‘A World of Trouble’ by Patrick Tyler

Patrick Tyler is a veteran foreign and Washington correspondent who more recently has applied his formidable reporting skills and narrative gifts to diplomatic history. His latest effort, “A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East -- From the Cold War to the War on Terror,” couldn’t be more timely.

President Obama already has appointed former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who was instrumental in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, as his special Middle East representative and, Monday, gave his first formal White House interview to an Arab-language television network. Clearly, the new chief executive plans to add the Middle East to his daunting, ambitious agenda, particularly the fulcrum question of how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.

Tyler’s strikingly readable new history argues that Obama inherits a decidedly mixed, though mainly unhappy, diplomatic legacy. The author’s impressive research combines a careful combing of archival sources and memoirs in multiple languages as well as wide-ranging original research. In Tyler’s view, it adds up to a history of miscalculation, inattention, stuttering and almost inadvertent progress undone by contradictory aims, exhaustion and distraction. His choice of opening anecdote -- and this is a writer with a novelist’s eye -- leaves no doubt that Tyler intends this book to be urgently instructive.

His prologue begins: “Night had long since fallen over central Saudi Arabia in early 2004 when George Tenet came trudging out of his bedroom in Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s palace and asked for scotch whiskey.” Tenet, then CIA director, had just gotten off one of his secure phones after learning from aids that the White House essentially planned to blame him and the agency for the faulty prewar intelligence on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Unable to sleep, though he’d taken a pill, Tenet emerged from his room clad only in boxer shorts and T-shirt, surprising Bandar and an aide, who were watching television.

After downing most of a bottle of Scotch, Tyler writes, and raging against “the Jews” (read, neoconservatives) in the Bush administration, Tenet decided to go for a swim in his underwear while continuing to ramble angrily, smoke a cigar and drink more liquor. Bandar and his aide, worried the CIA director would drown under the influence of medication and alcohol, hovered nearby at a poolside bar.

It’s a compelling and -- for the reader, at least -- sobering story, replete with direct quotations. Characteristically, Tyler balances the portrait of an indiscrete and vulgarly self-pitying CIA chief with a fascinating account of Tenet’s extremely successful efforts to ramp up the agency’s Mideast presence in the wake of Sept. 11.

Tyler, by the way, is scrupulous about his sourcing and this anecdote comes with a footnote reporting, “The scene at Prince Bandar’s Palace is taken from the accounts of three people who witnessed it, including the CIA Near East division chief . . . who was not drinking.” The extended note goes on to say that both Tenet and the CIA general counsel, who also was present, deny the director made the remarks attributed to him.

The story leaves one to suspect that the always helpful Bandar was one of the sources, as does another of the book’s extended, rather entertaining anecdotes in which President Clinton, who had invited then-Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to the White House (to sign the Oslo agreement), frantically maneuvered to avoid having the PLO chief give him a traditional Arab kiss of gratitude. Clinton, who was terrified of being photographed being bussed by an old terrorist, phoned Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and sent him to Arafat’s hotel room to instruct him on “dignified” conduct. Bandar appears to be the primary source of much of that material and a good deal else in this book.

More than tales

Highlighting anecdotes like these simply suggests “A World of Trouble’s” readability is not meant to distract from the serious, thorough nature of the synoptic history Tyler has compiled. It’s an account studded with interesting appraisals. For example: “The Suez crisis was Eisenhower’s finest hour as president in the sense that every public step he took anchored America firmly within the principles of the United Nations Charter. He maneuvered cautiously and shrewdly, at times brutally. . . .” President Johnson’s role in the run-up to the 1967 Israeli-Arab war is recounted in careful detail and emerges as worse than a hash. Tyler faults him not simply for misunderstanding the situation on the ground but for what the author assesses as a failure to force the Israelis to withdraw from the territories they captured. Similarly, Tyler is hard on President Nixon and Henry Kissinger for failing to take up a heretofore undisclosed proposal by Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev to force a territorial compromise between Israel and its neighbors.

Tyler takes a helpfully measured approach to the question of a purported American failure to anticipate the rise of militant Islam and a Jihadist ideology. He quotes former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy as pointing out, “It was not only the United States that ignored the potential of Muslim radicalism. In truth, it must be admitted that even in Israel, which was so close to the Arab world and was monitoring every change and trend in its neighboring countries, the precise implication of what was going on did not register.”

Bumps in the ride

On the other hand, Tyler is prone to offhand descriptions that strike this reader as, at best, coarse. For example, a description of Clinton and the Oslo signing includes: “He had his principal Middle East aides, Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk, both scions of the Jewish political establishment in Washington, working on the loose ends, along with Warren Christopher, Clinton’s reliable secretary of state, who fussed over details like a hen over chicks.” What, precisely, is the point of identifying Ross and Indyk as Jews? Is there some evidence that they behaved differently as diplomats because they’re Jewish? What precisely is “the Jewish political establishment”? Why make fun of Christopher, a legally trained diplomat taught by experience to be famously meticulous about detail? Why isn’t that a virtue?

Tyler, in fact, is inclined to attribute rather too much blame for America’s Middle East failures to what he regards as Israeli recalcitrance and excessive Washington influence by pro-Israel Americans. Putting aside the merits of any particular situation, it’s simply a fact that we know more about Israel and its internal political struggles because it is an open society, where news and memoirs are published freely and current and former officials make themselves available for interview. We have no similar access to the inner workings of Israel’s antagonists. Moreover, it’s easy to forget that -- until relatively recently -- the influence of Israel’s friends in Washington was more than matched by the power of the State Department Arabists and the petroleum lobby.

Limits of influence

Tyler also assigns a bit too much consequence to American policy in the region. The underlying assumption seems to be that if a preternaturally wise president formulated a perfect American policy, which was flawlessly executed by supremely competent U.S. diplomats, the results would be deterministic. Maybe, but maybe not. It’s a view that essentially denies agency to the people of the region, whether Israeli or Arab. Ultimately, the choice between peace and strife is in their hands and not those of even the best American president. As Mitchell recently pointed out, there’s every reason for hope in the Middle East because people create problems and, therefore, people can solve them, if they want to (which also is the problem in the Middle East).

In his description of the Suez crisis, Tyler describes how the doomed British Prime Minster Anthony Eden “adhered to a Hobbesian view learned at Churchill’s knee: ‘The whole history of the world,’ Churchill said, ‘is summed up in the fact that, when nations are strong they are not always just, and when they wish to be just they are no longer strong.’ ”

Tragic wisdom or the bitterness of imperialism in decline? Americans -- and their new president -- will have to hope that, when it comes to the Mideast, this is one of those several things concerning which the old lion was wrong.