About Time I Read It: War and Peace in the Middle East by Avi Shlaim

About four years ago I stopped at a neighborhood garage sale to see if there was anything for sale I couldn’t live without and before I knew it I found myself rummaging through a big box of books. After finding three paperbacks to my liking I went over to sale’s acting cashier to purchase them. While handing her a couple of bucks she told me I’d just purchased a few of her old text books from college, and she’d majored in International Conflict Resolution. Looking back, I should have stuck around longer and picked her brain. Not only did her course of study sound right up my alley, but I bet she could have recommended a ton of great books.

I doubt any student could major in International Conflict Resolution without taking at least one class on the Middle East. Little wonder one of her old college texts I ended up buying was Avi Shlaim’s War and Peace in the Middle East: A Concise History. While some folks might shied away from buying a book on the Middle East published in 1995 I didn’t. As I told the book’s now former owner, I wanted to get a different perspective on the Middle East. Specifically, I wanted to explore the region as a subject matter expert might in the years prior to 9/11, the Invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring and the rise of groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Even though Shlaim’s book is over 20 years old I hoped it could teach me a few things  about arguably the world’s most turbulent and complex region.

As billed, War and Peace in the Middle East is a concise history. Roughly covering the period 1914 to the early 1990s Shlaim takes a “big picture” approach to explaining the how, why and what of the Middle East. He begins with a historical overview of which great powers were influential in the region over the course of 20th century. According to Shlain, sometimes a solitary power was dominant in the Middle East. The Ottomans ruled most of the area until they were displaced by the British (and to a lesser degree the French) after World War I. Because the British and French carved up the Ottoman’s Middle Eastern possessions to suit their own interests and not those who actually lived there the region has been unstable for a century. The Kurds were never given a homeland have been fighting for one for years. Iraqi anger over their western border led to a long and bloody war with Iraq. Feeling Kuwait should have been included as part of the Iraqi nation after WWI was a motivating factor in invading and annexing the oil rich kingdom in early 90s. Lastly, Britain’s inability to please both Jews and Palestinians after promising each side everything, compounded with the horrors of the Holocaust spawned one of the modern world’s most challenging political conflicts.

By the 1956 Suez Crisis the Middle East became a Cold War battleground as the USA and USSR courted clients and bankrolled allies. After the implosion of the Soviet Union, the USA was left without a rival and could exert even more influence in the region, like assembling a global coalition to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait and pressuring the Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate a peace settlement.

Over the years America’s leaders and policy makers approached the Middle East differently. Some Presidents and their advisers saw everything through he context of the Cold War. Countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt after 1973 and Iran before 1979 were seen as pro-American and anti-communist. Syria, the PLO and Iraq prior to the late 80s were seen as pro-Soviet. At times some American decision makers refused to see the Middle East as another of Cold War side-show but instead saw all conflicts as rivalries between states, each with their own respective agendas. Israel, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia were all seen at one time or another as key allies. Later, Iran was seen as America’s greatest adversary.

War and Peace in the Middle East is a pretty old book, but nevertheless an illuminating one. It’s inspired me to read more stuff on the Middle East and for that I’m thankful.

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