A veteran journalist chronicles 60 years of U.S. fecklessness in the Middle East.
The colorful narrative opens in 2004 with CIA Director George Tenet drunk and angry during a post-midnight swim in a Saudi royal family pool, a perfect metaphor for American floundering in the Middle East for the past few decades. Almost nothing that follows dispels this image of the United States, bitter and baffled by the ceaseless problems posed by this region. Tyler (A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China: An Investigatory History, 1999, etc.) uses the frame of the presidency to survey America’s involvement in a place that, because of its oil resources, the ideological challenge of Islamic extremism and America’s ties to Israel, demands the attention of the nation’s “highest political authority.” Since Eisenhower, the White House has grappled with an unrelenting parade of Middle East conflicts: Gamal Nasser’s 1956 seizure of the Suez Canal; the 1967 Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel; the 1973 Yom Kippur War; the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the takeover of Tehran’s American embassy; the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, the 1987 Intifada in the Gaza Strip; the eight-year Iran-Iraq war beginning in 1988; the First Gulf War against Saddam Hussein; the second Intifada; and the 2003 still-unresolved American invasion of Iraq. Tyler demonstrates how American presidents’ responses to these and countless lesser eruptions have been shaped by Cold War strategies, War on Terror exigencies, shifting alliances among Arab leaders and a variety of other factors that have consistently frustrated American attempts at peacemaking. Although the has a few kind words for Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, no president escapes Tyler’s criticism for mostly fumbling attempts to deal—or not deal—with the region that continues to pose the greatest threat to world peace. The heroes here (Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin) are few, the successes (Camp David Accords) rare, the villains and rogues many. With his reporter’s instinct for telling detail, Tyler offers a history that makes for enlightening, if depressing, reading.
A superb, evenhanded account of America’s role in a continuing tragedy.