinct genres.  As a historian who enjoys a good thriller or mystery, I know the difference; the former I use for research or assign it to my classes; the latter I read before I go to sleep (unless it’s really good and I stay awake to read it, usually with unfortunate results the next morning).

“Major Farran’s Hat”, however, scrambles up the genres and can’t be classified as either; making it necessarily both.  This book, which dismantles the firewall between two very different kinds of writing, also illustrates why they should normally be kept separate, though in this case the marriage mostly works.

Author David Cesarani, a British academic historian of Zionism and Jewish history, has written this book with impeccable use of the usual scholarly apparatus (41 pages of endnotes and 13 of bibliography).  The book focuses on a little-known episode in the frenzied period in 1947 when the British Mandate over Palestine was coming to its end, under attack (in very different ways) by the Hagana, Etzel (the “Irgun”) and Lehi (the “Stern Gang”).

Alexander Rubowitz was a 16 year old supporter of Lehi, the most violent of the Jewish militias, which specialized in kidnapping and murdering British soldiers and civilians alike and which was therefore particularly loathed by the Mandatory authorities.  On May 6, 1947, a year before the State of Israel was proclaimed, he was abducted while distributing placards and murdered by a British patrol, led by Major Roy Farran.  The subsequent emergence of the story, the formal acquittal of Farran, and Lehi’s revenge (including a letter bomb that killed Roy Farran’s brother Rex), are recounted in this book in a context which makes their connection with the world-historical events unfolding around them breathtakingly clear.

Cesarani asserts that “the scandal that erupted around [these events] shook the British Mandate to its foundations and helped erode whatever legitimacy remained for British rule”. Perhaps somewhat overstated. But perhaps not. It clearly added fuel to fires already burning. As someone who has studied and taught this period for years, I must admit I had never heard of it.  It deserves to be better known as a remarkable vignette that encapsulates much of the violence and anger of this period.  However, since Caesarani does not even attempt to give Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle a run for their money, the obscurity in which it has heretofore dwelt is not likely to be seriously endangered.

Cesarani has clearly done his homework.  We are walked through the backgrounds of the British officials most involved with the case, especially Major Farran himself, as well as the mandatory police and military infrastructure.  The post-World War II–pre-Independence atmosphere is recreated with the high drama it deserves.  And the plot’s twists and turns are narrated with (almost) a novelist’s skill and (definitely) a historian’s factual precision.

However, the murder-mystery atmosphere is negated by the book’s beginning on page 1 with a factual account of the murder, so we are in no suspense about who the murderer really is.  Trying to understand why he put it there, in clear violation of Mystery Writing 101, I realized the author really had little choice.  Even though Farran was actually tried by a British court-martial in September 1947, a few months after the incident, and acquitted for lack of evidence, neither Cesarani nor his readers have the slightest doubt of Farran’s guilt.  Technically, there were problems with admissibility of evidence and with the fact that Rubowitz’s body was never found, which were cited in the acquittal.  But Cesarani is clear that the British authorities, by then desperate to relinquish the Mandate and leave, had no desire to have one of their own found guilty of murder in the Mandate’s 11th hour.

The book works as a provocative historical footnote.  Its documentation is superb, its reasoning is first-rate and its location in the confluence of great events is outstanding.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t have the suspense, motivation, conflicting alibis, and multiple suspects that usually mark a first-rate thriller.  Cesarani’s fundamental constraint, that he lacked the novelist’s freedom to play fast and loose with the facts, means the book proceeds slowly and methodically, fine for history but slow for mystery.

However, to be clear, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and will recommend it to friends.  But I think anyone with any interest in the period will almost certainly enjoy it, with the added bonus of having no problem with not being able to put it down.

“Wait!” you say.  “Don’t stop now!  What about the hat?”  “What with the strange and clumsy title?”

Simple.  Didn’t you figure it out? Major Farran left his hat at the scene of the abduction, by which he was traced.  Without it, Rubowitz’s disappearance would almost certainly never have been solved though, in my view, this wouldn’t have changed history.

