One of the issues that threads its way through histories of the Middle East during the Cold War is the relative extent to which events are ascribable to the influence of outside powers rather than regional actors. This has been no less the source of discord within policy councils in Washington-and no doubt in Moscow as well. As a diplomatic practitioner at the time, I recall the sharp debate that took place in 1970 when Egypt violated the agreement it had signed only weeks before by continuing to build missile sites in the "standstill" zone along the Suez Canal. Was it Moscow that was pressuring Egypt to do this, or was it Nasser's generals who were determined not to be caught with their air-defense guard down if the war of attrition resumed? National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger favored the former theory; others, including me, favored the latter.
Most histories available in English have tended to overemphasize the influence of outside powers, and in particular the two superpowers, at the expense of the regional states. This has been partly because many of these works have been written by Westerners, but also because much of the source material in Arabic and Hebrew for these events has either been unavailable or unutilized. Fawaz Gerges's new book, which makes extensive and judicious use of both published and unpublished Arabic sources as well as some newly available Western ones, comes as a welcome addition to the canon of scholarship on the period. Dr. Gerges has taught at Harvard and Oxford Universities, was recently a visiting fellow at Princeton's Near Eastern Studies Department, and is now on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College. He has produced an exceptionally well-researched and well-balanced study of how international and regional politics interacted during the dramatic events of the 1955-67 period-the Baghdad Pact, the Suez crisis, the Egypt-Syria merger, the Lebanon crisis, the Egyptian-Saudi confrontation in Yemen, and the inexorable slide toward the June 1967 War.
Gerges does full justice to the complexity of these events without trying to force neat conclusions or theories when the facts point to a more ambiguous result. His account of the earlier part of this period vividly illustrates how profoundly Washington misunderstood the forces at work in the Middle East and the repeated policy miscalculations that resulted from this. He also details the slow but steady U.S.-policy learning curve, culminating with President Eisenhower's rather touching comment at an NSC meeting in 1958 that since "we are about to get thrown out of the area, we might as well believe in Arab nationalism." On the other hand the Arab nationalists, who were fast off the mark in exploiting Cold War tensions, and who had the conservative Arab governments beleaguered for most of the period, gradually became over-confident about their own power and began to make the misjudgments that led to the disaster of 1967. This process as well is convincingly set forth in Gerges's well documented study.
This is a rigorously documented book. Virtually every assertion is supported by a citation to a primary source, and where the author ventures judgments of his own, they almost always appear justified. Gerges sticks close to his chosen task, which is the study of the interrelationship of regional and international politics. This is not therefore the whole story, and occasionally the reader wishes for greater background information to understand some of these events more fully. But the author no doubt felt he could not stray too far into these alleyways and still keep the book to manageable proportions.
Gerges's interpretations are almost always accurate and nuanced, and only occasionally does he seem to go somewhat astray. His discussion of U.S. policy making during the crucial three weeks before the outbreak of war in 1967 leaves an unnecessarily murky impression. What happened can be said in clearer terms. At the beginning of the crisis, in mid-May, U.S. policy makers had only one thought: how to prevent an Arab-Israel war that could lead to a U.S.-Soviet confrontation. But as the crisis continued the thought intruded: Aren't we playing into Nasser's hands by proposing international intervention as an alternative to war, and isn't it going to be American interests throughout the Arab world that take the heat, perhaps for a prolonged period, when we enforce the Strait of Tiran? Wouldn't it be better to let the Israelis do the job, particularly since they are so eager anyway? Gradually this countervailing notion percolated through Washington policy councils and eventually won the day, reinforced by growing confidence that the Soviets were not seeking to exploit a local crisis to create wider Cold War tensions. In Bill Quandt’s vivid imagery1 the light turned from red to yellow, which was all the signal the Israelis needed.
While Dr. Gerges's book does not produce any revelations, the author's scrupulous scholarship and interpretive intelligence provide many insights. Overall this is one of the most reliable and well-substantiated guides available to take us through this fascinating period.
1 William B. Quandt, "Lyndon Johnson and the June 1967 War: What Color Was the Light?" The Middle East Journal, Spring 1992.