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)

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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)

AMERICA’S WAR FOR THE GREATER MIDDLE EAST: A MILITARY HISTORY by Andrew Bacevitch

(Statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, following the US invasion of 2003)
As a student of history over the years I have studied and taught the 100 Years War between England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries, the 30 Years War in western and central Europe in the 17th century, and now Andrew Bacevitch suggests the 40 Years War in the Middle East that began in the 20th century and continues to this day.  Bacevitch, a former career soldier and professor of history at Boston University, has written a number of important books on American foreign and military policy including BREACH OF TRUST, WASHINGTON RULES, AND THE LIMITS OF POWER explains in his new book, AMERICA’S WAR FOR THE GREATER MIDDLE EAST: A MILITARY HISTORY that the United States has been engaged in a war in the region that dates back to 1979 and is still ongoing.  He has labeled this continuous struggle, the 40 Years War in which the United States has been involved in conflict in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen.  After reading his latest work two questions come to mind.  First, over the period discussed in the book, did the United States ever have an actual strategy?  Second, did American military supremacy obviate the need for a strategy?  After exploring Bacevich’s narrative the answer is a resounding no to the first question, and yes to the second as successive administrations relied on the latest military technology to achieve its goals as it careened from one crisis in the region to the next.  For example, Bacevich describes President Clinton’s policy in the Balkans in the 1990s as “intervention by inadvertence,” and the NATO air campaign in the same region as “military masturbation.”  Further, after discussing President George H.W. Bush’s approach to dealing with Saddam Hussein after forcing the Iraqi dictator out of Kuwait in 1991, Bacevitch describes United States policy as “occupation by air,” setting up “no-fly zones” rather than instituting a realistic approach to dealing with the situation on the ground.

A handout photo of Saddam Hussein after his capture is seen December 14 2003 in Iraq US troops captured Saddam Hussein near his home town of Tikrit...

(Saddam Hussein after his capture in 2003)

Bacevitch’s work is provocative and reflects the ability to synthesize a great deal of information in developing sound conclusions.  The author constructs a narrative that encompasses the period 1979 to the present as he explains the origins of American involvement in the region and how it fostered the “Greater War in the Middle East.”  As he does so he develops his arguments like a prosecutor at an evidentiary hearing as he dissects the approach taken by five presidential administrations.  He carefully crafts his thesis in a step by step approach as each event builds on the next and how they are linked to produce the idiocy of American policy.  As each building block is presented, Bacevitch digresses to compare policy decisions for the Middle East with other somewhat comparative situations in American history from the American Revolution, the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I and II, and the Vietnam War creating interesting parallels.  What is clear from Bacevitch’s narrative is that in many cases American decision makers repeatedly reached conclusions in a vacuum that reminds one of Kurt Vonnegut’s “cloud cuckoo land.”

As the author traces America’s “War for the Greater Middle East” what becomes clear is the lack of a coherent strategy.  Administration after administration succumbed to fallacies of their own making.  Jimmy Carter hoped to develop a new foreign policy agenda of alleviating Third World poverty, resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, and eliminating nuclear weapons.  This agenda would be shattered by the Iranian revolution and a president who “lacked guile, a vulnerability that, once discovered, his adversaries at home and abroad did not hesitate to exploit.”  Bacevitch provides an astute analysis of Carter’s overall foreign policy, focusing mostly on Iran and Afghanistan.  Carter concerned for his own reelection would auger in the “Greater War in the Middle East” by announcing the Carter Doctrine which stated that “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”  Wonderful in theory, but American fecklessness was on full display in the Iranian Desert in April 1980 as it seemed that American planes and helicopters were playing bumper cars.

Iran hostage crisis - Iraninan students comes up U.S. embassy in Tehran.jpg

(Iranian students seize the American Embassy in Teheran, 1979)

The problem with the Carter Doctrine and subsequent American policy under Ronald Reagan is that it was based on the false premise that the Soviet Union coveted the Persian Gulf and possessed the will and capacity to seize it.  The American response was the creation of a new command for the region called CENTCOM.  Though created to deal with the Soviet threat, CENTCOM would provide the United States with a platform to launch and continue its wars in the region.  What was also very troubling is that CENTCOM paid little attention to the Shi’ite-Sunni divide, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the climate of the region in its planning.  As the Cold War drew to a close, the Reagan administration shifted its focus from the Soviet Union to Iraq as public enemy number one, and did not take into account that state actors were not the only enemies that confronted the United States.  For Reagan, Afghanistan seemed like a major victory as we contributed to the defeat of the Soviet Union.  Another victory was supposedly achieved as we backed both sides in the First Persian Gulf War between Iran and Iraq, a policy we would pay heavily for in the future.  But in endorsing the Carter Doctrine in stepping up American military activity in the region we achieved little of lasting benefit and over time we created an incubator for terrorism that drew the United States into a quagmire later on.  As Bacevitch points out, by supporting the Mujahidin we helped foster Islamic radicalism and with our support Pakistan became a nuclear power.  Further, by meting out punishment to Libyan dictator Moamar Gaddafi it led to bombings in Berlin killing American soldiers and German civilians and the downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland and the death of hundreds of Americans.  The Reagan administration was not just content with an erroneous approach in Afghanistan and Libya, its policy toward Lebanon was hard to fathom resulting in two separate incursions into the Beirut area resulting in further radicalizing Hezbollah and causing the death of 241 Marines.  When the United States withdrew from Lebanon and engaged in the Iran-Contra scandal it reflected American ignorance, ineptitude, and a lack of staying power that Islamists would take note of for the future.

