Why the Middle East is not our fault

The Tail Wags the Dog
by Efraim Karsh
Bloomsbury Continuum (€30)

"Contrary to the conventional wisdom," Efraim Karsh tells us early on in his new book on the Middle East, "Britain's 'original sin', if such was indeed committed, lay not in the breaking up of Middle Eastern unity but in its attempted over-unification." If Karsh wanted to cause outrage in Middle East Studies departments across the globe it is hard to think of a sentence that would do the job better. Or indeed better sum up his argument. And in this – the skewering of academic and popular orthodoxy through historical analysis – lies the book's overarching goal.

In the Middle East, perhaps like no other region, history is politics. Conflicting accounts of everything from the foundation of Israel to the imperial powers' creation of the modern Middle East justify atrocity and form the ideological underpinnings of policy. Thus do politicians use the work of historians (like Karsh) to discredit Palestinian claims of expulsion in 1948, while last year the terror group Isis pointedly bulldozed the border between Iraq and Syria to "destroy" the legacy of the 1916 Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement, which it claims created artificial borders all over the modern Middle East.

As a result, the book conducts a broad study of modern Middle Eastern history. From the fall of the Ottoman Empire to the contemporary crisis over Iran's nuclear programme, the book covers many of the region's climacteric events. Karsh's primary concern is agency, ie who is making things happen, and his answer is that it is the Middle East states themselves. As the opening quotation suggests, his central argument is that the consensus view of the region as having been moulded, to its detriment, by external forces, especially the Great Powers, is false: contrary to the common perception of the region's affairs as an offshoot of global power politics, modern Middle Eastern history has been the culmination of long-existing indigenous trends, passions and patterns of behaviour; contrary to their treatment as hapless objects lacking an internal, autonomous dynamic of their own, Middle Easterners have been enterprising free agents doggedly pursuing their national interests and swaying the region pretty much in their desired direction, often in disregard of Great-Power wishes.

While this is probably overstating the case, it contains some truth. The idea in the title The Tail Wags the Dog – that weaker, Middle Eastern states have often sculpted their own destiny and on occasion even been able to manipulate the superpowers – is not a new one, and it is correct. During the Cold War, what scholars have termed bipolarity – an international order dominated by two superpowers – enabled smaller, "client" states to play the USSR and the US off against each other as the two fought for influence in the Middle East.

That, in July 1972, Egypt's president Anwar Sadat felt strong enough – despite the huge power disparity between the two states – to expel Soviet personnel from Egypt after Moscow tried to limit the flow of strategic arms into his country says it all. Sadat's subsequent overtures to Western powers amply demonstrated to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev that Egypt had other options; despite Sadat's insult, aid and arms again began flowing into Egypt. The tail did indeed wag the dog. Karsh also rightly points out the limits of superpower intervention in the Middle East. Just as the US was powerless to stop the 1979 Islamic Revolution toppling its ally the Shah of Iran, the Mujahedeen threw the Soviets out Afghanistan. Despite Washington's 2001 invasion of the same country to destroy the Taliban, the group are arguably now stronger than ever. Karsh's is a conservative voice that rejects academic orthodoxy, and that is, to a degree, healthy. And he delights in the display. The book, like almost all of his work, is a polemic, albeit a well-researched and knowledgeable one.

It is also a work of pessimism. Karsh saves most of his ire for US President Barack Obama, whom he accuses of denying the realities of the modern Middle East by favouring not policies but "magic potions [such] as 'more democracy'." As long as both Obama and Middle Easterners refuse to accept that "the main culpability for the region's endemic malaise lies with the local players", the region, he argues, will continue to be a well of catastrophe.

There is truth to this argument, though as Karsh admits (albeit while, in a feat of dexterous intellectual gymnastics, failing to adequately acknowledge it), external interventions such as the Iraq War have re-ordered and destroyed the region to an extremely high degree. Nonetheless, the book stands as a welcome correction to some of the most egregious myths about the making of the modern Middle East, and like so many works on the region it is less a history of its politics than a political take on its history.

Further reading on . . . fighting in the Middle East

A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani. The definitive story of 12 centuries of Arab civilisation. Never bettered.

Orientalism by Edward Said. In this seminal text Said argues that Western scholars who study the Muslim Orient have often done so in order to rule and have defined it in terms
of being other than the West, and hence inferior.

Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution by Nikki Keddie. If you want to understand modern Iran and the birth of the Islamic Republic, which has led to today's nuclear crisis, read this book.

My Promised Land: the Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit. An idiosyncratic, beautifully-written and often personal look at the founding of Israel and its subsequent history.

Beware of Small States by David Hirst. Examines how small states like Lebanon can prove the graveyard of larger and more powerful ones.

Gideon's Spies: The Inside Story of Israel's Legendary Secret Service The Mossad by Gordan Thomas. Reads like a thriller. Thomas delves into the heart of the most secretive,
and arguably most effective, intelligence service in the world.

Why the Middle East is not our fault |