Ray Takeyh, Steven Simon. The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East. W. W. Norton & Company, 2016. xviii + 396 pages. $28.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-393-08151-0.
Reviewed by Diego Pagliarulo (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-Diplo (May, 2017)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
It is hard to overstate the importance of the Middle East for American foreign policy. With its religious and historical significance, location, and oil reserves the region occupies a special place in the minds of scholars and casual observers alike. The persistence of interlocking and intractable conflicts, along with threats such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation, makes it a major source of headaches for policymakers and national security experts. After the end of the Cold War--particularly after 9/11--the region has become the focal point of efforts to devise a new global strategy for the United States, and a magnet for American troops. Washington’s entanglement in the Middle East, however, long predates the turbulent years of the post-Cold War era and the “War on Terror.” Hence, an in-depth understanding of the history of America’s involvement in the region is a crucial requirement for both historians of US foreign relations and analysts of America’s role in today’s international politics.
Recent scholarship on American policy in the Middle East--especially surveys published in the wake of the 2003 Iraq War--tends to convey the idea of an adventurist and frustrating endeavor. Titles range from American Orientalism to Quicksand; from A Choice of Enemies to America’s War for the Greater Middle East--just to mention a few of the most authoritative and informative volumes lying on your reviewer’s shelf. From this point of view, The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East, by Ray Takeyh and Steven Simon, immediately stands out as a fresh and intriguing addition to the literature. “The underreported story of the Cold War,” Takeyh and Simon argue, “is that the United States succeeded in achieving many of its objectives in the Middle East” (p. xi).
The two authors have extensive knowledge of both the literature concerning the history of US policy in the Middle East and the intricacies of policy making and policy-oriented analysis. Takeyh is a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and served as an advisor on Iran at the US Department of State. Simon is a visiting fellow at Dartmouth College. Between 2011 and 2012, he served as senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs on the National Security Council. The Pragmatic Superpower is based on a comprehensive collection of books, scholarly articles, memoirs--including a number of personal recollections by Iranian officials--and a more limited but insightful selection of archival resources and published documents. The two authors have selected ten major crises that shaped the international relations of the Middle East during the Cold War--from the 1946 Iran crisis to the 1991 Gulf War--as test cases to analyze US policy in the region and point out the factors that in their opinion determined America’s success.
Takeyh and Simon’s main thesis is that the United States won the Cold War in the Middle East because it pursued a realist policy aimed at preserving stability. America’s Cold War objectives in the Middle East, they observe, “were hardly modest” (p. xii), but consistently revolved around a defined set of priorities. First, as part of the containment doctrine that underpinned America’s Cold War global strategy, US leaders were determined to thwart the Kremlin’s attempts to expand Soviet influence in the region. Another key priority was ensuring access to the region’s oil supplies--a key condition for the prosperity of America’s western European allies. The third was ensuring Israel’s security and the advancement toward a settlement of the conflict between Israel and its neighbors.
America’s Middle East strategy, the two authors argue, took shape during the early phases of the superpower confrontation in the region, under the watch of presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. In particular, the Truman administration clarified the vital importance of the region and the necessity for Washington to take a bold stance against Soviet efforts to expand Moscow’s influence. Truman also made sure that Israel’s existence and security would rank among America’s strategic priorities. Eisenhower and his foreign policy advisers inherited such a policy and built upon it by progressively abandoning attempts to reach out to “radical” Middle Eastern leaders such as Egypt’s strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser and opting instead for partnership with “conservative” elites, such as Arab monarchs and the shah of Iran. According to Takeyh and Simon, the main factor determining America’s victory of the Cold War in the Middle East was that subsequent administrations did not substantially deviate from the realist paradigm established by Truman and Eisenhower. They ensured Israel’s existence and security, nurtured friendly and status quo Middle Eastern regimes, and contained or opposed radical challengers. Thanks to that pragmatic approach the US never lost its edge over the Soviet Union and, after the Gulf crisis of 1990-91, America found itself in a position of unchallenged power in the Middle East.
According to Takeyh and Simon, success for the United States in the Middle East was the result of a combination of good luck and wise choice of allies and priorities. Far from being a drag on American policy in the region, they argue, Israel proved to be a valuable ally. In addition, conservative local elites had objectives that were compatible with US priorities and were ready to cooperate. The most outstanding example of that favorable trend, Takeyh and Simon point out, is the crisis that led to the fall of Iran’s prime minister Muhammad Mossadeq in August 1953. The plan to overthrow the “isolated and beleaguered premier” (p. 87), the two authors maintain, originated from within Iran’s political establishment, while the much-decried role of American intelligence services in the coup was in fact marginal and less effective than generally believed. “In this scenario,” they conclude, “the CIA’s machinations are important but hardly consequential” (p. 87). Conservative Arabs preferred US friendship over cooperation with the USSR in spite of the US-Israeli partnership. In fact, according to Takeyh and Simon, confrontation between the Arabs and Israel served American interests, since conservative Arab rulers calculated that the United States was the only power capable of inducing Israel to make concessions. Finally, the Middle East was not a vital geopolitical concern for the Soviet Union. On the other hand, given the importance of oil for Western energy security, the preservation of a favorable equilibrium in the region was a vital interest in terms of Washington’s Cold War global strategy. “Simply put,” they observe, the Middle East “meant more to us than to them” (p. 334).
The most notable exception in this story is the Jimmy Carter administration. According to Takeyh and Simon, compared with the rest of America’s Cold War strategists, Carter “was a new type of politician suffused with idealism” and ready to pursue objectives such as the advancement human rights and democratic ideals even if that meant destabilizing friendly regimes such as the shah’s Iran (p. 266). Carter’s approach, however, turned out to be delusional and eventually caused one of America’s major setbacks in the region--the fall of the shah and the replacement of a staunch and powerful US regional ally by the radical and hostile regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, moreover, demonstrated that threats to America’s vital interests in the Middle East were not limited to Soviet ambitions and the logic of the bipolar confrontation, but could also originate from within the region.