(President Obama’s weapon of choice, drone aircraft over Afghanistan firing Hellfire missiles)

Bacevitch is correct in arguing that the end of the Cold War provided the United States with a freedom of action that it had not enjoyed since the mid-1940s allowing George H.W. Bush to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.  The second Persian Gulf War, was a proxy war against a past to eradicate feelings of inadequacy induced by Vietnam.  This was reflected in the rhetoric surrounding the conflict and commentary evaluating America’s technological and military superiority as we crushed Saddam’s forces.  As much as the war seemed a success American intervention would produce conditions that were conducive to further violence and disorder.  Once Saddam was expelled the United States had no real plan for the post-war situation.  Substantial elements of the Republican Guard remained intact, and Shi’ites and Kurds rose up against Saddam.  Bacevitch points out that a myth developed concerning the 1990s as a relatively peaceful decade for the United States in the region.  This myth was fostered by the supposed success of “Operation Desert Storm.”  However, almost immediately the plight of the Kurds led to a “no-fly zone” in the north, and Saddam’s revenge against Shi’ites led to a “no-fly zone in the south.”  In effect the United States occupied Iraq in the air and flew thousands upon thousands of sorties in the 1990s to control Saddam’s forces.  Once Bush left office Bill Clinton continued the Bush approach of the gap between raw military power and political acuity.  In confronting events in the Balkans and Somalia, the United States widened the “Greater War for the Middle East.”  The United States sought to protect Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo from the Serbs, as well as the Somali people from murdering warlords, but as in most instances the “commitment of raw military power might get things off to a good start, a faulty grasp of underlying political dynamics leaves the United States susceptible to ambush, both literal and figurative.”

Bacevitch digs deep in his analysis integrating American military strategy, the theoretical arguments between military men and their civilian overseers, as well as the application of strategies developed for the battlefield.  Bacevitch explains military concepts in a very understandable manner and the conclusion one reaches is that conceptually American military planners were repeatedly off base in their approach.  Bacevitch’s description of the cast of characters involved is very important and insightful.  Whether discussing Generals Norman Schwarzkopf, Tommy Franks, Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus, or others, the reader is exposed to personalities and egos that dominated military policy planning and implementation in an overly honest and blunt fashion.

(February, 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City)

Bacevitch leaves his most scathing analysis of American policy for the George W. Bush and Barrack Obama administrations.  As the 1990s evolved with terrorist spectaculars at the World Trade Center in 1993, Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, attacks in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the outgoing Clinton administration explained that these events resulted from American leadership responsibilities in the world, and because we acted to advance peace and democracy.  This explanation as most offered by the government during the period under discussion were “designed not to inform but to reassure and thereby to conceal.”  The “Greater War for the Middle East” now widened to include Osama Bin-Laden and al Qaeda.  As the United States exaggerated the threat it posed, it ignored the underlying circumstances that created it.  What developed was a pattern, if we could decapitate al Qaeda and kill Bin-Laden all problems would be solved.  We tried that with Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moamar Gaddafi in Libya and look what resulted.  For the United States “policy formulation was becoming indistinguishable from targeting.”

(US bombing of al Shabaab, an al Qaeda offshoot in Somalia)

After 9/11 the United States immediately shifted from crushing al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan to the invasion of Iraq.  Bacevitch argues that the Bush administration was fixated on Saddam Hussein, and did not accept or ignored the fact that the battle in Afghanistan was far from over.  Afghanistan reverted to the back burner, another “phony war” that the United States ignited, but failed to carry to fruition and let simmer.  Many have pondered why the United States invaded Iraq – was it about oil, weapons of mass destruction, or humanitarianism?  Bacevitch correctly places these reasons aside and concentrates on the American intent on establishing the efficacy of preventive war.  Washington was going to assert the prerogative that no other country had – overthrowing any government the United States found wanting or as it is better known as, the Bush Doctrine.  This premise was based on the fallacious conclusion that the Islamic world could easily adapt to democracy, limited government, a market economy, and respect for human and woman’s rights no matter what their opponents argued.  For the Bush administration Saddam and Iraq fit this paradigm perfectly.  The United States invaded Iraq not because of the danger it posed, but because of the opportunity it presented.  Bacevitch explores in detail all the key aspects of the war from its outset, to the capture of Saddam, the Shi’ite-Sunni civil war, to the “surge,” and again what is clear is American incompetence be it the fault of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bremmer, Franks, or others.

