Ray Takeyh was a fellow at the University of California at Berkeley when he wrote this book, but his real calling is as a teacher of object lessons. He teaches us an important one in this short but illuminating study of America’s Middle East foreign-policy formulation and the ideological blinkers that beset it throughout the Cold War.
The Eisenhower doctrine in early 1957 pledged the United States to “secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of nations requesting . . . aid against covert armed aggression from any nations controlled by international Communism.” This pledge was testimony to the all-pervasive obsession the United States had with the Soviet Union, an obsession that led America to institute just those sorts of covert armed aggressions that it assigned to its Cold War adversary. Takeyh takes us through this sad story as it applies to the Middle East in general and Nasser’s Egypt in particular. In a clear and well-organized fashion, he shows us the thinking of not only the American government, but the British and Egyptian governments as well.
After World War II, the United States recognized that the era of classical colonialism was over and that nationalism now played a decisive role in the Third World. However, over and above this recognition, Cold War imperatives shaped U.S. interpretation of the decolonization process in a way that was seriously misleading. Many in the Third World refused to line up with either superpower bloc. As was the case with Nasser’s Egypt, nonalignment was the preferred policy. For the Americans, this position was baffling because the threat of “expansionist international Communism” was an obvious given. However, to a Middle Eastern pan-Arab nationalist like Nasser, aggression and expansion had always come from the West, particularly from Great Britain and Israel.
The Eisenhower administration facilitated the British withdrawal from Egypt, opposed and then helped check the British-French-Israeli aggression of 1956, and sought, after a fashion, to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the Americans did these things as steps toward another more paramount goal: the incorporation of the Middle East into a containment strategy aimed at the Soviet Union. When Nasser insisted on real independence based on Arab solidarity and nonalignment, America’s Cold War obsession transformed the Egyptian leader first into a stubborn “nationalist extremist,” and finally into an agent of the Soviets. The most disturbing part of Takeyh’s book is his demonstration of how, contrary information not withstanding, all of the U.S. intelligence agencies interpreted Nasser’s behavior within this distorting framework.
And there was contrary information. Local American ambassadors and other operatives often supplied Washington with a more accurate analysis of regional realities. They asserted that Nasser’s policies were motivated by Egyptian national interests and shaped by specific historical circumstances that had nothing to do with international Communism. Indeed, Takeyh shows very clearly that it was U.S. and British policies that so alienated Middle Eastern nationalists as to push them toward the Soviets for military and economic aid. As has happened so often in the history of American foreign policy, the person on the scene, most knowledgeable of local conditions, is simply ignored when he tells his superiors in far-away Washington something they do not want to hear.
If there is any consolation in this tale, it is that the United States was not the worst self-deceiver. As Takeyh’s narrative suggests, Britain, France and Israel were even more self-absorbed and more dedicated to self-defeating and out-of-date policies. The British and the French could neither understand nor accept the fact that they were no longer mighty world empires. They transformed Nasser into a latter-day Hitler and dragged out the “decline of empire” through such debacles as the Suez War and the Algerian revolution. Israel, then as now, was every bit as obsessed with the “Iron Wall” as the United States was with the “Iron Curtain.” As Takeyh shows, these allies often went their own bloody ways, complicating an American policy that preferred covert pressure and subversion to overt warfare. The only policy judgment the Americans got right was their conclusion that blatant aggression, as in the case of the 1956 Suez invasion, would only strengthen Nasser’s pan-Arabist policies throughout the Middle East, while discrediting any leader or government allied with the West.
There are only two aspects of Takeyh’s work that could stand improvement. First, the author might have taken a more detailed look at the traditionalist, Cold War-influenced literature that he so ably seeks to correct. As it stands, the review of this literature is far too superficial. The second problem is the fault not of Takeyh but the publisher. The price of the book stands at $65.00. For a work of 216 pages, of which only 159 are text, this is exorbitant and effectively precludes the book’s use in college classrooms. And the college classroom is exactly where such an insightful and readable work belongs.