American Presidents and the Middle East

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American Presidents and the Middle East

Viewing 44 years of American relations with the Middle East from the White House, beginning with President Truman in 1945 and ending with President Reagan in 1989, might seem too lofty a perch from which to discern the details. In fact, it is not. So complex and sensitive is the U.S.-Middle East relationship that every development of consequence affecting the area always lands on the president's desk. And presidential decisions affecting one Middle East country rarely fail to have an impact on the others.

For "old Middle East hands" and newcomers alike, American Presidents and the Middle East is the best available overview of the period that began with the 1945-1946 Iran-Azerbaijan crisis handled by President Truman and ended with the Reagan administration's indirect support for the Iraqi side in the latter part of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. There is real drama in many of the crises examined by Lenczowski. Presidents, it has been said, are the only American political leaders with any real power, and Middle East problems repeatedly have tested that power. Given the extreme sensitivity of the American domestic political scene to the area, actions there may actually measure the political longevity of presidents.

The relatively uninformed reader may be assured that Prof. George Lenczowski of the University of California at Berkeley has overlooked no important development. The already well-informed reader can count not only on learning new details of these crises, but often on seeing them from a different vantage point.

An example is the role of President Truman in 1946 in forcing the withdrawal of Soviet troops who had entered Iran during World War II to secure a resupply route from the Indian Ocean to their armies resisting German attack. When the war ended the Soviets remained, propping up breakaway Kurdish and Azerbaijani "republics" in northwest Iran.

Lenczowski quotes Truman as having sent a "blunt message" to Stalin, but the president's memoirs do not reveal what the message was. In Tehran in the 1970s the reviewer often heard that Truman had threatened Josef Stalin with the atomic bomb unless Soviet forces evacuated Iran.

After his memoirs were published, however, Truman said he had let Stalin know that American military chiefs had been ordered to prepare for movement of U.S. land, sea and air forces. The care Professor Lenczowski devotes to assembling all such material on the Azerbaijan crisis is characteristic of his thoroughness throughout the book.

Its actors are eight presidents. The arena is bounded by Turkey, Egypt, Yemen and Afghanistan. The political/economic imperatives remain the same throughout: the sensitive domestic implications of the Arab-Israeli dispute, the presence in the Middle East of two-thirds of the world's petroleum reserves, and the constant tension of the Soviet-American Cold War.

The author leans over backwards to maintain a scholarly approach on some highly emotional issues, and all who know him personally, including many U.S. diplomats who served in the Middle East during the period covered and met him during his regular visits to the area, can testify to his fairness and balance. Lenczowski leaves it to his readers to draw their own conclusions, but his own powerful analytical abilities and encyclopedic knowledge of the subject matter are reflected in his choices of quotations from sources who felt no need to avoid tough value judgments.

On the subject of Henry Kissinger's role in U.S. Mideast policy, for example, he quotes Egypt's former foreign minister, Ismail Fahmy, as describing the former U.S. national security adviser and secretary of state as "basically Israel's envoy."

On the other hand, he tends to absolve Kissinger of much of the blame for undercutting and eventually supplanting Secretary of State William Rogers, a conviction held by many foreign service officers. Rather, the author says that President Nixon ruthlessly excluded Rogers from major decisions because he did not want a strong and influential secretary. …