Sunday, January 25, 2009

Uphill task for the Obama administration

At a time when a new administration is taking power, it is widely hoped that Barack Obama will be able to undo some of the damage that eight years of George W. Bush's presidency wreaked on the Middle East. Enlightened observers have termed the region one of the most pressing problems facing the Obama administration, among others, namely the economy and climate change.

Patrick Tyler, who has covered the region for the Washington Post and the New York Times, summarizes 50 years of America's involvement with the Middle East in this new, absorbing read. It starts in October 1956 — with Dwight D. Eisenhower's relationship with Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser and the anti-Communist agenda that drove the former to underestimate the power that Nasser wielded in the region.

From here, to the hits and misses of every subsequent administration, Tyler draws out a detailed, journalistic discourse of the strategies that came to occupy the heart of America's foreign policy interests. Tyler is a writer of anecdotes, and gently melds the larger historical narrative with the play of power that drove personal ambition. He is particularly scathing in his criticism of Henry Kissinger's role during the 1973 Yom Kippur conflict. Tyler paints a picture of a wily man exploiting his position with the Israelis to isolate President Richard M. Nixon, who was being battered back home by Watergate.

If Kissinger was the ace foreign policy hawk on the American side, there was also Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the quiet arsenal in the House of Saud's weaponry. Bandar hovers above the book as a birdlike presence, dealing with one administration after the other, alert to the possibility of breakthroughs. Bill Clinton famously, and hilariously, averted a major blunder in etiquette by getting Bandar to stop Yasser Arafat from planting a peck on Clinton's cheeks during the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

Tyler reserves the title "A World of Trouble" for Bush Jr.'s years in the White House. The botched path leading up to the war in Iraq is revealed in cringe-inducing detail. The trumped-up weapons of mass destruction dossier, the war itself and the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse vanquished any goodwill left in the region for post-9/11 America.

Iran continues to blight the Middle East party, and its nuclear ambitions are threatening to spiral out of control, Tyler asserts. He further argues that if America wants stability and peace in the region, it will have to address the aspirations of the millions of people still battling tyranny, most notably, in the kingdom where America has consistently propped up despots — Saudi Arabia.

Granted, George Bush's "freedom agenda" backfired when democracy propelled distinctly Islamist parties to center stage in country after country (read Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq). But only a long-term commitment to fostering democracy, separate from America's oil interests and militarism, will bring about real change on the ground. More importantly, Tyler writes, America will have to engage with regimes in the region and move away from Bush's "Axis of evil" rhetoric.

Tyler's book is a crucial reminder of the uphill task that lies in store for Obama.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.

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