Weekend Bookchat

February 7, 2009

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Patrick Tyler’s A World of Trouble: America in the Middle East surveys the actions of eight presidencies — from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush — and finds an almost unbroken line of ineptitude, mendacity, bad faith and hubris, from the Suez Crisis to Bush’s lie-driven campaign in Iraq. Tyler draws on newly available archival material and offers some jaw-dropping anecdotes from the history of America’s role in keeping the Middle East ablaze. The sainted Henry Kissinger, who still enjoys a baffling reputation as a master politician and diplomat, comes off particularly badly:

. . . Henry Kissinger, entrusted with a message from Nixon to Brezhnev calling for joint superpower action to end the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and then proceed to a just settlement of the Palestinian question, simply decided, in mid-flight to Moscow, not to deliver it. Nixon’s message, Tyler writes, “threatened to undermine the record Kissinger was seeking to create; that he and Nixon had run the Soviets into the ground and they had protected Israel”. The truth was that the Russian leaders had reacted cautiously and moderately when war broke out, and that Nixon himself had a statesmanlike grasp of what was necessary. But a joint US-Russian initiative “would have thrust Kissinger into the thankless and perilous task of applying pressure on Israel”. So he simply dumped the message. He later encouraged Israel to violate the ceasefire that was supposed to end hostilities so that it could better its military position. With these acts of disobedience – acts which were also, as Tyler says, arguably unconstitutional – Kissinger closed off the possibility that the 1973 war could have been ended on terms which would have left Israel in a less powerful position, making it more amenable to an ensuing push for a settlement by the Americans and the Russians.

Tyler also demonstrates  the problems caused by the “special relationship” between America and Israel:

Tyler does not go quite as far as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, for whom the Israel lobby lies at the heart of American foreign policy; but he is nevertheless a keen critic of the special relationship between the United States and Israel. Indeed, what is perhaps most striking is the constant American appeasement in the face of Israeli aggression. “Don’t lie to me! I’m sitting here watching it on CNN!” Reagan yelled down the telephone to Menachem Begin in 1982, after the Israeli leader had reneged on a promise not to bombard Beirut. But in typical fashion, Reagan did nothing about it – a pattern that has been repeated, by and large, ever since.

Meanwhile, Tyler writes that Bill Clinton fumbleda one-in-a-lifetime chance to capitalize on  “a great convergence: the end of the cold war, the advent of Yitzhak Rabin’s premiership and the PLO’s decision to recognise the Jewish state.” By letting himself be manipulated by Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, Clinton tried to force a settlement and had the whole thing blow up in his face. He then blamed Yassir Arafat and everyone except himself for the collapse.

The manifold failures and disasters of the Bush administration have left Barack Obama with one hell of a mess to clear up, but one can only hope he might find time to read Patrick Tyler’s A World of Trouble. He might not be able to improve the situation, but as Tyler makes clear, simply not making things worse will put him miles ahead of his predecessors.

* * * * *

How did so many public fixtures come to be named after Ronald Reagan? How did so many people come to believe that this dozing fantasist, whose administration was a carnival of corruption and who presided over embarrassing military failures ,  single-handedly defeated the Soviet Union, reduced the size of governmentand revived the American economy through tax cuts and positive thinking?

Why, the  way just about everything else beloved of conservatives, from crackpot economic theories to fake bestsellers, comes into being: a small group of dedicated crusaders with access to wingbucks lobbied for them round-the-clock, then created the illusion they had come about through overwhelming public demand. Will Bunch, in his new book  Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future, chronicles the rise of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project in 1997, and argues that its rewriting of history (a creation of a fantasy version of a president whose legacy is, at best, highly debatable) is a hindrance to the present and fitire of America

* * * * *

The memoirs of a renowned editor give us a glimpse of a vanishing era in American publishing — and an amusing look at how a neocon blowhard got wild-man lessons from Norman Mailer. A cultural history of Americans and their automobiles.

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One Response to “Weekend Bookchat”

  1. Batocchio Says:

    That Kissinger anecdote is appalling.

    Reagan was always the triumph of style over substance, and the GOP has been happy to push that ever since. When you know you can screw over the general public without an uprising from them or the press or the political opposition by giving them a fake cowboy, why do anything else?


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