The Cold War and American
Dominance in the Middle East
By Rashid Khalidi
308 pp.; $17.13
In Sowing Crises Rashid Khalidi argues that the Middle East is almost entirely hostage to American foreign policy and that its problems are due to Cold War rivalry which stunted its growth into a flourishing region of progressive democracies. For Khalidi "the Arab states... are no longer an actor of force, and are no longer subjects of their own history." But he sees a flicker of hope in the "vacuum left by the decline of American influence and the irresponsibility and destructiveness of the actions of the US in this region over at least eight years."
Such a radical interpretation of the present state of the Middle East, which blames most of its problems on others and sees its 300 million or more people as unaccountable for anything, might be dismissed as mere conjecture were it not for the fact that Khalidi was once close to President Barack Obama.
Khalidi was born in New York in 1950 to a Palestinian Muslim father with Saudi citizenship and an American-born Christian mother of Lebanese origin. As an assistant professor at the American University of Beirut he was quoted as a spokesman for the PLO, a relationship he has since denied. Today he is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and director of the Middle East Institute of its School of International and Public Affairs.
A frequent writer on the Palestinians, he has also published on the origins of Arab nationalism and the role of the American "empire" in the Middle East.
In writing Sowing Crises, Khalidi sets up a straw man in which there is a "relative paucity of new scholarly work on this vital area." He claims that there was an "unacknowledged importance of the Middle East in the strategic calculations of the US and Soviet Union." That would be news to Henry Kissinger.
The region has absorbed more scholarly ink than any other in recent times. Sowing Crises argues that there is a "long-standing American policy of placing advantage for the US in the Cold War struggle with the USSR at the top of the Middle East agenda." Should the US have attempted to be at a disadvantage?
The book argues that the USSR's penetration of the region was "defensive" in nature because the Soviet Union had "vulnerability along its southern frontiers." Thus the Soviet support of Azeri and Kurdish insurgencies was really a "desire to push its defensive perimeter as far south as possible."
Oddly Khalidi doesn't seem to accept Israel's desire to have a defensive perimeter in the Golan, West Bank and Sinai.
The tome exhibits an uncanny ability to never describe the actual events that precipitated things it seeks to highlight. Thus the deaths of more than 3,000 Americans are described as "the events of September 11." When describing the Sabra and Shatilla massacre though, descriptive words come back to him in noting the massacre of "over two thousand unarmed Palestinian and Lebanese civilians." Yet Khalidi neglects to mention the assassination of Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel (killed along with 26 others at the Phalange headquarters) which preceded the massacre. Khalidi is equally forgetful in mentioning how the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975. He recalls the "massacre... of 27 Palestinians" by Maronite Christians but forgets that earlier that day Palestinians had attempted to murder the Maronite leader Pierre Gemayel while he was attending church, killing four of his followers.
Selective memory clouds the entirety of Sowing Crises. For instance we learn that "American policy separated Saudi Arabia from Egypt, its erstwhile ally in inter-Arab politics." Could it be American policy that strained relations between the Saudis and the Egyptians or the fact that Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt bombed Saudi Arabia in 1963?
Khalidi's central argument that Middle Eastern democracy has been stymied by US policy is also the greatest canard in this polemic.
The author notes that "the Middle East... has been an almost universally bleak desert as far as development of vibrant, full-fledged democratic systems is concerned." Those who ascribe this to Islam are accused of being "borderline racists."
Khalidi's evidence for the role of the US in undermining democracy is the fact that "by contrast, many areas of Latin America, East Asia, Southeast Asia... some parts of Africa... are today characterized by new and often thriving democracies." But were not these also battlegrounds of the Cold War? Vietnam. Korea. The Congo. Nicaragua. This false litmus test seems to prove the opposite, American involvement, even support for dictators from Pinochet to Suharto in all these regions, didn't seem to destroy democratic development.
For Khalidi, however, it is never the fault of the locals themselves but the "European great powers" who "very rarely" used their influence to create democracy. Didn't the British bequeath Iraq with a constitutional monarchy only to have it destroy itself time and again? The Islamic-inspired Iranian revolution initially included democracy-minded liberals until the ayatollahs had them all shot and imprisoned. The truth is that the Middle East's desultory situation is almost entirely the fault of its own dictatorial regimes and extremists from Ba'athism to Islamism. n
The writer is a PhD student in geography at the Hebrew University and runs the Terra Incognita Journal blog. firstname.lastname@example.org