Reviewing Ephraim Karsh’s The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East, Elan Juorno writes:
Karsh’s central insight is contrarian: the region’s people and leaders are agents shaping their own history. To formulate sensible foreign policy, we must take seriously their prevailing moral-political ideas—above all, the embrace of Islam. . . .
Was the Ottoman empire, which ruled much of the area, the “hapless victim of secret diplomacy bent on carving up its territory”? No, Karsh says. It was instead the “casualty of its own catastrophic decisions to join the war on the losing side.” Did Britain impose London’s interests during its Palestine Mandate (1922–1948), regardless of local needs? Quite the contrary, Karsh argues: British policy was in fact “largely dictated by Arab violence prior to World War II and by Jewish political and military pressure in its wake.”
During the cold war the United States and the USSR—the world’s leading powers—affected the Middle East profoundly, interceding frequently to stop regional conflicts. But neither had a “decisive say in their smaller [regional] allies’ grand strategies,” Karsh shows, nor were they able to “contain undesirable regional developments,” such as Egypt’s defection to the Soviets in the 1950s or its later swing back to America’s side, or the 1979 Islamist revolution in Iran. And despite emerging as the lone superpower after the cold war, the United States could not “deter Saddam Hussein from invading Kuwait, or . . . induce him to leave peacefully.” . . .
Karsh argues that we must pay much closer attention to the Middle East’s distinctive ideas—particularly its tribal culture and Islam’s dominance. One implication is that the region’s people and intellectual leaders bear the primary responsibility for their problems—and for solving them.
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