The Desert Queen – A Film by Werner Herzog

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(The Real Gertrude Bell)

Just watched Werner Herzog’s 2014 film, the “Desert Queen” staring Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell whose impact over British policy in the Middle East during and after World War I was quite impactful.  Hers was a rich life that reflected her work as a historian, archeologist, and later as a politician or pseudo diplomat.  The film is rather slow moving and dull in spots, however the cinematography is nicely portrayed.  The scenes with Churchill and T.E. Lawrence were poorly done, though we do get a sense of their egos.  Devoting over half the film to Bell’s love life as opposed to her research and work with the Bedouin and her influence over British policy is a misuse of time and “the Desert Queen’s” gifts.  Nicole Kidman masks a strong effort to accurately portray Bell, but overall the film could have learned a lesson from David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” though Herzog’s musical score does measure up.

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(Picture is replicated in film, with Churchill, Bell and company)

One watches the film, and follows Bell/Kidman travel the desert and after two hours, she finally meets with the Sharif of Mecca’s son’s Faisal and Abdullah and she sees them as future kings.  Though true, this could have been presented in a bit more greater depth, though their pet falcons were a nice touch.  If one is looking to learn about Gertrude Bell and I would steer toward two books, GERTRUDE BELL: QUEEN OF THE DESERT, SHAPER OF NATIONS by Georgina Bell, and DESERT QUEEN: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF GERTRUDE BELL: ADVENTURER, ADVISOR TO KINGS, AND ALLY OF LAWRENCE OF ARABIA by Janet Wallach.

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(Gertrude Bell)

FAREWELL TO KABUL: FROM AFGHANISTAN TO A MORE DANGEROUS WORLD by Christina Lamb

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(author, Christina Lamb in Afghanistan)

Christina Lamb begins her heartfelt memoir of 27 years of reporting from Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Washington in FAREWELL KABUL: FROM AFGHANISTAN TO A MORE DANGEROUS WORLD by describing the British withdrawal ceremony in Helmand province, Afghanistan that for her symbolized the transfer of power to the Afghan army.  It might have been a happy occasion, but for Lamb it reminded her of the numerous errors in British policy in the region, the 453 British soldiers who were killed, the hundreds who had lost limbs to roadside bombs, and those psychologically scarred for life.  Lamb also points to the tens of thousands of Afghans who had lost relatives, homes, and who had become refugees.  By October, 2014 England was ending its 4th war in Afghanistan dating back to the 19th century, but this was their longest and leadership was determined to remove all evidence that they were ever there.  What remained was a war that continues today, and it seems as if it has come full circle as there are current reports that the Russian government is supplying weapons to the Taliban, an organization who as mujahedeen had defeated the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Lamb presents an excellent history of a period of Anglo-American foreign policy that is wrought with mistakes, ignorance, and doing too little too late.  In so doing, Lamb discusses an exceptional amount of information and analysis interspersed with her personal observations of her tenure in southwest Asia.  She follows the story from the Soviet invasion of 1979, their ultimate defeat, the failure of the United States to maintain interest in the area, the rise of the Taliban, the American invasion, the tragedy of Iraq, the resurgence of the Taliban, the Mumbai attack, the killing of Bin-Laden, and the final withdrawal of American and NATO troops by 2014.  What is amazing is that Lamb seems to be everywhere that major events are transpiring.  Further, her “army” of contacts and sources make her writing indispensable to understand the history of the region.

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One of her most telling comments among many throughout her narrative is that the United States had spent more money in Afghanistan than it had on the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II.  Lamb watched events in Afghanistan for over 13 years and wondered how a war could be fought when there was no real border with Pakistan, which provided the enemy with safe haven.  Further, she was incredulous when the United States fought a war on the “cheap,” committing few troops and soon becoming distracted by a new war in Iraq of its own making based on false information.  In addition, the US turned a blind eye to its “supposed” ally, Pakistan whose intelligence service, the ISI had created the Taliban and provided an escape route for Osama Bin-Laden when American Special Forces had him cornered in Tora Bora in December, 2001.  The entire operation and decision making can be summed up in one term, and I apologize if it insults some – a “cluster-fuck.”  Much of Lamb’s analysis reminds me of Francis Fitzgerald’s FIRE IN THE LAKE, as the United States seemed purposefully ignorant of the culture that they were up against and did little to rectify it until it was too late.

Throughout her memoir Lamb describes the beautiful landscapes that she experienced, be it the Hindu Kush or the flowers and beautiful kites of Kabul.  Despite all the tragedies that she witnessed she always seems to return to the joys that mother-nature afforded.  It seems to me the major tragedy was how the Bush administration brushed off all warnings concerning a possible al-Qaeda attack from CIA Director George Tenet, Richard Clarke, Clinton’s terror advisor, members of the Northern Alliance, and even from Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Bush advisors saw this as sour grapes since the Russians had been defeated in Afghanistan by Bin-Laden and Company and the result was 9/11.

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(Pakistani President Parvis Musharraf)

Lamb describes numerous characters who are germane to her story.  The first, is indicative of the myriad of types she ran across.  Wais Faizi, who managed the Mustafa Hotel and had lived in the United States, was known as “the Fonz of Kabul,” and drove around in a 1968 Chevy Camaro convertible.  More significant was her relationship with Hamid Karzai who at the outset warned that the ISI was funneling American aid money to the Taliban.  Lamb follows Karzai’s political career and his tenuous relationship with the United States and Pakistan throughout his presidency.  James Dobbins, the United States Special Negotiator for Afghanistan is introduced with his requests from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for 25,000 American troops to stabilize Afghanistan once the Taliban were on the run.  His response sets the theme for US policy – they were already planning for Iraq by December, 2001 and stated that “we don’t do police work.”  CIA operative Gary Bersten is another character that is symbolic of American negligence in response to 9/11.  Bersten was with a small group of special operatives working with Afghan tribal forces trying to root out al-Qaeda and Bin-Laden from Tora Bora.  He requested troops to seal the Afghani-Pakistan border to block their escape.  Rumsfeld and the Bush administration refused as General Tommy Franks was already gaming the coming war in Iraq.  A 2009 Senate report reinforced Bersten’s view that the United States had passed on killing Bin-Laden – we can only conjecture how history might have been altered had we not done so.

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(Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai)

Of course Lamb describes the duplicity of General Parvis Musharraf, the Pakistani leader who the US tried to convince to turn against the Taliban.  But he had his own difficulties with the Islamized leadership of his military and the ISI’s relationship with the Taliban.  Musharraf did his best to squeeze the United States and in the end both sides gained what it wanted.  Lamb’s explanations are clear, succinct, and easily understood with vignettes that are priceless, i.e., according to Undersecretary of Defense Richard Armitage on the topic of whether the Pakistanis could be trusted, “with Pakistan you get part of the story, never the whole story….How do you know when the Pakistanis are lying?  Their lips are moving.”

Lamb’s discussion of the ISI-Taliban relationship goes back to 1979 and is developed through the Taliban’s victory in 1994.  In a chapter entitled “Meeting Colonel Imam” Lamb lays out the history of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the development and training of the Taliban under the leadership of Amir Sultan Tamar, a Brigadier General in the Pakistani army who had trained with American Special Forces in 1974.  Tamar reviewed the history of ISI control of the Afghan war against the Soviets and how they trained and armed the Islamic resistance.  The ISI pulled the wool over American eyes as they controlled weapon distribution and strategy against the Soviets until they forced them out in 1989.  The American role and naïveté is plain for all to see.  Once the Soviets left, and the US turned away from Afghanistan, the ISI and its Taliban allies would achieve power in Kabul.  Lamb’s analysis and depth of knowledge contribute to an understanding of how the US was duped by the Pakistanis in the 1980s, a process that would continue for decades.

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(Kabul, Afghanistan)

In reading Lamb’s memoir one can only become frustrated and angry.  She castigated British policy makers as on a number of occasions they placed their soldiers in untenable situations without the proper equipment.  Her discussion of Sangin, the world’s largest narco state, is unnerving and resulted in numerous deaths that could have been prevented.  Her comments at times are sarcastic and acerbic as she describes what was supposed to be the “post-Taliban world.”  Her access to Karzai allows her to pinpoint the problem that is Afghanistan; corruption, tribal rivalry, the lack of border control, and his relationship with Pakistani President Musharraf.  Lamb confronts Karzai repeatedly and receives the same tired answers dealing with security and trying to balance the different tribal interests.  The greatest problems seem to center on Islamic infiltration of the Pakistani military, and the radicalization of South Waziristan on the Pakistani border.  This created sanctuary and infiltration routes for the Taliban to return to Afghanistan.  By 2007 they had returned in full creating a renewed Afghani civil war.

Lamb zeroes in on the British role in Helmand province and the problem created by the drug trade. Helmand produces 95% of the opium smuggled into Europe.  Further, since the opium poppies grown by Afghani farmers are their only source of income it becomes almost impossible to make positive inroads because there is no substitute to support their families.  Lamb’s discussion of the interrelationship between the drug trade, the warlords, government corruption, the Taliban, and plight of the farmers is excellent.