Bacevitch’s overall evaluation of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy is harsh, but extremely accurate as the President seemed to continue Bush policies. First, Obama was committed to the withdrawal of American troops by the end of the 2011 deadline that Bush had negotiated with the Iraqi government.  However, as troops returned home from Iraq, many made a “U-turn” and were sent to Afghanistan, or for many who were redeployed once again to Afghanistan!  During the Obama years the “Greater War for the Middle East” was confronted by three important changes that had major implications.  First, after almost 40 years of war, an “Iraqi Syndrome” developed with the reluctance to put American troops in harm’s way.  Second, the turmoil from the Arab Spring.  Lastly, the chasm that developed in American-Israeli relations.  Obama has had a great deal of difficulty navigating these changes.  A surge was tried that accomplished little but increasing American casualties.  Support for aspects of the Arab Spring resulted in little improvement in Egypt and other Arab autocracies.  Problems with Israel became a partisan political football in both countries and an inability of leaders to work with each other.  Further, the Obama administration resorted to decapitation in Libya that has been disastrous.  Finally, the administration dithered over the civil war in Syria and looked foolish when it did little to enforce its own “red line.”  It seems that Obama’s strategy is wrapped up in special operations and drone attacks, not really conducive to improving America’s reputation in the region and the overall Islamic world.

In closing, Bacevitch has written an extremely important book that policy makers should consult very carefully.  Granted, the author has had the benefit of historical hindsight in preparing his arguments.  But one cannot negate the intelligent conclusions he puts forth.  If you would like to gain insight and understanding of the 40 Year War, consult Bacevitch’s narrative because as events in Libya, Syria, and Yemen continue, it does not seem as if this war is going to end in the foreseeable future.  As Bacevitch states in his conclusion; the perpetuation of the “War for the Greater Middle East” is not enhancing American freedom or security.  It is accomplishing the opposite, but hopefully one day the American people will wake up from their slumber regarding its prosecution.  Until that time the wars in the region will not come to an end.

(Statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad after US invasion of Iraq in 2003)

THE SAMARITAN’S SECRET by Matt Benyon Rees

(The city of Nablus on the West Bank)

Matt Benyon Rees’ third installment in his Omar Yussef mysteries, THE SAMARITAN’S SECRET, attains the same level of character development, stimulating plot line, and insight into the political and social conditions that form the basis of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as his first two novels in the series.  The story begins in the city of Nablus, located on the West Bank, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.  Nablus remained under Israeli occupation until it was returned to the Palestinian Authority, which has governed it since 1995.  Nablus has been a hotbed of radical Palestinian nationalism, with a strong Hamas presence which continued even after it split with the Palestinian Authority in 2006.  For the Palestinians, even after it was granted autonomy it still felt like they were being occupied by the Israeli army with its numerous checkpoints that had to be navigated on a daily basis.

The Samaritan's Secret (Omar Yussef Series #3)

Omar Yussef, a fifty-seven year old, physically unfit history teacher in the Dehaisha refugee camp travels to Nablus to attend the wedding of his friend Lieutenant Sami Jaffari, a Nablus policeman when a robbery is reported at the Samaratin synagogue, a repository for the religious sect’s historical documents.  The Samaritans claimed to be descendants from the biblical Israelites and remained in Nablus after many of their brethren were exiled to Babylon.  While investigating the break-in, which they learn had already been solved, a murder is reported on Mount Terzim, near the Samaritan temple.  It turns out that the murder victim, Ishaq was the son of Jibril Ben-Tabia, the head priest of the Samaritan people.  The victim also worked for the Palestinian Authority as the unofficial advisor for the deceased “old man,” a.k.a Yasir Arafat.  When in power, Arafat’s financial policy was remarkably medieval, based on the head of the Palestinian Authority doling out funds as he saw fit.  It was a corrupt system that members of the younger Palestinian generation and radical elements within the community vehemently opposed, as they hoped to install modern financial institutions once Israel granted them total independence.  After Arafat’s death, Ishaq went to work for Amin Kannan, one of the richest men in Arab Palestine.

Hamas politics permeate the novel.  For example, a wedding was planned for fifteen couples which would allow a radical sheik to address the guests.  In reality this was nothing more than a political rally to spread Hamas’ propaganda. Further, the corrupt political establishment of Nablus had far reaching tentacles and Lt. Jaffari feared if he continued his investigation into Ishaq’s murder he might be returned to Gaza, where he was once exiled.  Jaffari also feared that his fiancé, Meisour would be denied the necessary papers to travel from Gaza for their wedding.  With Jaffari’s reticence to follow leads it fell to Omar Yussef to figure out why Ishaq was murdered, and who was behind it.

Rees does a commendable job exploring the political and economic realities that pervade the city of Nablus and other towns under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority.  The role of radical clerics, Hamas, and the Israeli army are all major factors in the everyday life of the Palestinian people, and the author integrates them throughout the novel.  But for the Palestinians, the corruption endemic to the Arafat regime comes home to roost as the World Bank threatens to cut off aid unless millions of dollars that Arafat dispersed was not recovered- as the money was geared toward building hospitals, schools, and infrastructure projects.  To protect the future Palestinian state, the money had to be found.

