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Reviewed by:
  • Reset Middle East: Old Friends and New Allies: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Iran
  • Barry Naughten (bio)
Reset Middle East: Old Friends and New Allies: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Iran, by Stephen Kinzer. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010. 288 pages. $21.57 paper.

In this book Stephen Kinzer argues that the US national interests would be served by a more rational and reasonable stance toward the Middle East. He argues that by "resetting" its relationships with four states — Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and Iran — the US would help address several perilous challenges it faces domestically and internationally.

However, Kinzer observes, the present dysfunctional US foreign policy stance in the greater Middle East is unlikely to be reset in the presence of two kinds of distorting factors. The first kind of distortion is directly tractable only within the United States itself: correcting a lack of knowledge about the modern histories of the Middle East and US policies in the region. In fact, addressing this historical ignorance is the prime focus of Kinzer's book. Hence the style is narrative, not foreign policy analysis and critique, much less grand strategizing while the purpose, exceedingly well achieved, is to engage and inform the general reader about the development of these four states since the early 20th century and the US influence, for good or ill, on them. Once this history is better understood by the US public, Kinzer believes, a more rational and reasonable US foreign policy can emerge — based on its interests, power, and values.

The second kind of distortion is about less-than-helpful foreign policy stances taken by the countries on which he focuses attention: especially Israel and Iran. Although at opposite poles in US policy and public opinion, both states experience an isolation and reflect a self-perpetuating siege mentality that runs counter to their own as well as US long-run national interests.1 Kinzer's [End Page 194] account shows how this isolation developed in each case, the US role in this process, and implicitly suggests ways out.

US relations with Turkey have markedly soured in recent years. This change was marked above all by Turkey's refusal to act as a staging base for the US-led invasion of Iraq (2003) and has accelerated in the last two years, marked increasingly by Turkish support for Gaza's case against a continued Israeli blockade.

Meanwhile, US relations with Iran in the sixty years since the CIA-MI6 overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 may be known by a few specialists and scholars but the general public's perceptions have been distorted by US populist politics — most notably, the 1979-1980 hostage crisis that did so much to undermine Carter's presidency, followed by the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, and the "dual containment" of the Clinton era.

After addressing this intervening history of mutual alienation, Kinzer goes on to tell the story of the Iranian leadership's "Grand Bargain"2 offer to the US in 2002, and how this offer was met with concealment and contempt by a George W. Bush Administration more intent on pursuing its "axis of evil" strategy. In this offer, Iran had expressed the intention of putting everything on the table, including its nuclear plans and its covert assistance to dissident groups such as Hizbullah.

Despite this lost opportunity, Kinzer is able to list ten core US national interests in the region that could still be advanced by such an arrangement with Iran (p. 208).

In Kinzer's account, the rationale for a rapprochement is not confined to national interests but is also the matter of "values." If by the latter is meant a trend toward liberal democracy, then Turkey has moved well beyond all Islamic states in the region in that regard. However, Iran's practices have long been closer to a democratic ideal than all the Arab states, and certainly more so than say, China. On the other hand, Israel's respectability in the United States has been tied to its representation as an island of democracy despite the realities of the occupied West Bank.

Neither should debates about "values" ignore dubious practices...


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pp. 194-196
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