***

Paul Scham is a Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, and teaches courses on the Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole (Palgrave MacMillan: 2008) 247 pp. + index. Reviewed by Rex Wingerter

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

The late Edward Said  lamented  years prior to 9/11 that America and the West were adopting a “devil theory of Islam,” where behind every explosion hid a worldwide Islamic conspiracy.  Since the attacks, the theory has emerged full blown.  Juan Cole views such Western fears to be indicative of “Islam Anxiety,” a condition where the Muslim world is viewed “solely in a cultural and religious context and not understanding the social and economic dynamics that drive its tensions with the West.” Engaging the Muslim World is tendered as an antidote to this angst. A history professor at the University of Michigan and a recognized top expert on the Middle East, he’s been offering his insights for some time on his well-known web log Informed Comment.com.

The first chapter bluntly explains why Americans need to take a fair-minded approach to Islam: oil.  A resource found largely in Muslim-majority countries, Cole warns that these oil producing countries soon will tire of America’s threats and demonization and sell their product to non-American buyers. The result will be dangerous resource wars between and among oil suppliers and consumers. “Petroleum makes the world go round,” he notes, “which means that, increasingly, Muslims will make the world go round.” Assuring the continued supply of oil to the U.S., in his view, is best served by improving friendly relations with the Muslim world.

Seeking to shatter anti-Muslim stereotypes, Cole points to public opinion polls showing that most Muslims don’t hate our freedom after all. Nearly 60 percent of Saudi Arabians think democracy is the best form of government and four-fifth of Iranians view the American people favorably. His knack for invoking comparisons also is an effective pedagogical tool:  the 4 million displaced Iraqis resulting from the U.S. invasion would be proportionately equivalent to the entire populations of California and Michigan. Similarly, the estimates of the number of Iraqi deaths range from the entire population of Pittsburgh or Cincinnati to imagining that “a death ray had mown down everyone in Ohio.”

Cole’s critiques of “radical Islam” will be heresy for readers accustomed to mainstream U.S. punditry. He dismisses the idea that Islamic fundamentalist groups are powerful and pervasive in Muslim societies. The September 11th attacks did not herald the beginning of the Islamic revolution but symbolized “the flailing about of a dying organization of aging revolutionaries banished to camps in the rugged waste-lands of failed states.” Heretical nor not, his thoughtful insights and arguments are compelling.

Arab attitudes toward U.S. leadership – distinct from their attitude toward the American people – are poor.  Approval rates in Egypt for President Obama only reach 37 percent. This, advises Cole, is on account of “American Anxiety,” a condition where Muslim-majority countries fear that Washington seeks to cripple and destroy their religious identity and control their resources. Opinion polls support his theory: 79 percent of those questioned in Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, and Indonesia believe that America seeks to “weaken and divide the Islamic world.” A similar percentage in those countries believe the United States wants “control over the resources of the Middle East” and about 64 percent believed Washington wanted to spread Christianity among them.

Such disquiet is understandable based on how the U.S. helped to overthrow Mosaddegh in Iran, perhaps placed Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq, and has propped up authoritarian regimes through the region. But the emphasis in Engaging the Muslim World is less on U.S. policy machinations and more on highlighting the confusing complexity of the Middle East. This is where Cole shines, deftly describing the histories and intricacies of individual countries. He disputes accusations that Wahhabism, the fundamentalist strain of Islam that dominates Saudi Arabia, is the cause for the Kingdom’s repressive political policies by pointing out that the co-religious State of Qatar is much less repressive. Pakistan and Afghanistan are shown to have their own factious, domestic agendas that often are distinctly different, if not contrary, to American efforts to fight Taliban insurgents. Iran’s political history makes it highly unlikely that it will halt its uranium enrichment efforts but similarly unlikely to embark on a campaign of regional conquest. Cole also touches on Lebanon, Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah with equal craftsmanship.

