Subverting The Superpowers

Efraim Karsh’s latest history of the Middle East, coming in the wake of Obama’s Iran deal, is an important reminder that interventions by great powers have always been limited by the actions of regional players. Karsh’s main point is that external involvement in the region has been “neither the primary force behind the region’s political development nor the main cause of its volatility”.

No doubt this timely injection into the history of the region will inflame the liberal orthodoxy for whom the sine qua non of Middle Eastern politics has been destructive Western intervention. Karsh offers an important corrective, reminding the reader that local political actors are more than mere pawns; rather, they are skilled and ultimately decisive agents in their own destinies.

Rather than starting with the implementation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the cornerstone of post-colonial accounts of the creation of the modern Middle East, Karsh begins earlier with the disastrous choices made by the Ottoman Empire preceding and during the First World War. In so doing, he accords the Ottomans equal status to the other losing participants of the war who suffered similar imperial dismemberment as the price for martial overreach. This matters because Karsh’s understanding of the grand sweep of history in the region suggests that the postwar foundational mistake was not the breaking apart of Arab nationalism (which he suggests was vastly overstated in a bid for power by the Hashemites) but rather the over-unification of the region.

The book is less an exhaustive history than a series of case studies.  Karsh paints a far richer and more nuanced picture of the creation of the modern Middle East than the shorthand to which we have become accustomed. What emerges is less an imperial imposition than the playing out of a number of different political contests — the machinations of the Hashemites to create Iraq and Transjordan, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Jewish quest for a homeland, the Italian and Greek competition for Anatolia, and resurgent Turkish nationalism.

Karsh continues by illustrating how even at the height of the Cold War, with two superpowers presiding over a supposedly rigid and bipolar world, Middle Eastern states were able to subvert and at times even manipulate the two rival powers. One instance of that manipulation was Anwar Sadat’s expulsion of Soviet personnel from Egypt in the early 1970s and subsequent courting of the West to reverse the limits placed upon the flow of arms to his country. Far stronger examples are the failure of the Soviet Union to prevent Egypt and Syria from attacking Israel in 1973, the Iranian revolution in 1979, which contributed to the demise of the Carter presidency, and the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan, which many see as the beginning of the end for the USSR.

In one sense there should be nothing surprising about a book like this. Many of the insights that Karsh presents have appeared elsewhere in his own earlier writings and in the work of other scholars such as Fred Halliday, to whom the book is dedicated.

Nonetheless, there is little doubt that as with his previous works Karsh will be further excoriated by his academic critics on the Left. Indeed, the politicisation of the subject matter partly explains why Karsh overstates his case. With the exception of the Iranian revolution, it is dubious to suggest that the tail actually wagged the dog. It is hard to argue that regional states had a determinative effect on great power politics, as the title would suggest.

Equally, Karsh does not place enough emphasis on the effect of external interventions on the region. For instance, Obama’s overhasty retreat and failure to provide the much-needed diplomatic surge was critical to the failure of the nascent Iraqi state and the rise of ISIS.

To an extent Karsh commits the same error as his “New Historian” antagonists such as Benny Morris and Ilan Pappé. They are ultimately engaged in an interpretive war over a similar, limited collection of sources. Going against the trend in diplomatic history, none of them pay enough attention to Arab and Iranian sources and this has left Karsh to make deductions from Western material. As a result, the book is unlikely to settle many historical disputes. It is best seen as a polemical riposte to Obama’s Cairo speech, which was intended to reset America’s relations with the Middle East. Obama suggested that “Muslim majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.” Karsh attempts to counter Obama’s limited view of Middle Eastern history, not only by bringing out regional power politics but also the history of Islamist imperial ambitions.

Karsh explains much of the logic behind Obama’s recent nuclear deal with Iran, which can only really be understood as part of Obama’s wider regional ambition for US disengagement. The President’s approach gives Iran a free hand to make unprecedented strategic gains, supposedly bringing order to the region by creating what is actually a dangerous balance of power between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In light of Obama’s folly, it is very hard to doubt the broad sweep of Karsh’s
thesis.

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