Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Ira Chernus: Review of Rashid Khalidi's Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East (Beacon Press, 2009)

[Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.]


Perhaps no one could write a better chronological history of the Cold War’s impact in the Middle East than Rashid Khalidi. But that is not the book Khalidi has written. Instead, he offers here five essays, each reflecting on a specific aspect of the Cold War in the Middle East, plus an introductory essay surveying key aspects of the territory as a whole. Within each essay, the style is expansive and reflective -- sometimes almost ruminative -- displaying the author’s great mastery of the subject.

The first substantive essay is devoted to the central role of oil, the great prize that got both superpowers embroiled in the Middle East in the first place. The second essay explores ways that Middle East nations did, and more often did not, become part of the international system (the “community of nations”) organized by the great powers before, during, and after the Cold War. The third and fourth essays -- which feel like the heart of the book -- explore ways that great power intervention has catalyzed conflict and undermined democracy in the Middle East. The concluding chapter examines some effects of the end of the Cold War upon the Middle East and then offers an especially critical appraisal of the G. W. Bush administration's war on terror policies.

Tying this all together are three general themes that run throughout the book:

There was far too much “damage and danger imposed on small countries and vulnerable peoples in the Middle East (as in other regions) by the ill-advised grand designs” of both the United States and the Soviet Union, who generally escaped the adverse consequences of their harmful policies.
Those grand designs were driven less by ideology than by “traditional great-power conflict of interest over strategic issues and resources."
“It was the United States that ultimately always had the upper hand strategically” throughout the Middle East (a region that, for Khalidi, includes Turkey and Iran as well as the entire Arabic-speaking world, excluding North Africa). Since World War II, the U.S. has been “the major Middle Eastern power, a reality that was masked for a time by the power and proximity to the region of the USSR.” Thus the United States ends up taking the brunt of the criticism on every count, for reasons that are laid out clearly and convincingly throughout the book.
Merely to summarize Khalidi’s most basic points is to miss the true value of his book -- its richness of detail. The book as a whole is a plentiful grab bag of historical fact and interpretive insight about an impressively wide range of places and events. Cold War happenings are consistently placed in the broader historical context of European involvement in the Middle East from the earliest years of the 20th century (and occasionally even earlier). In every case it becomes obvious that, though World War II was an important turning point, nothing that happened after it can be understood without an equally clear understanding of what happened before it.

Thus (to take one typically enlightening example), Iranian resistance to Soviet incursions immediately after World War II takes on new significance when we learn that “generations of Russian rulers had bullied and seized territory from Iran” before the Soviet revolution, including an effort “to sabotage the constitutional regime and the elected Males, or Assembly, in the years after the 1905-6 Constitutional Revolution.” But the story grows more complicated when we learn that the British had joined the Russians in that effort at sabotage, part of a much-longer term British effort to control Iranian oil. Thus when the U.S. entered the picture after World War II, that picture looked quite different to the Iranians than it did to outsiders; for Iranians, the superpowers were just as likely to look like partners as opponents in the great game, always intent on undermining Iranian democracy and self-determination. By tracing the U.S. - Iranian conflict through the present day, Khalidi makes it clear that the current situation has been shaped by over a century’s worth of previous (and often overlooked) conflict.

Khalidi uses this long-term perspective to offer interpretive insights that are, while sometimes debatable, always thought-provoking. For example, he suggests that the Cold War created a relatively stable organization of conflict in the Middle East, so that the recurring Arab-Israeli conflicts of that era were quite contained, with little harmful effect upon the region as a whole. Since the end of the Cold War, however, Israel has become entangled in a much broader regional network of conflict -- exacerbated by increasing U.S. efforts to control the whole region, which inevitably end up doing more harm than good for all parties concerned, or so the author argues.

The author’s decision to offer thematic essays rather than a single chronological survey has its drawbacks. The same ground is sometimes covered in more than one essay; “as we have seen” appears a bit too often. The reader, particularly the non-specialist, might have been better served by having all the information about a particular episode drawn together in one place. Yet the non-specialist reader is sure to come away with a wealth of new information and understanding and, perhaps, an appetite for putting the pieces together in a tighter chronological way.