on A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East, by Patrick Tyler (Farrar, Straus)

As the Obama administration prepares to take the reins of American foreign policy, one wonders not only if and how the new president will depart from George W. Bush’s inert approach to the Israeli-Palestinian debacle, but also how Obama’s advisers (often recycled Clintonites) regard the ambitious but failed policies of Bill Clinton and the 1993 Oslo Accords. Patrick Tyler’s fast-paced chronicle of American diplomacy and incursions in the Middle East provides a bracing retrospective at yet another decisive moment. But it is especially pertinent (and entertaining) for its journalistic focus on the inside moves, conversations, and decisions of American presidents and their advisors, from Eisenhower to W.

tyler3.jpgTyler has a nose for misfeasance and a qualified respect for a president’s responsibility to protect the interests of his country, a job which often seems to demand subterfuge and the playing out of mixed motives. In Eisenhower, Tyler perceives a president whose restrained policies during the Suez War of 1956 kept the U.S. out of the fighting in the wake of Nasser’s nationalization of the canal. But he also notes that “both Eisenhower and Dulles told the British in the course of 1956 that if they could not get Nasser to play ball with the West, they would have to change policy and, perhaps, work for his removal,” though Ike opposed military action to do this. Ike also backed off from helping to finance the construction of the Aswan Dam after Nassar continued to buy Soviet arms (and the American “cotton lobby” voiced its objection to boosting Egypt’s productivity). “For the first twenty-four hours [of the war], Eisenhower simply did not understand the scale of the conspiracy” as Britain, France and Israel jointly attacked Egypt. “The Suez crisis was Eisenhower’s finest hour as president,” says Tyler, “in the sense that every public step he took anchored America firmly within the principles of the United Nations charter.” But Eisenhower had no effective policy to address Arab grievances, revving up the CIA in the Middle East after Nasser’s network spread through the region. Tyler passes over Eisenhower’s overthrow of the elected Mossadegh regime in Iran in 1953, though he mentions it in passing in the chapter on Carter and the Shah.

tyler1.jpgIf Obama pursues a new policy in the Middle East, he will follow the long tradition of presidents who undo the policies of their predecessors. By the second Nixon administration and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Soviet cargo jets were unloading arms in Cairo and Damascus and Kissinger was managing the huge airlift of aid to Israel. The region had become the site of proxy wars – and the U.S. had vastly increased its diplomatic support of Israel since the 1967 Six-Day war which Tyler views as “a failure of American diplomacy” under Lyndon Johnson. “Johnson embraced what seemed to him a perfectly reasonable argument that Israel, having been provoked, should trade the conquered lands for a permanent peace with the Arabs,” he says. “Johnson did not see how profoundly he had undermined the high principles of the U.N. Charter – the inadmissibility of conquest as a means of settling disputes – nor did he foresee the corrosive effects of military occupation on lands populated by more than one million Arabs.”

tyler4.jpgNext comes the messianic Carter administration and its piecemeal attempts to impose peace. Tyler retells the story of the Camp David Accords of September 1978 as well as Carter’s role in the demise of the Shah. Just two days after the Camp David talks began, the Shah declared martial law in Iran and committed a massacre in Teheran’s Jaleh Square. “Carter was a different kind of cold warrior from his predecessors,” Tyler states. “Suffused with idealism and slow to believe the worst about America’s adversaries, Carter looked hesitant standing in the path of a whirlwind.” The president decided not to call the Shah during his final days on the throne. His position on human rights made it impossible for him to discuss the option of turning the military on the Iranian people. At the same time, he would not accept the advice of his hardliner advisors (Brzezinski and Kissinger) to back up the Shah (supporting U.S. oil and banking interests) while underestimating the clerics, and overestimating the influence of Iranian moderates and the ability of the country’s military to help set up a new government. Tyler details the string of “tentative, convoluted and, at times, contradictory” messages coming from Washington.

tyler5.jpgThe Reagan years bring the crisis in Lebanon and the Iran-Contra affair during a decade of increasing acts of violence by Palestinians and others in Europe and the Middle East. Tyler’s indictment of Reagan is sweeping: “Reagan had become, if anything, a reactive president. He rationalized the Middle East’s passions by scribbling those references to “Armageddon” in his diary. He showed no ability to organize the American government or its allies to stanch the cold war rivalry in the region, choke off the flow of dangerous weapons, or set an agenda for mediating the growing number of conflicts there.” (In 1985 King Fahd of Saudi Arabia came to Washington to obtain F-15’s for his airforce. At the state dinner, he was implausibly seated next to Yogi Berra.)

tyler2.jpgIf there is one character who persists in these pages it is Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud (b. 1949), the wily Saudi ambassador to the U.S. from 1983 to 2005. Bandar shrewdly maneuvers between all parties, taking the brunt of various offenses and piques while remaining indispensible. He is a focal point during talks with the Saudis preceding the Gulf war during Bush I. Tyler’s prologue begins with a drunken George Tenet in early 2004 announcing to his alarmed Saudi hosts that he wished to go for a dip in Bandar’s pool. “A servant appeared with a bottle. Tenet knocked back some of the scotch. Then some more. They watched with concern. He drained half the bottle in a few minutes. ‘They're setting me up. The bastards are setting me up,’ Tenet said, but ‘I am not going to take the hit.’ According to one witness, he mocked the neoconservatives in the Bush administration and their alignment with the right wing of Israel's political establishment, referring to them with exasperation as, ‘the Jews.’” The travesties of Bush’s administration regarding Iraq center on “his failure to make any commitment to a postwar model.” Tyler smartly keeps this final chapter brief and pointed, since retrospection of Bush’s predecessors is his main purpose.

Making use of newly available presidential archives, Tyler’s brisk narrative both picks apart and clarifies the political issues and diplomatic relationships. Although his judgments are sometimes severe, his sense of the organic if protean nature of American policies -- regardless of the party in control -- empowers his authority. (Tyler has reported extensively from the Middle East and D.C. for The New York Times and The Washington Post.) Support1.jpgIt is odd, however, that he barely mentions the Kennedy administration. It was Kennedy who supplied the first Hawk missiles to Israel for defensive purposes. He had also feared a Middle East nuclear arms race starting at Dimona, Israel’s nuclear arms facility. Israel offered to close the facility in exchange for a strategic alliance with the U.S. but Kennedy refused. Thus, in 1967 Israel launched a pre-emptive war flying French Mirage jets. For a fine consideration of Kennedy’s policies in the Middle East and the onset of the U.S.-Israel alliance, obtain a copy of Support Any Friend by Warren Bass (Oxford University Press, 2003).

[Published January 5, 2009, 620 pp., $27.00]