The Palestinian Authority-Hamas civil war keeps resurfacing as the story unfolds and what seems obvious at certain point’s turns out to be totally untrue.  Rees is a master story teller and has an excellent feel for the plight of the Palestinian people.  He has written a crime mystery, but in reality it is a window into what is truly the historical tragedy of the Palestinian people.

(Nablus, the commercial center of the West Bank)

UNITED STATES OF JIHAD: INVESTIGATING AMERICA’S HOMEGROWN TERRORISTS by Peter Bergen

 

United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists

(Among the topics discussed by Mr. Bergen is the Boston Marathon, April, 2013)

Peter Bergen, prolific author, and CNN national security analyst has written a number of important books dealing with terrorism.  They include monographs on Osama Bin-Laden and three others which were New York Times best sellers.  His latest work UNITED STATES OF JIHAD: INVESTIGATING AMERICA’S HOMEGROWN TERRORISTS is an important addition to two other recent books, Scott Shane’s OPERATION TROY and Charlie Savage’s POWER WARS: INSIDE OBAMA’S POST 9/11 PRESIDENCY.  Bergen builds on the work of these authors in trying to explain why American citizens have engaged in treason against their country by engaging in, or planning acts of terrorism.  Bergen further explores how American institutions and the Moslem community have responded to the terror threat and how this threat on American soil has changed us.  One could argue that Bergen’s book is a who’s who of American jihadism, beginning with the Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, Omar Hamami who grew up in Alabama and fought for al-Shabaab in Somalia, David Coleman Headley who helped plan and carry out the Mumbai massacre, and numerous others.

Bergen concentrates on the 330 militants who have been arrested and charged with terrorism crimes in the United States, 80% of which are American citizens or legal permanent residents.  He argues that they appear to be as average, well educated, and emotionally stable as typical Americans.  According to Bergen their average age is 29, more than a third are married – many with children, and one out of six are women.  There is nothing particularly special about them as they are just ordinary people.  If this is so, then why have so many engaged in terrorism, and why is the “home grown” threat a major source of concern in the intelligence community?  Bergen argues forcefully that it is due to a number of criteria.  First, Moslem outrage at United States foreign policy in the Middle East is a dominant theme.  Anger about American wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, American drone strikes in Yemen causing tremendous collateral damage, the bombing of Syria, and U.S. support for Israel all contribute to this feeling.  Secondly, jihadism offers people an opportunity to be somebody, and at the same time belong to something bigger than themselves. What is interesting about this threat to the American homeland is that since 9/11, 45 Americans have been killed by Islamic terrorists, but at the same time 48 Americans have been killed by right wing extremists.

(Anwar al-Awlaki, American born Islamic cleric, October 4, 2001)

Bergen examines a wide range of terrorists who originated on American soil drawing on his vast network of sources in the intelligence world.  He argues that most are second generation immigrants who did not start out as observant Muslims.  However, once they became devout they often left their mosques because what was being preached was not radical enough.  In addition, they would congregate with like-minded individuals and bond by watching jihadi videos, and simulate combat by playing “paint-ball.”  Bonding activities are extremely important in creating a jihadist community with an ultra-fundamentalist outlook. Bergen also dispels a number of myths in dealing with his subject by arguing that most of these jihadist had no formal links to outside terror organizations, further most terrorists began their education in a secular environment, not madrassas.  In reviewing their studies it is clear that there is a strong link between their technical education and their terrorist activities, as 50% of them attended college.  Overall, social bonds between jihadists were more important than ideology.

In presenting his thesis Bergen explores the activities of numerous terrorists, many of which are known to those who follow the news.  The individual who takes up more time than any other is the American born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki who was the mentor to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber” who tried to take down a Northwest Airliner over Detroit Christmas day, 2009.  Awlaki is also linked to Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood killer and numerous others.  Awlaki stands out as a sophisticated individual who used his American upbringing and cultural knowledge with his social media savvy to recruit jihadist in the United States and eventually was killed by an American drone in Yemen authorized by President Obama which had sparked an intense debate as to whether it was legal for the United States government to assassinate one of its citizens.  Scott Shane’s book explores this controversy in greater detail than Bergen, but the author does a good job summarizing the most salient points in the debate and points out that “t follow the trail of Awlaki’s influence is to trace the post 9-11 evolution in evolving Americans.”  Of the 330 jihadists charged or convicted in the United States, more than 80 had Awlakis writing and sermons in their possession, and another 7 more corresponded with him or traveled to Yemen to meet him.

