Classic review: A World of Trouble

New York Times correspondent Patrick Tyler analyzes 50 years of US policy in the Mideast.

A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East from the Cold War to the War on Terror By Patrick Tyler Farrar, Straus and Giroux 628 pp.

[This review from the Monitor's archives first ran on Jan. 5, 2009.] In A World of Trouble, New York Times chief correspondent Patrick Tyler distills 25 years of journalistic experience and a mountain of declassified government documents into an erudite, unusually eloquent analysis of a half century of United States policy toward the Middle East.

Don’t expect, however, to be heartened by what you will read here. “After nearly six decades of escalating American involvement in the Middle East, it remains nearly impossible to discern any overarching approach to the region,” writes Tyler. “What stands out is the absence of consistency from one president to the next, as if the hallmark of American diplomacy were discontinuity.”

Relying on information newly made available from presidential archives, Tyler takes readers on a tour of American relations with the Middle East from the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower through that of George W. Bush.

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But where Tyler particularly excels is in tackling the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, a thorny subject that assumes center stage for several chapters. Though there have been the occasional breakthroughs in reconciliation efforts – principally the Carter-brokered Camp David Accords – Tyler sees the timidity of some US presidents in the face of Israeli hawkishness as a major impediment to lasting peace.

For example, Tyler notes that President Johnson did not demand that Israel give up its 1967 conquests. Decades later, during the Clinton era, Tyler writes, “American constancy suffered as Clinton allowed his administration to cave to Netanyahu’s demands to wipe the slate on which Rabin had charted a path to comprehensive peace and reconciliation.”

The US approach to Iraq, which Tyler dissects in meticulous fashion throughout the book, provides another example of baffling inconsistency. Ronald Reagan ended up supporting both sides in the Iran-Iraq War; George H.W. Bush encouraged Shiites to revolt against Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, then failed to come to their aid; Bill Clinton dithered on supporting CIA-organized Iraqi coup plotters, which led to the compromise of the operation and the deaths of the plotters; and George W. Bush invaded Iraq without planning for the postwar period.

But Tyler does not restrict himself to presidential blunders. He pointedly assails the machinations of several cabinet members as well.

Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s secretary of State, emerges as a master manipulator who secretly encouraged the Israelis to violate a cease-fire with the Soviet-backed Egyptians during the October war of 1973. He even withheld an offer Nixon entrusted him with delivering to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, in which the US president proposed a joint superpower initiative to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

According to Tyler, “Kissinger’s argument [was] that Israel had to win so the Soviets would lose,” and he allowed this conviction to overrule Nixon’s directives and the entire principle of superpower détente.

Kissinger was not the only one who abused his power, Tyler charges. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, he says, circumvented President Reagan in extending US support to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Like Kissinger, Haig wanted to crush anyone associated with the Soviets; for Haig, that meant allowing Israel to ride roughshod over Lebanon in pursuit of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Reagan eventually reasserted control and sent US Marines to Lebanon as peacekeepers, but they were subjected to a terrorist attack in 1983.

When Reagan ordered retaliation against Iranian-backed Hezbollah, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, unsure of the identity of the culprits, did not implement the order.

There are a few shortcomings in “A World of Trouble.”

Tyler discusses only those presidential administrations – beginning with Eisenhower’s – that coincided with war or turmoil in the Middle East.

For information on US-Saudi Arabia relations, he relies too heavily on Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former Saudi ambassador to the US. And he criticizes President Carter’s reluctance to interfere in Iranian domestic affairs by arguing – without apparent irony – that the US and Britain had always meddled in Iran.

But these are minor.

Regrettably, there is no concluding chapter to this book. But Tyler’s recommendations – consistency in US foreign policy, continuous engagement with the Middle East, a more balanced approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, accommodation with the Islamic world combined with an unwavering commitment to punishing terrorists who attack US interests – are forcefully expressed throughout.

Serendipitously, the publication of “A World of Trouble” coincides with the beginning of a new presidency. President-elect Barack Obama and his incoming administration enjoy the perfect opportunity to heed Tyler’s sound advice.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer based in Beirut, Lebanon.

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