This essay was first published in the Palestine Chronicle 2010 06 16.
Quicksand - America’s Pursuit of Power in the Middle East. Geoffrey Wawro. Penguin Press, New York, 2010.
From first impression to last impression this book, like its title Quicksand, is deceptive. Even the first physical impression, the physical structure of the book itself - its glossy pages and high quality binding - is designed to impress the reader. Initially the history is written powerfully and revealingly, highlighting information that I have not encountered within other histories of U.S. imperial adventures in the Middle East.
However as the story unfolds, particularly in the final third of the book, a different sense akin to déjà vu surfaces, as the history becomes more of a current events crisis without the in-depth analysis and critique that should have accompanied it. The end result is that instead of discussing the general Middle East geopolitical context and the power of the Israeli lobby within the U.S. - not to mention the lack of global context within the over-riding imperial intent of the United States since its inception - and there are many texts that support that analysis - the history ends leaving a feeling that, well, yes, the U.S. has made some mistakes in their relationships in the Middle East, but their intentions were good.
As well, the book ends with the Iraq war and only the briefest of mention of post Iraq war events (of course the war continues, a downgraded insurgency struggle) that should have been covered in a work with a 2010 publication date. The final section “Conclusion” provides very little in the way of substantive answers and only reinforces the déjà vu sensation of too little analysis of supposedly good intentions.
The last impression of the work is of a poorly analysed position, or more correctly, one viewed through the rose coloured lenses of U.S. beneficence and magnanimity towards the world in general. It begins by reviewing the Iranian situation, using language with either an obvious bias or an obvious ignorance - perhaps both - as the “Iranian security forces are taking their cues from the shah and SAVAK; because the shah was so gentle, he fell.” Oh…really!?? From that interesting and singular interpretation, Wawro then goes briefly into Iran’s nuclear program and “Iran’s curious animosity toward Israel,” as it makes “Israeli pre-emption or massive retaliation inevitable.” Yet there is no reminder at this point of U.S. machinations in the region, nor the U.S.’s strange ‘alliance’ with Israel, nor the double standard that allows Israel to have all the nuclear power in the region outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) while Iran is working legally within the NPT.
Then there is a quick turn to the AfPak war where “polls reveal (at last!) that al-Queda and the Taliban are unpopular,” without revealing the polls in Pakistan that the U.S. influence and presence are well below ‘unpopular’ and considered by the vast majority to be at the root of many of the regions problems.
If that first section of the Conclusion had been edited out, the second part would make more sense, as it reviews the overall political structure of the U.S./Israeli alliance, “a case of the tail wagging the dog.” The conclusion, as it should, then turns on looking for solutions to the problems of the region.
Saudi Arabia is recognized for what it is, a tribal clannish non-democratic fundamentalist regime supported by the U.S. desire for oil. The current position is one of “making use of them and letting them make use of us until the oil runs out.” For what began as such a clear headed analysis, the effort fizzles out at this point, only saying, “Until we speak with a coherent voice…we will not have a credible policy for [the Middle East].” Jihadi terrorism is recognized as the “new great danger” yet there is no substantive analysis of the terror, nor the U.S. role in creating it, and I refer to the U.S. overall presence in the region and not just the support provided to the Afghan mujahideen in the Afghan-Soviet war.
Wawro recognizes also that “We must have our reckoning with Israel too.” But what that reckoning is or how to work it is not described. He recognizes the history of Israel, “helped by astonishing sums of U.S. foreign aid” to build “a prosperous economy, a potent military, and a vibrant democracy.” Two out of three is not all that bad, at least for the Israelis. The argument is made that the U.S. cannot exert real influence for positive change in the Middle East until it first breaks a lance for the people who were run out of their homes in 1948.” Yes, agreed, but how? What lance is to be broken - the dollar supply, the military supplies and technology, the AIPAC lobby influence, the neocon agenda, the Israeli nuclear dominance of the region - all of the above?
Unfortunately, U.S. policy is - as was well presented during the first section of the book - one of kowtowing to the domestic pressures of the expected Jewish vote in order to become elected. Internal domestic political expediency over-rules any intelligent thought within the U.S. body politic. The financial corporate agenda rules and until that lance is broken, not much else will change. In other words, fix yourselves first before even thinking about fixing the world, it will do us all a world of good.
I find it interesting that many of the U.S. pundits propose that Iran could “offer a more stable and prosperous region, and become part of the solution, not the problem, in Iraq and Afghanistan” whereas I thought that the main part of the solution in Iraq and Afghanistan (and on into Pakistan) would be for the U.S. to back down and stand off in its phoney global war on terror, much of it instigated and created by its own imperial actions around the world. It reminds me of the call that “all foreigners” should leave the area or face U.S. military forces….and what part of that contradictory double standard does the U.S. not comprehend?
Afghanistan, terror wars, and imperialism
Again mixing good analysis with the bad, Wawro returns to Afghanistan and terror saying “the name Enduring Freedom was aptly chosen, but suggests the freedom to kill and maim more than anything else.” The analysis fails with more current events concurrent with the publication of the book, as he argues that the U.S. is “dialing back artillery and air strikes, creating security through continuous NATO force presence in contested areas…crushing out the sanctuaries…and hoping for the best.” With Marjah being the ‘continuous force presence’ that is demonstrably not working, with U.S. and NATO casualties being their worst of the war, with air strikes giving way to drones (so what’s the difference…other than the operator being even more remotely located than in an airplane?), and with the ‘sanctuaries’ being nothing more than most of Afghanistan and Pakistan - it is after all an insurgency rather than a terror war - the only thing left is “hoping for the best,” not at all a good recommendation when considering how U.S. forces have served as imperial jackboots around the world.
The imperial motif is reinforced by Wawro’s reference to a British official in 1966, saying, “Change is something the Arabs must do themselves. We have no alternative but to sit this one out…until the ranting and shadow-boxing about ‘imperialism’ is treated as depassse.” Yes that would be nice, if the British and U.S. would sit this one out, would take their very real and non-shadowy imperialism and go home with it. Imperialism will not be depasse until it is gone, other wise the statement only supports my critique of Wawro looking at the situation through the rose tinted glasses of supposed U.S. beneficence.
The final words of the book are all too true, returning fully to the quicksand metaphor, a “state of nature” within which human exertions cause the awful stuff to become inescapable: “Let us move deliberately and powerfully to the edge of the morass, and climb out.” Good idea. Simple idea. Not likely to happen within the current state of the economy and global geopolitics.
And now the rest of the story….
The rest of Wawro’s story, before becoming stuck in his own analytical quicksand, is very well written. Put simply, without going into a lot of quotes and references, is that the U.S. has acted through arrogance, ignorance, and political domestic expediency. The perpetuation of those three qualities through the corporate controlled media, and the desire of the corporate-political-military elites to retain the wealth and control of the nation and the world will keep the U.S. mired in its quicksand for some time yet.
The first two thirds of Quicksand are impressively written, providing an excellent background into the U.S. quagmire in the Middle East. It is well worth reading for that alone, but be prepared to wear some rose coloured spectacles while reading the last third.