The director of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development fashions a big-picture overview of the long-teetering relationship between America and the Arab nations.
Step by step, country by country, Cohen revisits the inherited imperial debacles in the Middle East and assesses how America’s good intentions segued into wrong-headed policies, starting with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and President Wilson’s ideals for the self-determination of subjugated peoples. Although Wilson had hoped to establish “a peace without victory” at the 1918 Paris Peace Conference and spoke blazingly of “sovereignty…upon the basis of the free acceptance of that settlement by the people immediately concerned,” he did not attend to the carrying out of these lofty notions, and the British, French and Italians implemented their own secret colonial system of mandates in Syria, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. Consequently, Cohen writes, the Middle East would be plagued until well after World War II by the lack of “political systems that could rest on the legitimacy of the assent of the governed,” particularly in divided Palestine. In Egypt during the Cold War, the United States was so obsessed with keeping the Soviets out of the Middle East that America continually confused and misread Arab nationalism for communism. In encouraging the Iran-Iraq war, the United States failed to foresee how this Third World cataclysm would brutalize the region and poison security for decades. The Arab countries believed that America supported Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, sowing seeds of perennial distrust, while the Saudis would later come to rue their invitation of U.S. troops into the region after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Cohen makes a magnificent case for the “emotional impact” of Arab defeat in the face of Israeli force, while at the same time scolding those nations for persistence in “self-definition by negation of the other.”
Both hectoring and wise, this historical blueprint makes a powerful argument for building mutual respect in the region.