(Tsarnaev brothers at the Boston Marathon, April, 2013)

Bergen labels these American terrorists as “lone wolves.”  One of these individuals described is Carl Bledsoe, a native of Memphis, TN who was self-radicalized and wound up killing one marine and wounding another at a marine recruiting center in Little Rock, AK on June 1, 2009.  He follows this with an in depth exploration of the motivations and actions of Major Nidal Hassan, a military psychiatrist whose conversion to fundamentalism differed from Bledsoe in that he was already a Muslim.  But their radical journey had many similarities including their gradual isolation from their families, preoccupation with piety, and what was considered to be a true Muslim.  They both embraced Salafist ideas and practices as do most jihadists, and as they looked at US foreign policy they became obsessed with the idea of Jihad to defend Islam.

26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
The gruesome terror attacks began on 26th November and continued till 29th November, where Indian security services killed 9 out of 10 terrorists and captured Ajmal Amir Kasab, alive to regain control of South Mumbai terror sites i.e. the Leopold Café, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Taj Mahal, the Oberoi & Trident, Cama Hospital and Nariman House.(AP photo)
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
Mumbai was witnessing one of the worst terrorist attacks in the history of India. Leopold Cafe in Colaba was attacked first when five terrorists opened fire at the cafe.(AFP photo)
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
The attack left behind indelible scars… bullet marks on the walls and counter; the mirrors broken; doors with holes and a mini-crater on the marbled floor, caused by the grenade attack.(AFP photo)
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
This was perhaps one of the most heartbreaking scenes for any Mumbaikar. Images tell the story of the barbaric assault by terrorists who held the Taj Mahal hotel to ransom for 58 hours.(AFP photo)
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai

 

Bergen reviews the close calls that have occurred since 9-11 discussing the case of Najibullah Zazi, who along with two others tried to replicate the London underground bombing of 2005 on the New York City subway system.  He was thwarted by the FBI after receiving a tip from the British intelligence.  Another case is that of Faisal Shazad, who drove a bomb laden van into Times Square in Manhattan on May 1, 2010.  Trained by the Pakistani Taliban, the bomb did not explode due to poor components.  The focal point was not any intelligence, but US drones over Pakistan that did not allow for sufficient training.  The key for Bergen is that these individuals fit the profile he discusses which was also accepted by American intelligence analysts.  But in fairness to law enforcement, Bergen points out the difficulties in tracking lone wolves.

(arrest of Najibullah Zazi who attempted to set of a bomb in Times Square, Manhattan on May 1, 2010)

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how the Obama administration has approached the domestic terror threat.  Soon after the failure of the “underwear bomber” over Detroit, President Obama ordered a vast increase in the use of drones and NSA surveillance programs, the most controversial of which was the bulk collection of American telephone Meta data.  After the Edward Snowden fiasco this program was rolled back and Bergen argues it had little effect on preventing terrorism and traditional approaches to intelligence were more reliable.  Today, Republican presidential candidates describe Obama’s approach to the war on terror as rather feckless, however if one examines his role as commander and chief one sees a continued involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a marked increase in the use of drones as compared to the Bush administration.  According to conservative estimates, by the end of 2015 the Obama administration had presided over the killing between 3-4,000 people in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. Bergen aptly summarizes his view as Obama dryly remarked, “Turns out I’m really good at killing people.”  Didn’t know that was going to be a strong suit of mine.”  If you are interested in an in depth analysis of Obama administration practices and their legalities consult Charlie Savage’s POWER WARS.

Another important aspect of Bergen’s narrative is the approach taken by American intelligence agencies.  We witness the development of the NYPD’s separate intelligence department that is almost up to par with the CIA and FBI.  We also witness the continued issue of sharing intelligence and acting in concert for the greater good of the American people.  The major change in the FBI’s approach to terrorism after 9/11 would be its transformation from a crime solving organization into entities whose primary mission was to prevent terrorist attacks.  The NYPD’s creation of a separate intelligence component allowed it to pursue a similar approach.  Over the last decade and a half over 15,000 informants have been employed, and numerous sting operations of suspected terrorists designed to root out terror plots, but this has resulted in an increasing number of complaints of entrapment.  In addition, in 2004 the National Counterterrorism Center was created to connect “the dots” between all intelligence agencies.  Bergen provides an astute analysis of American intelligence policies including their concrete successes, ”near misses,” and failures, including a useful chapter on the Tsarnaev brothers who were responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing in April, 2013.

Bergen correctly arguing that the older of the brothers, Tamerlan fit the NYPD terror profile and radicalized his younger brother, Jahar who was extremely secular and Americanized.  The bombing could have been prevented if not for another case of missed signals, and of a lack of communication between U.S. law enforcement agencies.  If FBI allegations are correct, Tamerlan was involved in a triple murder in Waltham, MA in 2011 and was a dangerous killer long before April, 2013; one must ask how did he not appear on the “no-fly list,” particularly after warnings from Russian intelligence in 2011? Tamerlan would fly to Dagestan in the Caucasus and try and join the Union of the Just, an anti-American Islamist group to fight the Russians, as well as attending Salafist mosque.  By his return to the United States in July, 2012 Tamerlan was fully radicalized.  Both Tamerlan and Jahar came to believe that 9/11 was engineered by the US government to create mass hatred of Muslims.   With these beliefs, it is not surprising they carried out their attack.