The two authors’ criticism of the Carter administration is compounded by their emphasis on the contrast between the realist objectives that characterized US policies toward the Middle East during the Cold War--particularly the overall concern to preserve stability--with the transformational goals that have informed US policies toward the region in the post-Cold War era, such as democratization and regime change. Their prescription for today’s policymakers is to “look back at a period when the United States got it right” (p. xviii), and adopt a pragmatic strategic outlook.
Takeyh and Simon make their case loud and clear. Such an approach is not immune to controversy. The United States certainly won the contest for influence in the Middle East against the Soviet Union. Readers of The Pragmatic Superpower will find plenty of valuable insights on the strategic foresight, the shrewd diplomacy, and the many other factors that determined such an outcome. It seems legitimate, however, to think critically about the idea that America’s Cold War policy in the Middle East was indeed so effective. In fact, quite a few scholars challenge that view. The conservative allies supported by the United States in order to preserve the regional status quo were in fact repressive and often unstable regimes. From this point of view, Douglas Little and Lawrence Freedman observe that cooperation between Washington and its Middle Eastern partners was troublesome and sometimes severely backfired--leading to further political instability, controversial US meddling, and increasing anti-American sentiments in the region. From a different perspective, Andrew Bacevich and Christopher Layne point out that US engagement in the Middle East has been driven by hegemonic ambitions and hubris, rather than a cold calculus of national interests. According to this view, American policies toward the region--both during and after the Cold War--have been disproportionately militant. Finally, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, Rashid Khalidi, and Geoffrey Wawro argue that Washington’s Middle East policy has been excessively responsive to Israel’s demands, at the expenses of not just American national interests but also the chances of achieving an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. These competing interpretations have their own strengths and weaknesses, but it seems important to keep them in mind when we reflect on Takeyh and Simon’s thesis and the policies they recommend.
Another potential source of controversy is the selective approach adopted by the authors. An inherent implication of the focus on case studies is that authors choose historical episodes that fit their thesis. Readers of The Pragmatic Superpower may sometimes be left with the feeling that Takeyh and Simon omit details and counterpoints that may undermine the success-story narrative of the book. This can be questionable from the point of view of the historian, and sometimes gives the feeling that historical evidence is stretched a little too thin. For instance, the Iran crisis of 1953 mentioned above is a complex and multifaceted episode, and the way the authors minimize the impact of US active involvement in the plotting and execution of Mossadeq’s overthrow contrasts with other accounts that argue that the impact of US policies was substantial--such as those provided by Mark Gasiorowski, Malcolm Byrne, Stephen Kinzer, and Kenneth Pollack. These controversial aspects, however, can be considered at least in part as a consequence of the interpretive and prescriptive approach that the two authors have adopted. The book is quite deliberately conceived with the purpose of showing the benefits of a realist US policy toward the Middle East. We may argue that it is somewhat intended to stir controversy and debate.
Summing up, The Pragmatic Superpower is a bold and engaging interpretive account of America’s policy in the Middle East during the Cold War. Some important caveats need to be made. The authors’ staunch praise for America’s Cold War strategy sounds at times triumphalist and one-sided. The policy implications of their analysis, moreover, must be carefully scrutinized and compared with the wide range of options that can be extrapolated from the works of the many scholars that have grappled with the tumultuous geopolitics of the region. That said, the book is readable and informative, and can provide even experts on the subject with fresh insights and challenging perspectives to explore and debate. The authors make a powerful and well-articulated case for a pragmatic and realist strategy. The Pragmatic Superpower is a valuable and thought-provoking addition to the literature on America’s policy in the Middle East. The book is also recommended for anyone interested in properly assessing the policy options available for bringing stability to a vitally important region that is tormented by tragic and long-standing conflicts.
. Douglas Little, American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Geoffrey Wawro, Quicksand: America’s Pursuit of Power in the Middle East (New York: Penguin, 2010); Lawrence Freedman, A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East (New York: Public Affairs, 2008); and Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (New York: Random House, 2016).
. The full list of the test cases includes the Iran crisis of 1946, the Palestine question and the first Arab-Israeli War, the Mossadeq crisis, the Suez crisis, the 1958 revolutions in the Arab world, the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War and the Camp David process, the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, and the Gulf crisis of 1990-91.
. Little, American Orientalism, 6, 193-227; Freedman, A Choice of Enemies, xxv-xxvi, 507-509.
. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, 358-370; Christopher Layne, “America's Middle East Grand Strategy after Iraq: The Moment for Offshore Balancing Has Arrived,” Review of International Studies 35 (2009): 5-25.
. Wawro, Quicksand, 605-606; Rashid Khalidi, Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East (Boston: Beacon, 2005), 118-151; John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” Faculty Research Working Paper No. RWP06-011, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, March 2006, https://research.hks.harvard.edu/publications/workingpapers/citation.aspx?PubId=3670.
. Mark J. Gasiorowski, “The 1953 Coup D'etat in Iran,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 19, no. 3 (1987): 261-286; Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008); Kenneth Pollack, The Persian Puzzle, The Conflict Between Iran and America (New York: Random House, 2004), 40-71; Malcolm Byrne, “The Battle for Iran, 1953: Re-Release of CIA Internal History Spotlights New Details about anti-Mosaddeq Coup,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book no. 476, June 27, 2014, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB476/#_ednref2; “Mohammed Mossadeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran,” National Security Archive, June 22, 2004, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB126/.
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Diego Pagliarulo. Review of Takeyh, Ray; Simon, Steven, The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East.
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