The first time you appear on television, the producers tell you, “Be brief!” Keep it to the point, and keep it simple. If you need more than five to ten seconds to make your point, it is likely boring, and the host will cut in and ask another question. Nuance is frowned upon; qualification is uninteresting and footnotes tedious. Even the most serious, in-depth news report is partially entertainment. It is the nature of television.
And Then All Hell Broke Loose, Richard Engel’s memoir about his career as a television reporter covering the Middle East, is engaging and colorful. It is very much brief, simple, and to the point. Engel has been present and on the ground at some fascinating moments in recent history, from the invasion of Iraq to the Egyptian revolution and the end of Muammar Gaddafi. He covered the Syrian civil war during visits to Aleppo and other rebel-held areas, where he was kidnapped by an unknown gang before eventually escaping. He came face-to-face with the Islamic State, and chatted with some of its recruits. It has been quite a career. Impressively, wanting to be a foreign correspondent, he moved to Cairo and freelanced stories until an editorial job opened up at a tiny Egyptian newspaper six months later. That takes guts.
Not surprisingly, by far the best part of his book is the color. Engel has met Bashar al-Assad of Syria and former president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt as well as the late Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi. Bashar was “awkward” and had the “detached air of a rich kid;” Gaddafi is described amusingly and somewhat nostalgically as a “strung-out rock star.” I could see that. The colonel’s revolution and its 1960’s Arab national rhetoric has some vintage appeal by now. The White House would probably trade ISIS for some good old-fashioned Nasserites any day of the week.
Engel also has a good eye for the non-sequiturs of the Middle East. In March 2003, he describes how he ran into 25 Islamic radicals in the high-end Palestine Hotel who had come to Iraq to help Saddam by waging jihad against Western forces. You wouldn’t think of proto-ISIS members being put up at high-end resort hotels, but of course, they had to sleep somewhere. When the war began—in the shock-and-awe days, before the decline and fall—Engel assembled a crack reporting team of a driver-fixer, a second driver, and a drunk Iraqi cop who traveled with them and was useful to have on the payroll. And away they rolled, to Najaf and beyond. He’s a brave man.
The problems come when Engel steps outside of his own experience; when he gives the wars, as his bosses might say, some context. There the simplicity and incisiveness that makes his color so vivid and his broadcasts effective reduces historical policy and events into one-liners. Virtually everything is monocausal. Some of these monocauses have the Trumpish virtue of being mostly right, like his discussion of radical Islam. “The world would be a different place, he says, “if Saudi Arabia had never struck oil. The wealth allowed the Wahhabis to set a harsh standard for Islam, while staying isolated from it themselves.” That’s more or less true.
Other times, that television incisiveness leads him astray. In the first hours of the July War between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, he notes that “[The Israeli] goal was to punish Hezbollah, and all of Lebanon, and teach them a lesson they wouldn’t soon forget. Israel had tired of the peace process. A new era in the Middle East had begun.” Well, all right, but Hezbollah had never been part of the “peace process.” And by 2006, six years into the Palestinians’ second intifada, the peace process—and we are really stretching the phrase—was already on life support.
But it is on Iraq—endlessly inescapably, Iraq—that Engel sounds most disjointed. The Iraq War haunts Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Richard Engel alike; they supported it and are now at a loss to explain themselves. “I thought it was brave to remove Saddam and his horrific system of government, and I would have considered it just and noble even if it had been the main reason for invading Iraq.” He then—a page later!—castigates President Bush for attempting to build a “fantasy garden of democracy.” So how can he base his support for the war on the appalling immorality of Saddam’s regime, yet oppose trying to create something better? What is he recommending? A better thug, maybe. It’s not clear. He goes on to attribute the success of ISIS, monocausally, to the disenfranchisement of Sunnis in Iraq, which he refers to several times. So is he suggesting the Sunnis should have been kept in power? What is his solution to the after-war? It’s never clear.
In the end, his memoir is good, but good television, starting from scratch every night, every page, in single-segment hits: boom-boom-boom. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doubles back on itself, though overall the effect is enjoyable. Which is why we watch TV in the first place.