The rise of ISIS is not explored until the final chapter of the book.  Here Bergen reviews and synthesizes much of the material that has been presented by Joby Warrick, Michael McCants, Jessica Stern, J.M. Berger, Michael Weiss, and Hassan Hassan.  The use of social media and the virtual world has allowed ISIS to be the next generation of al-Qaeda and attract over 30,000 foreign fighters and claim to have established a caliphate, successes that Osama Bin-Laden could never fathom because of his world view.  Bergen dissects American fears of an ISIS attack in the United States, and despite what occurred in San Bernardino he correctly argues that “lone wolf” attacks are a threat, but they are a minimal threat because of the safeguards that have been put in place.  We must realize that we can never be 100% secure and that there always will be a low level threat in the United States for years to come.   But as Bergen shows in his closing argument, presenting the wife of a murdered victim of the Fort Hood massacre, and her support of an organization created by Nidal Hassan’s cousin to foment better understanding and relationships between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans, there are many ways to fight terrorism.  Bergen has written another excellent book that should be read by all who want to try and understand the problems that contribute to the enlistment of jihadists in America and how that has changed our country.

(Boston Marathon Bombing, April, 2013)

OPERATION THUNDERBOLT: FLIGHT 139 AND THE RAID ON ENTEBBE AIRPORT, THE MOST AUDACIOUS HOSTAGE RESCUE MISSION IN HISTORY by Saul David

(Well wishers at Ben-Gurion Airport to welcome the return of hostages from Entebbe)

After recent events in Paris and San Bernardino the world’s heightened awareness of possible terrorist attacks has been raised ever further.  We have all heard about failed attempts to blow up airplanes by the “shoe bomber,” and the “underwear bomber,” and of course 9/11.  We live in a world where fears of flying have increased, but it is not a unique feeling as is evidenced by Saul David’s new book OPERATION THUNDERBOLT: FLIGHT 139 AND THE RAID ON ENTEBBE AIRPORT, THE MOST AUDACIOUS HOSTAGE RESCUE MISSION IN HISTORY that recounts the hijacking of Air France’s Flight 139 on June 27, 1976 originating in Tel Aviv, with a stopover in Athens and a final destination in Paris.  The flight spawned the Israeli rescue of 102 people out of an original total of 253 passengers and flight crew after the plane was diverted from Athens, where the hijackers boarded and forced the pilots to fly to Benghazi, Libya before proceeding to Entebbe Airport outside Kampala, Uganda.  The reader should remember that the hijacking of Flight 139 was not an isolated event as the 1970s witnessed terror attacks across Britain and Ireland, as well as those related to the Middle East and Africa.   At the time Uganda was led by the dictator Dr. Idi Amin Dada, a former paratrooper in the British army, who had come to power by a coup in 1971, and was in cahoots with the hijackers.    Like today, the passengers of Flight 139 were quite aware of a possible terrorist attack if the plane stopped in Athens, but like most, they threw caution to the wind resulting in the Israeli raid and the death of four of the hostages, one Israeli commando, Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 45 Ugandan soldiers and the hijackers.

(Defense Minister Shimon Peres congratulating Israeli Defense Force members for their successful raid)

The plane was seized by an offshoot of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group that had pioneered the hijacking of airplanes as a means of striking Israel, which did not bode well for a passenger list dominated by Jews and Israelis. David present a day by day, and at times, hour by hour description of the hijacking allowing the reader to enter the mindset of the passengers as the plane was seized, flown to Entebbe, and their incarceration in the old terminal at the airport.  We witness the feelings and emotions of the hostages as they were separated by Jews/Israelis and others, and as they dealt with the release of 40 hostages, then another 100 or so, leaving just Jews and Israelis to face their fate.  The hostages go through many highs and lows during their detention and David provides many insights into how they tried to cope with their situation.  David takes the reader inside the Israeli government as they debated their response to terrorist demands for the release of 53 prisoners, 40 of which were held in Israel and other countries.  What emerges is a major disagreement between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who favored negotiations with the terrorists if a military response was not available, and Defense Minister Shimon Peres, who advocated for a rescue mission and no negotiations.  Rabin was placed in a quandary because he wanted to limit concessions but there was a precedent for a prisoner swap dating back to the Yom Kippur War when Israel traded imprisoned terrorists for Israeli war corpses.  Feeling the pressure of the hostage’s families, how could Israel not trade prisoners for people that were alive?

