'Shadow Wars' exposes underlying patterns behind Middle Eastern strife

If you've ever looked at violent players in the Middle East and asked: 'Who are these people? Where did they come from? What do they want?,' this is your book.

Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East By Christopher Davidson Oneworld 688 pp.

Anyone who's seen the videos – and everyone has seen the videos – will have the same set of questions. The videos show schoolgirls being herded out of their classrooms by armed men who shout their organization name loudly and clearly for the video cameras. They show markets and nightclubs with flashing police sirens outside, forlorn groups of bystanders standing around hoping for news of loved ones inside. They show priceless ancient ruins being dynamited. They show journalists kneeling in the desert, squinting in the sunlight moments before they're beheaded.

They show a naked, strident barbarism that seems like it belongs in a different age. The names are as familiar as the videos: al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram, ISIS. And the questions that arise inevitably are always the same: Who are these people? Where did they come from? What do they want?

Christopher Davidson is a reader in Middle Eastern Politics at Durham University, author of the landmark study "After the Sheikhs," and his big new book, Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East comes closer than any recent popular study to offering definitive answers to those and other questions.

The patterns were set during the great imperial heyday of Continental gamesmanship, when British satraps all throughout the Middle East often propped up the most fiercely conservative Islamic fundamentalists because they made more effective regional buffers against the forces of Russian encroachment.

And the further along Davidson's book progresses, the more those patterns come to look unbreakable. The Western powers intervene, meddle, support, subsidize, and double cross, constantly using the rhetoric of good stewardship while caring only about securing oil and land bases to parry the ambitions of the other regional chess masters, primarily the Russians. In all cases, long-term strategies are forgotten in the cloak-and-dagger mania of short-term tactics, and the result is a word that crops up all throughout Davidson's book: blowback – unintended consequences that are intensely predictable in hindsight.

So an American Secretary of State can on a Monday deliver a stirring address about the sanctity of human rights in “the developing world” and on a Tuesday declare that the local dictator is a close personal friend of the family and must remain in power to ensure the stability of the region. So the United States can funnel covert funding and training to jihadist guerrilla forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s in order to use them as catspaws against the Soviets, without sparing much concern for the fact that the jihadis in question hated America as fervently as they hated the Russians – without, in other words, even trying to envision blowback that might involve one of those jihadi guerrilla fighters, Osama bin Laden, going on to strike at his American benefactors. Even when the warning signs are tragically explicit, they often go unheeded, as Davidson chronicles in theaters of operation stretching from West Africa to Central Asia.

The pattern holds firm everywhere from Syria to Qatar to Yemen to Libya to Somalia to Nigeria: Great Britain or France or the United States will pick some "partner" in a volatile region like Iraq, bet all the markers on that partner being a willing agent of democratic reform even though that partner is very visibly a power-bloated monster, and then, years down the line, express pious horror when that partner turns out to be a power-bloated monster.

In the mass of historical and geopolitical information Davidson assembles in these pages, some notes sound again and again. One of these of course is the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2011, in which enormous and almost entirely peaceful popular protests swept through the Arab world. Since the movement posed a direct threat to the status quo, it predictably received tepid response from those holding power in the region – most certainly including the United States.

Another of these recurring notes is something of longer-standing centrality to American foreign policy: Saudi Arabia, staunch ally, trade partner, and arms market to the United States, turns up repeatedly playing a game of its own, harboring, sponsoring, and financing Islamic terrorists in their operations against the United States. Running through virtually every tale of Middle Eastern violence and treachery Davidson relates is at least some strand of Saudi complicity; American policymakers might be familiar with this most dangerous of double standards, but it's a good bet the general American public – which in poll after poll seems unaware of the fact that 15 of the 19 al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked America on September 11 were Saudi nationals – would be alarmed by it. For its unsparing probity, Davidson's book ought to be required reading with both groups.

And what about the answers to those fundamental questions – Who are these people? Where did they come from? What do they want? "Shadow Wars" makes the answers painfully, damningly clear. What the book doesn't do is offer any way out of the old patterns it describes, since arbitrary withdrawal causes just as much blowback as arbitrary involvement. But if some future solution is discovered, it'll be thanks to the path-clearing of books like this one.

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