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The Once and Future War

By: Elan Journo
February 22, 2017

hat explains the Middle East’s chronic destitution, upheavals, and war? External factors lead the roster of usual suspects. During the 20th century, the argument goes, the Great Powers turned the region into their playground—locals be damned. America—the latest “Great Power” on the scene—has wreaked its own havoc the past few decades. The people and leaders of the Middle East, in this account, are endlessly buffeted by outside forces.

In The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East, Efraim Karsh shows that the conventional account misunderstands the Middle East fundamentally, thereby dooming the quest for successful policies. 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.

Karsh—professor emeritus of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College—challenges the conventional understanding of the region’s crucial events. 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 USSRthe world’s leading powersaffected 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.”

In the 21st century neither the Bush nor Obama Administrations adequately recognized the Middle East’s animating ideas and tribal norms. Bush imagined America could transform the region through “more democracy,” ignoring endemic sectarian-tribal conflicts and jihadist ambitions. Obama treated Islamist holy warriors as if they are animated by socio-economic and political grievances, blind, as Karsh puts it, to their “millenarian religiously based political legacy.”

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.

Only when the region is a place where religion does not trump all sociopolitical loyalties; where citizenship is not synonymous with submission; where political, ethnic, and religious differences are not settled by internecine strife and murder; and where individuals and societies take responsibility for their actions rather than blame others for their misfortunes, will its inhabitants at last be able to look forward to a real “spring.”

It follows that Western policymakers must frankly confront the “challenge posed by their Islamist adversaries” before “their policies stand the slightest chance of success.”

Through his sweeping history, Karsh reinterprets the influence of Western policies on the modern Middle East. His book serves as a rebuke both to those who portray the West as the region’s decisive influence, and those who fantasize about reshaping it through “democracy” or other “humanitarian” endeavors. Both underrate the impact of the local actors and their ideas.