Little is said about Israel, except to contend that the Israel/Palestine conflict significantly undermines U.S. interests in the Middle East. Many would pause at his claim that the conflict’s equitable resolution would resolve 90 percent of U.S. problems with the Muslim world. But the suggestion that Israel’s return of the Golan Heights to Syria and the Shebaa Farms to Lebanon would vacate Hizbullah’s justification for militancy makes sense.

Many will cast Cole as an apologist for Islamic fundamentalist violence. Others will dismiss as naïve his call for mutual understanding and cooperation between North Atlantic and Muslim countries. But if Cole does at times sound like a defender of the Muslim world, it’s because he is one of the few knowledgeable voices that eschews fear mongering and offers a clam, reasoned approach to explaining the Muslim and Arab worlds. At a time when the Obama Administration appears to be adopting “Bush-lite” policies toward the region, such a perspective is sorely needed.

The Top Rated Think Tanks in the Middle East: University of Pennsylvania Study

Monday, April 26th, 2010

The University of Pennsylvania recently revised its 2009 list of top rated think tanks, “The Global ‘Go-To’ Think Tanks.” Housed at the university’s international relations department, a wide variety of researchers and judges culled through the world’s 6,000+ think tanks to come up a list of the most influential. “The primary objective,” states the report, “of the rankings is to recognize some of the leading public policy think tanks in the world and highlight the important contributions these organizations are making to governments and civil societies around the world.”

The study offers a statistical review of countries with the largest number of think tanks (the U.S. with 1,815; second is China with 428), the number of think tanks per region, the top think tanks by research area, and the top think tanks by special achievement. The Top Think Tank in the World was the Brookings Institution. In the category of the Top 25 Think Tanks Worldwide, including U.S. and non-U.S. institutions, the US accounted for 16, the U.K. 5, Belgium two and Sweden and Germany one a piece. As a way to discount the excessive influence of the U.S., the study lists the top 50 non-U.S. world wide think tanks. The U.K’s Chatham House is ranked number one.

The publications and conferences sponsored at think tanks often signal a country’s future policy directions.  Writings from the conservative Heritage Foundation pointed the route of the Regan Administration’s foreign policy and personalities and papers from the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and the Center for Security Policy foretold of the Bush Administration’s goal to radically transform the Middle East. “At their best,” the Pennsylvania study observes, “think tanks are the filters and synthesizers that facilitate the identification of policy issues, the design of policy solutions, and the implementation of and feedback on policy decisions.”

The top rated 25 think tanks in the Middle East and North Africa were:

1.  Carnegie Middle East Center, Lebanon

2.  Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies, Egypt

3.  Institute for National Security Studies, formerly Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies, Israel

4.  Gulf Research Center, UAE

5. Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), Turkey

6.  Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Israel

7. Center for Strategic Studies, Jordan

8. Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, UAE

9. Association for Liberal Thinking, Turkey

10. Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Israel

11. Dubai Institute of Government, UAE

12. Rabin Center for Israeli Studies, Israel

13. International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), Israel

14. Free Minds Association, Azerbaijan

15. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Israel

16. Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress, Israel

17. Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), Lebanon

18. Center of Arab Women for Training and Research, Egypt

19. Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), Israel

20. Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, Turkey

21. Center for Palestine Research and Studies, Palestinian Authority

22. Centre d’Etudes et des Recherches en Sciences Sociales, Morocco

23. Shalem Centre, Israel

24. Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, Israel

25. Egyptian Center for Economic Studies – Egypt

Readers seeking to discern what the future may hold for the Middle East may benefit from reviewing from time to time the discussions and analysis offered by these think tanks.

