Despite billions of dollars spent on the most extensive intelligence network in the world and much diplomatic activity, presidents from Eisenhower to George W. Bush have often found themselves baffled by events in the Middle East. During the last 60 years there has not been a consistent U.S. policy for the region; instead, each new president set out to pursue his own approach. As Patrick Tyler demonstrates in his sweeping and compelling history, A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East—From the Cold War to the War on Terror, this has only made the situation worse. Although there were some successes, such as the Camp David Accords under President Carter in 1978, invariably the efforts usually ended in disappointment and the U.S. has often found itself responding to events rather than initiating them.
Tyler covered the Middle East and other parts of the globe for the Washington Post and the New York Times and is the author of A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China and Running Critical: The Silent War, Rickover, and General Dynamics. His latest book is the result of exceptional research, including memoirs, oral histories, recently declassified government records and his own interviews with important figures. His narrative demonstrates the crucial roles played by individuals, the importance of timing and the influences of domestic politics and specific groups of constituents on decision-makers. Tyler presents the region as perceived by those who live there as well as those here in the U.S., offering enough information to challenge the biases, prejudices and preconceptions of many readers.
The author devotes much attention to the Israeli-Arab dispute and writes that nothing in the region would be the same after the Six-Day War in 1967, which led to periodic outbreaks of war and much conflict in the years to come. Tyler considers that war a failure of American diplomacy. The Arabs hoped President Johnson would support the return of the territory captured by Israel, as President Eisenhower had done a decade earlier. But Johnson was deeply occupied with the Vietnam War and could not devote time to the complexities of the Middle East. It was during the term of his successor, Richard Nixon, that the U.S. strongly committed itself to arming Israel and Iran.
Jimmy Carter was the first American president emphatically committed to finding a comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli dispute; no other president got into the details of peacemaking and showed that compromise and peace were possible. It was also during the Carter years that Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar began to work closely with the White House. Though Prince Bandar is not immune to controversy, his was one of the longest and closest connections by a foreign envoy in U.S. history.
Tyler also discusses the pledge made by Henry Kissinger that American negotiating initiatives with Israel and the Palestinians had to be vetted first by the Israeli side. According to Tyler, Presidents Carter, Reagan and G.W. Bush ignored the pledge when it interfered with U.S. interests.
A World of Trouble gives us the big picture of key events in the Middle East for roughly the last six decades. This book is hard to put down and is an excellent and extremely readable guide to how we got into the present situation in this troubled region.
Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.