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(Taliban fighter, Helmand Province)

One of the most poignant and aggravating chapters in the book deals with the murder of a young female poet, Nadia Anjuman by her husband.  Lamb uses her life story as a vehicle to describe the lives of women under the Taliban and Karzai regimes.  Using the Herat Literary Society to focus on the treatment of women, Lamb describes the lives of women from the lowliest wife, to a woman who created a factory to produce jam, to the only female prosecutor in Afghanistan, to an outspoken female member of parliament, all who lived in fear for their lives.  On paper it may have appeared that the plight of women improved once the Taliban was defeated, but today the reality is the opposite.

Lamb takes the reader through Afghan history since the 19th century by presenting an “assassination tour,” describing the deaths of most Afghani kings and presidents.  It is no wonder that Karzai is called the “mayor of Kabul.”  Violence in Afghanistan increased in 2006 as the Taliban began to adopt Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s tactics from Iraq – ieds, suicide bombers etc.  Lamb also provides repeated examples of Pakistani duplicity by allowing rocket attacks from its territory, supplying weapons and safe haven for the Taliban, and the two-faced approach of President Musharraf, despite receiving $100 million in aid per month.  The end result is 2.6 million Afghani refugees in Pakistan.  Dealing with Musharraf was surreal, almost an alternate reality as the US tried to influence his actions.  For the Pakistani president it was more important to keep his border with Afghanistan calm so he could concentrate on Kashmir and India.  The assassination of Benazir Bhutto fit the pattern of violence that was growing worse within Pakistan under Musharraf.  Her return in 2007 angered the Pakistani military who saw her as a political and economic threat, ultimately causing her death.  The military denied complicity, but all the evidence seems to lead to their leadership.

According to British General Martin Carlton-Smith, by 2008 the goal of ending the insurgency in Helmand was giving way to reducing it sufficiently in order for the Afghan army to take control in some manageable way.  London realized that the only solution was by negotiating with the Taliban.  A political settlement was the only way to bring peace as it had done in Northern Ireland.  For Lamb it was the first time higher ups had admitted the war could not be won militarily.  When these comments went public, taken in association with British withdrawal from Basra in Iraq in September, 2007, and major disagreements between the US and British commands, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates saw it as defeatism.

However, by 2008 the Taliban controlled two-thirds of Afghanistan and grew increasingly daring as they set their sights on Kabul with a series of devastating suicide bombings and assassinations.  Evidence emerged that attacks on the Indian embassy and the Kabul Serena Hotel were directed by Pakistani handlers.  A CIA investigation led to the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, a group with strong ties to the ISI.  With the attacks the US could no longer ignore what their Pakistani ally was perpetrating.  For Washington it served as a wake up for the reality that was Pakistan.

By 2009 Lamb was transferred to Washington as she was fascinated by the new Obama administration.  What followed was the disjointed policy of a president who wanted to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Obama was a conflicted president who had no desire to continue fighting.  He distrusted his military leadership and the feelings were reciprocated.  Lamb presents Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus and their larger than life personalities and strategies.  But the overriding concern was Obama’s view of wars that he had little interest in continuing.  In addition, Lamb is correct that the problem was not military but political, especially in Afghanistan where the government was the fifth most corrupt regime in the world and the people had no faith in “Karzai Incorporated.”  Petraeus knew early on that for counter-insurgency to work you needed local partners.  Instead he had Karzai and Musharraf’s successor, Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower.  Lamb concludes that Obama and Joe Biden, his Vice President were out of their league and despite agreeing to a surge of 30,000 troops he set a deadline for their return – telegraphing to the Taliban to hang on for two more years.  After accompanying Biden to Islamabad, US Senator Lindsay Graham summed it up best, “the whole fucking place is burning down here, pal!”

There is a sadness to Lamb’s account in that so many errors were made and so much duplicity existed as she encounters the myriad of factions that existed in the region.  By 2014 when her story ends things have grown increasingly worse, more so than they might have been before 9/11.  For Lamb, the region is like a magnet whose pull she could not escape.  Even when all seemed lost she is drawn to one final visit.  There have been many books written about events in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but Lamb‘s account must be placed very close to the top of the list, particularly because of her values and journalistic expertise.

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(author, Christina Lamb in Afghanistan)

THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF BENJAMIN NETANYAHU by Neill Lochery

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(Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu)

A few days ago the United States withheld its veto of a resolution in the United Nations Security Council demanding that Israel end its settlement expansion in occupied Palestinian territory.  Reflecting the Obama administration’s frustration with Israeli settlement policy it broke with the long tradition of Washington shielding Israel from UN condemnation.  It further points to President Obama’s final “shot” at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a man that the administration has been at “diplomatic war” the last few years be it over the Iranian Treaty or settlement policy.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has let it be known that he is looking forward to the inauguration of Donald Trump and smoother relations with the United States.  The situation in the Middle East has put Netanyahu in the news a great of late and it is propitious that Neill Lochery, a Professor of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Studies at University College London has published his new book, THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF BENJAMIN NETANYAHU at this time.  The work is not a traditional biography, though the most salient aspects of his family background and the course of his life is presented.  Instead of a chronological approach Lochery presents his subject by a series of nine of the most decisive moments in Netanyahu’s career to tell his life’s story.

The key theme that Lochery develops is that Netanyahu has been “more American” and “less Israeli” throughout his life.  Lochery points out that Netanyahu did not fit “into the notorious closed and business elites in Israel,” a country that remains wary of outsiders, and many see the current Prime Minister as a stranger, even after all of these years.  It is difficult in assessing Netanyahu’s career because I wonder what the man stands for other than his own political survival.  Lochery understands this dilemma and does his best to deal with it as Netanyahu places numerous roadblocks in the path of diplomacy, doing his best to retain the status quo.  However, if Netanyahu survives the next two years in office he will become Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister, even surpassing, David Ben-Gurion, with his negative attitude toward the rest of the Middle East, the Palestinians, and at times, the United States.

The arrival of Netanyahu on the Israeli political scene in 1990 was part of a wider cultural revolution in Israel that ushered in the “Americanization” of Israeli politics, media, and business.  The key to Netanyahu’s rapid rise was his telegenic face and oratory style.  As the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1 was ushered into our living rooms on CNN with its 24 hour news cycle, Netanyahu began to appear regularly as Israel’s chief spokesperson during the war.  As his popularity rose outside of Israel, the elites in the Jewish state did not take him seriously which contributed to his rapid rise.  Lochery points out that the Bush administration was growing tired of the hawkish Shamir government in Israel, so Netanyahu’s arrival came at a critical time as the war made him a political star, particularly after the 1991 Madrid Conference.

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(Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barak Obama in May, 2009)

Netanyahu’s rise was assisted by changes in the Israeli political process which began to mimick that of the United States.  The institution of primary elections allowed the “Likud Princes,” (young Likud politicians like Netanyahu who had links to Revisionist Zionism) to leap ahead of others on Likud political lists and move toward party leadership quickly.  Another change was the move toward the direct election of the Prime Minister which would greatly assist in Netanyahu’s victory and assumption of the Prime Ministership in 1996.  In part Netanyahu modeled himself after President Clinton in 1992 when he publicly admitted an affair and placed his wife Sara out front in his political campaign.  Further, in what was known as “Bibigate,” (Netanyahu’s nickname was Bibi) which he viewed it as a conspiracy against him.

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was a political disaster for Netanyahu.  Lochery correctly points out that Netanyahu’s virulent public opposition and bombastic accusations against Rabin’s Oslo Accords Agreement with Yasir Arafat had in part been responsible for the assassination.  Netanyahu’s rhetoric had energized right wing extremists who opposed Oslo and one of them, an Israeli student, Yigal Amir shot Rabin.  Netanyahu had compared Rabin’s actions to Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement with Hitler and opponents to Oslo carried signs accusing Rabin of being a “Nazi devil.”

Lochery does an excellent job explaining the factionalism that existed and still exists in Israeli politics that was based on forming coalition governments as ruling parties never seem to be able to gain a direct ruling majority.  This leads to deal making with lesser parties, particularly religious and immigrant factions that the ruling party is then beholden to.  The internal schisms within the party are also developed with an excellent example being the rivalry between Netanyahu who at times appears as an ideologue, and Ariel Sharon’s development into a pragmatic politician.

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(Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin)

With the increase in terror attacks in Israel after Rabin’s assassination, Netanyahu was able to base his campaigns on fear to increase support.  With the first suicide bombing on October 19, 1994 at a bus station that killed 22 and injured well over 100, Netanyahu’s support was energized beyond his right wing base.  Netanyahu was first elected Prime Minister very narrowly (50.4% to 49.5%) over Shimon Peres on May 29, 1996.  Netanyahu’s election campaign was run by Arthur J. Finkelstein, an American political consultant and was funded by a number of rich American contributors, a pattern that would dominate future elections.  Netanyahu outspent Peres on television ads, campaign paraphernalia, and pursued the JFK v. Nixon strategy in their own television debate.  Apart from his media strategy Netanyahu zeroed in on the religious and Russian immigrant vote to win.

