I forget who wrote that events in the Middle East were bloody-minded “spite and malice passing as normalcy”, but that would be one part of an executive summary of Patrick Tyler’s A world of trouble: America in the Middle East.
The second part would be a quote from TF O’Neill, Larry Collins’ fictional CIA Director of Operations in his brilliant novel Fall from grace: “How naïve we Americans were … convent girls running loose and innocent through the whorehouse of life. Well, we lost our innocence soon enough.”
Tyler paints a bleak picture of the Middle East, here encompassing not just Israel and its neighbours but also more distant Iran ad the lands in between. It is a heavy, but invigorating read, filling one with marvel in the true sense of the word: one marvels at the stupidity and cupidity of it all. One also marvels at Tyler’s command of the language, of the facts and his precise pen-sketches as well as his brutal judgements.
The Six Day War of 1967 “was a war that in many respects should not have been fought,” Tyler says,adding that US President Lyndon Johnson’s diplomacy to head off the conflict “was not nearly as vigorous as it should have been, given the cost, the death toll, and the war’s long-term consequences.” Meanwhile so eager was the likes of Moshe Dayan for war, that the moment is seen “as the closest Israel had come to overturning civilian rule,” and, indeed, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s wife thought that “a coup of sorts” had taken place.
“Nothing would ever be the same. The Six Day War was a failure of American diplomacy – a costly failure whose consequences would bled through decades marked by further outbreaks of war and unending strife.”
Then there is the matter of personalities. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat landed in Israel in November 1977, he was met by ex-Prime Minister Golda Meir, among others. “‘You are very well known in our country, Mrs Meir. Do you know what you are called?
‘No,what?’ she asked.
‘The strongest man in Israel,’ Sadat said.
Meir’s face crinkled with delight.”
A world of trouble: America in the Middle East was published just a few short months ago and is arguably the first history of the American experience there over the last 50 years. “It is a story of ten US presidents and how thy engaged or confronted the region and its leaders,” Tyler says in his prologue. “The particulars are taken primarily from the declassified records of successive administrations buttressed by interviews with key players, recollections drawn from memoirs, and other accounts. My aim is to understand – and to help the reader understand – the chaotic and very human perspective with which our presidents look out at the world while remaining tethered to politics at home.”
“…what is most striking about the half century of US effort is the record of vacillation, of shifting policies, broken promises, and misadventures, as if America were its own worst enemy.
“The Middle East would never have bee an easy region to master for the purpose of protecting US national interests, but our mistakes have made it progressively harder to do so,” continues the 30-year Middle East media veteran. “The cumulative effect of American diplomacy has fed the anti-American rhetoric that is heard on the streets in Middle Eastern capitals, even in countries nominally allied with the United States.
“America’s engagement with the Middle East demonstrates just how dramatically history goes its own way. … American policy mistakes have cost countless thousands of lives … and they have squandered hundreds of billions of dollars…”
Enough said. Eminently timely, this book is an important key to understanding the Middle East and America’s actions there. Pulling no punches, it does indeed, as one other reviewer suggests, bring together “just about as unpleasant a cast of characters as you could ever hope to assemble in one place.” Buy this book. Read it. It is both alarming and illuminating, and, in the words of a review, in the Israeli Ha’aretz newspaper, filled with images “that linger in the mind long after you close the book.”
A world of trouble: America in the Middle East.
Distributed in SA by Penguin.
Price: R220 (£12.99 – about R169 – in the UK)
Available now at Exclusive Books, the can and other bookstores