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Reviewed by:
  • Unexceptional: America’s Empire in the Persian Gulf, 1941–2007
  • Steve A. Yetiv (bio)
Unexceptional: America’s Empire in the Persian Gulf, 1941–2007, by Marc J. O’Reilly. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008. 300 pages. Sel. bibl. to p. 328. Index to p. 343. $80.

This useful book argues that an informal American empire has developed in the region and that it is unexceptional because it does not differ much from past empires. The book has several notable strengths. It offers a provocative and interesting view of the evolution of US foreign policy in the Persian Gulf, across a span of over six decades. The research is prodigious, and the scope is ambitious. Indeed, it tackles a complex subject that requires much knowledge and makes a valiant effort in trying to understand the timeless and timely question of empire. As such, it deserves to be read by students and scholars of empire, hegemony, and the Persian Gulf region.

At the same time, like any book, this study has its shortcomings. First, without jumping headlong into questions of method, it is fair to say that the book does a great job of canvassing the complex literature on empire, but could do more to define empire, if not to make it operational. It is not always clear where hegemony ends and empire begins. For instance, one distinction that some [End Page 158] thinkers identify is that empires of the past took territory and incorporated it, while the United States does not take power projection to such an extent. O’Reilly understands this distinction, but could do more to analyze it.

Second, like many thinkers, the author presents a picture of US foreign policy that suggests that America pursues a grand strategy or at least some type of clear strategy in the region. On that score, Reilly sees a type of contingent imperialism as creating an informal empire, based on some imperial techniques of expansion (p. 26). This is interesting, but the author does not do enough to grapple with the possibility that American expansion in the region was not driven by strategy but rather by a reaction to events that it did not foresee and did not handle so well; that it was dragged into the region at certain junctures. The Iranian Revolution, the Iranian hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iran-Iraq War are just four examples that America was responding to threat, that its policy was shaped more by outside events than by its own designs. For full disclosure, this author has found that the United States did not pursue grand strategy in the region and, therefore, his work leads him to see the region differently than does O’Reilly.

Third, as with any book, one can take exception with some empirical analysis. For instance, in explaining why Saddam did not back down during the 1990–91 Gulf crisis, the author notes, without references, that he “refused to believe that the genial Texan could best him on the battlefield” (p. 172). Among other things, we must also consider, based on the evidence, that Saddam believed he would be attacked or harassed even if he withdrew from Kuwait and that the Bush Administration, for a variety of reasons, decided at some point (probably in October 1990) that it preferred war to allowing Saddam to return another day. Of course, in fairness, one needs to sacrifice some detail when producing a broad study of this kind.

Fourth, the author could do more to compare the United States to past empires by discussing those empires more. This would help because the author sees the United States as not much different from them.

Overall, O’Reilly should be commended for his panoramic and bold analysis of the region. We benefit from detailed, area studies work in the field of world politics, but also from such broad analyses which combine the concerns and goals of internationalists with those of area studies. It is not easy to bridge these fields because the area specialists can raise issues about detail, while the internationalists can raise questions about method, theory, and scope. O’Reilly makes a serious attempt to bridge these areas...


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pp. 158-159
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