The Struggle for Middle East Democracy

BOOK REVIEW: What Really Went Wrong: The West and The Failure of Democracy In The Middle East

By Fawaz A. Gerges / Publisher

Reviewed by: Ambassador Gary Grappo

The Reviewer: Gary Grappo is a former U.S. ambassador who held senior positions including Minister Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad; U.S. Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman; and Charge d’Affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He’s currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for Middle East Studies at the Korbel School for International Studies, University of Denver.

REVIEW — As a long-time student and former practitioner of diplomacy and foreign policy in the Middle East, I took up this most recent analysis of Middle East events and how they may have led to the conditions of today with interest and verve. The title, What Really Went Wrong: The West and The Failure of Democracy in the Middle East, suggests that the United States specifically and the West more generally played some role in the failure of democracy in this conflicted part of the world. The reputation and established scholarship of its author indicated valuable insights would be offered.

Instead, from the early pages, the author, a Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, advances a Noam Chomsky-like polemic on early US policy in the Middle East. His tendentious methodology and over-simplification of the region’s failures to democratize and fulfill the lofty aspirations of its population in the post-World War II/post-colonial period may be distilled down to the following: it’s the fault of the United States, the Eisenhower administration and, more specifically, to the brothers John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, Secretary of State and CIA Director, respectively, in the Eisenhower administration. Caught in the frenzied paranoia of the Cold War, the prospect of nuclear annihilation and fear of global communism, the US could see only budding Communists inside emerging nationalist leaders. (Soviets felt similarly about capitalism and the US.) In the Middle East, the two most prominent were Mohammed Mossadegh, prime minister of Iran and Gamal Abdul Nasser, president of Egypt. They are the principal but not only subjects of this book.

The fact that anti-communist fervor often blinkered US decision-making from the nineteen-fifties through the seventies and even beyond is no revelation. But Gerges fails to provide insight into how pervasive it was in not just foreign policy but in every-day American domestic politics, too. Political leaders like Eisenhower and others risked political suicide by appearing to support or merely be seen to tolerate governments or leaders who trucked in socialist or communist ideas or with the Soviet Union.

More than 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, it may be easy dismiss the threat the Americans so feared. But it was genuine and profound. Many of the ex-colonial, newly independent nations around the world were attracted to communism and drawn to the political predations of the Soviets. The USSR’s fall was not so inevitable to policy makers of the day. The American people held them accountable for resisting enemies, real and perceived, wherever the US had interests. The Middle East was key among those.

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Hindsight has proven the errors and misdeeds of America’s early approaches to the post-colonial era and the rise of nationalist movements throughout the world. A wealth of scholarship as well as declassified documents of the US Department of State and CIA make it plainly evident that fear of communism, often excessive, drove a significant part of US policy making, including within the US. Witness the McCarthy hearings and the purging of senior State Department and other innocent officials of the US government. As the author contends, the US viewed much of the developing world – and indeed much of the world – through a distorted lens of the Cold War. So did the Soviets.

But this hardly leads to the underlying contention of this book that, well, it was all America’s fault, with only sparce mention of the region’s leaders’ personal shortcomings and inexperience in confronting the post-war world’s complexities.

Terms like “America’s imperialist ambitions,” obsession with a “Pax Americana,” “waste and destruction wrought by (an) informal empire’s military-industrial complex,” “neo-colonialism” and “neo-imperial divide-and-control devices,” et al punctuate the author’s account, making it difficult if not impossible for an objective and genuinely curious reader to understand what really did go wrong in the Middle East. Could it really have been all the evil machinations of America and the author’s favorite bete noires, the Dulles brothers?

The counterfactual text begins with the author’s strongest argument, the American designed, British-instigated and -abetted coup, which saw the elected prime minister of Iran, Mossadegh, overthrown and replaced with a Western-compliant military officer and a newly assertive, however groveling Shah. After first failing, the coup succeeded only because the CIA mastermind of the operation, Kermit Roosevelt, ignored orders and remained in Tehran to make a second push that worked. Declassified US government documents and subsequent public statements by US officials make clear the American role. (The UK government has yet to do so, however.) What transpired would ultimately lead to regrettable consequences for the US and most especially the people of Iran.

Gerges does a credible job, when he’s not off on some anti-US rant, of summarizing much of the history of the event but proffers little that may be new. It was one of the most disastrous decisions in US foreign policy in the post-war period until the Iraq invasion in 2003, which falls outside the purview of the book.

In fact, the author reviews briefly some of the efforts of the US administration to resolve the dispute between Britain and Mossadegh over the latter’s decision to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Offers, for example, to adopt the Saudi model, in which US oil interests agreed to a 50-50 split, were rejected out of hand by both sides. The obstinacy of the British and Iranians frustrated Eisenhower and the several diplomats he dispatched to address the confrontation. Eisenhower was obliged to turn down Mossadegh’s pleas for US economic aid, knowing such aid to an oil-exporting nation would never fly in Congress. The intransigence of both sides was unquestionably responsible in part for what followed.

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One could make a case, as Professor Gerges does, that democracy may have had a chance in Iran. Mossadegh was not a communist, though he flirted with the communist Tudeh Party when his own internal support began to erode. However, Mossadegh would have been swimming against a very strong current of anti-democratic interests, including the powerful clerics, a significant number of whom unsurprisingly backed the coup.

Nevertheless, he was attempting reform in a sense most Westerners would have understood, was partial to democratic institutions and open to dissent, including in the media, which cannot be said of others in that part of the world, including the book’s next frustrated, would-be reforming democratic hero, Gamal Nasser.

