The Middle East’s Good Old Days

Review: Ray Takeyh and Steven Simon, ‘Pragmatic Superpower’

Syrian citizens gather at the scene where two blasts exploded in the pro-government neighborhood of Zahraa, in Homs province, Syria in Feb. 2016 / AP
Syrian citizens gather at the scene where two blasts exploded in the pro-government neighborhood of Zahraa, in Homs province, Syria in Feb. 2016 / AP

After nearly eight years in office, most observers would conclude that President Barack Obama has done little to advance, and may well have undermined, American interests in the Middle East. While he would tout the Iran nuclear deal as perhaps his greatest foreign policy achievement, a debatable proposition in itself, the region is embroiled in a series of crises the current administration seems unable to address or understand.

In their masterful new book, Ray Takeyh and Steve Simon contend that in the not too distant past the United States was far more successful in the region. As they write, "by the time the Cold War ended the United States did achieve its core objective—the exhaustion of a rival superpower, establishment of a robust system of air and naval bases, preservation of a steady supply of oil, and emergence of a secure Israel."

In making their case, the authors rely on ample research and their own considerable expertise, as both have served at the highest levels of the U.S. government. The book’s ten chapters cover events in the Middle East from the end of World War II through the 1991 end of the Cold War. Readers are taken through the early days of the Palestinian problem, the Six Day War, the Iran-Iraq War, and the first Gulf war. American political maneuvering, backed by military power, combined to produce outcomes favorable to U.S. interests.

Their analysis is persuasive but still subject to challenge. As the authors acknowledge, the ten examples they address—albeit significant—are but a subset of the much broader and decades-long story of the Middle East’s political and security struggles. Would a broader or different sample have rendered the same conclusions? The authors are silent on this but readers can reach their own conclusions. This is at most a quibble with an otherwise first-rate book.

Given past successes and current policy chaos, the conclusions Takeyh and Simon draw are insightful. Nonetheless, in looking across recent events in the Middle East, they take what to some must seem like the politically incorrect position that it is those in power in the Middle East who bear the heaviest and most direct responsibility for the current state of affairs. "Whatever miscalculations America may have made, the principal cause of the region’s disorders are its leaders and the choices and decisions that they have made."

There is no lack of evidence to support that judgment, but readers also may easily conclude that the region’s current state of disarray is in no small measure a product of eight years of Washington’s indifference and skewed priorities that are wholly at odds with the nuance and past successes the authors write about so cogently.