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(Yonatan Netanyahu, Benjamin’s older brother killed at Entebbe)

Lochery does a good job developing Netanyahu’s family background and his relationship with his brother.  If there is a criticism to be made, the author does not provide a detailed history of Netanyahu’s family background, particularly his father’s bitterness against Israel and the United States, the impact of his views on Benjamin, and the role he played in early Israeli politics until half way through the narrative.   Benzion was a scholar of Jewish history and the Zionist political movement, and he and Yonatan, his older brother one of Israel’s most decorated soldiers had a profound influence on Benjamin, especially their hawkish views concerning the Arabs. In growing up in the United States Benjamin was greatly influenced by the American political culture.  Unlike his father who was an ideologue, Benjamin saw how pragmatism worked in the American political process and pursued that strategy throughout his political career.  Central to Benzion’s scholarly work was the traditional Zionist ideology of Ze’ev Jabotinsky which rested on the belief that Jews faced racial discrimination and any attempts to reach a compromise with the Arabs was futile.  Yonatan Netanyahu was being groomed as the star of the family.  First, a career in the Israel Defense Force, reach the rank of general, retire to assume a career in politics and eventually become Prime Minister.  Yonatan a hero in the 1973 Yom Kippur War stationed in the Golan Heights was well on his way to fulfilling his father’s dreams when he was the only Israeli soldier killed in the successful Entebbe Raid in Uganda.  Yonatan death was a life changing event for Netanyahu.  His brother had believed that it was better to continuously live by the sword, then lose the state of Israel.  Netanyahu vowed he would achieve everything his brother had hoped to, protect his brother’s legacy, in addition to ingratiating himself with his hard to please father, a man who never showed any emotion.

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(Benjamin and Yonatan Netanyahu)

Another area that Lochery should develop more was Netanyahu’s life in the United States.  He continuously points to America’s influence, but other than a few lines about his business education, connections in America, serving as the Diplomatic Head of Mission to the United States, and Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations between 1982 and 1988, he offers little.

Lochery does a much better job narrating and analyzing Netanyahu’s performance as Prime Minister in dealing with Yasir Arafat and negotiations on the Interim Agreements fostered by Oslo under Rabin.  Netanyahu is a cagy politician who brings in Ariel Sharon as Foreign Minister in order to deal with Likud members who oppose any further negotiations.  Netanyahu realized that President Clinton facing impeachment and the Lewinsky scandal needed a deal at the Wye River Conference resulting in a diplomatic framework that only cost Israel an eight month hold on settlements and the release of 750 Palestinian prisoners.  Lochery’s coverage of the 1999 election is perceptive and he points out that his loss to Ehud Barak and his subsequent resignation of his Likud held seat in the Knesset was a grave error because it allowed Sharon to reorient the party in a direction away from Netanyahu’s approach to governing.  It would take him six years to recover and almost made himself politically irrelevant.

Most of Netanyahu’s problems center on his ego and his belief that only he could effectively rule Israel and that the public trusted him more than any other Israeli politician.  Lochery is correct in arguing that Netanyahu would later unseat Sharon as leader of the Likud coalition by moving further to the right on the Israeli political spectrum as the former war hero had moved to the center.  The campaign began with Netanyahu’s withdrawal from Sharon’s cabinet in 2005 in opposition to complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.  Sharon’s response was to withdraw from Likud and create a new political party, Kadima.  Once Sharon had a stroke, Ehud Olmert replaced him and was elected Prime Minister in 2006, leaving Netanyahu the task of rebuilding a Likud Party that won only 12 seats in the Knesset. Netanyahu’s machinations behind the scene in opposition in the Knesset, the scandals that engulfed Olmert, and other events resulted in new elections in 2009.

Lochery’s analysis of the Israeli electorate throughout the narrative allows the reader to experience the ebb and flow of Israeli politics with great understanding, particularly in 2009, the election that returned Netanyahu to power.  The election coincided with the assumption of Barak Obama as president of the United States, thus beginning their eight year testy and sometimes controversial relationship.  Once in power Netanyahu focused on remaking the Middle East which brought him into conflict with Obama, especially in relation to Iran and its nuclear program.  One of Netanyahu’s defining moments came when he accepted a Republican Party invitation to address Congress on March 3, 2015, a speech that angered many supporters of Israel.  Lochery examines the speech in detail and correctly points out that it was vintage Netanyahu as he presents a problem, emphasizes the historical nature of the problem, and then does not offer any viable alternatives in solving the problem.  This was Netanyahu’s modus operandi throughout his career whether dealing with Israeli domestic issues or its foreign policy.  Whether it was Iran or the Palestinian peace process, Lochery is dead on, the Israeli Prime Minister would obfuscate, stall, and in the end the status quo would remain essentially the same, a strategy defined by conflict management, not conflict resolution.  The arrival of the Arab Spring in 2010 further solidified Netanyahu’s power in Israel and heightened tension with Obama.  The Israeli public saw the Arab Spring as a threat, so it leaned further toward the right thereby increasing Netanyahu’s political support.  Obama saw it as an opportunity, but the two sides could never bridge that gap.  Lochery is accurate in his conclusions concerning the distaste that each had for the other, to the point that he wonders if Netanyahu would have made a better candidate for Republicans in 2012 than Mitt Romney in opposing Obama.

When reading Lochery’s narrative one can get the feeling that he concentrates mostly on foreign policy and internal political issues.  To his credit he does explore Netanyahu’s role in turning Israel away from what he calls the “inefficient Zionist model” to a market driven economy.  He presents Netanyahu as a “Thatcherite” and credits Netanyahu’s reforms as Finance Minister as laying the foundation of bringing the Israeli economy into line with other Western capitalist ones.  Netanyahu moved in this direction according to Lochery because he saw no alternative in securing Israel’s future, but it created tremendous political problems as the poor and lower classes suffered the most from these reforms, but at the same time, he needed their political support to be reelected.

No matter what area of Netayahu’s life or policy Lochery delves into the reader will gain an interesting perspective of what drives the man.  This is important as we pick up the newspaper each day and we learn the latest machinations of the Israeli government, i.e., this morning we learn that Israel is about to defy the United Nations and build more settlements.  A direct strike against President Obama, and a belief in Tel Aviv that Donald Trump will view this action more favorably.

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MIDDLE EAST READING LIST (FORMERLY ARAB-ISRAELI READING LIST: FROM GAZA TO ISIS) Updated December 24, 2016

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FROM GAZA TO ISIS/Dr. Steven Z. Freiberger

This list has been updated on December 24, 2016.  It includes the latest books published in 2016 that I believe are important and members of the new Trump administration should consult.  Further, it includes some older books that I left of the previous versions of the list.

szfreiberger@gmail.com

www.docs-books.com

READING LIST:

Achcar, Gilbert. THE ARABS AND THE HOLOCAUST

Anderson, Scott. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

Ansary, Tamin. DESTINY DISRUPTED: A HISTORY OF THE WORLD THROUGH ISLAMIC EYES

Avineri, Shlomo. HERZL’S VISION

Bacevitch, Andrew. AMERICA’S WAR FOR THE GREATER MIDDLE EAST

Bacevitch, Andrew. BREACH OF TRUST: HOW AMERICANS FAILED THEIR SOLDIERS AND THEIR COUNTRY

Bacevitch, Andrew. THE LIMITS OF POWER: THE END OF AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM

Bar-Zohar, Michael. SHIMON PERES

Bishop, Patrick. THE RECKONING

Blanford, Nicholas. WARRIORS OF GOD

Blumenthal, Max. GOLIATH: LIFE AND LOATHING IN GREATER ISRAEL

Blumenthal, Max. THE 51 DAY WAR: RUIN AND RESISTANCE IN GAZA

Bolger, Daniel P. WHY WE LOST

Byrne, Malcom. IRAN-CONTRA

Cobban, Helena. THE PLO

Cockburn, Patrick. THE RISE OF THE ISLAMIC STATE

Coll, Steven. GHOST WARS

Cooper, Andrew Scott. THE FALL OF HEAVEN: THE PAHLAVIS AND THE FINAL DAYS OF IMPERIAL IRAN

Crist, David. THE TWILIGHT WAR: THE SECRET HISTORY OF AMERICA’S THIRTY YEAR WAR WITH IRAN

Dalin, David and Rothman, John F. ICON OF EVIL

Doran, Mike. IKE’S GAMBLE: AMERICA’S RISE TO DOMINANCE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Elon, Amos. HERZL

