The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East

The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East

The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East

The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East


Why do international crises seem to occur so often in the Middle East? Former U. S. diplomat Richard B. Parker presents three detailed studies of policy failures that he believes were precipitated by miscalculations on the part of diplomats and of government and military leaders in one or more Middle Eastern countries, the United States, and the former USSR. They are the Soviet-Egyptian miscalculation leading to the June 1967 war between Israel and the Arab states, the U. S.-Israeli miscalculation leading to Soviet military intervention in Egypt in 1970, and the U. S.-Israeli miscalculation leading to the disastrous Lebanese-Israeli peace agreement of May 17, 1983.

Parker's many-sided, often gripping account of the way in which these crises unfolded illustrates how the same events can be viewed very differently by the observers and actors involved, and how political decisions can precipitate reactions that are often very different from those anticipated. Although the book highlights the unavoidably uncertain and contingent element in all diplomatic activity, it also shows that careful attention to history, to past performance, and to prevailing mindsets in the countries involved can be invaluable aids in diplomatic crisis management. The many sources assembled and the careful weighing of their accuracy and reliability, along with the combined perspective of the practitioner and the scholar, make this book an important resource for diplomats, policymakers, and students of diplomacy.


This is a study of three serious policy failures in the Middle East: the June War of 1967; the War of Attrition, or Canal War, between Egypt and Israel in 1968-70; and the abortive May 17, 1983, peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon. All three involved serious miscalculations by one or more of the parties involved. My purpose has been threefold: to establish and record what actually happened, to explore what lay behind the decisions taken in order to see whether there are useful lessons to be learned, and to illustrate the universality of the miscalculation phenomenon—everybody does it.

By the term miscalculation I mean a policy decision which goes awry because those making it did not foresee properly what the results would be. The results can range from bothersome misstep to national disaster. I exclude mistakes caused by physical or mental incapacity (as some have argued was the case with Anthony Eden in the 1956 Suez affair) but not by personal idiosyncrasy. I originally determined to exclude mistakes caused by lack of information but concluded that this was a legitimate factor in the War of Attrition case, although it should not have been in the other two cases.

The classic example of miscalculation is Israel's failure to react to visible Egyptian preparations for an attack in 1973 because such an attack did not fit the "concept" of what the Egyptians were likely to do, given Israel's air superiority. This miscalculation has been described and analyzed in considerable detail by various writers; see, for instance, Avi Shlaim's National Intelligence Failures: The Case of the Yom Kippur War, in World Politics (April 1976). But there has been little else written on the mechanics of the phenomenon in the Middle East, except with regard to Israel. Little has been written about what happened on the Arab or Soviet or even American sides in terms of the decision-making process, and almost nothing from the point of view of the diplomatic practitioner.

This absence of studies on the subject has not been for lack of examples, going back to the beginnings of history. In the modern period we find the Russians under Catherine the Great, the French under Napoleon, the British under various governments, the Soviets under Brezhnev, the Americans under both Democrats and Republicans, the Israelis both Labor and Likud, the Iraqis both royal and Baathi, the Iranians both imperial and Khomeiniite, the Moroccans, the Libyans, the Jordanians, the Lebanese, and every other people of the region making repeated errors of judgment as to the reaction a particular decision will provoke.

Given the explosive nature of most of the disputes in the Middle East . . .

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