Book Review: Quicksand: America's Pursuit of Power in the Middle East February 14, 2015 19:30

By Geoffrey Wawro, Penquin Press HC, 2010, hardback, 704 pp. 

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Blankfort

This is a book the Israel Lobby doesn't want Americans to read. Although Wawro, who teaches military history at North Texas University, has a distinguished reputation in his field, his latest book, released in April, has yet to receive a single review or even a mention in the mainstream press.

Before writing Quicksand, Wawro had specialized in 19th century European military history, a relatively safe and often a rewarding field of study. Writing a history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East that paints a critical picture of Israel and its U.S. lobby is something else. That's what Wawro has discovered to his surprise.

Unlike his works on European history that were warmly welcomed by the media, Quicksand has been ignored. It is not hard to figure out why. Clearly it is his shredding of popular myths about the establishment of Israel, his clear sympathy for the Palestinians, and his exposure of the workings of the Zionist lobby going back to the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, all of which Wawro expresses in terms that would ordinarily have Alan Dershowitz, the ADL's Abe Foxman, and the American Jewish Committee's David Harris frothing at the mouth. That they are not, at least not yet in public, is a sign of Quicksand's potential to damage Israel's image and their own before a broad American audience.

For one, there is no way that Wawro can be portrayed as a wild-eyed radical outside of the mainstream, and an "anti-Semitic" smear campaign on The Lobby's part would quite likely backfire—although it is not out of the question. Before taking his current post, the telegenic Wawro was professor of strategic studies at the Naval War College and became visible to a sizeable segment of the reading public when he hosted the History Channel's book show, "Hardcover History," and was the host and anchor of the History Channel programs, "History's Business" and "History vs. Hollywood," as well as "Hard Target," "Global View," and "History in Focus."

Moreover, Wawro accepts the conventional narrative for the events of 9/11 and believes, as well, that Iran, despite its denials, is engaged in its own nuclear weapons program. It was, in fact, the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon which turned his attention from 19th century Europe to the Middle East and sent him on a quest to find out why people of that region bear such a degree of ill will toward the United States and the West.

Finally, this is not a polemic. Quicksand contains 60 pages of tiny footnotes, nine pages of bibliography, and a superb index, many of the former originating from documents in British and U.S. National Archives that had either been ignored or recently declassified. Taken together, they convinced Wawro that the main reason for anti-U.S. sentiments, as readers may have guessed by now, has been U.S. support for Israel and that this support has been engendered, to a large extent, by "the bluster" of the Israel [and pre-Israel] Lobby "to which every president since Wilson has succumbed."

"The Truman instinct on Israel," writes Wawro, "became the abiding American instinct. Every U.S. president after Truman tailored his electoral campaigns—as well as mid-term congressional ones—to the exigencies of what gradually came to be known as the 'Israel Lobby'...The Israel Lobby developed a bullying reputation—pointing out that American Jews were concentrated in critical states with vital blocs of electoral votes and that they gave generously to friendly campaigns and not at all to unfriendly ones. It became difficult for American presidents to 'reassess' Middle Eastern policy or to 'downgrade' Israel U.S. assessments for the simple reason that there was a potentially lethal political price to pay.'

"During the Cold War," points out Wawro, "Israel policy and lobbying involved driving a wedge between Washington and the Arabs," a salient fact that has largely been ignored in the debate over the lobby's power but of which Washington was well aware. "Domestically produced U.S. support for Israel created a strategic problem" writes Wawro, in which Israel was portrayed by Arab governments as an 'American pawn,' a conspiracy 'minted on Wall Street,' and so on. The fact that none of this was true—America seemed as much a pawn to Israeli intrigues as the other way around—did not diminish the canard's effectiveness in pulling important countries like Iraq, Syria and Egypt into opposition to the West" which, given its proximity to the regions' oil fields, "empowered Tel Aviv" since "Israel could now pose as the indispensable ally, committed to uphold not only the West's influence, but its energy security as well." (Emphasis added)

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Israel and its domestic lobby kept to the same game plan, only now, Wawro notes, "the threat is Arabs/al-Qaeda or Arabs/Hezbollah, and the Israelis labor to create the same polarization that worked until the fall of the Soviets, this time pitting Washington and Tel Aviv against transnational terrorism and its state sponsors. Israeli and neocon connivance in Operation Iraqi Freedom has opened eyes in Washington to the perils of this isolating dynamic, but the 'interdependence' of Israel and America, forged in Congress and on the campaign trail, remains."

Wawro is not sparing in his description of the manner in which five pro-Likud Jewish neocons—Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser, and Scooter Libby, all serving in critical positions in the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice power structure—transferred the "Clean Break" doctrine that Perle, Wurmser, and Feith had earlier helped to prepare for Binyamin Netanyahu in 1996, calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussain, into a collection of falsified "facts" that were used to justify the United States doing just that in 2003 with its all-too-visible attended costs. Although Wawro devotes considerable space to both U.S. wars in the Gulf, the reader doesn't even get into them until the latter portion of Quicksand.

After sketching America's earliest interest in the Middle East in the middle of the 19th century in his introduction, Quicksand takes us chronologically from World War One and the Balfour Declaration and the discovery of oil under the sands of the Arabian desert to last year's clash between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. This is the only way, Wawro believes, "to convey the accumulating pressures that have lodged America in the Middle East."

"Some readers," he warns, may be perturbed or merely surprised by the portrait of Israel and Israel-U.S. relations...but the facts lead there; indeed my approach to Israel is no different from my approach to every other country in this book. It is solidly rooted in American and British archives, journalism—'the first draft of history'—and scholarly literature." That the Saudis and other countries in or involved in the region's history of the past century fare no better at Wawro's hands will certainly not placate those for whom Israeli exceptionalism—or, to coin a word, exemptionalism—is sacrosanct.

In a blurb on the book's jacket, Prof. John Mearsheimer writes, "Quicksand should be required reading for everyone in Washington who has a hand in formulating policy toward the Arab and Islamic world." I would add that in the hands of those seriously engaged in pro-Palestinian advocacy, it can become a powerful tool.

Jeffrey Blankfort is a West Coast-based radio producer and photographer who writes extensively on the Middle East.