(Lt. Colonel Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was killed leading the raid on Entebbe)

David presents a detailed description of how the Israeli intelligence community and military ferreted out information and went about planning the rescue mission.  We meet a number of important characters led by Major Muki Bester, the head of Sayeret Matkal (the Unit), Israel’s most efficient reconnaissance unit that had previously trained Ugandan soldiers, Yoni Netanyahu, the Unit commander, Brigadier-General Dan Shomron, one of the major architects of the rescue, Lieutenant-Colonel Ehud Barak, another Unit commander and future Prime Minister of Israel among numerous others.  The major problem that military planners faced was refueling.  The Hercules C-130 airplanes needed to refuel because of the distance between Israel and Kampala, in addition, the weight of equipment and soldiers made it impossible for the planes to fly roundtrip.  After a few tense days, the Kenyan government agreed to allow the Israeli planes to refuel in Nairobi because the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence arm had foiled an attempted shoot down of an El Al airliner over Nairobi Airport, and their desire to get even with Amin who was smuggling weapons across the Kenyan-Ugandan border.  The key to the crisis came on July 2 when Amin, who enjoyed the attention, announced that the deadline for a decision regarding the prisoner swap would be extended three days while he chaired a meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Mauritius.  This gave the Israeli military a window to plan, train, and implement a rescue attempt.

(Ugandan dictator, Dr. Idi Amin Dada, who cooperated with the Palestinian and German hijackers)

David provides an almost minute by minute account of the raid from takeoff in Sharm el-Sheik at Israel’s southern tip all the way to Entebbe.  As the first Hercules landed things did not go as planned as Netanyahu insisted on taking out two Ugandan sentries, thus forgoing the element of surprise. However, the IDF was able to improvise, and in the end the raid was an overall success.  All the terrorists were killed, as were numerous Ugandan soldiers, but with five casualties, including a number of wounded.  Once the hostages were secure as part of their agreement with the Kenyan government the Israelis destroyed 11 Soviet Migs of the Ugandan air force parked in front of the old terminal as a concession to the Kenyan government for its cooperation.  Once the planes landed in Nairobi, they were refueled and the wounded were taken care of.  David provides an aftermath explaining to the reader some of the interesting ramifications of the rescue operation.  As one could have been expected the United Nations condemned Zionist aggression.  Idi Amin had Dora Bloch, an elderly hostage who had been hospitalized and was not freed, was murdered by Amin in an act of revenge.  The French worried about their position in Africa and the Arab world remained very subdued in its public statements following the operation.  Idi Amin was overthrown in 1979 and was provided with a “golden parachute” by the Saudi Arabian government.  Lastly, and most importantly it showed the world what could be done to stop terrorism, and a number of western countries developed their own version of the Unit.

Although the Entebbe raid has been explored by many books, three full length movies, and a number of documentaries, military historian, Saul David has written an engrossing narrative that encapsulates all aspects of the seizure and raid.  David interviewed numerous hostages and has full command of government sources and other materials.  The result is a carefully constructed book that reads like fiction.  The problem is that it is a true story that hopefully will not be repeated in our current climate of fear and terrorist operatives.

(Wounded Israeli hostage carried by stretcher upon arriving in Tel Aviv following the raid on Entebbe)

KILLING THE KING: THE ASSASSINATION OF YITZCHAK RABIN AND THE REMAKING OF ISRAEL by Dan Ephron

rabin

The past few weeks has witnessed an increase in violence between Palestinians and Israelis.  Palestinians have resorted to lone wolf knife attacks against innocent Israeli citizens and the Israeli response has been to kill the perpetrators on the spot.  The lack of any progress toward negotiations is part of the reason for the uptick in violence that has led to the current situation.  The current climate of violence and extremism in the region also has contributed to the lack of any progress between the two sides.  The failure of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians since the heady days of 1993 when the Oslo Accords were signed are long gone.  It was at that time under the leadership of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin that the hope that the conflict might finally be settled was spreading among Israelis and Palestinians, but the assassination of Rabin on November 4, 1995 put an end to the process and led to a spiraling of events that bring us to the current impasse and violence.  Understanding the mindset that led to Rabin’s death is important in trying to make sense of the tragedy.  For the first time in Israeli history a political assassination occurred whereby an Israeli killed an Israeli.  Dan Ephron’s new book, KILLING THE KING: THE ASSASSINATION OF YITZCHAK RABIN AND THE REMAKING OF ISRAEL provides an intimate picture of the fissures that exist in Israeli society and politics.  The book would be considered a political thriller if it were fiction, the problem is that the narrative is true.

(The handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat that sealed the Oslo Accords on September 13, 1993)

Ephron’s premise that the assassination of Rabin put an end to any realistic peace process following his death is accurate and shifted the Israeli approach to negotiations from the pragmatists like Shimon Peres and Rabin to the ideologues like Benjamin Netanyahu.  Critics of the peace process argue that Yasir Arafat would not have delivered on his promises after the signing of Oslo II that gave the Palestinians control of seven cities in the West Bank, including Hebron, in the same way he turned down the deal offered by Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton in 2000.  It appeared that a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza was very possible in November, 1995, but because of the actions of Yigal Amir, a religious extremist and ideologue, who assassinated Rabin we will never know.  Ephron a Newsweek bureau chief in Jerusalem has written an important book that describes the two years that led up to Rabin’s death and the implications for the period that followed.  A period that saw the peace process stymied by violence and intransigence from both sides of the conflict.

