Friday, March 12, 2010

Consistent Inconsistency

The Suez crisis of 1957 marked the beginning of a new era in the US’ Middle East policy. The British debacle in the Suez and President Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to have deeper engagement with the Middle East seemed to bring in changes in the political landscape of the region. However, that did never happen. Despite being the largest power in the post-war world, the US has never shown strong will to bring in peace into the region even as the policy makers in Washington seemed to have obsessed with the security fears of Israel, the most reliable Middle Eastern ally of the US, writes Patrick Tyler in his book, “A World of Trouble: America in the Middle East”. Tyler, an experienced journalist, who has covered the Middle East politics for years for the New York Times and Washington Post, writes in rich details in the over 600-page book how the “inconsistent” US policy in the Middle East was caught between Washington’s aspirations for a higher position in the Muslim World and its ideological commitment towards the Zionist state.

The book covers the US involvement in the Middle East during 10 presidents – from Eisenhower to George W Bush. According to Tyler, Washington’s policy towards the Middle East, a strategically important region for the superpower, was “consistently inconsistent”. President Eisenhower had pragmatic vision about the region. He wanted peace between the Arabs and the Israelis and more prosperity and development in the region. But he could not make any effective move towards those goals after an intelligent intervention during the Suez crisis. But the successive presidents did not share this vision. President Lyndon Johnson did not do anything when Israeli’s occupied Palestinian land during the Six-Day war and Henry Kissinger’s pro-Israeli policies did harm in the long term to the US interests in the region. During the Yom Kippur war, President Nixon sent Kissinger to Soviet leader Brezhnev with a message, calling for a joint super power action to end the war and find a “just” settlement for the Palestinian issue. However, Kissinger, in pursuit of an entirely different outcome to the Middle East conflict, dumped his president’s message. A joint super powers’ intervention, writes Tyler , would have left Israel with a less powerful position, making it easier for world powers to seek peace in the region. However, Kissinger tactfully undermined this move and even encouraged the Israeli leadership to violate the ceasefire terms to better its military position. Nixon’s statesmanship was further battered by the Watergate scandal.

Jimmy Carter’s Middle East policy was more peace-oriented than his predecessors. He even secured peace between Israel and Egypt. But the Iranian revolution and the subsequent US embassy siege destroyed the Middle East policy of the Carter administration. In a radically changing Middle East, Washington had to make policy priorities to secure its own interests. Iran, one of its trusted allies in the region till the other day, turned out to be the worst enemy. When Iran-Iraq war broke out, Reagan supported Iraq, a country against which his successor George Bush launched a major offensive. President Clinton tried for peace in the Middle East, but he lost focus after the Levinsky incident and did not use his firm hand to make the Israelis compromise. And George W Bush made everything worse.

Tyler says Washington was not singlemindedly supporting the Israeli lobby always. There were clashes of interests and hard maneuvers within administrations. It was this contradiction that made the Middle East policy of the US inconsistent. If the occupants of the White House could think beyond Israel while taking key policy decisions, the US’ position in the Muslim world would have been better.

Tyler version of history is largely based on personal interviews and declassified documents. While Tyler keeps the sharpness of a journalist in narrating incidents that shaped the US Middle East policy in the post-war world, the in depth analyses of an academic is missing. Though the security of Israel is one of the key driving factors of the US foreign policy, from the US’ point of view, the strategic importance of the Middle East is beyond Israel. All presidents except Bush Junior gave utmost importance for America’s relationship with the friendly countries like the Gulf monarchies and there was a continuity in this “friendship”. Above all, the civilisational angle plays a key role in the estranged relationship between the Middle East and the US. This was evident during the George Bush II presidency.

The book ends abruptly. The last chapter deals with the policies of Bush II, whose unwise and unimaginative moves made the US-Middle East relationship complicated than ever. The fact that President Obama had to start his Middle East venture with a confidence building speech in Cairo underscores Tyler’s analysis that Washington has to seek a new paradigm and build trust to deal with a changing Middle East. More errors will make things more complicated. Good luck, President Obama.

Patrick Tyler (2009), “A World of Trouble: America in the Middle East”, London: Portobello Books, Pages: 638 (Reviewed for Purple Beret)

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