Ehrenreich, Ben. THE WAY TO THE SPRING: LIFE AND DEATH IN PALESTINE

Ephron, Dan KILLING A KING: THE ASSASSINATION OF YITZHAK RABIN AND THE REMAKING OF ISRAEL

Faulkner, Neil. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA’S WAR

Fawaz, Leila Tarazi. A LAND OF ACHING HEARTS

Filiu, Jean-Pierre. GAZA: A HISTORY

Filiu, Jean-Pierre. FROM DEEP STATE TO ISLAMIC STATE

Fishman, Brian H. THE MASTER PLAN: ISIS. AL-QAEDAS, AND THE JIHADI STRATEGY FOR FINAL VICTORY

Freiberger, Steven Z. DAWN OVER SUEZ

Gardner, Lloyd. THE ROAD TO TAHRIR SQUARE

Gerges Fawaz A. ISIS: A HISTORY

Gorenberg, Gershon. THE ACCIDENTAL PEACE

Gordes, Daniel. MENACHEM BEGIN

Gutman, Roy. HOW WE MISSED THE STORY

Halevi, Yossi Klein. LIKE DREAMERS

Hamid, Shadi. ISLAMIC EXCEPTIONALISM

Hardy, Roger. THE POISONED WELL: EMPIRE AND ITS LEGACY IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Hefez, Nir and Bloom, Gadi. ARIEL SHARON

Herff, Jeffrey. NAZI PROPAGANDA AND THE ARAB WORLD

Hoffman, Bruce. ANONYMOUS SOLDIERS: THE STRUGGLE FOR ISRAEL, 1917-1947

Jones, Seth G. HUNTING IN THE SHADOWS: THE PURSUIT OF AL-QAEDA SINCE 9/11

Judis, John B. GENESIS: TRUMAN, AMERICAN JEWS, AND THE ORIGINS OF THE ARAB-ISRAELI CONFLICT

Karsh, Efraim. ARAFAT’S WAY

Karsh, Efraim. PALESTINE BETRAYED

Khalidi, Rashid. THE IRON CAGE

Khalidi, Rashid. RESURECTING EMPIRE

Kinzer, Steven. RESET: IRAN, TURKEY, AND AMERICA’S FUTURE

Kinzer, Stephen. ALL THE SHAH’S MEN

Lamb, Christina. FAREWELL KABUL: FROM AFGHANISTAN TO A MORE DANGEROUS WORLD

Landau, David, ARIK

Levitt, Matthew. HAMAS

Lewis, Bernard. ISLAM AND THE WEST

Lewis, Bernard. FAITH AND POWER

Lewis, THE CRISIS OF ISLAM

Lister, Charles R. THE SYRIAN JIHAD

Lochery, Neill, THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF BENJAMIN NETANYAHU

Lynch, Marc. THE NEW ARAB WARS

McCants, William. THE ISIS APOCALYPSE

McMeekin, Sean. THE OTTOMAN END GAME: WAR, REVOLUTIOMN, AND THE MAKING PF THE MODERN MIDDLE EAST, 1908-1923

Motadel, David. ISLAM AND NAZI GERMANY’S WAR

Morris, Benny. THE BIRTH OF THE PALESTINIAN REFUGEE PROBLEM, 1947-1949

Morris, Benny. 1948

Morris, Benny. RIGHTEOUS VICTIMS

Nasir, Vali. THE SHI’A REVIVAL

Nissenbaum, Dion. A STREET DIVIDED

Oren, Michael. SIX DAYS OF WAR

Oren, Michael. ALLY

Pagden, Anthony WORLDS AT WAR: THE 2500 YEAR STRUGGLE BETWEEN EAST AND WEST

Pappe, Ilan. THE ETHNIC CLEANSING OF PALESTINE

Parsi, Trita. TREACHEROUS ALLIANCE

Parsons, Laila. THE COMMANDER: FAWZI AL-QAWUQJI AND THE FIGHT FOR ARAB INDEPENDENCE 1914-1948

Rabinowitch, Abraham. YOM KIPPUR WAR

Radosh, Allis; Radosh, Ronald. SAFE HAVEN: HARRY S. TRUMAN AND THE FOUNDING OF ISRAEL

Razoux, Pierre. THE IRAN-IRAQ WAR

Rogan, Eugene. THE FALL OF THE OTTOMANS

Ross, Dennis. THE MSSING PEACE

Ross, Dennis. DOOMED TO SUCCEED: THE US-ISRAEL RELATIONSHIP FROM TRUMAN TO OBAMA

Rubin, Barry and Wolfgang G. Schwartz. NAZIS, ISLAMISTS, AND THE MAKING OF THE MODERN MIDDLE EAST

Rubin, Barry and Rubin, Judith Colp. YASSIR ARAFAT

Schiff, Ze’ev and Ya’ri Ehud. INTIFADA

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Schneer, Jonathan. THE BALFOUR DECLARATION

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Segev, Tom. 1967

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Shlaim, Avi. ISRAEL AND PALESTINE

Shlaim, Avi. LION OF JORDAN

Shlaim, Avi. THE IRON WALL

Shapara, Anita. DAVID BEN-GURION

Shavit, Ari. MY PROMISED LAND

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Smith, Lee. THE STRONG HORSE: POWER, POLITICS, AND THE CLASH OF ARAB CIVILIZATIONS

Solomon, Jay THE IRAN WARS

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Tyler, Patrick. FORTRESS ISRAEL

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Wright, Lawrence. THE TERROR YEARS: FROM AL-QAEDA TO THE ISLAMIC STATE

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“After the Islamic State” by Robin Wright (NEW YORKER, December 12, 2016)

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Middle East historian and correspondent Robin Wright has just written a perceptive article for the December 12, 2016 edition of the New Yorker that is worth exploring.  At a time when the Islamic State (or Daesh as it is known in the Gulf States) is now experiencing a number of major defeats since it created its “caliphate,” Wright’s article, “After the Islamic State” is very timely.  Her analysis concentrates on what should our policy be once Daesh is defeated.  As its territory recedes the west faces the prospect of more Paris and Brussel types of attacks as the “caliphate” changes the battlefield as American drones continue to target their leadership and fighters.  Wright recently traveled throughout the region and found ongoing wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq.  Further, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan have become sanctuaries for hundreds of thousands of refugees.  On top of this the oil rich Gulf States, she believes are very fragile.  The instability across the region has led to economic distress and high unemployment and the long term viability of certain Arab states is called into question.  The fear is that the destabilization that has manifested itself in Syria, Iraq, and Libya could spread across the region and engulf countries like Algeria, Morocco, or other Arab states.

In addition, Wright points out that the reemergence of al-Qaeda, i.e., the al-Nusra front in Syria is very problematical for the west and the Arab states.  Further complicating matters is the increased role of the United States with roughly 5,000 troops/advisors, drone attacks, and expenditures of $12.6 million per day on the eve of a new presidential administration that has done very little to educate the public as to what its policy might be in the future.  Iraq itself, despite its Mosul offensive against Daesh suffers from political paralysis and corruption.  Above all the dream of a caliphate is still out there and once Daesh is driven out of Raqqa, its supposed capitol, some other jihadi group will try and rekindle the concept.  Wright brings up a number of important issues and it would be well worth the time for the Trump administration and its European “allies” to think long and hard as to how to confront the future.

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1956: THE WORLD IN REVOLT by Simon Hall

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(Montgomery, Alabama bus segregation, 1956)

During my forty two year teaching career my students repeatedly complained when I used the term “watershed date” in class.  There are certain dates in history that deserve that characterization, i.e.; 1648 the dividing line between the Medieval and the modern, 1789 the year of revolution and of course 1989 the collapse of the Soviet Union, among many others.  Often historians seem to come up with new dates, arguing its historical significance, and in Simon Hall’s new book 1956: THE WORLD IN REVOLT, the author chooses a year that probably qualifies as a “watershed date.”  The year 1956 witnessed a number of important events that include the Suez War, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, the Polish uprising, the Algerian Civil War, Nikita Khrushchev’s destalinization speech, the independence of Ghana, and important events in South Africa, Cuba among many others.  Trying to write a complete history of all of these events is a daunting task that for Hall, falls a little bit short.  The author makes a valiant attempt by introducing the main characters through biographical sketches and goes on to explain what has occurred and why it is important.  The problem for Hall is carrying out his theme of anti-colonialism and the rise of independence movements, while trying to effectively link them all together globally, a truly difficult task.

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(Algerian Civil War independence movement)

Today we acknowledge the sixtieth anniversary of the Suez War and the Hungarian Revolution with a number of new books appearing particularly monographs by Michael Doran and Alex von Tunzelmann, which are narrower in focus than Hall’s work.  The author teaches at the University of Leeds and has published a number of works on civil rights and the protest movements of 1960s.  Hall sees 1956 through a much wider lens in which the European powers refused to fully relinquish their imperial ambitions, the so called “people’s democracies” of eastern Europe were confronted  by further Soviet oppression, and in the United States and South Africa white supremacists tried their best to retain racial control.  The book is broken down into a series of chapters that seem to jump from one topic to another with a closing paragraph that tries to create continuity with the next chapter.  This technique is very informative from a narrative perspective, but linking the history of Rock n’ Roll to civil rights and independence movements is a bit of a stretch.  At times this technique does work as the Algerian Civil War impacted other colonial struggles in Cyprus, Ghana and other areas.