Ephron describes in detail the right wing reaction in Israel to the secret negotiations that resulted in the Oslo Accords of 1993 between the Israeli government and the Palestinians.  He further describes the violence that was initiated by extremists on both sides whether Hamas suicide attacks and Israeli settler actions like that of Baruch Goldstein.  The treaty signing itself is evidence how difficult future negotiations would be as Rabin was very wary of Arafat and the agreement had numerous holes in it that had to be dealt with in future negotiations.  But as talks progressed the Israeli settler movement saw it as a threat to their future existence.  It would take a long time for the people around the Israeli Prime Minister to realize that he faced extreme danger because of his authorship of the peace process with the Palestinians, once they did Rabin himself did not want to cooperate with increased protection.  One thing is clear that as soon as Oslo was made public, Yigal Amir believed that Rabin’s actions were treason.

(Yigal Amir in October, 2010, seventeen years into his life sentence for assassinating Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin)

Amir whose family had immigrated to Israel from Yemen, grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish home and attended strictly orthodox schools.  Upon graduating from high school he turned down a religious deferment and joined the Israeli Defense Force, spending his time in Gaza during the Intifada of 1988 were his belief that Arabs would kill Jews at every opportunity, was reaffirmed and that only ruthless reprisals would deter them.  Ephron does a nice job tracing the evolution of Amir’s beliefs.  He came to the conclusion in a broader theological doctrine, “one that empowered him to judge for himself – to “fathom God’s Will” – whether political leaders were honoring the Bible or violating it.” (39)  Amir believed that Jews had an obligation to settle the West Bank and Gaza rather than wait for God to secure their sovereignty over the territory and any politician who blocked this went against the will of God.  Amir would set up a group of students called, “Students for Security,” and actively worked to create a militia to defend the rights of settlers.  As rabbis began to preach that soldiers did not have to obey orders by the government to dismantle settlements arguing, “Even if the king orders you to violate the laws of the Torah, it is forbidden to obey,” fostered an already volatile situation.

Amir’s anger was also fueled by the social schisms that existed in Israeli society.  Ephron is quite accurate when he describes the resentments that existed between the Ashkenazi, Eastern European ethnicity of Israel’s ruling class up until 1977, of which Rabin was an example, with Sephardim, Jews who had emigrated from Arab countries when Israel was created who suffered many years of discrimination.  The fact that Amir’s family was from Yemen just exacerbated his feelings.  The core of Amir’s belief rests on the Talmudic argument that would justify his assassination of Rabin.  The Talmudic concept of “rodef” referred to a person who pursues another person with the intent to kill them, “rodef” means the pursuer.  “The law of   the pursuer, or “din rodef” permitted a bystander to kill the aggressor in order to save innocent victims.”  Amir rationalized that Rabin fit the definition of “rodef” as his policies were a threat to the safety of settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.  Amir also decided that Rabin “was a  ‘moser’, a person who handed Jews over to a hostile power, in this case the newly formed Palestinian Authority.” (94-5)  Amir argued that he had the right to kill Rabin on order to save the settlers.  This argument was already surfacing in the extreme religious press and among certain rabbis thereby reaffirming Amir’s beliefs.

Ephron presents a detailed narrative in how Amir stalked Rabin for three years and how he had missed at least three opportunities to kill him.  Ephron will take the reader inside the Israeli intelligence community as it belatedly came to realize the threat the religious right presented as they demonstrated and constantly referred to Rabin as a Nazi, a traitor, and murderer at rallies and sit in at his residence and the Knesset (Israeli parliament).  Ephron walks the reader through the murder in real time and once it takes place it is difficult for Israelis to accept the fact that one of their own killed the Prime Minister.  What is most disturbing about the assassination is Amir’s attitude after he is captured.  He is euphoric and proud of himself and firmly believes that he has saved Israel from its own government.  Amir details to interrogators his beliefs and exactly how he went about murdering Rabin and shows no remorse.  For Amir and his followers “Rabin had defied biblical injunctions and undermined the redemption process that messianists believed had been underway since 1967.” (161)  Following the assassination Ephron analyzes the investigations and recriminations that resulted from Rabin’s murder.  He also delves into the politics that pitted Peres against Netanyahu that saw the Likud candidate victorious in the next election thereby ending any possibility that peace talks would be successful in the future.

The book is very disturbing when one thinks about the future of peace in the region.  The current government of Benjamin Netanyahu is dependent upon the right wing settler movement for his coalition government, as was evidenced by his racial appeal during the last election.  Netanyahu was a leader of the Likud Party in 1995 and many argue assisted in stirring the pot against Rabin that resulted in his assassination.  I cannot imagine that the current Israeli government will take part in any meaningful negotiations, as if it does its coalition would likely collapse.  Ephron’s book may read like a political thriller, but it is a description of the reality of Israeli politics and society which seems split down the middle in its attitude toward peace.

(The aftermath of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin on November 4, 1995)