Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The United States and the Middle East 1914- 9/11/2001 by Salim Yaqub (Book Review #33 of 2015)

The United States and the Middle East: 1914 to 9/11

This is a set of 24 lectures by The Teaching Company giving an overview of U.S. involvement in the Middle East in the 20th century. Yaqub earned a PhD from Yale and his old biography at the Wilson Center suggests this book sums up his published arguments and research interests.

As a prerequisite, I recommend Albert Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples (goes from 600 - 1991 A.D). For more detailed information on William Yale and U.S. involvement in World War I and the Zionist movement during that period I recommend Scott Anderson's excellent Lawrence in Arabia (2014). My knowledge of American relations with the Jewish people and the Palestinian question was shaped by chapters in the second half of Freedom from Fear by David Kennedy. For a look at the U.S.-Turkey-Iranian relationship with a tangent on the Palestinian peace process, I suggest Kinzer's Reset. There are a host of books dealing with the U.S.'s relationship with Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the 1991 Gulf War. You might try Prelude to Terror by Joseph Trento for a jaded view on the CIA's involvement that Yaqub can only touch on. There are several works written in the 1800s by American missionaries and diplomats to the Middle East that are available on Gutenberg and elsewhere. Yaqub could easily add five more lectures since 9/11.

Although the devil may be in the details, these lectures (and accompanying note outlines) give a good overview of Middle Eastern policy mostly divided up by the terms of U.S. presidents. The student can better understand the disintegration of the Ottoman empire, the triumphs and trials of Zionism, the rise of Arab nationalism, and the effects of each American president's policies in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Before World War II, and definitely before 1914, American involvement was largely commercial and missionary. Yaqub provides good documentation of missionary schools and hospitals and the headaches created for U.S. diplomats trying to assist citizens in times of trouble. After WWII, insuring stability, preventing communism, and safeguarding oil became the driving forces of each administration.

Yaqub gives much attention to Abdel Nasser's often tenuous relationship with the U.S. from seizing the Suez Canal after U.S. rejection of aid for the Aswan Dam to the Six Day War of 1967. Nasser is the face of Arab nationalism and the mold in which many leaders seem to have followed. Yaqub does a good job tracing the history of Israel and the Zionist movement, as well as the plight of Palestinian Arabs from 1914. I appreciated that he included a lecture on the Kurds, looking at their history with modern Turkey and importance in Iraq policy. They are one of the few nationless minorities mentioned, which is unfortunate.

Yaqub contrasts policies of various presidents (most of whom experienced deep and consequential failures). LBJ, for example, cozied to the Shah of Iran and to Saudi Arabia and offered little criticism of their internal human rights abuses at the same in contrast to Kennedy. Nixon was too distracted by Watergate to be trusted with any decisions during the Yom Kippur War, so Kissinger had ultimate authority. Carter was bent on peace in Palestine and defunding the military abroad but ramped up defense spending after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Reagan's Lebanon fiasco and Iran-Contra are rehashed. The 1991 Iraq war and aftermath are also revisited. The Clinton years and his effort with Arafat and Barak to make piece are somewhat critiqued. Yaqub posits that Barak's offer was less generous than Clinton and history give him credit for. Yaqub helpfully includes a lecture on Afghanistan and its history up to 9/11.

The weakness of the series is that there is little mention of Yemen, not a great deal of focus on Syria outside of its wars with Israel, and nothing the economic rise of the Emirates. Libya is not technically in the Middle East but has been important in Middle East policy and counterterrorism since the 1980s; it gets one mention. Those countries are not in Yaqub's research interests so they are noticeably absent.

The accompanying notes are quite helpful, but the lectures themselves could have been edited better for quality. I give it 3.5 stars out of 5. If you're looking for a primer on U.S. policy in the Middle East, this is a good place to start.

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