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  • Indecision Points: George W. Bush and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Daniel E. Zoughbie
  • Brent E. Sasley (bio)
Indecision Points: George W. Bush and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, by Daniel E. Zoughbie. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2014. 227pages. $24.95.

Indecision Points tells the story of the George W. Bush Administration’s waffling, and ultimately disastrous, policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as they were embedded in the larger goal of democratizing the Middle East. Indeed, this fantastical objective, known as the freedom agenda, was unrealistic because it relied on American power alone and caused a number of contradictory foreign policy decisions. These were both facilitated and exacerbated by the intra-administration battles between neoconservatives and realists.

The volume is divided into eight chapters, which correspond to specific periods mapping out the ascendency and decline of the combatants during the Bush presidency. To track this internecine warfare — and it really was a war — Daniel Zoughbie relies primarily on interviews with key players in the United States, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, the United Kingdom, and Jordan. The book is particularly useful because it acknowledges complexity in Washington’s Middle East policy. A book-length treatment of this topic is needed in an era when pundits and ideologues who write on the same issues dominate the electronic public sphere.

Running through the text are several threads, important on their own but also highly relevant because of what they tell us about American foreign policy. One is that Bush held firm beliefs in the divine nature of individual rights and freedoms, and these informed his policy preferences. This contributed to a deeply felt Manichaean view of the world. Yet at the same time there is a clear sense that Bush was a weak president (“easily influenced” and “confused” by conflicting advice [p. 40]). Not only did he have trouble deciding on a strategic course (despite his inclinations), but he could not — or would not — control the fighting within his administration, and therefore tended to let others make decisions for him.

A second thread is the sheer naïveté of many of the principals in the government. Their ideological commitments led to strange assumptions about cause and effect in the Middle East; and if they did not assume, then they simply did not think about it. The most evident example is the reaction to the 2006 Palestinian elections, which Hamas won. Bush first supported the elections on the basis of promoting democracy, then opposed the outcome because the government considered Hamas a terrorist organization. This not only meant an abandonment of the freedom agenda, but also contributed to the division of the Palestinian government between Fatah and Hamas.

At times incredulity is the only plausible reaction. For example, Bush officials considered finding and installing a Hashemite on the throne in Iraq to transition the country into a democracy (pp. 34–35). Their hubris — predicated on their perception of the ability of the United States to translate an idea into a perfectly executed policy — seemed to know no bounds. Zoughbie mentions throughout the text the neoconservatives’ thoughts were turned not just to Iraq and Israel/Palestine, but Iran and Syria as well.

A third thread is the entwined nature of these officials’ beliefs about American interests and Israel. For most of them the [End Page 471] two were inseparable — not in the sense that they were loyal to Israel over America, but rather that they believed a firm commitment to Israel was simply part of American values and interests. It is this inability to separate the two countries’ aims that may have been the most dangerous assumption in the administration.

The book is not without its weaknesses. Most prominent is the reliance on interviews. They are necessary, but relying primarily on them undermines Zoughbie’s argument because there is no sense of broader history or local politics. It makes the book feel more like a descriptive account of the timeline rather than an in-depth analysis of the issues.

Perhaps because of this, Zoughbie jumps into the polemical debates over who is at fault for the failures of Bush’s policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This may be unavoidable in a book...


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pp. 471-472
Launched on MUSE
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