Cost of Conflict in the Middle East by the Strategic Foresight Group (2009)

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Bar graphs and pie charts may not top a photograph’s ability to express a thousand words but Costs of Conflict in the Middle East comes close. Published by the Strategic Foresight Group, a think-tank in Mumbai, India, this informative book offers a compendium of facts and figures on an array of subjects concerning conflict in the Middle East. Want to know the opportunity costs to the region since the Madrid conference failed to bring about a Palestinian-Israeli peace? ($12 trillion). Ever wonder about the number of lives lost in the three Arab-Israeli wars, Israel’s wars with Lebanon, and the Intifadas? (70,000 – 110,000).  How about which country has the largest portion of its citizens in the military? (Israel) Or which country has the largest number of paramilitary forces roaming its countryside? (Iran).

The information is categorized with an eye toward revealing not only the costs of conflict incurred by states but also the price exacted in human security. Calculating state costs are straight forward: tallying human deaths, military expenditures, missile numbers, nuclear capabilities, and itemizing the material consequences of a nuclear exchange in the region. Calculating human security costs is a more imprecise task but the authors identify some arresting issues. A chapter on the environment focuses on ruinous oil related damage, depleted uranium shells, and the destruction of water supplies and irrigation infrastructures. Social and political costs spotlight fractious religious demography, the curtailment of civil liberties and freedom of the press, and the woeful condition of children.

Another chapter shows how the international community is affected by Middle East discord but particular attention is paid to the Israel/Palestine conflict. For the Israelis, picture graphs show the number of youths killed by terrorist attacks against school buses, discos or malls. The number of Qassam rocket and missile attacks underscores the data assessing the psychological fear of terrorist attacks that envelop Israelis of all walks of life. For the Palestinians, charts detail the number of Palestinians in Israeli detention centers, the number of fatalities since the first Intifada, and Palestinian poverty rates. A sense of the occupation’s repression is offered with graphs displaying the number of village or city closures per day, the number of West Bank checkpoints and even an estimate of the time wasted due to the checkpoints.

Costs of Conflict was written with the general reader in mind; there are no regression analyses to confront or standard deviations to consider. The graphs, tables, and charts are large and the ample use of colors makes them easy to read and understand. A narrative offers observations and commentary on the data underpinning each chapter’s topic.

At its heart, Costs of Conflict offers a cost-benefit analysis of war and peace in the Middle East. In stark, simple terms, it shows the terrible burden, in terms of lives, money, natural resources, and social torment, the states and peoples of the region have suffered on account of on-going conflict. Details of the opportunity costs incurred by the region – a subject rarely discussed in most studies – and a chapter showing the significant social and economic benefits that would result from a regional peace accord is startling. But another chapter projects the future risks which threaten to plunge the region into further chaos. Costs of Conflict in the Middle East offers unambiguous empirical evidence for why the crosscurrents of imperial hubris, ideological delusion, and ethnic chauvinism that buffet the region must make way for mutual respect and common security.

Kingmakers: the Invention of the Modern Middle East by Karl E. Meyer & Shareen Blair Brysac (Norton: 2008) Reviewer, Rex Wingerter

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Before the public’s expectations of the Obama administration and his claim to start a “new beginning with the Muslim world” balloon too large, the promises George W. Bush initially made to the nation ought to be recalled.  He pledged that America under his leadership would wield a “humble but strong” foreign policy and the U.S. would be “judicious” in flexing its military power. Twelve months later, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq turned those words on their heads.

But the ouster of Bush, Chaney, Rice and Rumsfeld may change only the face but not the cause of America’s blundering in the Middle East.  As Kingmakers: the Invention of the Modern Middle East makes clear, they are only the most recent of a long cast of characters to march onto the Middle East with the intention of making it a better place for all. From the end of the 19th century, a slew of British diplomats, soldiers and spies helped to create the mosaic of nations now labeled as the Middle East.  They were slowly supplemented and finally replace in the mid-20th century by their American counter-parts, who quickly applied their handiwork to the region.

