America’s Misadventures in the Middle East
by Chas W. Freeman Jr. Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2010. 221 pages + 3 maps. Glossary to p. 239. $22.95 paper.
Reviewed by Cheryl Rubenberg
Freeman defines the national interest in terms of four broad categories with subinterests. These broad categories include: (1) access to reliable sources of energy for the United States, and, more important, for the entire global community, which includes “burden sharing,” rather than unilateral U.S. management of the security and exports of the region; (2) securing the State of Israel, “given the prestige we have committed to it,” by achieving acceptance for it in the region, which includes the brokering of mutually respectful arrangements for stable borders between Israel and the Palestinians, peaceful coexistence between Israel and its neighboring states, and Israel’s political, economic, and cultural integration into the region (p. 100); (3) unfettered access to the military, commercial, cultural, and religious institutions of the region, involving, among other things, untrammeled and nondiscriminatory access to the holy places in Jerusalem for all Jews, Muslims, and Christians; and (4) the containment of problems that arise in the Middle East in order to maintain stability, involving careful attention to dialogue among faiths, the enlistment of religious authorities in the cause of reasoned compromise, and seeking allies among these authorities who could discredit extremism among their coreligionists (pp. 97–103).
Freeman observes that we have failed to achieve any of these interests and cites numerous examples to illustrate:
1. With respect to stability in the Persian Gulf, “we have given up on the idea of maintaining a regional balance of power and substituted our own unilateral military presence for this. We unilaterally decided that we would practice what was called ‘dual containment,’ which required us to maintain a large military presence in the region to balance both Iraq and Iran and was and remains the most expensive, the most strategically fatiguing, and the most politically irritating of all the strategies we might conceivably adopt. It guarantees continuing friction with the peoples of the countries hosting our forces and raises the possibility of ‘blowback’” (p. 103).
2. “It has been years since we made a serious effort to promote negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians or even exercised our own judgment about the issues that divide them.” We have reflexively supported the efforts of a series of Israeli governments to undo the Oslo Accord and to pacify the Palestinians rather than make peace with them. “Our recent embrace of the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and a secular Arab state—the so-called two-state solution—is widely seen in the region as too late and too little, too late because so much land has been colonized by Israel that there is not enough left for a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel; too little because what is on offer looks to Palestinians more like an Indian reservation than a country. Such status will not be accepted by the inhabitants of the occupied territories; nor will it be accepted by the 6–7 million-strong Palestinian Diaspora. It would inflame rather than relieve Arab resentment of Israel. It would not lead to a normalization of Israel’s relations with other Arab states... It would risk further globalization of asymmetric warfare in the form of terrorism against Israel and its supporters overseas, including the United States” (p. 104).
3. In every respect other than militarily, our access to the region has steadily diminished—e.g., “most business is going to European and Asian countries rather than American companies; the regions imports are increasingly priced in euros, sterling and other currencies, while its exports are still denominated in dollars. [But] the dollar is sinking... fueling inflation both in the Middle East and here at home. The leading Arab oil-producing countries are seriously considering exchanging oil and other commodities into some other currency before they can be exchanged for fuel... Arab travel to the United States for business, study or pleasure has not recovered from its post-9/11 collapse. ... Purchase of military weapons is increasingly going to other countries who are more politically acceptable—Britain, France, Russia and South Africa... in a game we no longer dominate” (p. 105).
4. “The United States is now perceived as conducting a Crusade against Islam, not a war on extremists” (p. 105).
America’s Misadventures in the Middle East is a perceptive, astute, and extremely important book. Despite some repetition that comes from its separate essays, I would highly recommend it to all—foreign-policy practitioners, intellectuals, students, and the general public.
ASLAM FAROUK-ALLI lectured part-time in the faculties of Religion, Language & Literature, and Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town. After leaving the academy, he served as a diplomat in the South African civil service. He is also the editor of The Future of Palestine and Israel: From Colonial Roots to Postcolonial Realities (Midrand, South Africa: Institute for Global Dialogue, 2007).