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In the novel War and Peace In the Middle East, author Avi Shlaim argues that Arab nations have been unable to escape the post-Ottoman syndrome. In particular he describes how the various powers inside and outside the region have failed to produce peace. While some of Shlaim's arguments hinder the message, I agree with his overall thesis that the Middle East problems were caused and prolonged by the failure of both powers and superpowers to take into account the regional interests of the local states.
The story begins by Shlaim breaking down the conflict into four periods: the Ottoman, the imperial (British/French), the Cold War (US/USSR), and American (present day). He then traces how these foreign powers have shaped the region and intruded in the relations among the local states. He argues that the post-Ottoman syndrome refers to the inability of the Middle East countries to achieve peace following the onset of imperialism.
According to Shlaim, the conflict begins during World War 1 when the British made various promises to both Jews and Arabs while simultaneously plotting with the French to divide all the territory into spheres of influence . The British assumed that Palestinians and Jews could leave peaceably in a single state, but Britain's obligation to the Jews could only be met at the expense of the Arab majority. The British carved up the territories under their mandate without regard for religious, ethnic, or linguistic composition of their inhabitants.
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The writing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 served as a catalyst in the violence that has hampered the region ever since. The document is very significant because it gave Jews the authority they needed from the British authorities to colonize Palestine. In 1948, the Jews proclaimed their own state and in the ensuing Arab-Israeli war, extended their borders beyond the UN recommended lines. Jordan annexed the West Bank, and the Palestinians lost their homeland. "It was a year of Jewish triumph and Palestinian tragedy." (pg. 23) Although America played a peripheral role in the formation of the state of Israel, the Arabs see "America as Israel's cosponsor, and this perception is the source of a deep and abiding hostility and mistrust." (pg. 26)
The story continues with the Cold War era in the Middle East that saw the Americans and Soviet Union as dominant powers in Middle East politics. The U.S. had four basic interests in the Middle East: contain Soviet influence and expansion, maintain access to oil, curb Arab radicalism, and maintain commitment to Israel. The American policy could be categorized as pro-Israel globalism and more evenhanded regionalism.
This policy led to a belief that the U.S. had aligned with the Israelis and causing friction in American and Middle East relations. "The military prowess Israel demonstrated in the Six-Day War helped transform the unequal U.S.-Israel relationship into a strategic partnership." (pg. 45)
The late 70's and 80's brought a new period to the Cold War era. "President Carter saw the Camp David accords as the first step in a process that would lead to a comprehensive peace between Israel and all its neighbors." The Camp David Accords were supposed to be a turning point in quelling the violence between the various political groups in the Middle East but the wording of the Camp David Accords left some issues extremely vague. For example, "Israel Prime Minister Begin was convinced that in return for relinquishing Sinai he had secured Israel's right to retain the West Bank and Gaza." (pg. 52) This was another case of the imperialist powers failure to take into effect the local differences in ideology which caused the Camp David Accords to be irrelevant. A similar case occurred in Lebanon when, "America seriously underestimated the risks of military intervention in Lebanon
and the violent opposition it was bound to provoke from different groups." (pg. 56) Reagan's decision to withdraw from Lebanon following this revelation dealt a terrible blow to America's prestige in the Arab World.
The next region to be engulfed in conflict was the Persian Gulf. Violence in the Persian Gulf arose from Cold War tensions as the Soviets supplied the Iraqis with weapons and arms. To combat and contain this Communist threat, the US supplied Iran with a surplus of armament. Iran's overspending to purchase arms led to Iranian inflation and corruption. "The increased exposure to Western ideas also disturbed Islamic fundamentalists." (pg. 62) These westernization factors alienated the Iranian people from their ruler and eventually led to the internal revolt and takeover by the Muslim radical Khomeni. With the collapse of the Shah's regime in Iran, America's loss was fourfold: a loss of prestige and credibility, the loss of a close ally, the loss of links with the Iranian military, the loss of monitoring stations near the Soviet border, and the loss of a lucrative export market.
During the Iran-Iraq war, Washington favored the Iraqis because it feared that Islamic fundamentalism would spread if Iran should win. The Western powers, including the United States, placed their interests ahead of Arab interests which enabled Saddam Hussein to dictatorially control Iraq. Saddam invaded Kuwait in 19 which brought an American response-the Gulf War. The Gulf War marked the beginning of America's entanglement in the Middle East. The United States encouraged Iraqi protest and revolt , but "oppressed minorities like the Kurds and irredentist groups like the Shiites received no support from America in their struggle for political reform." (pg. 135) Having overlooked the Arab oppression, the West and in particular the Americans have created an anti-West sentiment that has bred a never-ending wave of violence.
While all of the these arguments are very valid, some of Shlaim's claims seemed out of place. As the story went along the piece turned into an anti-american rant despite his initial harping on British imperial policies. Shlaim ends up exonerating the British who figure favorable in comparison with the Americans. For example, he continues the old canard that America's primary interest in the Persian Gulf is driven by the need for oil neglecting to mention that America does not rely on Middle East oil to the extent that Western Europe does. But, I feel that Shlaim is extremely negligent offering criticism, but not providing alternative solutions. It is not enough to say that the Americans were wrong and the Israelis did not understand Sadat. What alternatives were available?
Despite these shortcomings, Shlaim laid a strong framework for his thesis that Middle East problems have been caused by the failure of intervening nations to take into account the regional interests of the local states. "Instability is endemic in the Middle East, and nothing will eradicate it." (pg. 143) These are one of the final words of the novel and leaves you with the picture that the problems created by the imperialist powers have left the Middle East unable to escape the post-Ottoman syndrome. Certainly, recent activity in the area has done nothing to quell this notion. Can peace ever be achieved or will the post-Ottoman syndrome will continue to linger.