A Concise History


Avi Shlaim

Penguin Books, 1995, 151 pp. 



Shlaim is an Oxford professor of international relations.  He paints a political history of the Middle East since World War I.  In particular he describes how the various powers inside and outside the region have failed to produce peace.  As opposed to Friedman (Longitudes & Attitudes), Shlaim particularly blames Israel and America.  He sees Reagan’s policy as contradictory, Bush’s as evenhanded, and Clinton’s as pro-Israel.  America’s mistakes arose from playing everything against the Soviets and putting Israel first.  He plays down the Islamic threat (dismissing Huntington’s projected Clash of Civilizations) and urges America to take a constructive, problem solving, regionalist (i.e. evenhanded) approach.


Of course the book was written before the presidency of George W. Bush, the 9/11 Attack, and the 2003 Iraq War.  However it provides a historical background to these events.


“External involvement in Middle East affairs in the twentieth century may be divided into four phases: the Ottoman, the European, the superpower, and the American.” (5)  “The European phase, during which Britain and France played the leading roles, lasted roughly from the end of World War I until the 1956 Suez crisis.” (6) 

Colonial rule was followed by the rise to independence of local states, influenced by the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  This phase lasted until 1991.  The end of the Cold War left America dominant in world politics.  (7)


After the Gulf war, “having struggled against Western domination for most of the twentieth century, the Arab world was thrust back into a position of weakness, dependence, and subservience.”  “A century that saw the rise and decline of Western rule in the Middle East ended with its reimposition.”  (9)


Ch 1.  The Post-Ottoman Syndrome

During World War I the British made a number of promises, some of which conflicted after the War.  The Balfour Declaration pledged British support for a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.  Britain played the primary role in setting national boundaries and establishing national leadership.  Iraq’s borders were arbitrary, designed to suit Britain’s political and commercial interests, combining northern and southern oil fields and three peoples (Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites). 


The British assumed that Palestinians and Jews could leave peaceably in a single state, but Britain’s obligation to the Jews could only be met at the expense of the Arab majority.  “Palestine Arabs were united in their refusal to recognize the legality or authority of the British mandate and by their fear of Zionist intrusion.  Their struggle was about self-preservation and self-determination.” (15)


Britain created states and nominated persons to govern, but most of the new states were weak and unstable, the rulers lacked legitimacy, and the frontiers were arbitrary, illogical, and unjust.  The powerful secular and religious forces rejected both the system and a consensus on the rules of the political game, and a belt of turmoil and instability has remained ever since.  (17-18) 


In 1937 a British Royal Commission recommended partitioning Palestine between Palestinians and Jews.  Of course, the Palestinian Arabs rejected the idea.  The neighboring Arab states became involved in the conflict and have remained involved ever since. (21)  In 1948, the Jews proclaimed their own state and in the ensuing Arab-Israeli war, extended their borders beyond the UN recommended lines.  Transjordan (Jordan) annexed the West Bank, and the Palestinians lost their homeland. (22)  “It was a year of Jewish triumph and Palestinian tragedy.”  (23)


Although America played a peripheral role in the formation of the state of Israel, the Arabs see “America as Israel’s co-sponsor, and this perception is the source of a deep and abiding hostility and mistrust.” (26)


“After the British mandate over Palestine expired and the State of Israel was established, the international politics of the Middle East could be reduced to three essential dimensions: the Arab-Israeli conflict, inter-Arab relations, and great power involvement in the affairs of the region.”  The Palestinian problem continues to be the core issue of international affairs in the region.  (26)


Ch 2.  Succeeding John Bull

Until the 90’s, American Middle East policy was colored by the fierce rivalry of the Cold War.


(Britain’s) “withdrawal from the Persian Gulf symbolized the end of Pax Britannica, and for the region, the relatively stable period of British dominance.  It also meant the end of a security system that had operated in Arabia since the first half of the 19th century.” (36)


Ch 3.  America Between Arabs and Israelis

“One of the principal legacies of European domination of the Middle East is borders arbitrarily imposed and therefore disputed and unstable.” (37)


The U.S. had four basic interests in the Middle East: containing Soviet influence and expansion, access to oil, curbing Arab radicalism, and commitment to Israel. (38) The first three are reinforcing, but the commitment to Israel does not easily fit into the same framework.  (39)


American policy theorists could be categorized as pro-Israel globalists and more evenhanded regionalists.  The former tended to see the Arab world as “so backward, so seething with hostility, and so endemically volatile that it precluded a durable peace.” (40)  “The special relationship between America and Israel rests on a foundation of cultural affinity and common values” as well as the power of the Jewish lobby. (41) 


“The military prowess Israel demonstrated in the Six-Day War helped transform the unequal U.S.-Israel relationship into a strategic partnership.” (45)


Following Sadat’s rise to power in Egypt, there was opportunity for a negotiated settlement.  “The chance was missed not because of the Soviet stand but as a result of Israeli intransigence backed by global strategists in the White House.” (47).


