In his analysis of American policy in the Middle East, Professor Freedman reveals the unavoidable historical choices confronting American presidents since 1977. US political leaders more often than not found themselves reacting to events rather than shaping them.
By Professor Nigel J Ashton, for RUSI.org
In this shrewd and dense analysis of three decades of American policy in the Middle East, Lawrence Freedman recounts in masterful detail the trials and tribulations of successive US presidents from Jimmy Carter to George W Bush. Shunning any over-arching theoretical framework, Freedman concentrates on illuminating the role of individual agency, especially at presidential level, in American policy-making. What is perhaps most striking about his account is the way in which American presidents, despite the United States’ position as regional hegemon, more often found themselves reacting to events rather than shaping them. Whether in the form of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, or the Al-Qa’ida attacks of 2001, US strategy was repeatedly re-fashioned as a result of the initiatives of regional actors.
Freedman’s title, ‘a choice of enemies’ is an interesting choice in itself. While initially selected to reflect the irony of America finding itself in conflict with actors who were themselves regional adversaries, in the shape of Iran, Iraq and Al-Qa’ida, Freedman found that as his research progressed, the irony diminished in the face of unavoidable historical choices. In marked contrast to other recent works on the US role in the region such as Michael Oren’s Power, Faith and Fantasy, or Martin Indyk’s Innocent Abroad, Freedman’s title lays emphasis on the element of rational calculation in US policy-making in the face of unexpected regional challenges. This being so, it is no surprise which administrations emerge with more credit from his account and which are the more criticised. The realism and essential competence of the administration of George H W Bush is contrasted with the idealism and straightforward incompetence of that of his son George W Bush.
But Freedman also has an eye for the ironies with which history confronted these two individuals. Bush Senior whose administration strove for continuity and eschewed idealism and vision, found itself instead presiding over two huge upheavals that threw up opportunities for a thorough-going transformation of the international system. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 destroyed the status quo in Europe and the Middle East and required the administration to indulge in visionary thinking about a ‘new world order’. Meanwhile, Bush Junior, whom Freedman describes as ‘neither articulate nor intellectually curious’, presided over an effective revolution in US strategy in the wake of 9/11 in which potential threats had to be dealt with before they became real, and the regional status quo had to be overturned.
Freedman is suitably scathing about the resulting invasion of Iraq in 2003. Rather than mobilising the resources of the US government to ensure that answers were found to difficult questions, the principal figures in the Bush administration instead made a determined effort to ignore all available expertise. The President’s own lack of intellectual curiosity was reflected in the administration’s approach: there was neither a set-piece debate amongst his advisers, nor any formal decision-making process leading up to the decision to go to war. Similarly, advice from the CIA and State Department about the problems likely to face the US after the invasion was disregarded by the Pentagon. Freedman points to the almost complete lack of in-house expertise which confronted Jay Garner, the retired general charged with the initial running of Iraq. Iraqis waited in vain for the all-conquering Americans to turn on the electricity, get the water running, fix buildings, and provide basic security. The first two years after the invasion were, in Freedman’s view, essentially lost.
In the light of this chronicle of disaster and incompetence the decision of George H W Bush to halt US forces short of a full-scale occupation of Iraq in 1991 only comes to look wiser in hindsight. Indeed, underlining his sympathy for the approach of Bush Senior, Freedman draws a number of lessons in his conclusion of which the most important is the need to understand the limits of power and the difficulty of controlling events: better to stop short, then, rather than to take a step too far in an unpredictable region. Similarly, Freedman cautions against bold transformative projects: far better for the United States to read the grain of local politics and to work with it as far as possible.
Policy-makers looking for ‘lessons from history’, then, will find Freedman inclined to counsel modesty, caution and limited ambition. But they, like specialists and informed general readers, will profit from reading this remarkably well balanced historical account of the US’s role in the region. Of course, there are quibbles: it is arguable that 1967 rather than 1977 would make a more effective starting point for such a study since the June war not only transformed the region, but also the role of the US in it. Similarly, those who like the red meat of Middle Eastern political debate may find Freedman a little too inclined occasionally to see all points of view. But overall this is a very significant work of scholarship reflecting considerable research and reflection, and presenting a convincing strategic overview of the United States’ role in the Middle East.
Nigel J Ashton is Professor in International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science.