Kingmakers make an often complicated history accessible to the general reader.  The heavy academic credentials of this husband and wife team thankfully are balanced by their TV and journalism experience. Halfway through the book, the reader readily understands why the “Arab street” often boils over in resentment and violence at meddling foreign interlopers. That the very term the “Middle East” is an Anglo-American invention, fashioned by U.S. naval strategist Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer in a 1902, is our first hint of how the region has been contoured with Western interests in mind.

Meyer and Brysac rely on more than a dozen personalities to thread their way through 100 years of Western intrusions in the Arab world. They begin with Lord Cromer, the British consul-general of Egypt in the 1880s and end with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the primary architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In between we are introduced to colorful and driven characters who were “building nations, defining borders, and selecting or helping to select local rulers.” Most were larger than life.

Mark Sykes co-authored a World War I agreement that secretly divided the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence; he was also instrumental in convincing England to sanction the creation of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. The indomitable Gertrude Bell’s expertise on local conditions in Mesopotamia allowed her to help Britain draw the modern maps of Iraq, Jordan and Syria. She rivaled the swashbuckling and legendary T.E. Lawrence as they traveled though out the region, instigating Arab revolts during World War I against pro-German Ottoman rule or building alliances with local Arab tribes, all in the service of the British Crown.

Kingmakers illustrates that these actors all shared the hardnosed conviction that they were helping their country as well as the local inhabitants, even if harsh punishment often was required.  Winston Churchill advocated the use of mustard gas against “recalcitrant natives.”  A Royal Air Force officer advised “relentless and unremitting” bombing and machine gunning of villages as a means of teaching unruly locals a lesson. Such tactics, the authors’ observe, were “an early template for the Pentagon’s twenty-first century’s ‘shock and awe’” campaign in Iraq.

Creating countries and appointing leadership was how Britain exerted indirect rule over an area of increasing strategic and economic importance. But London never fooled itself into believing that its Arab surrogates had popular support; referring to King Faisal’s rule in Iraq, the Secretary of State for the Colonies admitted there was “no doubt” that if the Royal Air Force was removed, “the whole structure would inevitably fall to pieces.  Any locally raised forces without assistance from the air could not maintain internal order nor resist external aggression.” It’s an observation that may well apply to today’s Iraq under Nouri al-Maliki.

Similar strategic imperatives underlay American efforts in the Middle East. When Washington secured access to oil first in Saudi Arabia and then Iran, assuring oil’s unimpeded flow to Western markets became a top priority. But with the boundaries of the Middle East largely settled (except for Israel/Palestine), concern in Washington focused on what Meyer and Brysac called promoting “sensible government.” So, when it looked as if Iranian nationalism was endangering Persian petroleum, Kermit Roosevelt, the masterminded of the 1953 CIA coup in Iran, joined the list of kingmakers. But it was in Syria in 1949 where the CIA under Miles Copeland engineered its first Middle East coup. That Washington’s man, Colonel Hosni Za’im, was overthrown five months later didn’t prevent Copeland and his associates’ from further chicanery over the next 25 years in Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Meyer and Brysac describe the cold war years as an “era when U.S. covert intervention was perceived as the norm.” But unlike the Victorian or inter-war years where grandiose characters could create countries and demarcate borders in an afternoon, post-war intrigue was frustratingly abstruse. The authors’ annoyance is almost audible when they decry the subterfuge of modern cloak-and-dagger adventures which obscures fact from fiction and confuses reality with exaggeration. They provide a short but solid review of Middle East turmoil in the decades after World War II.  But it’s clear that the real kingmakers were a thing of the past.

Bush, Cheney & Co.’s invasion of Iraq gave the idea of kingmakers a new lease on life. The authors’ correctly focus on Wolfowitz as a new kingmaker.  But rather than analyze him within the context of being a modern-day Colonial Secretary, they offer a personal, social-intellectual narrative on how such a smart  and seemingly decent man could launch such a ruinous policy.  Such speculation has been offered elsewhere and little new is added. But that’s a small fault in an otherwise insightful book on the continuity of imperial adventures in the Middle East.

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