Hall devotes a great deal of time to the Suez Crisis that resulted in war at the end of October into November 1956.  His narrative is spot on but he does not add anything new to historical analysis.  His discussion of Gamal Abdul Nasser, Guy Mollet, Anthony Eden, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and David Ben-Gurion are accurate and provide insights into how the drama unfolded and was settled.  Hall relates Suez to events in Poland and Hungary as the war provided cover for the Soviets to crush descent in its satellites.  It was able to avert a military incursion of Poland through threats, and in Hungary the Soviet army crushed the revolution with tanks and infantry.  Hall introduces Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Wladislaw Gomulka, Imre Nagy, and the workers and intellectuals who stood up for their principles as best they could. These events were fostered by Khrushchev’s February 20, 1956 Speech to the Soviet Party Congress where he denounced Stalin and his “cult of personality” and argued that countries could take a different path to socialism.  The Soviets let the genie of freedom out of the bottle and throughout the Soviet bloc people began to call for greater rights.  As events in Hungary showed the forces of freedom went too far for Soviet tastes.   As Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn stated “the October Revolution created a world communist movement, the Twentieth Congress destroyed it.” (381)

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(Hungarian people demonstrating against Soviet oppression knock down statue of Joseph Stalin in Budapest)

Hall makes many astute comments in the narrative.  His discussion of the strategy employed behind the scenes during the Montgomery bus boycott and the leadership of Martin Luther King and how he relates the strategy of non-violence pursued by civil rights leaders in America and its impact on events in Africa and Asia are important.  The strategies and ideology of the white supremacists blaming calls of integration and greater civil rights for all citizens as a communist plot, just played into the hands of Soviet propaganda as it was crushing the citizens of Budapest with tanks.  Hall is perhaps at his best when discussing the origin and the course of the Algerian Civil War. His explanation of how one million European settlers living in Algeria dominated a Muslim population of over nine million reflects the basic problem.  Of these one million Europeans, about 12,000 owned most of the industry, media and fertile land in Algeria.  Hall explains the creation of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) and describes its leadership and strategy as the bloody civil war that Alistair Horne calls the “A Savage War of Peace” in his excellent study of the conflict progresses from its origin in November 1954 and would not end until 1962.

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(Nelson Mandela, imprisoned in South Africa, 1956)

Hall’s final chapter is very timely as he describes the rise of Fidel Castro and his 26 July movement.  It is especially relevant today as this morning we learned that Fidel passed away at the age of ninety.  Hall explores Fidel’s rise and how he created his movement with his brother Raul, Che Guevara and eighty Marxist guerillas, and why it was so successful, in addition to its impact in the western hemisphere and Africa.

Overall, the book is extremely well written, though it relies too often on secondary sources.  If you are looking for a general history of world events with a global perspective that seems to come together in the mid-1950s that impacts Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas for decades, then Hall’s effort might prove a satisfactory read.

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(Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, 1956)

BLOOD AND SAND: SUEZ, HUNGARY, AND EISENHOWER’S CAMPAIGN FOR PEACE by Alex von Tunzelmann

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(Map of the Suez Canal)

Last week was the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Suez Crisis as well as the Soviet invasion of Hungary.  Both events had a tremendous impact on the geo-strategic balance in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.  The Eisenhower administration was confronted by overlapping crises that brought the United States in opposition to its allies England and France at a time when it seemed to President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John F. Dulles that allied actions in Suez had provided cover for Soviet tanks to roll in to Budapest.  The interfacing of these two crises is the subject of Alex von Tunzelmann’s new book, BLOOD AND SAND: SUEZ, HUNGARY, AND EISENHOWER’S CAMPAIGN FOR PEACE.  Von Tunzelmann has a unique approach to her narrative and analysis as she chooses certain dates leading up to the crisis, from October 22 to November 6, 1956 and within each date she explains events and delves into the background history of the issues that are raised.  In so doing she effectively examines how decisions were reached by the major actors, and the impact of how those decisions influenced the contemporary world order. The only drawback to this approach is that a sense of chronology is sometimes lost, and with so much taking place across the Middle East and Eastern Europe it can be confusing for the general reader.

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(British Foreign Secretary and then Prime Minister during Suez, Sir Anthony Eden)

Von Tunzelmann begins by providing the history that led up to British control of the Suez Canal.  She goes on to examine the major players in the conflict; Anthony Eden, British Foreign Secretary and later Prime Minister who despised Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser and basically “wanted him dead” as he blamed him for all of England’s ills, domestic and foreign. President Dwight Eisenhower, who had grown tired of British colonialism and its impact on American foreign policy, and provided the guidelines that Secretary of State Dulles implemented.  Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian President who rose to power in 1954 and was bent on achieving the removal of the British from the Suez Canal Base, and spreading his Pan Arabist ideology throughout the region.  It is fascinating as the author delves into the role of the CIA in Egypt and the relationship between Kermit Roosevelt, the author of the 1953 Iranian coup, and Miles Copeland with Nasser taking the reader into an area than is usually forbidden.  Other profiles are provided including Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, French President Guy Mollet, Imre Nagy, the leader of Hungary, and the troika that controlled the Kremlin.

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(French President Guy Mollet)

Each country had its own agenda.  In England neo-imperialist forces believed that “if they could no longer dominate colonies openly, they must try to foster a secret British Empire club….a powerful hidden empire of money and control,” this was apart from the “Commonwealth.” (23)  This was the overall strategy that revolved around access and transportation of oil.  An example of Von Tunzelmann’s approach is her March 1, 1956 section where she concentrates on Jordan’s King Hussein’s firing of John Glubb Pasha, a British serving officer who headed the Arab Legion.  For Eden, Nasser was the cause and his actions were a roadblock to achieve a Middle Eastern defense pact (Baghdad Pact), and Jordanian membership.  Eradicating Nasser became Eden’s life’s mission.  In her discussion of March, 1956 the author raises the role of American policy, but she only mentions in passing American attempts to bring about peace between Israel and Egypt, i.e.; Project Alpha and the Anderson Mission.  She presents a number of reasons why the US withdrew its offer to fund the Aswan Dam project on July 19, 1956, forgoing that Washington had already decided as early as March 28, 1956 that Nasser was an impediment to peace and the US launched Operation Omega designed to take Nasser down a peg or two, and once the presidential election was over more drastic action could be taken.  For the French, Mollet blamed Nasser for all Paris’ difficulties in Algeria.  When FLN leader Ahmed Ben Bella, a World War II hero in France left for Cairo it confirmed that Nasser was providing Ben Bella weapons and a safe exile.  To the author’s credit throughout the narrative she whittles down all of the information in expert fashion and she sums up the interests of all concerned as the crisis approaches.

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Von Tunzelmann provides many interesting details as she delves into individual motivations.  For Ben-Gurion, the Straits of Tiran were the key.  Many have speculated why Israel would ally with England under the Sevres Agreement, a country that had been a thorn in the side of Jews for decades.  The key was an oil pipeline that was to be built from the southern Israeli port of Eilat to Ashkelon in the north (Trans Israel pipeline or Tipline) that would bring Iranian oil to Europe.  In 1957, Israel brokered a deal with Iran, and the Suez Canal, by then under Egyptian control, would be bypassed.  This deal would also make the Jewish state a strategic ally of Europe.

The most important parts of the narrative deal with the October 23-24, 1956 dates.  It is during those few days that Von Tunzelmann provides intimate details of the negotiations between Israel, France and England at Servres.  All the important players from Eden, whose health is explored in relation to his decision-making; Ben-Gurion, who exemplifies  what she calls “muscular Judaism,” who wanted a preventive war before the Egyptians could absorb Soviet weapons; Guy Mollet, who agrees with Israel and promises aid in building a nuclear reactor for the Jewish state, and others.  Within each chapter Von Tunzelmann switches to the machinations involving events in Hungary and how precarious the situation has become.  As machinations were taking place Von Tunzelmann describes events that are evolving in Hungary.   With demonstrations against Soviet encroachment in Poland and the visit of the Soviet leadership to Warsaw to make sure that the Poles remained in the Russian orbit, the aura of revolution was in the air and it spread to neighboring Hungary.  With mass demonstrations led by Hungarian students, workers, and intellectuals, Moscow dispatched the head of the KGB, Ivan Seroy.  Von Tunzelmann examines the thinking of Soviet leadership, the role of Imre Nagy, hardly a revolutionary, but a reformist acceptable to the people, as the situation reaches a breaking point.  Finally, on October 24, 1956 Soviet troops and tanks roll into Budapest sparking further demonstrations allowing an excuse for Russian forces to crush the demonstrators.  The end results vary from 60-80 killed and 100-150 seriously wounded.  The proximity of Soviet actions with the Israeli invasion of the 29th would make Eisenhower apoplectic, in part because the CIA had a coup set to go in effect in Syria on the same day as the Israel attack.Image result for photo of Ben-Gurion and Nasser

(President Eisenhower and Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser)

One of the most conjectured part of this period is whether the United States was aware of the Sevres conspiracy and what was the role of the CIA.  Von Tunzelmann approach to these questions is fair and plausible.  After reviewing the available documentation she reaches the conclusion that Allen W. Dulles, the Head of the CIA, who destroyed his documentation knew about the plot in advance and kept the president in the dark because if Eisenhower had known he might have pressured England and France to call it off.  The CIA had so much invested in Nasser, with the relationship fostered by Miles Copeland and Kermit Roosevelt that they wanted to protect him, in fact according to the author the CIA warned Nasser that the British wanted to kill him.  According to Israeli historian and later politician, Michael Bar-Zohar the CIA was fully aware of what was going on and Allen Dulles informed his brother of the conspiracy.  For the CIA “plausible deniability” was the key.  Whatever the case it is clear that crucial information was withheld from Eisenhower.  However, the president was fully aware of the Anglo-American plot to overthrow Syrian leader Shukri al-Kuwatty, who was developing closer ties with the Soviet Union.  Explaining CIA and MI6 machinations is one of the strongest aspects of Von Tunzelmann’s work.  Reading about the British obsession to kill Nasser, reminded me how Washington pursued Fidel Castro few years later.

