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  • A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East —From the Cold War to the War on Terror
  • Philip C. Wilcox (bio)
A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East —From the Cold War to the War on Terror, by Patrick Tyler. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009, New York 554 pages. Notes to p. 609. Index to p. 628. $30.

As President Barack Obama pursues his ambitious new Middle East peace initiative, he knows he must overcome a 60-year legacy of the frequent failure of American policies. Patrick Tyler, who reported from the region for many years with The New York Times and The Washington Post, has written a superb and very readable account of the trials of seven presidents in wrestling with the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran, and Iraq. Drawing on many sources, including fresh archival materials and oral histories by retired diplomats, Tyler's unsparing and sometimes revisionist history is fascinating, disturbing, and persuasive. [End Page 683]

Tyler thinks that American policy in the Middle East has been muddled, unreliable, and hobbled by ideology. For example, he says, the tendency to view the region through a Cold War prism, and later to force policies into a counterterrorism template, obscured the underlying realities. He argues persuasively that the United States has lost many opportunities, especially to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, which looms large in A World of Trouble.

Tyler gives the highest marks to US President Dwight Eisenhower for his tough, decisive intervention against the Anglo French-Israeli invasion of Egypt after Egyptian President Gamal 'Abd al-Nasser seized the Suez Canal in 1956. Ike's demand that its allies and Israel withdraw their forces from the Sinai and his concern for the UN Charter contrasts vividly with the later US acquiescence in, or support of, Israel's wars in Lebanon and the West Bank and Gaza.

Jimmy Carter's disciplined, stubborn diplomacy with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat that produced the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979 is also cited by Tyler as an example of presidential courage, clear focus, and determination.

Tyler credits George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, for rallying a coalition to defeat Saddam Husayn in the Gulf War in 1991. He also praises them for bringing Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) together at Madrid in 1991, having finally recognized the centrality of the Palestinian issue. By asserting US leadership over the objections of Israel and American Jewish supporters of the Likud Party, they opened the door to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and helped Yitzhak Rabin defeat Yitzhak Shamir and his hardline Likud in the 1992 Israeli elections.

The policies of other US presidents covered in the book (it omits the terms of John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford) come up short in Tyler's view. He is deeply critical of Lyndon Johnson's failure to mobilize international and domestic support to prevent the 1967 war, because of the distraction of Vietnam, worries about Soviet intervention, and lack of aggressive diplomacy. He also faults Johnson for failing to press for peace thereafter. He acknowledges Nasser's mercurial nature and the Arabs' "Four No's" from Khartoum after the war, but notes that Nasser had urged Jordan's King Husayn at Khartoum to support negotiations for an overall Arab-Israeli peace agreement. Johnson also erred in muting US objections to Israel's nuclear weapons program and sending Phantom jets to Israel without the quid pro quo proposed by Dean Rusk of Israeli acceptance of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). (Kennedy strongly opposed the Israeli bomb, foreseeing today's looming nightmare of nuclear proliferation in the region.) One of many fascinating vignettes in the book is Ariel Sharon's recommendation, after a stormy session between Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and the Israel Defense Force (IDF) leadership, that the generals should seize control if Eshkol continued to resist war!

Tyler criticizes Nixon for his deference to Henry Kissinger, whose role expanded as Nixon struggled to survive the Watergate scandal. Others have lauded Kissinger for his shrewd handling of the 1973 Yom Kippur War to...


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