Efraim Karsh, professor emeritus at King’s College London and currently professor of political studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, has written a tour de force on the follies of great-power Middle East policies over the past century, down to the disastrous misconceptions and blunders of President Barack Obama.
The Tail Wags the Dog begins with some myth-busting about the Sykes-Picot agreement, now ritually denounced as a British-French imperialist grab of the Middle East from which its current woes originate. Actually, Karsh demonstrates from the historical record, Britain and France sought to construct a unified Arab empire that would replace the Ottoman Empire. Instead they were outmaneuvered by local actors—namely Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his sons, Faisal and Abdullah—into forging what are now Jordan, Syria, and Iraq, of which the latter two (at least) were undoubtedly problematic entities from the start.
Britain kept at it in Palestine, where, first, it accepted the League of Nations mandate to promote the Jewish national home; then, succumbing to Arab violence, increasingly betrayed that mandate to the point of sealing off Palestine to Jews almost entirely during the Holocaust; then finally misjudged Jewish tenacity and exited Palestine in humiliation as the Jewish state arose and survived despite the best, pro-Arab, malevolent efforts of Britain’s postwar Labour government.
Karsh then turns to the sad case of U.S. policy in Iran, where decades of cultivating an alliance with the pro-Western shah collapsed in the 1979 Khomeinist debacle. “The Shah,” the CIA assessed in 1977, would remain “the dominant figure in Iran into and possibly throughout the 1980s.” Instead came the Iranian Revolution, “a volcanic eruption of long-suppressed popular passions and desires” as Karsh calls it, one that, typically, the U.S. failed to foresee or understand.
And so it has gone. The Soviet Union, too, in Karsh’s telling, proved inept and ineffectual in the region, unable to dissuade Arab allies like Egypt and Syria from attacking Israel in 1967 and 1973—though here Karsh leaves out Moscow’s encouragement of Arab belligerence with its virulent anti-Zionist propaganda and support for PLO terrorism. And the Soviets, of course, had an even worse time of it in Afghanistan, where their 1979 military intervention turned into a decade-long nightmare resulting in “dozens of thousands of Soviet casualties, over a million Afghan fatalities, and untold mayhem and dislocation….”
No doubt the 1991 U.S. intervention in Kuwait, which succeeded in ousting Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces, went much better. But here too, Karsh points out, Washington misjudged Saddam’s intentions to the end and was blindsided by the invasion; then, after ejecting him, failed to protect Iraq’s Kurds and Shiites from his murderous wrath despite promises to that effect, with Saddam remaining malevolently in power for another 12 years.
Then came the second Bush administration’s 2003 intervention in Iraq. The ambition to build a democracy there, Karsh says, was “far easier said than done.” Iraq had long been “torn by ethnic, social and religious schisms—with the dominant Arab population hopelessly polarized between Shiite and Sunni communities….” But if Bush was overoptimistic about Iraq, his successor as president had much more comprehensive delusions.
It was evident in Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, where he “depict[ed] Muslims as hapless victims of the aggressive encroachment of others, too dim to be accountable for their own fate,” a view that is “not only completely unfounded but the inverse of the truth.”
That view, in Karsh’s telling, led Obama—among other missteps—to endorse hard-line Palestinian positions so that their leadership “dropped all pretences of seeking a negotiated settlement with Israel”; betray the United States’ longtime Egyptian ally Hosni Mubarak out of belief that the largely Muslim-Brotherhood-driven agitation augured democracy; back Britain and France’s mad-bomber campaign against the nonbelligerent Gaddafi regime that reduced Libya to jihadist chaos; display utter fecklessness in Syria with dissolvable “red lines”; and, most gravely, doggedly treat the regime in Tehran as a potentially constructive force up to (after this book was written) the signing of the calamitous nuclear deal last July.
Obama, of course, was not the only Westerner to misconceive the Arab Spring as an outcropping of democratic longings. Karsh calls it something quite different: “a return to the Islamic sociopolitical order that had underpinned the region for over a millennium as the schizophrenic state system established in its place after World War I failed to fill the void left by its destruction.”
Or as Karsh expounds a few pages later in a ringing passage:
the main culpability for the region’s endemic malaise lies with the local players. That Arabs have been fighting Jews, Iranians, Kurds and fellow Arabs for decades has nothing to do with external intervention and everything to do with a host of indigenous factors, from religious militancy to ethnic cleavages, to economic and territorial greed, to hegemonic ambitions. Violence was not imported to the Middle East as a by-product of foreign imperialism but has rather been an integral part of the region’s millenarian political culture.
It’s not a cheerful view of the region and its prospects, but it’s the one best supported by familiarity with its real, internal nature as opposed to foreign projections and dreams. “It is only,” Karsh asserts, “when the Western chancelleries break out of their delusional bubble and acknowledge the Manichean and irreconcilable nature of the challenge posed by their Islamist adversaries that their policies will stand the slightest chance of success.”