At the same time she discusses Suez, Von Tunzelmann shifts to Hungary and analyzes Moscow’s hesitancy to invade.  Her portrayal of Imre Nagy’s difficulty in controlling the uprising is solid as the demonstrations spirals out of control inside and outside of Budapest.  However, once Imre Nagy decides to withdraw Hungary from the Warsaw Pact and claims neutrality for his country it is a forgone conclusion in the Kremlin that despite some hesitation they must invade.  The Suez situation provided Moscow with excellent cover at the United Nations.  As the French and British dithered in delivering their forces to Egypt, Moscow became emboldened.  Von Tunzelmann does an excellent job following communications between Dulles and Eisenhower on the American side, Mollet and Pineau for the French, Eden and the Foreign Office, and within Imre Nagy’s circle in Budapest, as it is clear in the eyes of Washington that the allies really have made a mess of things.  The author’s insights and command of the material are remarkable and her new book stands with Keith Kyles’ SUEZ as the most important work on the topic.  What enhances her effort is her ability to compare events in Suez and Hungary during the first week of November shifting back and forth reflecting how each crisis was dealt with, and how the final outcome in part depended on the evolution of each crisis.

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(Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with Israeli Foreign Secretary Golda Meir)

One of the major aspects of the Suez Crises that many books do not deal with which BLOOD AND SAND discusses is that once war was unleashed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could only be exacerbated.  Israeli actions in Gaza stayed with those who were displaced and suffered and it would contribute to the hatred that remains today.  Once the crisis played itself out and Eisenhower forced the British and French to withdraw from Egyptian territory in early November, using oil and currency pressure; threatening the Israelis, who finally withdrew in March, 1957, it seemed that American standing in the Arab world would improve.  However, the United States gave away the opportunity to furthering relations in the Arab world with the introduction of the Eisenhower Doctrine which was geared against the communist threat.  Von Tunzelmann makes the case that Eisenhower was the hero of Suez, but within a few years his doctrine led to dispatching US troops to Lebanon and the overthrow of the Iraqi government.  By 1958 the Arab world began to view the United States through the same colonialist lens that they evaluated England and France, tarnishing the image of Eisenhower as the hero of Suez.

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(Map of the Suez Canal)

IKE’S GAMBLE: AMERICA’S RISE TO DOMINANCE IN THE MIDDLE EAST by Michael Doran

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(President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser)

Today we witness a Middle East in crisis.  In Iraq, ISIS remains a power though the current operation to reconquer Mosul could be the beginning of the end of the supposed caliphate.  Syria is a humanitarian disaster as Russia and Iran continue to prop up Bashir Assad and keep him in power.  As the Syrian Civil War continues, war in Yemen involving Saudi Arabia, an American strategic ally evolves further.  The seeming winner in this juxtaposition of events is Iran which has taken advantage of the American invasion of Iraq, and how the region has since unraveled.  Once ISIS is removed from Iraq it will be interesting to see how Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni factions “might” try to reconstitute their country.  It seems an afterthought to this untenable situation that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict featuring Hamas, an intransigent Israeli government, and Hezbollah in the north has somewhat faded into the background.  As we contemplate the morass that is the current Middle East it is interesting to return to the by gone days of the region in the 1950s when Arab nationalism/Pan Arabism was in vogue as opposed to the religious ideological road blocks of today.  In IKE”S GAMBLE: AMERICA’S RISE TO DOMINANCE IN THE MIDDLE EAST, senior director of the National Security Council under George W. Bush, Michael Doran has revisited an American strategy to deal with the myriad of problems then in the region, that laid the foundation for America’s role in the area that we continue to grapple with today.

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(President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles)

According to Doran when President Dwight D. Eisenhower assumed the presidency, he and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles decided to offer the president as “an honest broker” in the Middle East to try and settle intra-Arab, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The term “honest broker” is an interesting one unless you think of it as a realpolitik based on power politics designed to drive the British from the region and replace it with American influence and control.  In 1952, Egypt had undergone a revolution and replaced King Farouk’s government with one based on a “Free Officers Movement” dominated by Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser, an Egyptian nationalist and believer in uniting the Arab world under Egyptian leadership.  The British position in the region was tenuous, despite the presence of 100,000 troops at their Suez Canal base.  Their Hashemite allies in Jordan and Iraq feared what was termed as “Nasserism,” the Arab-Israeli conflict was punctuated with “Fedayeen” attacks against Israel, and retaliation by the Jewish state all served to make the region a powder keg.  For incoming President Eisenhower he was concerned with dealing with a region that was ripe for communist expansion in the guise of anti-colonialism.  Dulles learned firsthand about these tensions when he visited the region in May, 1953 and upon his return he and the president decided on a strategy to remove the British from their Suez base by brokering a treaty that was accomplished by October, 1954, and trying to settle issues between Egypt and Israel that were getting out of hand.  For the British it was a series of frustrations with the Eisenhower administration that dominated.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill refused to pass leadership of the Conservative party to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden despite a stroke that left him partially paralyzed on his left side as he would not give in to Egyptian demands and sacrifice the last remaining bulwark of the British Empire.  For the United States their ties to British and French imperialism and the closeness of American-Israeli relations were seen as preventing any progress in the Middle East toward peace.  This resulted in a policy which set as its goal supporting Nasser in the belief he would cooperate with the United States once a treaty with Israel was arrived at, the end result of which for the Eisenhower administration would be his leadership and gaining the support of the Arab states for a Middle East Defense Organization designed to block Soviet penetration of the region.  The United States would woo Nasser with economic aid and promises of military largesse for over four years, a policy that would fail as the Egyptian president was able to dupe his American counterparts.

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(British Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden)

With the above as background, Doran begins to unravel events that resulted in the 1956 Suez War that he describes as Eisenhower’s gamble, a gamble which ended in failure.  Doran takes us through the intricacies of Anglo-Egyptian negotiations over the Suez Canal base and the American role in pressuring London to give in to most of Nasser’s demands.  He follows that up with a rather long discussion of the “Northern Tier,” an American policy of developing an alternative to a Middle East Defense Organization.  The “tier” involved Pakistan and Turkey and theoretically other nations would be added.  Doran argues that Nasser’s opposition to the pact and his hatred of Iraqi leader Nuri al-Said, his goal of receiving Soviet arms, and deceiving the United States were all tied together reflecting how Nasser manipulated Washington.  Relying on one secondary source to bind all of this together Doran believes that he has gone where no other historian has gone.  This is part of his rather condescending approach to historians who have previously studied this topic.  On more than one occasion Doran starts out by stating, “most historians have failed to understand how significant….,” or “failed to realize,” in this case the importance of the Turco-Iraqi Pact, or in presenting the role of Eisenhower and Dulles in the Heads of Agreement negotiations dealing with the Suez Canal base, and the role of Jordan in Nasser’s plan to seize the leadership in the Arab world.  I would point out that instead of repeated self-serving comments, the author should reflect some objectivity for those who have written previously on the background to the Suez crisis.

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(Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion)

Doran also has a habit of twisting facts to suit his arguments.  A case in point is a memo prepared by Dulles in 1958 looking back on issues that led to Suez.  In the memo that Doran uses to support his narrative the Secretary of State argues there was little the United States could do to move Israel from its entrenched positions because of the influence of Jews domestically and internationally.  If this was so, how come Eisenhower pressured Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with threats in March, 1957 to gain Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai?  Further he claims that the Soviet Union, “while consistently hinting to the Arab states that it will agree to dismember Israel, has never actually come out with a statement of support.”  If that is correct what do we make of Soviet threats concerning the use of nuclear weapons after Israel, France, and Britain implemented the Sevres conspiracy and attacked Egypt at the end of October, 1956?

