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Not So Fast

Geoffrey Wawro’s Quicksand misses an opportunity to make an isolationist critique of U.S. Middle East policy

F. Gregory Gause III
June 01, 2010
King Hussein of Jordan, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, President Bill Clinton, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak walk to the White House’s East Room to sign a West Bank autonomy accord, September 28, 1995.(AFP/Getty Images)
King Hussein of Jordan, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, President Bill Clinton, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak walk to the White House’s East Room to sign a West Bank autonomy accord, September 28, 1995.(AFP/Getty Images)

Geoffrey Wawro begins Quicksand: America’s Pursuit of Power in the Middle East, his critical overview of U.S. Middle East policy, with a lament: After the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq War, he went looking for a book that would explain how the United States ended up where it did in the region and was “surprised to discover that no such book exists.” The implication that there was a dearth of scholarship on U.S. Middle East policy is, of course, quite wrong. But the book that Wawro was looking for, the one that begins with the first tentative U.S. feelers into the region after World War I and ends with smoking rubble at Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and Baghdad, was not yet on the market. Wawro wanted the dots connected backward from Sept. 11, and so he decided to do it himself.

Wawro is a Middle East tourist, as he is more than happy to admit. His previous work was on modern European military history, though his hosting gigs on the History Channel have undoubtedly contributed to an aura of broad historical competence. He speaks no regional languages and thus is limited to English-language sources. As his title indicates, Wawro thinks that the United States has become trapped in the “quicksand” of the Middle East. I found this a promising beginning and looked forward to an intelligent deconstruction of U.S. policy from an isolationist point of view. A good case can be made that U.S. interests would have been better served if the United States had been much less involved in the Middle East. The core of that case is simple: a) oil is a commodity, and whoever produces it would have to sell it to us and the world at market prices; and b) the problems between Arabs and Israelis have very limited global significance, and their negative consequences for U.S. interests would be relatively easy to limit. Wawro, in the end, thinks he has made just that isolationist critique. He concludes the book: “Let us move deliberately and powerfully to the edge of the morass and climb out.”

But this is a bit of false advertising. He undercuts his conclusion just a few pages earlier, when he calls for a “reckoning” with both Saudi Arabia and Israel. With the former he implies that we need to pressure Riyadh for major domestic political changes. With the latter he says we need to solve the Palestinian problem, including its refugee element. One can make the case for both recommendations, but this is hardly a limited agenda for U.S. foreign policy. It is also at variance with Wawro’s sensible conclusion elsewhere (particularly in the Iraq context) that the United States should avoid quixotic efforts to change the domestic political systems of the region. A real isolationist critique would say that we should not care a whit about Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia or Palestinian rage, no matter how justified, because our interests can be secured without involving ourselves in these matters. In the end, despite the isolationist trappings, Wawro does not advocate a U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East, just an activist policy with different goals and methods.

The muddle of Wawro’s policy recommendations is matched by his overly simplistic account of how the United States ended up where it is in today’s Middle East. Boiled down, his argument is that everything the United States has done in the region has been a huge mistake. He is critical of U.S. intervention in Iranian politics to help overthrow progressive nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. He is equally critical of U.S. efforts at various times to embrace another “progressive” politician of that era, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser. President Dwight Eisenhower should have supported the British and French intervention in the Suez Crisis of 1956 but should not have intervened in Lebanon in 1958. Even when he grudgingly concedes the success of a policy, like the Gulf War of 1990-91, he is critical of the lack of planning for the postwar situation (even though that critique implies that the Unites States should have been more involved in Iraqi domestic politics after the war).

In essence, when it comes to U.S. Middle East policy, Wawro is a Groucho Marxist—whatever it is, he’s against it. A reader has a right to consistency in critique, or some effort to judge which approaches were more or less successful. Wawro does not provide that consistency. As a historian, he is also surprisingly lacking in empathy for his subjects. At one point, he traces the Sept. 11 attacks directly to the Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957, which promised military and economic aid to countries threatened by another state. Even if we accept the questionable chain of causality Wawro implies in this charge, it would have taken superhuman foresight for a politician to have anticipated the consequences of his actions 45 years into the future.

There are two great villains in his telling of the story: Israel and Saudi Arabia. For Wawro, the Israelis have manipulated U.S. domestic politics since 1948 to involve the United States in an unbalanced policy of support for their expansionist aims. He makes very little differentiation across time periods. For him, the domestic-politics explanation is as powerful in the 1950s—when many American Jewish organizations were just beginning to exert themselves or did not yet exist, and Eisenhower reversed Israeli gains in the Suez War—as it was in the 2000s, when the George W. Bush Administration allied with Israel in the “global war on terror.” He acknowledges but downplays the importance of shifting Cold War considerations in U.S. policy toward Jerusalem, which provide a better explanation for the relative distance Eisenhower exhibited toward the Israelis versus the beginning of the “special relationship” under Kennedy and its full flowering under Johnson and Nixon. If Jewish political power were so central and so all-encompassing, it is difficult indeed to explain these changes. But if you realize that Eisenhower and his secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, still held out hope of bringing Egypt and Syria into the anti-Soviet alliance, you understand their arms-length approach to Israel. By the early 1960s, it was clear that Nasser and the Syrians had chosen the Soviet camp, and thus the growing strength of the U.S.-Israeli strategic relationship made sense in the Cold War framework even to Richard Nixon—not a politician known for his close relations with the American Jewish community.

