When the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, it seemed to Americans that they had not only prevailed in the Cold War but were on the edge of a new phase of history, or perhaps even the end of history. A quarter century later, history continues to unfold and Americans are at a loss over what to do about a part of the world that did not get the message about a new world order—the greater Middle East (stretching the traditional definition of the Middle East to include Afghanistan and Somalia). Civil wars, terrorism, refugees, and humanitarian crises are tearing apart the region. Of greater concern to most Americans, anti-Western terrorist groups continue to carry out attacks that achieve their purpose: sowing terror. In this context, it may seem superfluous to explain why Americans consider “radical Islam” to be a threat and that Islamophobia flourishes. Douglas Little’s compact survey of national security policy toward the greater Middle East, however, sheds much light on how Washington has wrestled with the various threats posed by radical Islam, from the Iranian hostage crisis to the deadly assault on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi.
The book begins with a chapter on the Cold War (Harry Truman through Ronald Reagan), then follow chapters on presidential administrations from George H. W. Bush to Barack Obama, with each chapter supplying profiles of the president and high-ranking policymakers before recounting major political developments and debates over how to respond to them. A final chapter on Islamophobia examines the ways media and popular culture have inflated fear and hatred of Muslims.
Little rightly situates the genesis of U.S. policy toward the Middle East in the Cold War. For more than forty years, strategic rivalry with the Soviet Union provided the framework for presidents, national security advisers, and military leaders to identify friends and adversaries in the Middle East. Little argues that debates over how to deal with Soviet expansionism—containment or rollback—influenced later arguments over how to cope with troublesome Muslim leaders such as Saddam Hussein.
The core of the book examines how U.S. presidents from 1989 to 2012 addressed national security interests in the Middle East: Arab-Israeli diplomacy, security in the Persian Gulf, and transnational terrorism. The first Bush administration was initially preoccupied with winding down the Cold War with as little disruption as possible. It had little to do with radical Islam. In fact, its two major engagements in the Middle East involved the secular ruler of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and Arab-Israeli negotiations. There were, however, two significant developments in radical Islam at the time: the formation of Hamas in 1988 and the military coup d’etat in Algeria to prevent an Islamist party from winning national elections. Washington’s silent consent to military intervention bolstered a critical narrative of the United States that its support for democracy only reached as far as pro-American parties.
Bill Clinton’s national security team developed a strategy of “dual containment” to prevent Saddam from threatening his neighbors and to limit Iranian influence, which promoted radical Muslim groups such as Hezbollah. Much of the chapter about Clinton dwells on Palestinian-Israeli talks even though their failure had very little to do with radical Islam, according to the extensive documents cited. Of course, a direct threat to the United States in the name of radical Islam did appear in 1996, when Osama bin Laden declared jihad against the United States and Al Qaeda carried out terrorist attacks on American targets in East Africa and Yemen.
Why did Clinton’s national security advisers fail to persuade the incoming Bush team of the gravity of Al Qaeda’s threat? Little underscores the neoconservatives’ preoccupation with Saddam Hussein. Having been caught looking the wrong way on September 11, the Bush administration tried to connect the Iraqi leader to Al Qaeda. Bush officials’ indifference to reality for the sake of scaring the public into supporting an invasion of Iraq is a notable example of how political leadership fostered Islamophobia at the same time it disavowed a war against Islam. The implicit message was that any Muslim who was not on the American side was a radical Muslim. With that premise, it seemed logical to suppose that if Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, he would pass them on terrorists to attack the homeland. In taking stock of the Bush administration, Little takes the reader through the bungled invasion and occupation but mentions neither Abu Ghraib nor Guantanamo, viewed by many Muslims as proof that the United States was at war with Islam.
Barack Obama promised a fresh approach to the Muslim world that would blend containment and engagement, captured in the term “contagement.” High-profile speeches expressing good will collided with Obama’s containment strategy, which entailed drone attacks on militant leaders. The strategy spared American military and financial resources but killed hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, further poisoning the well. (After the book went to press, the United States reached an agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear program. Whether that success for engagement will pay off in the long run is an open question).
The final chapter frames the confrontation between the United States and radical Islam in terms of a three-hundred-year-old American habit to constitute enemies: Indians, Mexican and Chinese immigrants, communists, and now, Muslims. The reader gets a quick tour of outlets for Islamophobia: talk radio, commercial television programs, and video games.
Little’s account draws on extensive research in documents at presidential libraries, government records, and memoirs of central figures in U.S. national security policy. The upshot is an account that offers insight into how events appeared to the White House. The array of primary sources allows him to enliven the narrative with two very different kinds of “Washington speak”—the cool analytical voice of national security professionals and the salty language of angry presidents. As a result, readers feel as if they are listening to a long-running conversation about how the country should respond to threats. The vivid writing makes the book an excellent choice for undergraduate courses on U.S. foreign policy and recent Middle East history with an international focus.
Us versus Them is highly recommended as an informative and entertaining book to gain insight into the official American perspective on its subject. The writing and editing are mostly free of error, but if the publisher were to issue a paperback edition, it would be worthwhile correcting some factual errors: Page 7, Caliph Umar did not establish the Umayyad caliphate; Caliph Muawiya did that. Page 8, the Ottomans did not besiege Vienna in 1583; they besieged it twice, in 1529 and 1683. Page 9, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani did not have a British education; he was educated in Iran. Page 28, Muhammad Reza Shah did not exile Ayatollah Khomeini after the June 1963 riots; he did that in October 1964 after Khomeini condemned the signing of the Status of Forces Agreement granting immunity to U.S. military personnel. Page 174, Iranian protests did not take place in 2011; the “Green Movement” was in 2009.