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I do agree with Doran that Washington’s “blind pursuit of an illusionary Arab-Israeli peace” strengthened Nasser’s position in the Arab world, at the same time he was trying to undermine the western position in the region.  Nasser deceived the State Department, raising the hopes for peace through the secret Alpha Plan.  The Egyptian leaders stalling tactics and disingenuousness would continue until the Eisenhower administration would call Nasser’s bluff following the Anderson peace mission in early 1956, a mission that would lead to the Omega plan designed to pressure Nasser to be more accommodating.  Doran points out that the new plan was designed to deal with Nasser and achieve behavioral change, not regime change.  I would point out that the document also alluded to strong action particularly if a soft covert approach did not work as Dulles’ March 28, 1956 memo stated that “planning should be undertaken at once with a view to possibly more drastic action in the event that the above courses of action do not have the desired effect.”*   For Eisenhower, whose frustration with Nasser finally took effect there were suggestions that a strong move against the Egyptian president would have to wait until after the American presidential election in November.

Doran continues his narrative by taking the reader through the immediate causes of the Suez War, the machinations that occurred after the Israeli invasion, and the final withdrawal of Israeli, French, and British troops from Sinai.  The author then goes on to discuss the anti-colonial purity of the Eisenhower administration which was short lived with the announcement of the Eisenhower Doctrine in January, 1957, designed to protect Arab states from communist encroachment.  The reality was total failure of American policy with the overthrow of the Iraqi government and the dispatch of American marines to Lebanon.  In addition, the goal of turning the Saudi monarchy into a substitute for Nasser as an Arab leader that would bring about a coalescing of Arab states in support of U.S. policy in the region never transpired.  In the end I would agree with Doran that Ike’s gamble did more harm than good and by 1958 resulted in the president questioning his policies that led to the 1956 war and beyond.  These musings by Eisenhower and the counterfactual scenarios presented by the author are interesting, but it does not change the fact that the team of Eisenhower and Dulles did create a popular Arab leader who was able to create strong Pan Arabist sentiment in the Middle East and left the United States with two weak allies in Jordan and Lebanon.  Further, they created a “doctrine” for the Middle East that was viewed in the Arab world as the same type of colonialism that had been previously practiced by England and France.  Doran completes his narrative by admonishing American policy makers that we should be careful not to make the same errors today that we made in the height of the Cold War.

*Steven Z. Freiberger. DAWN OVER SUEZ: THE RISE OF AMERICAN POWER IN THE MIDDLE EAST 1953-1957 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992), p. 149.

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(President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser)

THE MIRROR TEST: AMERICA AT WAR IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN by J. Kael Weston

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The mood that is presented in J. Kael Weston’s powerful new book, THE MIRROR TEST: AMERICA AT WAR IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN is one of horror, empathy, skepticism, anger, and little hope that the American government has learned its lessons in dealing with cultures that are in many ways the antithesis of our own.  Weston immediately explains how he arrived at the title, THE MIRROR TEST by describing the reaction of an American Marine who is unwrapping his bandages following a horrific burn injury, and is looking at himself in a mirror for the first time.  For Weston, the American people should look at themselves in the mirror as they have supported in one way or another fifteen years of war since 9/11.  Weston was a State Department official who served over seven years in some of the most dangerous spots for a “diplomat” in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The majority of his time was spent in Fallujah in Anbar province in Iraq, the remainder in Khost and Helmand provinces in Afghanistan.  Because of the calamitous injuries suffered by US Marines the author has witnessed, he finally comes to the realization that he has seen too much.  Our country has demanded so much from so few, and it seems that we as a people have forgotten about the sacrifices these men and women have made.  In the latter part of the narrative Weston describes his journey throughout the United States as he tries to visit the families, memorials, and grave sites of the thirty one soldiers who perished in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2005 in the Anbar Desert, an operation that the author ordered.

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(The author)

Weston, who worked at the United Nations as part of the American delegation volunteered to serve in Iraq, even though he opposed the war.  He became a member of the Coalition Provisional Authority whose job was to oversee the occupation of Iraq.  From the beginning Weston believed the United States was in over its head, and thirteen years later that belief has not changed.  He describes the invasion of Iraq as “mission impossible” due to our ignorance and unrealistic expectations.  Weston believed it was important to go beyond the “Green Zone” and learn the truth about Iraq and its people.  Working with Iraqi truckers who had their unique version of “teamsters;” visiting schools, Madrassas, Iraqi religious leaders, and the homes of Iraqi citizens where he gained insights and knowledge that made him one of the most respected and knowledgeable Americans in the country.  Weston observed an “imperialistic disconnect” between the local populations and Americans that has not changed since the war’s outset.

Weston integrates the history of the war that has been repeated elsewhere by numerous journalists and historians, but what separates his account is how he intersperses his personal experiences, relationships, and evaluation of events as the narrative progresses.  He has done a great deal of research in formulating his opinions and provides numerous vignettes throughout the book.  One of the most interesting was the discussion of the Jewish Academy that existed in Fallujah, the Sunni stronghold, where the Talmud was supposedly written during the Babylonian era. As the book evolves the reader acquires the “feel of war” that existed in Anbar and all the areas that Weston was posted.  For Weston, American policymakers should have followed the advice of the Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher, Sun Tzu who wrote in ART OF WAR; “In the art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy is not good.”  It has been proven that Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and the rest of Bush’s cadre of neocons never took into account the opinions of others who had greater experience in war and the Middle East region in general.

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Weston describes the malfeasance that highlights US policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, a malfeasance that US Marines had to work around and for many pay with their lives.  Weston touches on things that most writers do not, i.e., his interactions and the role of Mortuary Affairs crews; visits to the “potato factory” or mortuary building; coping methods of people who worked there; accompanying Marines on body recovery missions and dealing with booby-trapped bodies; and dealing with the burial process that would assuage Iraqi religious beliefs.  Weston includes the names and hometowns of each Marine that have been killed in Iraq that he was aware of.  What is abundantly clear in presenting these lists is that the majority of American casualties were in there early twenties and where from small town across America, the towns that bore the unequal burden of these wars.  Weston is extremely perceptive in his views and they explain why we will never be successful in Iraq and Afghanistan.  First, by keeping ourselves separate from the Iraqi people, we make more enemies.  Second, the perception we give off is that our lives are deemed more valuable than theirs.  Our way of dealing with a crisis, be it collateral damage, errors, or just plain stupidity on the part of military planners is to pay the aggrieved families money – we even had a scale of what a life was worth – at times $2,000 per life or $6,000 referred to as “martyr payments.”

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(The battle for Fallujah, circa 2007)

Weston’s approach in Iraq and Afghanistan was very hands on and taking risks that he felt would enhance America’s relationship with local people.  Whether dealing with poor villagers, Imans or Mullahs, Islamic students, Taliban leaders, regional officials, warlords, and any group or person deemed important, Weston’s approach was “out of the box” and designed to further trust and reduce tensions surrounding the US presence.  He worked hard to alter the views of the locals that the United States was out to take over the Muslim world.  For example he recommended increased funding for Madrassas students which he hoped would stem the flow of students into northwest Pakistan were they would be further radicalized.    In many cases these were dangerous missions that military officials opposed.  What drove Weston to distraction was the disconnect between regular Marines and US Special Forces who could conduct operations that detracted from what the Marines were trying to achieve, with no accountability.  Two good examples were the kidnapping of Sara al-Jumaili that led to the murder of one of Weston’s allies, Sheik Hamza, with no explanation or accountability on the part of the Special Forces; and the torturing to death of Dilqwar of Yakubi in Bagram prison.  Unlike visiting politicians who dropped in for a photo op, i.e., former Senators Jon Kyle, Arizona and Sam Brownback, Kansas, or Senator Mitch McConnell, Kentucky, who the author singles out, Weston believed in laying the groundwork of trust to establish working relationships that would be so important for any success, but the actions of others created to many road blocks..  Weston presents a number of individuals who cooperated with his work, many of whom would be killed by al-Qaeda extremists in Fallujah, and the Taliban in Helmand province.

When Weston leaves Fallujah after three years and moves on to Khost and Helmand in Afghanistan he is suffering from a crisis of confidence.  When people approach him and ask “did you kill anyone?”  He knows he did not do so physically, but he is fully cognizant that a number of his policy decisions led to the deaths of many Iraqis and Americans.  Weston learned that “the wrong words could be more dangerous to human life than rounds fired from rifles.”  Perhaps the war would have gone differently had Washington policymakers asked the same question, did you kill anyone?”  Weston worked to get ex-Taliban leaders to support the Kabul government, and reintegrate former Taliban fighters back into Afghan society.  This was almost impossible with the attitude and corruption that existed in Kabul.  From Weston’s perspective, President Obama’s “surge” policy in 2010 was another example of wasting America’s resources as it was bound to fail.  For Weston the name of Thomas Ricks’ book FIASCO is the best way to sum up what occurred and is still reoccurring in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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(Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan)

Weston tells many heart rendering stories.  His chapter dealing with “dignified transfers” describing how American bodies were gathered, prepared, and shipped back to the United States is eye opening.   His recounting of stories concerning the reuniting of wounded veterans with their service dogs is touching.  Presenting amputee veterans skiing in the Sierras provides hope.  Operation Mend, a private program to assist disfigured Marines needs further support.   His meetings with families as he travels across the United States is a form of personal therapy once he returns from the region for good.  Weston writes with a degree of sincerity that is missing in many other accounts of the war.  His approach allows the reader to get to know his subjects, at times intimately, as he shares their life stories in a warm and positive manner, particularly during his travels visiting the families of those who have fallen overseas, and those families whose offspring have had difficulty readapting to civilian life after returning home.

