Jake Lynch

Review of Innocent Abroad, by Martin Indyk and Arabian Plights, by Peter Rodgers.

Pub quiz question: who was the only elected US president since World War II not to have sent American troops to war? Answer: Jimmy Carter, whose single term in the White House came during the crisis of military legitimacy following defeat in Vietnam. Carter has become something of a hero to the peace world, also because of his achievement in brokering the 1978 Camp David Agreement between Israel and Egypt.

For Martin Indyk, the Australian who had two spells as US Ambassador to Israel, the true hero of the accord was the Egyptian leader, Anwar Sadat, whose picture he stuck on the door of his room in college. It’s one of several fascinating snippets in his book, Innocent Abroad, an account of US interventions in the Middle East, which offers an inside story on the later, ill-fated meeting at Camp David, between Israel and the Palestinians, in 2000.

Among the traumas behind the scenes was the near suffocation of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak when a peanut got stuck in his windpipe. An aide had to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre to dislodge it. Alas, for the well-informed observer, much of what Indyk has to say about the Middle East, and America’s role in it, will prove equally difficult to swallow.

He was inspired to a career-spanning preoccupation with the region, he relates, whilst listening to BBC radio broadcasts about Henry Kissinger’s attempts to negotiate a ceasefire in the Yom Kippur, or October war of 1973. “I came to understand the pivotal role of the United States as the one party that, through its diplomacy, could help to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict”. This effort, he presents as well-meaning but naïve, with America’s role as would-be honest broker constantly thwarted by the wiles of politicians from a region always prone to “revert”, as he puts it, “to its violent, tribal, fundamentalist tendencies”.

It’s a classic orientalist explanation for the recalcitrant behaviour of the natives, not least in the sense of obliviousness to the real nature of one’s own interests. For the US to interpose itself as the mediator of choice has constantly sidelined the proper forum to decide such matters, namely the United Nations. Trouble is, the UN has the pesky habit of insisting on such old-fashioned notions as even-handedness and the observance of international law, even when they inconvenience the US and its allies – notably, Israel. The application of this orientalist approach culminated in episodes Indyk witnessed at Camp David when a red-faced President Clinton shouted at several members of the Palestinian delegation in turn, as they refused to fulfil his expectations by offering further concessions.

Indyk and the US negotiating team were in cahoots with Barak, meanwhile, to present the Palestinians with an unpalatable choice – make a deal, on terms the Israeli leader could ‘sell’ to a crumbling coalition at home, or take the blame for the failure to do so. They wanted, in other words, to ‘win’ the diplomacy.

Nowhere does Indyk mention America’s policy of arming Israel with the latest military technology, another source of continuing instability. It was in 1998, between his two ambassadorial terms but still on the watch of his boss, Bill Clinton – whom he describes admiringly as the most intelligent occupant of the Oval Office – that Israel got the long-range F15 bomber, giving it the capability of striking Iran and returning to base without having to refuel. Indyk claims credit for inventing the term, “dual containment” to describe the Clinton Administration’s policy for Iraq and Iran, the two “rogue states”. The Islamic Republic deserves that label because of its “defiant pursuit of nuclear enrichment”, Indyk writes. Could that have anything to do with the contemporaneous escalation of Israeli strike capacity, obligingly delivered from Washington? This is territory on to which Indyk declines to venture.

Peter Rodgers’ tour of diplomatic duty in Tel Aviv overlapped with the first of the Indyk incumbencies, but, as Australia’s own ambassador, he drew different, and in many ways more nuanced conclusions. In Arabian Plights, he invites us to consider the future of the Middle East, but also our own, arguing that the two cannot be disentangled as long as we continue to depend on oil, both directly for transport and indirectly for, as he puts it, 90% of our food supplies. Indeed, his opening gambit is to show how the relative importance of hydrocarbons from beneath the desert sands will grow in the next decade or so, not shrink.

Given those vital interests, it’s perhaps not surprising to find the United States playing, as Rodgers says, a “hypocritical” role. The assorted regimes, illiberal democracies and – in his suggestive phrase – “liberal autocracies” of the region are explained, not by recourse to essentialist formulations as per Indyk, but by careful marshalling of statistical and research evidence about the social development, resource distribution and demographics of the greater Middle East, along with a clear-eyed view of outside interventions.

If there is a complaint to make about Arabian Plights, it lies in its dryness. A multi-faceted context is set out in accessible fashion by this award-winning former journalist, and any reader of his book would put it down significantly better informed than when they picked it up. But it is not, in essence, an insider’s account. To have seen the ‘official’ narratives and headline-catching events of the period explicitly juxtaposed with these underlying dynamics – so impressively at Rodgers’ command – would have been fascinating. As it is, that effect can be obtained by reading both books, but not either one.

This review appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald book section, Saturday March 28, 2009


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 28 Mar 2009.

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