Wawro is on firmer ground in emphasizing domestic politics as the main driver in the U.S.-Israeli relationship after the Cold War ended. But once again his mono-causal emphasis on the domestic factor does not help us explain important differences among the post-Cold War presidents, from Bill Clinton’s intense focus on the peace process to Bush’s hands-off stance to Barack Obama’s promise of a more critical, even-handed engagement. Wawro’s intense criticism of the pro-Israel lobby will undoubtedly lead to comparisons with the recent work on the subject by John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt. However, I see a substantial difference in their critiques. Mearsheimer and Walt argue that the policies supported by the pro-Israel lobby do not advance U.S. interests, but they repeatedly assert that it is normal for U.S. citizens to engage in lobbying.

Wawro at no point acknowledges the legitimacy of the domestic political process in the formation of U.S. foreign policy. Instead, he allows his distaste for the results of that lobbying to affect his tone about the process itself. The implication of his analysis is that there is something inherently illegitimate about the way supporters of Israel attempt to influence U.S. policy-making. The distinction between the Mearsheimer-Walt position and Wawro’s is subtle, as both are very opposed to the current level of U.S. support for Israel, but important. Mearsheimer and Walt are engaging the public in an effort to develop a base of support to counter what they see as the influence of the pro-Israel lobby. Wawro is simply hinting that the lobby’s activities, in a somewhat sinister way, harm U.S. interests.

The same prospect of public controversy is not present in Wawro’s other choice of villain. Nobody in the United States really likes Saudi Arabia, for all the obvious reasons: the cultural differences, the puritanical and narrow interpretation of Islam that is the state religion in the country, Saudi power in the world oil market, the involvement of so many Saudis in the Sept. 11 attacks. Wawro never mentions the Saudis without emphasizing their obscurantism, their hypocrisy, their greed, and their support for terrorists ranging from the Algerian opponents of French colonialism in the 1950s through al-Qaida today. What he never satisfactorily explains, though, is why every U.S. president since Franklin Roosevelt thought it was important to have a good working relationship with them, despite all the differences between the two countries and despite the occasional domestic political cost maintaining the relationship entailed.

Much as in the case of Israel, Wawro attributes the Saudi-U.S. relationship to domestic politics. In this case he sees a combination of the power of the oil lobby and the more general and seemingly insatiable public appetite for petroleum as producing an unfortunate reliance on a country that is really an enemy of the United States. Again, his mono-causal explanatory framework obscures much more than it enlightens. He has little to say about the common Cold War interests of Washington and Riyadh. He gives little explanatory weight to regional shifts that drove the two countries together, particularly the Iranian Revolution, which not only ended the most important U.S. alliance in the Persian Gulf but also presented the Saudis with their first real challenge to leadership on the Islamic platform in the region.

Wawro’s lack of concern for the nuance of Middle East politics also undercuts his most serious charge against Saudi Arabia: that it has consistently supported terrorism. He does not acknowledge that at least some of the “terrorists” the Saudis supported were also supported by the United States, as part of our common Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union. An author with a greater sense of the ironies of history would have noted that the Sept. 11 attacks can be directly traced back to the two greatest successes in that relationship: the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union and the Gulf War of 1990-91. But Wawro is not interested in tragic ironies or historical nuance. He knows the bad guys, and that is that.

When Wawro gets to the payoff of the book—Sept. 11, the Iraq War and its aftermath—he tells a surprisingly conventional story. The Sept. 11 story was better told by Lawrence Wright, in The Looming Tower, and Steve Coll, in Ghost Wars. His account of the Iraq War, building on the extensive public record and literature now developed, does not attempt to judge which of the many motives attributed to the Bush Administration were most important in driving it to war. He simply throws them all in the pot—WMD, terrorism, democracy-promotion, neocon hubris, oil, and Israel.

I wanted to like this book. I share Wawro’s absolute rejection of the Iraq War and the neoconservative project in the Middle East and his disquiet about the power of the pro-Israel lobby in U.S. policy-making. Like him, I think that U.S. interests could be served by a less interventionist approach to the region. But in the end his account of the U.S. Middle East adventures is unsatisfactory. Too many details are wrong, too many nuances are unexplored, too much explanatory weight is put on his villains. What he gets right is not new, and what he presents as new is not particularly right. The isolationist critique of U.S. Middle Eastern policy, which Wawro set out to write, remains to be written.

F. Gregory Gause III is a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and the author of The International Relations of the Persian Gulf.

F. Gregory Gause III is a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and the author of The International Relations of the Persian Gulf.