Review Essay

Don't Be a Hero

The Right and Wrong Lessons of the Camp David Accords

In This Review

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David
Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David
By Lawrence Wright
Knopf, 2014, 368 pp. $27.95 Purchase

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David. By LAWRENCE WRIGHT. Knopf, 2014, 368 pp. $27.95.

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, by New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright, arrives at a grimly appropriate time. In recent years, the Middle East has descended into chaos. A bloody, many-sided civil war rages in Syria; Libya has devolved into warlordism; Iraq has continuously failed to form a government capable of unifying the country; and Israeli-Palestinian discord has continued unabated. Meanwhile, the region has become an arena for an array of proxy struggles: Sunni Saudi Arabia against Shiite Iran and their respective confederates; the conservative Sunni states of the Gulf Cooperation Council against the pro–Muslim Brotherhood Turkey and Qatar; and al Qaeda–affiliated Islamists against the revolutionary Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

For policymakers in the United States, this has been a vexing set of problems. After some delay, U.S. President Barack Obama seems to have accepted that, absent U.S. involvement, the Middle East will continue to disintegrate, with dire consequences for both the region and the rest of the world. But even as Washington has taken the lead in addressing the ISIS threat, it seems uncertain of how to restore order to the Middle East -- or whether it is even capable of doing so.

Wright’s book offers a useful reminder of the most prominent instance of the United States not only propping up but also creating that order. The book examines the negotiations between U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat over the course of two weeks at Camp David in September 1978. The resulting Egyptian-Israeli peace deal remains the one shred of regional fabric that has not torn in the years since. Drawing on diaries, interviews, and archival materials, Wright offers a gripping day-by-day account of the diplomatic wrangling interspersed with historical context.

But when Wright attempts to draw broader conclusions about Washington’s role in the talks, he misinterprets the evidence. He suggests that the United States spearheaded the agreement at Camp David, breaking the shackles

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