The Tail Wags The Dog: International Politics And The Middle East, by Efraim Karsh
Not everyone is going to like this book, but I loved this book. The author, himself a scholar of international relations with an Israeli background and a deep understanding of the complexities of the Middle East, writes about the troubled twentieth century history of the Middle East with a sustained tone of irony. Having previously read the author’s books on the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the Iran-Iraq War (reviews forthcoming), I had an idea of what to expect from this book, and I was not disappointed. I can think of plenty of people who will hate this book, but if you have a clear-eyed and somewhat cynical view towards the policies of the superpowers towards the Middle East, you will probably find the author’s blunt honesty and ironic perspective to be a breath of fresh air and a bit of a bracing blast of reason and insight in a place where many people seem to stumble around aimlessly in a fog of self-deception. It is clear that the author views himself as one of the few people who can see the state of the geopolitics of the Middle East correctly and approaches his task with an almost messianic zeal.
The book, less than 200 pages of material, begins with a decided negative perspective of the Obama administration’s Middle East policies before turning its attention to the making of the modern Middle East in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (1). After this, the author discusses the British mandate and the general folly of the anti-Jewish old hands in the British foreign service who sought to appease Muslims to the same degree of success and honor as appeasing Hitler in the interwar period (2). The author then turns his satirical eye on the naivete of American foreign policy in the period after World War II (3) as well as the lack of insight possessed by American policy experts about the state of Iran in the late 70’s (4). The author then looks at the cautious Soviet policies to the states in its region (5) as well as the limits of American power even when it was the victor of the Cold War (6). The limits of power in general take up the next chapter (7) before the author talks about the cluelessness of Obama’s administration in dealing with the Arabs (8) as well as the failure of the supposed Arab Spring (9).
The book has a great deal of insight for those who are willing to pay attention to it. For one, the author paints a lot of people in a very bad light. Whether one is looking at the corrupt and incompetent Muslim leaders who sought to build their own empires and presented nonexistent views of various Arab nations while being unable to deal justly with others, or one is looking at the bumbling incompetence of Western diplomats and imperialists trying to appease the Arab on the street while lacking insight into the reality of the situation on the ground, or one is looking at the concerns of the Soviet Union about its own restive Central Asian Muslim population leading to imperial overreach in Afghanistan, the book is full of telling insights and striking perspectives that seek to jar loose the hold of conventional fictions on the mind of the reader. This is not a book that will be read with pleasure by those who seek to follow the usual party line about diplomacy in the Middle East but it is a book that will at least jar loose the mind to think and act in a way that is free from cant and folly, and that is no small task given the difficulty and importance of maintaining a sound view of the Middle East and its troubles.