A Review of American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945
America has had a long and troubled relationship with the Middle East, that hazy land which stretches in a constantly expanding and shrinking circle somewhere between the lapping waters of the Black Sea, to the scorched sands of Libya, the vast wastes of Arabia, and the mountains of Persia. Driven by relationships to oil, Israel, and an interest in containing first Communism and then radicalism, the United States has attempted to craft a host of policies in the region to promote American interests. It is this story which is the principal one told in American Orientalism : The United States and the Middle East Since 1945, by Douglas Little.
There are criticisms, heavy ones I might say, which I direct towards this book, but as far as a tremendous amount of information about US policy, I believe there are probably few other ones of such scope and depth. It provides detailed information about the US relationship with Israel, Egypt, Iran, oil diplomacy, its efforts for modernization across the region, and its on and off affairs with the forces of Arab nationalism, such as Nasser and Saddam Hussein, providing both a spatial and a temporal history. Not only is this a listing of US policies, but in addition an extensive record of quotations from US officials (and a more limited one from their Israeli and Arab counterparts), written with a flowing hand by the author that makes it easy to read and digest. This policy history is prefaced with a history of the cultural relationship of the US with the Middle East, which has a superb history of the transformation of Israel into the "special relationship" ally of the US, the evolution of relations with the Arabs, and evolving American perceptions of the region - covered in the book to long before its 1945 start line, to as far back as the 18th century. This cultural and policy history would seemingly, based off of the points above, make for a solid and well done book.
However, American Orientalism fails to succeed because although it has these two strong points - its cultural history at the beginning, and its policy history - it fails to integrate them well. It is very much like a policy history book which happens to have a brief cultural history at the beginning. Now, this can have some benefits as a primer on the cultural relationships between the United States and the Middle East, but even this is questionable, since it is of little usage throughout the rest of the book. The cultural history section could be removed, with little impact upon the policy section. There is but one section where the book attempts to tie its two themes together, with a brief discussion in the Israeli policy section about National Geographic's portrayal of the Palestinians in the 1990s. While I must admit myself ignorant of the literature existing on US policy towards the Middle East as a whole, and about literature on the cultural relationships between the United States and the Middle East, I would expect that the former at least would already have a host of books dedicated to the subject, that don't exercise the pretension to attempt to simultaneously include a cultural history at the same time.
There are also certain shortcomings in the policy history. At times, the book fails to properly explain what it is discussing. For example, it talks about the US reaction to Syria's increasing friendship with the USSR in 1957, and how the USSR compared it to Munich and Nikita Kruschev, the Soviet leader at the time, to Hitler. But it fails to describe how this was perceived as a fitting analogy at the time : Syria after all, hadn't engaged in any offensive action since at least the 1948 war with Israel. Naturally, the connection doesn't have to be a real one, but why did the US perceive it as such a real one? Reading it, it leaves the reader grasping for what the link was. Afghanistan presents itself in the same light, where US politicians expressed their fear of an "Afghan Hungary" - something which the book fails to provide any explanation for. Similar assumptions are made about Soviet influence, although these are more than just reporting measures : the book refers to the Soviet being desirous of destabilizing the British Palestinian mandate, and gives no other reason than a Soviet desire to destabilize the world system in the 1940s - a hardly convincing explanation given that Soviet diplomacy both expanded and withdrew in regions and had its own nuances. More detail about Soviet reasoning and desires would be useful, Other problems include a lack of significant focus upon the Arab side of the relationship with the US, which is partially excused by the difficulties in accessing archives, both political and linguistic, but which make it hard to have a full picture of the evolving relationship. Perhaps more worrisome is that for a book theoretically devoted to the study of an American orientalism in the Middle East, the book can fall into this very orientalist assumption itself : Iran is castigated as "medieval" and "backwards", categories long reserved for non-Western nations in the third world.
What can be the ultimate verdict on American Orientalism? Ultimately, I have to give it but a mediocre review. Perhaps this comes from chagrin on my part, for when I started it, my hopes were lifted by the excellent cultural history it held. The fact that it aimed to integrate policy as well, raised further my spirits. And yet in the end, for a book which preached overcoming boundaries and divisions, it never succeeded in integrating the two. It is ultimately, a sad result for a book of such excellent material.
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© 2017 Ryan Thomas