The wording of the Camp David Accords left some issues vague.  “(President) Carter saw the Camp David accords as the first step in a process that would lead to a comprehensive peace between Israel and all its neighbors.”  “(But) Begin was convinced that in return for relinquishing Sinai he had secured Israel’s right to retain the West Bank and Gaza.” (52)


“America seriously underestimated the risks of military intervention in Lebanon (in 1982) and the violent opposition it was bound to provoke from different groups….”  Reagan’s decision to withdraw from Lebanon, “dealt a terrible blow to America’s prestige in the Arab world…” (56)


Ch 4.  Realpolitik in the Gulf

In the Persian Gulf, America had two interests: the independence and security of the oil-producing states (ensuring access to oil) and to contain the Soviets.  (60)


Iran became the key pillar of support for American interests in the Gulf.  The Saudi’s became the secondary pillar. (62)  America countered Soviet arms supplied to Iraq by supplying arms to Iran, as much as half of total arms sales abroad.  American companies scrambled for lucrative contracts, contributing to Iranian domestic problems.  Iran’s overspending on arms led to inflation and corruption.  “The increased exposure to Western ideas also disturbed Islamic fundamentalists.”  These factors alienated the Iranian people from their ruler and eventually led to the internal revolt and takeover by the Muslim radical Khomeni.


The Arab Gulf states made an effective contribution to the 1973 Yom Kippur War by restricting oil exports to America and supporters of Israel.  The oil shock resulted in a massive transfer of resources from the industrialized countries to the oil producers.  The Gulf became heavily militarized without any perceptible gain in either regional security or internal stability.  (65-6)


With the collapse of the shah’s regime in Iran, America lost prestige and credibility, a close ally, links with the Iranian military, its monitoring stations near the Soviet border, and a lucrative export market.  Further, the increase in oil prices from $13 to $34 a barrel had serious impact on the world economy. (68)


“A fundamental tenet of the revolution was that Iran had a God-given mission to export the Islamic system of government to the corrupt pro-Western and anti-Islamic countries of the Persian Gulf.” (69)


“Ayatollah Khomeini’s ‘neither East nor West’ was not a mere slogan but a central principle in revolutionary Iran’s foreign policy. It implied the creation of an Islamic bloc….” (69)


Ch 5.  Tilting Toward Iraq

The author hints that Reagan may have made a secret deal with Tehran to release the hostages after the election. (73) The Gulf became a strategic chessboard for the superpowers.  Reagan’s policy was erratic and contradictory because of competing objectives: combating the Soviets, supporting Israel, and maintaining access to oil.  (76)


During the Iran-Iraq war, Washington tilted toward Iraq because of the fear that Islamic fundamentalism would spread if should Iran win.  (79)  “America’s policy toward Iran left a bitter legacy of suspicion and hostility.  Its policy toward Iraq, although inconsistent, ended up by accepting Saddam Hussein as a junior partner in preserving the status quo in the ‘gulf, another remarkable irony….” (87)


Ch 6.  Desert Shield and Desert Storm

“During the Iran-Iraq War the oil-rich Gulf states and the Western powers, including America, helped create a monster in the shape of Saddam Hussein.”  “Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait can be seen as the last chapter in the Iran-Iraq War.”  (88-9)


“Instead of using Iraq’s oil revenues to repay $70 billion in war debts, he increased his military capability, developing weapons of mass destruction.  Western companies did brisk business with Saddam, and Western governments did little to discourage them.”  (91)


“Since most Iraqis had been brought up to think that Kuwait was part of their country, Saddam could pose as the liberator of usurped Iraqi land.”  “Saddam probably hoped to solve his financial problems with one stroke.” (94-5)


During the War Bush repeatedly stated that he would not allow Saddam’s government to survive and called on the Iraq people to revolt.  When the Shiites rose up in the south and the Kurds in the north, Bush backed off.  There seemed to be a lack of confidence that democracy could succeed and Sunni minority rule through force was the only way to keep the country in one piece.  “The chief villain…managed to cling to power.”  (101-2)


Ch 7.  Madrid and After

“The collapse of the Soviet Union as a superpower orphaned Moscow’s military clients—Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and the radical Palestinian factions…”  “Without Soviet arms and diplomatic backing, Arab radicals could do little except sulk in their tents.”  “America became the dominant power, nearly reducing the Soviet Union to the level of an assistant.” (104-5)


Ch 8.  Pax Americana

Desert Storm enabled America to “kick the Vietnam syndrome.”  But it did nothing to enable the Arabs to “kick the post-Ottoman syndrome.” (132)  Since the Ottoman Empire, the boundaries drawn by outsiders have been considered illegitimate by the inhabitants, creating a belt of instability from the Mediterranean to the Gulf.  Restless Iraq is one of the least homogeneous nation-states.  (133)


The Gulf War marked the beginning of America’s moment in the Middle East. (134) 


President Bush’s “New World Order,” was not a campaign to created a democratic revolution.  “Oppressed minorities like the Kurds and irredentist groups like the Shiites received no support from America in their struggle for political reform.” (135)  “The Third World also saw the war as a Western crusade against the Arabs.” (136) 


“Instability is endemic in the Middle East, and nothing will eradicate it.” (143)