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Reviewed by:
  • Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East by Christopher Davidson
  • Douglas Little (bio)
Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East, by Christopher Davidson. London: Oneworld, 2016. 688pages. $30.

The meteoric rise in 2014 of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has spawned a dizzying array of articles and books seeking to place this latest Middle East horror show into historical perspective. Among the most ambitious, provocative, and tendentious is Shadow Wars by Christopher Davidson, a lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Durham. Davidson attributes the emergence of ISIS and other extremist groups to “the long-running policies of successive imperial and ‘advanced capitalist’ administrations” in Britain and America and “their ongoing manipulations of an elaborate network of powerful national and transnational actors across both the Arab and Islamic worlds” (pp. viii–ix). Shadow Wars synthesizes the writings of William Blum, Robert Dreyfuss, Mark Curtis, and like-minded critics of British and American policies to create what might be called a unified field theory of Western imperialism in the Middle East, suggesting along the way that many recent grisly terrorist actions in Iraq and Syria may actually have been “false flag” operations designed to legitimate military intervention by the United Kingdom and the United States. After I finished reading this information-packed, but often [End Page 327] eye-glazing 700-page monograph, I said to myself: If Naomi Klein and Robert Ludlum had decided to coauthor an account of recent events in the Middle East, they would have produced something like Shadow Wars.

Although Davidson has made good use of the WikiLeaks “Cablegate” database of leaked US diplomatic documents along with some on-the-ground interviews, he relies mainly on secondary sources rather than archival materials to tell his story. Frequently, he veers off into the acronym-laden political underbrush, where Islamic splinter groups debate how many infidels can dance on the head of a pin. Once one clears away Davidson’s forest of thick description, his master narrative looks something like this. After 1945, British and American officials, frequently working in concert, cultivated ties with Islamic groups, first to counteract Arab and Iranian nationalists who threatened Western control of Middle East oil during the 1950s and 1960s and later to defeat Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s. So far this is a familiar story already well-told by scholars like Joel Gordon, Mark Gasiorowski, and Steve Coll, but Davidson presses beyond the end of the Cold War to argue that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s intervention in the Balkans during the 1990s was not intended merely to defend a motley crew of Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims but also to serve as a dress rehearsal for military intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya early in the 21st century. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, US president George W. Bush and UK prime minister Tony Blair, with help from pro-Western Muslim autocrats in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf shaykhdoms, launched a global crusade against terrorism designed to undermine Islamic reformers, reinforce the neoliberal Washington Consensus, and rev up the military-industrial complex on both sides of the Atlantic via massive amounts of defense spending and arms sales.

While Davidson’s interpretation of the War on Terror reads like a chapter from Vladimir Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, his explanation of the causes and consequences of the Arab Spring is bewildering. Spontaneous grassroots revolts against pro-Western kleptocracies in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen and anti-Western autocracies in Libya and Syria were discredited and eventually crushed by an unholy alliance of military officers in Cairo and oil shaykhs in Riyadh and Doha with the blessing of the administrations of Barack Obama and British prime minister David Cameron, who paid little more than lip service to democracy and human rights. Indeed, in the case or Libya, Davidson implies that Washington and London conspired to bring down Mu‘ammar al-Qadhafi through “a fake Arab Spring” in order reopen the richest oil fields in North Africa to multinational corporations based in the US and UK.

Davidson’s analysis of the emergence of ISIS is...


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