A writer can’t tackle a subject as immense as the United States and the Middle East without a kind of working conundrum. Patrick Tyler, a former New York Times and Washington Post correspondent, does not tell us what prompted him to write A World of Trouble, other than the declassification of some documents; but his conundrum is fairly easy to infer from the book’s first chapter, which chronicles President Eisenhower’s strong response to Israel during the aftermath of the 1956 Sinai War. Roughly, it is this:
The United States had reasons for becoming Israel’s patron after the Six-Day War in 1967, but the continuing conflict has seriously damaged America’s relations in the Middle East and across the Muslim world. And there is plenty of evidence–ever since Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser accepted UN Resolution 242 in July 1970–that at least Egypt and Jordan were prepared for a peace deal if the United States could have forced Israel back into its pre-1967 boundaries (allaying Israeli security fears with, say, a defense pact). During all this time, Israel has been almost entirely dependent on the United States for diplomatic cover, guns and money. During most of this time, US policy has been that Israel’s colonization of the West Bank is “an obstacle to peace.” Yet successive presidents allowed Israel a free hand while successive prime ministers expanded settlements to more than half a million people, a great many of them neo-Zionist fanatics–people who are inarguably an (arguably the) obstacle to peace. Why did these American presidents not dictate peace terms to Israel–by 1974 a client state–the way Eisenhower did in 1957? Was this incapacity or reluctance really, as some have famously charged, the work of the Israel lobby?
The good news you derive from Tyler’s book–if good is the word for it–is that you cannot explain US foreign policy as the product of any permanent force, or quirk, of domestic politics. There are complex stories behind presidential responses. Yes, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has been influential; but you also need to consider factors like presidential ideology, real international rivals, varying levels of political vulnerability, narcissism and sheer stupidity. Tyler’s book exposes so many presidents, in so many diplomatic fixes, that we derive something like a comparative taxonomy just from reading through it. And when you project Barack Obama into the obvious categories–worldly versus naive, vulnerable versus popular, and so forth–it seems clear that no president since Eisenhower is better positioned to bring Israel into line with an American version of, and interest in, regional peace. Obama has now delivered his Cairo speech. Will he–can he–follow through?
By the end of 1956, Tyler reminds us, Israel occupied most of the Sinai Peninsula, after attacking Nasser’s forces in late October. The Israeli government was made up of virtually the same people who would be in power during the Six-Day War; their justifications for making the occupation of the Sinai permanent were ones that would become familiar after 1967: control of Palestinian terrorism, strategic depth through territorial expansion, “deterrence.” The black joke at the time was that Hitler had swum to Egypt and become nasser (“wet” in Yiddish). Actually, though the Egyptian president spoke of rallying the “Arab nation” against colonialism, he shifted away from American patronage only after Eisenhower’s powerful secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, failed to deliver on a promise to build a high dam at Aswan. Nasser then acquired an enormous quantity of tanks and MIGs from the Soviets. He also nationalized the Suez Canal.