More than anything, Nasser’s principal fault was his ambition to become the Arab world’s great leader. His rousing pan-Arab nationalist rhetoric, populist politics, magnetic personality and anti-American bombast charmed Egyptians as well as Arabs throughout the region. But he was as far from a reforming democrat as one would find in the region in the day. He brooked no opposition and dealt ruthlessly with those who would challenge him. Despite his lesser education, he was much more politically savvy than Mossadegh in playing off the Americans against the Soviets, mostly because Nasser’s politics were neither communism, nor capitalism nor democracy, but rather Nasserism.

The author makes a plaintive argument that Nasser could have been the independent reformer that modernized a nation if only the Americans had, inter alia, fulfilled promises to fund the Aswan Dam project and supply Egypt with the weapons he needed to defend his weak country. Instead, he says American refusals led the nascent nationalist campaigner unwillingly into the arms of the waiting Soviets. It’s a weak case. Declassified messages between Washington and the embassy in Cairo and transcripts of conversations between senior US officials, including Secretary of State Dulles, and the Egyptian ambassador in Washington and others indicate the US genuinely wanted a strong relationship with Nasser and Egypt.

One July 1956 telegram from Washington to the US embassy in Cairo catalogs the many offers the US made not only to supply weapons but also assist in financing their purchase from the US. Negotiations on the delicate issues surrounding the Aswan Dam were contingent on Egypt’s reaching agreement with Sudan regarding riparian rights. But the documents also make clear that simultaneous negotiations between Nasser and the Soviets had been taking place as much as a year earlier and may have been in an advanced stage well before the US came around to denying Nasser’s requests. Nasser’s duplicitousness in the prevailing Washington political environment rankled White House and State Department officials and exacerbated fears of the Soviets and communism penetrating the Middle East’s most populated nation. He had to be resisted.

Nasser’s fall from grace, as it were, is more likely a result of: his unbridled ambition to be the Arab world’s leader, which did not sit well with Gulf States’ rulers; unwillingness to retreat from his constant anti-Western, anti-American diatribes that played so well to his charges; his perfidy in dealing with the US; and misguided adventurism in dispatching 70,000 Egyptian forces to Yemen to support the military overthrow of the royalists. The absence of those forces and many of Egypt’s most capable generals left his country woefully exposed when Israel attacked in 1967. Egypt and Nasser suffered a catastrophic and humiliating defeat in a mere six days. Nasser resigned shortly afterwards but was nevertheless popularly recalled by the Egyptian people. But his grand campaign to lead the Arab world had been destroyed. The Americans had little to do with any of this.

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Not content with remaining within the Middle East, the author drags up America’s 1954 coup in Guatemala to overthrow democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz, another ill-considered American operation documented and reported ad nauseam. While there’s no denying the facts of the incident, readers are left scratching their heads and wondering what that has to do with democracy in the Middle East. United Fruit Company, the ostensible target of the Guatemalan government’s nationalization, is not the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company – bananas, unlike oil, are not a strategic commodity – and conditions in the two countries, whose coups were almost one year apart, were not similar. Apparently lacking other examples of the Americans overthrowing governments – other than a few contemplated but never attempted – the author found it necessary to travel halfway around the world to further bolster his case for America and the Eisenhower administration squelching democracy in the Middle East.

The author downplays – if he plays at all – actual prospects for democracy in the Middle East. The region lacked the institutions, culture, civil society organizations, freedom and openness, i.e., the foundations necessary for democracy to take root and thrive. From the fall of the Ottomans in the early 20th century, their governments and political leaders were plagued by endemic corruption, coups (involving no Western nation), political assassinations, burdensome bureaucracies freighted by nepotism, mutual fear and suspicion between government and governed, and repression. Arab nationalism, Nasserism, Baathism, state-led socialism, militarism, and a penchant for caudillismo, or strongman rule, are hardly conducive to democracy. Monarchies fared better, especially those blessed with natural resources, but the rest largely suffered from most, if not all, of these ills.

The author also ignores a major factor contributing to the region’s anti-democratic biases. Leaders repeatedly used the State of Israel and the prospect of recovering Palestine to whip up public support for their autocratic rule, when of course Israel had nothing to do with democratic evolution in the Middle East. Moreover, Arab leaders launched a wasteful and ultimately losing war against Israel in 1948. In the many “what ifs” the author poses, he never asks what if Egypt and other Arab states had made peace with Israel? (Anwar Sadat finally did in 1979.)

Nasser’s immediate successors, Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, close allies and partners of the US and beneficiaries of substantial American funding, repeatedly repulsed American entreaties to liberalize, open the political system and allow a more permissive media climate. So did their counterparts from Tehran to Rabat. It all fell on deaf ears (as this reviewer personally experienced).

None of this is intended to imply that democracy cannot flourish in this region. As Professor Gerges states, the spirit of the Arab Spring uprisings still lives in the hearts of many of the people of the region, including those in Iran and Egypt. However, responsibility for realizing those aspirations will fall almost entirely, as it always has, to the people of that region. Outsiders like the US and others may support, or not, genuine democratic movements, but they will neither be able to stop nor instigate them.

For anyone looking for simple answers to why the Middle East is how it is today, “What Went Wrong” may be what they’re looking for. But the Middle East is much too complex for single causes and explanations. In this reviewer’s opinion, the book isn’t for serious students of the region, though certain autocrats in the Middle East and elsewhere looking for monsters to cover up their own misrule and their nations’ ills will doubtlessly find it a useful reference.

What Really Went Wrong: The West and The Failure of Democracy in the Middle East earns a disappointing 1.5 out of 4 trench coats


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