The Superpowers and the Middle East: Regional and International Politics, 1955-1967

Article excerpt

The Superpowers and the Middle East is a very good book indeed. It offers an astute, yet eminently accessible overview of international relations in the Arab world during the era of the High Cold War, from 1955-67. It thus provides an almost perfect introduction to the topic for general readers and undergraduate students. The author's presentation of events is consistently even-handed and compelling, leaving no room even for the quibbles of specialists. Most impressive of all is the massive documentation, which features a wide range of contemporaneous and later Arabic-language sources.

So why does one come away from this remarkable text fundamentally dissatisfied? Perhaps the dissatisfaction arises out of a gnawing sense that the exceptional erudition displayed throughout the book leaves us little more enlightened than we were at the start. Fawaz Gerges supplements the classic, interview-based accounts of Malcolm Kerr, Patrick Seale, and Hanna Batatu with one based largely on published and archival materials. But he suggests neither new explanations for key episodes nor innovative twists to accepted interpretations. Chapter three, for instance, ably recounts the story of the Suez War of 1956, referring to a variety of memoirs, official memoranda, speeches, and current Arabic-language scholarship. Nevertheless, Gerges claims rather conventionally that "the immediate origins of the Suez crisis lay in the Czech arms deal and the subsequent hostile shift of policy adopted by the U.S. and British governments" (p. 52). Washington reacted to Cairo's attempts to assert Egyptian autonomy by threatening to abandon the Aswan High Dam project; Cairo then nationalized the Suez Canal Company; British and French officials "saw the nationalization of the Suez as a golden opportunity to get rid of Nasser" (p. 58), and so on. Many useful details are incorporated into the narrative, but the overall plot stands essentially unrevised.

Or perhaps the dissatisfaction grows out of an underlying tension between the book's roots in mainstream British international relations, with its emphasis on explicating the strategic conundrums that confront policy makers at any given time, and the author's evident ambition to contribute to American-style social science, which concentrates on formulating and testing alternative explanations for events. …