Lawrence Freedman: Discusses his new book, an indictment of US foreign policy

Historians in the News

This is book is about the trials and tribulations of a superpower trying to operate in an unusually fractious part of the world. It started with a simple aim, which was to try to explain what was going on the Middle East to people who found the situation confusing (in the first instance, my daughter during the 2006 Lebanon war). I soon realized that the trouble with this simple aim was that the story had many distinct but intertwining strands, and that one—Iran, Iraq or Israel—could not be understood without reference to the others.

Then there was the problem of where to start. Sometimes it appeared in American discussions that history had begun on September 11, 2001, or possibly with the end of the Cold War. I sensed that to do the job properly I should go back to colonial times, but to make the project manageable I decided to open with the events of 1978-79. This was a momentous period, encompassing the Camp David summit and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the overthrow of the Shah in Iran and the seizure of diplomatic hostages, and the attempt to impose communism on Afghanistan culminating in the Soviet invasion.

This struck me as a critical transitional period, as the Nasserite, secular, pan-Arab movement (what I call the first radical wave) was rejected by Sadat and entered terminal decline, while Islamism (the second radical wave) began to make its mark. From these events, and their combined impact, can be traced the rise of Al Qaeda, the desperation of the Palestinians, the partnership and then confrontation with Saddam Hussein (who made himself Iraqi president in 1979) and almost continual tension with Iran. While I wanted to say something about the internal dynamics of the region, I felt it made sense to focus on American policy-making. In part, this was because this is my comfort zone and I would not want to pretend to be a Middle Eastern specialist, but also because one way or another, Middle Eastern issues have dominated American foreign policy over this period, particularly when it comes to the use of armed force.

I was well aware, especially as a non-American, of the political minefield I was entering. These are issues that excite strong feelings. The polarization of opinion is often reflected in books that are seen as being for or against Israel, sympathetic to the Iraq war or unremittingly hostile, cynical or forgiving about official motives. Single, simplistic explanations are offered, pointing to the influence of the “Israel Lobby” or Big Oil or neo-conservatives. With such dramatic material it would be impossible to find a bland and inoffensive middle course, but I have sought to respect the evidence, interpret it with care, avoid polemics and try to do justice to this fascinating though frequently tragic story.
Read entire article at Lawrence Freedman at the website of the Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH blog)

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