Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East

Article excerpt

The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East

By Richard B. Parker. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1993, 274 pp. List $14.95; AET: $11.95 for one.

Reviewed by Andrew I. Killgore

In The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East, Richard Parker examines political/military miscalculations that led to, or attended, three great Middle Eastern crises of the past quarter century. These are the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the 1968-1970 Egyptian-Israeli war of attrition, and the abortive U.S.-brokered May 17, 1983 withdrawal agreement that followed Israel's June 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Parker, a retired foreign service officer who is fluent in Arabic, has written two previous books on historic land-marks in Egypt and Morocco and is a former editor of the Middle East Journal. His distinguished diplomatic career includes service as U.S. political counselor in Cairo in 1967, State Department "desk officer" for Egypt from 1967 to 1970, and U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Lebanon and Morocco.

In these positions he had intimate personal knowledge of all three of the crises his book examines, each of which he sees as demonstrations of the "universality of miscalculation." The overall result is an astonishingly fine job of historiography.

Few foreign service officers the reviewer has known, and perhaps few professional historians either, could present more lucidly the results of such a comprehensive examination of the documentation and dispassionate assessments of the officials and diplomats involved in these great dramas of our times. Not everyone will agree, however, with all of the basic assumptions with which the author approached his research.

It led him from Washington to Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, Jerusalem, London and Moscow. His visit to the Russian capital, however, proved disappointing in clarifying the catalytic Soviet role in the Arab-Israel war of June 1967.

Parker devotes half of his book and five of its 10 chapters to that war, which in six days so profoundly altered the Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape. He examines in depth the circumstances under which Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser left his air force totally unprotected on the ground from possible Israeli air attacks, while engaged in verbal threats and menacing maneuvers against Israel.

Surprise Israeli air strikes on June 5, 1967 took advantage of this foolhardiness, almost totally destroyed Egypt's air force and effectively won the war against Egypt on its first day. While supplying no definitive motivation for the charismatic Egyptian leader's puzzling moves, Parker's documentation brings the events leading up to the 1967 war, and the war itself, to life.

The author's own opinion is that Egypt initiated the crisis leading to the 1967 war, and he amasses much evidence to buttress that conclusion. A contrasting view of many Middle East specialists, including the reviewer, is that Israel instigated the crisis by fooling the intelligence agencies of the Soviet Union. Soviet diplomats in turn led both Syria and Egypt to believe that Israel was massing troops to attack Syria, prompting Nasser to begin preparations to come to Syria's aid.

As a good historian, Parker provides the evidence to support either point of view. The reader can make up his/her own mind.

"As far as I could tell," Parker continues, "there was, in fact, no massing of Israeli troops." If that view is correct, then President Nasser obviously overreacted in asking that the United Nations forces in the Sinai Peninsula separating Egyptian and Israeli troops be withdrawn. This suddenly put Egyptian forces back in control of the Strait of Tiran, at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, which Nasser then declared closed to Israeli shipping, a move unacceptable to Israel. It also was unacceptable to the U.S. which had secretly guaranteed, when it forced Israel to withdraw from Sinai in 1957, that the strait would remain open. …

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