The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East; The New Middle East

In This Review

The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East

By Olivier Roy
Columbia University Press, 2008
160 pp. $24.95

The New Middle East

By Shimon Peres with Arye Naor
Henry Holt and Company, 1993
224 pp. $25.00

"Ordinarily, any dominant power tries to maintain the status quo, whereas the Americans destroyed it and overturned the strategic balances of the Middle East." Building on this appraisal of U.S. actions following 9/11, Roy offers an overview of diplomacy and war in the Middle East during the past seven years. He reveals not a neat binary organizing theme of "us against them" in a would-be war on terrorism but the "chaos" of crosscurrents with neither U.S. actions nor U.S. conceptions fitting the reality on the ground. He highlights the pattern of "reverse alliances," such as the United States bringing Iraqi Shiites to power while confronting a Shiite Iran and the United States betting on a power structure in Pakistan that sees good reason to get along with the Taliban. In Roy's reading, the presumed overarching importance of Islam in politics gives way to Sunni-Shiite diversity and the continuing importance of nationalism. Al Qaeda remains relatively marginal. As for U.S. efforts to promote democracy and civil society, Roy offers an ironic account worthy of Jonathan Swift. A larger irony is implicit in this little book: the United States could have achieved more in the Middle East by attempting less.

The New Middle East comes close to a similar conclusion. It presents the performance of the United States in terms of three "clusters" of countries and three major issues, all interrelated. The clusters are Iran-Iraq, Syria-Lebanon, and Israel-Palestine. The issues are nuclear proliferation, "the failure of the freedom agenda," and sectarianism. After carefully giving poor marks to U.S. policy in dealing with all these topics, The New Middle East suggests the changes needed. In sum, the United States should be less confrontational, less ideological, and more aware of the limits to what it could and should be doing in the Middle East. Easily read in a single sitting, The New Middle East deserves more than one reading.

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