Had the White House aides who scripted Barack Obama's remarks to Al Arabiya television in January consulted Rashid Khalidi's latest work beforehand, the president might not have so blithely vowed to restore the "respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago." In "Sowing Crisis," Khalidi, who holds the Edward Said chair of Arab studies at Columbia and is a major pro-Palestinian voice in American scholarship, argues that Washington's drive for hegemonic control over the geostrategic and oil-rich axis of the Middle East stretches back three-quarters of a century, and has continued unabated to this day.
Khalidi's central argument is that the Bush administration's interventionist posture toward the Middle East is no mere post-9/11 aberration, but represents an especially bellicose expression of a longstanding campaign. Today's enemy is terrorism; yesterday's was Communism. And just as the threat of Communism was wildly exaggerated 50 years ago, so, these days, "the global war on terror is in practice an American war in the Middle East against a largely imaginary set of enemies." Khalidi's point is not that American policy toward the Middle East has been consistently hysterical; rather, he says, it has been consistently cynical, exploiting an apocalyptic sense of threat in order to achieve the kind of dominance to which great powers, whatever their rhetoric, aspire.
Most histories of America's role in the Middle East, like Michael B. Oren's Power, Faith and Fantasy," focus on the naïveté and misguided idealism of a nation much given to moral crusades. Khalidi looks to interests rather than principles. His story of America's active role in the Middle East begins in 1933, when the consortium known as Aramco signed an exclusive oil deal with Ibn Saud, the king of Saudi Arabia. Khalidi reminds us of familiar if squalid acts of American intervention, like the role of the C.I.A. in the 1953 overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, the prime minister of Iran, who had championed the nationalization of his country's oil industry. Khalidi also describes lesser-known ones, including the delivery of "briefcases full of cash" to Lebanon's pro-Western president Camille Chamoun in order to help Chamoun rig the 1957 parliamentary election.
This brute meddling, Khalidi argues, not only kept the pot of civil conflict boiling in many already weak states, but also "profoundly undermined whatever limited possibility there might have been of establishing any kind of democratic governance in a range of Middle Eastern countries." That carefully hedged sentence shows that Khalidi is no conspiracy theorist, and recognizes the complicity of Arab regimes in their own predicament. And the Soviets occasionally play the heavy as well, though Khalidi sees the cold war as a very unequal battle between a world-girdling United States and a defensive and fearful Russia.
"Sowing Crisis" vividly reminds us what it is like to be on the receiving end of American power. But it often reads like a polemic rather than a work of history. Khalidi's sense of American motives and strategy seems flattened by his own preconceptions. God knows the United States has a great deal to answer for in the Middle East. But is it true, as Khalidi alleges, that President Truman favored Israel, and ultimately agreed to recognize the country, because he had more pro-Jewish than Arab voters to answer to? Only by checking a footnote does the reader learn that this comment, which Khalidi quotes twice, comes from an American diplomat who may not have been in the room when Truman is said to have uttered it.
But the most pressing question "Sowing Crisis raises is not whether American behavior in the Middle East has been consistently self-serving and expansionist. It is whether Arab failure is, at bottom, a consequence of that behavior. Another way of putting this is: can the problems of the region be reversed by a fundamental change in American policy?
If American policy were chiefly responsible for the Middle East's difficulties, then the Arab world would scarcely be the only victim. It is hard to argue that the proxy battles of the cold war did more damage to the Middle East than to, say, Southeast Asia. Yet Vietnam is a stable autocracy experiencing rapid growth, and Thailand is a shaky and semiprosperous democracy. American policy makers were far more cavalier about the sovereignty of Latin American states than of Arab ones, yet Latin America is a largely democratic zone with both deeply impoverished and middle-range countries.
Why has the Arab world remained largely on the sidelines of globalization? There are, of course, many explanations offered. One of the most striking comes from the United Nations' Arab Human Development Report, written by a group of Arab scholars in 2002. They concluded that Arab nations suffer from a "freedom deficit," from pervasive gender inequality, from a weak commitment to education and from the widespread denial of human rights. They might have added that the experiences of colonialism and of the cold war have left much of the Arab world with the deeply ingrained habit of blaming its problems on outsiders.
Since Khalidi inadvertently caused Barack Obama some grief during the presidential campaign when it came out that Obama attended a party in 2003 for a man some Republicans called a "terrorist professor,"the president is unlikely to display this book in public. But he should read it, not so much to chasten his sunny view of our recent past in the Middle East as to be reminded how very hard it is to make progress in a region where memories are long, and practically everything is blamed on the United States (or Israel).
James Traub is a contributing writer for The Times Magazine. His most recent book is "The Freedom Agenda."