The whole world in his hands
An account of US dealings with the Middle East exposes
the corruption of presidential office. Barac
A World of Trouble: America in the Middle East
Portobello Books, 384pp, £25
President Barack Obama took the oath of office as Patrick Tyler’s book was coming off the presses, so there is no final chapter here on his embryonic presidency. However, after reading this impressively thorough account of the ways in which successive US presidents have contributed to the crises that have convulsed the Middle East, I had an uneasy feeling that I could tell roughly what such a chapter written in four or eight years’ time would look like.
In a well-paced narrative, Tyler scrutinises attempts by US presidents from Dwight D Eisenhower to George W Bush to cobble together policies on the Middle East that were the products of diverse and often contradictory impulses. Occasionally these were the product of a feeling in the Oval Office that “something must be done”, but more often than not the president’s agenda was shaped by regional events which had not been foreseen, and that were then often misinterpreted, sometimes deliberately, by interested and warring parties within the White House administration.
Presidents from Jimmy Carter onwards have also had to clear up the mess left by their predecessors. Given the policies of Bush, the task facing Obama looks daunting indeed, especially as those on whom he is relying look suspiciously like retreads from the Clinton era. On the plus side, and presumably this is how they have been sold to the US Congress, these are people with years of experience who know how Washington works and who have extensive contacts across the Middle East. Counting against them, however, is the likelihood that they will bring with them all the problems analysed in this book: a tendency towards bureaucratic infighting; a calculating sentimentalism largely driven by a domestic agenda in the United States; a knack for misinterpreting problems in the Middle East as aspects of some larger global threat to US interests; and, most debilitating of all, the application of double standards when judging the actions of the state of Israel.
Yet things may be different this time around, and there are many in the region and beyond who fervently hope so. As Tyler writes, rather wistfully, a new president “will have to re-establish America’s standing as a benevolent and magnanimous power capable of engendering trust and exercising leadership – with continuity”. This in turn, he believes, can be achieved only if Americans themselves “could reach consensus . . . on the next steps towards peace and
security”, as well as bringing their European and Asian allies on board. It is a formidable task, as this book shows just how difficult it has been to achieve any of these preconditions over the past 60 years or so.
With a good journalist’s eye for episodes that sum up a much bigger story, Tyler is able to evoke not only the atmosphere of particular historical moments, but also the sometimes surreal subplots that have shaped US policy in the Middle East. The book opens with a wonderful portrayal of the former director of the CIA George Tenet, at midnight in the Riyadh swimming pool of Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, alternately swigging from his tumbler of scotch and letting fly at the “assholes” in the Pentagon and the “crazies” at the White House, as he bemoaned how he was being set up to take the rap for the embarrassing failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Tyler has been careful to correlate his sources. Using memoirs, interviews, official documents and transcripts to considerable effect, he is able to recount with a fair degree of authority conversations and encounters that illustrate the ways in which US policy is made and, as in the case of Henry Kissinger, sometimes hijacked by a single well-placed official. All this is set against a very readable account of events in the Middle East itself.
A problem is that those events are routinely overshadowed by developments much closer to the Oval Office. Tyler captures well the role played by presidential distraction. The Yom Kippur War of 1973, for instance, which involved a perilous confrontation between the United States and the USSR, erupted at the very moment when President Nixon was mired in the Watergate scandal, as well as battling the corruption charges that would bring down his vice-president, Spiro Agnew. No wonder that Kissinger was given such a free hand to pursue a policy which allowed the Israelis to retrieve military and diplomatic advantages from a war that had begun so disastrously for them.
Or, take early 1998: as President Bill Clinton was attempting to put pressure on the then Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to get the peace process moving again, the Monica Lewinsky scandal became headline news. Tyler describes the surreal situation one January night, as Clinton and Netanyahu sat closeted, supposedly in intensive discussions about peace in the Middle East, while outside the meeting room White House aides scurried around, trying to draft a statement about the precise nature of the sexual encounter between the president and his young intern.
Tyler’s allegation is that, in an effort to outdo the next day’s salacious headlines, Clinton offered Netanyahu a defence treaty which cemented a formal alliance with the United States. This was something that Clinton had strenuously resisted previously, and the only explanation, given that he appeared not to ask for any significant Israeli concessions in return, seems to be that this was a major policy initiative dictated by a major personal embarrassment.
It a salutary reminder of the consequences of a single individual holding the most powerful office in the world. The corruptions and foibles of the powerful are by no means limited to the US presidency, but because of the sheer might of the state over which he presides, America’s failings are more likely to affect the lives of people far beyond its borders. By looking at US-Middle East relations largely through the lens of presidential preoccupations and the manoeuvrings of those in and around the White House, Tyler is able to tell a powerful and sobering story of US involvement in the Middle East in which the lack of consistency is the only consistency.
There are some continuities underpinning all the vagaries, distractions and half-baked policies pursued by a succession of presidents, however. The most obvious of these, at least in the post-Eisenhower era, is the intimate link binding the United States to Israel, which has had an impact on much US policy in the region – at times endangering not only the security of peoples in the Middle East, but also the national security of the United States itself. American presidents are frequently described in this book as personally “outraged” by or “incandescent” at the behaviour of an Israeli government, but somehow this anger has never survived the translation into official policy, the mildness of which has restricted the US’s room for manoeuvre elsewhere in the Middle East.
The reach and power of Tyler’s book might have been enhanced by a more sustained look at this and other structural features of US strategy in the Middle East, such as oil, military deployments and the exploitation of markets. Nevertheless, it provides valuable insight into the workings of presidential power and the ways in which a series of poorly thought-out policies has determined Washington’s dealings with the region.
Charles Tripp is professor of Middle Eastern politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London