Book Review: A World of Trouble


Book Review: A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East – from the Cold War to the War on Terror Patrick Tyler New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2009

October 29th, 1956, just days after the Soviet Union invaded Hungary with ground forces, the Israeli army swept in Egyptian territory. This action launched the first stage in an ultimately failed joint Anglo-French effort to regain its colonial possession: the Suez Canal and the $100 million in revenues each year their control over it produced.

To achieve this aim, British and French officials clearly used Israel's anxiety about its security and its ambitious expansionist goals in a region with regularly shifting frontiers, alliances and power blocs. In existence as a nation for just eight years, and having been recognized by the two major competing global powers – the US and the USSR – Israel came under attack by its neighbors. In the ensuing conflict, outrages and atrocities were committed on both sides with the intention of demonstrating power and resolve to whip the other into accepting their presence.

Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, however, was not satisfied with a stalemate or any efforts by the US or other countries to pursue a peace process. According to Patrick Tyler, in his new book, A World of Trouble, Ben-Gurion sought military supremacy, control of atomic weapons, as well as new strategic alliances that would help defeat Israel's neighbors.

Into this complicated situation stepped Egyptian dictator Gamel Abdel Nasser. Nasser had risen to power with the aid of the Egyptian Communists and the far-right Muslim Brotherhood, both of whom he subsequently rounded up and housed in what, to many people fresh from the experience of the Holocaust in Europe, seemed like concentration camps.

Nasser then sought to establish himself as the leader of the emergent Arab nationalist movement by challenging Israel's right to exist and by challenging the regional hegemony of the global powers that had helped Israel into existence – Britain, the USSR and the US.

Initially courted by the Eisenhower administration, especially after he began killing and imprisoning communists, Nasser sought massive US military and development aid. The Eisenhower administration sent positive signals, but with the added condition that Nasser abandon his independence and become a US satellite in the Cold War.

Nasser responded by showing up at the Bandung Conference in 1955 as a participant in the Non-Aligned Movement, shaking hands with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and rubbing shoulders with world leaders who had rejected US advances.

Tops blew in Washington. A consensus emerged in the Eisenhower administration that Nasser had to go, but through non-military interventionist means. This decision came hard on the heels of the Eisenhower-ordered CIA operations in Guatemala to unseat democratically-elected President Jacobo Arbenz and and Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh.

Still, Nasser survived Washington's wrath, if only because he remained strategically useful to the Eisenhower administration against Soviet influence in the Middle East.

Tyler's well-researched volume traces the this example of the US government's interventions and machinations in the Middle East from the 1950s through the George W. Bush administration. It draws heavily on de-classified and hard-to-find government documents to give an insider's view of high level diplomatic meetings and communications between US presidents and other top officials as well as top diplomats and leaders of Israel, Egypt, the Soviet Union and other countries. Tyler's work is often revealing, especially about Israel's nuclear ambitions beginning in the 1950s and its secret strategic and tactical goals through the extensive period under study.

This must-read book documents the dynamic, often contradictory positions the US government adopted toward Middle East issues. While history not political solutions is the subject of Tyler's work, the book reveals the need for a radical re-orientation of US aims, including a diplomatic surge that includes all of the regional actors as equals, presses for a long-term settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that recognizes Israel's security concerns but also the special rights of the Palestinian people, their need for a recognized state, and for political and economic development on a cooperative and equal basis.