In the New York Times Book Review, James Traub reviews Rashid Khalidi's "Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East." The most interesting question about the book is whether Khalidi's friend and one-time associate Barack Obama received an advance copy during the transition.
Khalidi "sees the cold war as a very unequal battle between a world-girdling United States and a defensive and fearful Russia." His argument extends all the way to the present: "the global war on terror is in practice an American war in the Middle East against a largely imaginary set of enemies."
Traub says the book "often reads like a polemic rather than a work of history." Khalidi's sense seems "flattened by his own preconceptions." "Only by checking a footnote" does one learn that a critical quote, repeated twice in the book, may not be true. As with Khalidi's prior book, before swallowing his text you need to check his footnotes.
Traub challenges Khalidi's argument that American meddling is to blame for Arab troubles. America meddled at least as much in Southeast Asia and Latin America, but "Vietnam is a stable autocracy experiencing rapid growth, and Thailand is a shaky and semiprosperous democracy . . . . Latin America is a largely democratic zone with both deeply impoverished and middle-range countries." Traub then asks:
Why has the Arab world remained largely on the sidelines of globalization? . . . One of the most striking [explanations] 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.
So what should President Obama do with this tendentious new book by his old friend?
[H]e should read it . . . 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).
He may already have read it, but who's to say how critically. If you learned our Middle East enemies are largely imaginary, and that the region's problems were chiefly caused by American meddling, you might decide to start your presidency with an apologetic interview on Al Arabiya television.