Despite the gravity of Weston’s topic, he maintains a sense of humorous sarcasm throughout the book.  My favorite is his summary of his visit to the George W. Bush Presidential Library where his narration of the exhibits that discuss the war in Iraq are seen through the lens of his five and half years in Baghdad and Fallujah (the other year and a half were spent in Khost and Helmand).   These are just a few of the many topics that Weston explores that should make this book required reading for anyone who has studied US foreign policy during the last fifteen years and who will make policy in the future.

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THE ANGEL: THE EGYPTIAN SPY WHO SAVED ISRAEL by Uri Bar-Joseph

October, 1973 was a traumatic period for the Arab-Israeli conflict which greatly affected the American economy.  On October 6th, Arab armies attacked Israel on Yom Kippur morning and the ensuing war resulted in an Arab oil embargo against the United States that brought long lines at gas stations, a spike in prices, and rationing.  The situation for Israel grew dire at the outset of the conflict, but after 21 days of fighting the Israeli Defense Forces proved victorious on the battlefield, though it can be argued the war resulted in a psychological defeat. No matter how the outcome is evaluated the situation for Israel could have been a lot worse had it not been for Ashraf Marwan, an Egyptian who spied for the Mossad who happened to be Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser’s son-in-law, and following Nasser’s death a close aide to his successor Anwar Sadat, which provided him with access to his country’s deepest secrets.  The story of how Marwan provided the Mossad information that should have allowed Israel to be on greater alert when the war came is effectively told by Uri Bar-Joseph, an Israeli academic with expertise in Israeli intelligence, in his new book, THE ANGEL: THE EGYPTIAN SPY WHO SAVED ISRAEL.

(President Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, Mona, his daughter, and his son-in-law, Ashraf Marwan)

Bar-Joseph’s narrative follows Marwan from his rise to a position of power within the Egyptian government to his untimely death in 2007 when he was probably pushed over a terrace and fell to his death.  Marwan was a corrupt egoist who felt he deserved a powerful position in government.  His marriage to Nasser’s daughter was a step in achieving his goals.  The impediment was the fact that his father-in-law held a very low opinion of his son-in-law.  Intelligence sources made Nasser aware of Marwan’s avaricious lifestyle and he tried to get his daughter to divorce him.  When she refused Nasser allowed Marwan to work at a low level position in his office that he greatly resented, which in large part provided a rationale for him to turn to espionage to acquire wealth.

Bar-Joseph traces how Marwan gained access to Egyptian state secrets and analyzes why he chose to spy for Israel’s greatest enemy.  In assessing Marwan, Bar-Joseph concludes that his subject engaged in espionage for two reasons.  First, was financial.  Marwan needed money, but despite his contacts he was limited in influence because of Nasser’s Spartan approach toward his family.  If he was going to achieve the lifestyle he craved he would have to find a source of income that Nasser’s intelligence people could not uncover.  The second motive was Marwan’s ego.  Marwan craved power, but realized he was blocked by his father-in-law.  In his own mind he would show Nasser by turning to his father-in-law’s greatest enemy.  Disloyalty to Nasser was the solution for his financial and psychological crisis.

(Egyptian troops establish a beachhead in the Sinai on October 7, 1973)

Bar-Joseph does an excellent job explaining the marriage of Marwan and Israeli intelligence.  He describes in detail how Marwan offered his services and the vetting done by the Mossad.  The author takes the reader inside the Israeli intelligence community as they evaluate Marwan the person and as the relationship flourished, as well as the information that he made available.  Bar-Joseph discusses a number of important personalities, the positions they occupied, and their reactions to each other.  The key for the Israelis was to determine whether Marwan was a double agent.  Almost immediately the valuable material he provided trumped the idea he could have been playing them.  Though Bar-Joseph has a somewhat trenchant writing style, the picture he paints and many of the details he shares have never been published before and makes the book a very important work.

One of the keys to Marwan’s success was the Sadat-Marwan relationship as each needed the other.  Once Sadat assumed the Egyptian presidency he needed a link to Nasser’s family which did not think a great deal of him.  For Marwan, Sadat was a vehicle to improve his overall position in government to allow him to gain access to state secrets and new sources of wealth.  Marwan’s success was his ability to provide the Mossad Egypt’s most closely guarded secrets concerning plans to attack Israel.  For example, plans to cross the Suez Canal and establish a bridgehead in the Sinai, which came to fruition in October, 1973.  Further he provided notes of Egyptian meetings with the Soviet Union that showed that Moscow did not think Egypt was ready for war as well as the minutes of a Sadat-Brezhnev meeting in 1971 that was later shared with the United States.  Because of Marwan Israeli leaders developed a very accurate picture of Egypt’s intentions regarding war and peace, particularly that if Egypt attacked it would not be a comprehensive move to reconquer the Sinai.  Israeli military intelligence firmly believed, much to their detriment in October, 1973 that Egypt would never attack until they solved the problem of Israeli military superiority.

(Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat with senior military commanders during the Yom Kippur War)

Bar-Joseph traces the development of Sadat’s strategic thinking as he pressured the Russians to provide the necessary long rang planes, missiles, and air defense to allow an attack on Israel since he did not see a way to recover the Sinai through diplomatic means.  By August, 1973, the Russians would provide most of the necessary weaponry, leaving out SCUD missiles, a key item because Israeli military intelligence believed that Sadat would never launch an attack until he received the SCUDS.  As early as June, 1973 Marwan warned the Israelis that Sadat was changing his approach to war and decided he could attack Israel even if his forces were inferior.  The problem for Israel was that the head of its Military Intelligence branch, General Eli Zeira refused to revise his thinking and could not accept that Egypt possessed the where with all to launch an attack.  Further, Zeira refused to accept the fact that Marwan was not a double agent.  When the decision for war was made and Sadat asked the Russians to leave Egypt, Zeira believed that Sadat would now take a more defensive approach toward war, but for Sadat he had removed a major impediment to launching an attack.

The author provides the details of all the warnings that Marwan provided the Israelis as early as April 11, 1973 that Sadat had altered his thinking and an attack would come in the late spring or early summer.  Israeli military intelligence continued to mistakenly believe that Egypt would not launch an attack until it received SCUD missiles from the Soviets.  Marwan provided information of Egypt’s preparations for war as well as the developing alliance with Syria.  Throughout Marwan’s intelligence was dead on, but the Israelis did not analyze it correctly.  For Bar-Joseph his most important theme that he reiterates throughout the book is that as war finally approached by September, 1973 “Israel’s military intelligence was under the command of a group of officers whose commitment to a specific intelligence paradigm was unwavering, almost religious, even though it had been obviated by events almost a year earlier.”

What is fascinating about Bar-Joseph’s account is the detail he provides, particularly, an almost hour by hour account of the two days leading up to the war.  For example, the Israeli reaction to Marwan’s warning of October 4th that war was imminent, but the bureaucratic structure of Israel’s intelligence operations did not allow for the proper response and warnings to Golda Meir’s government.  The author does a credible job following the actions and views of all the major historical figures who were involved in the decision making on the eve of the fighting.  Even though Eli Zeira and those he influenced were unwilling to take Marwan’s warnings seriously which resulted in a spectacular intelligence failure, his information did speed up Israel’s reserve call up and other crucial decisions that saved them from an even greater military disaster than what occurred.

Once the war ended Marwan assumed a greater diplomatic role working directly with Sadat.  He became the liaison with Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria, but also with Henry Kissinger as the United States tried to achieve a lasting ceasefire.  Even as Marwan worked to bring unity to the Arab world he was reporting to the Mossad.  Marwan’s influence then began to wane and he was forced to leave the government on March 1, 1976, but remained in the background working on a weapons consortium.  After Sadat’s assassination in 1981 he began a new chapter in his life moving to London.  Throughout he maintained his contacts with the Mossad, but after the Camp David Accords in 1979 he became a low priority for Tel Aviv.

(Israeli Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan and Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir during the Yom Kippur War)

Bar-Joseph spends the latter part of his study conjecturing on who outed Marwan as an Israeli spy, and how he died in 2007.  His speculations do not reach concrete conclusions on either score, but Marwan dies shortly after he was outed, leading to all kinds of conspiracy theories that the author addresses.  Overall, Bar-Joseph describes an amazing life integrating all the major players in Marwan’s career as a spy.  Though, at times the book becomes bogged down in detail and is overly wordy, it is worth exploring because it is an important story that deals with a very sensitive topic.

(Ashraf Marwan)