The Tail Wags the Dog
International Politics and the Middle East
Bloomsbury, New York, 2015, 256 pages
Book Review published on: May 19, 2017
Efraim Karsh writes a concise and compelling history and commentary of the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I to the present day in The Tail Wags the Dog. He considers how the region might have been different had the Ottoman Empire remained out of the war or sided with the Allies. However, the Ottoman Empire sided with the Central Powers, leading to its defeat. This loss resulted, as Karsh states, in a “century of flux and instability that has caused so much misery to so many.” Karsh’s statement is the foundation of his examination of the region, as well as his commentary that societies should take “responsibility for their actions rather than blame others for their misfortunes.” The book continues through a history of the Middle East to include matters leading to the rise of the Islamic State and the miscarriage of the Arab Spring.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Britain was the remaining regional power during the interwar years. During this time, Middle Eastern societies experienced various influences from the West, to include Nazi Germany, that shaped and reshaped the regional dynamics, especially with the establishment of Israel after World War II. After these events, the United States became a more important external power in Middle Eastern affairs. The United States’ interests in the region were for both economic and security reasons; this also included the recognition of Israel as a sovereign state. Relations with the Shah of Iran were significant as they provided access to available and inexpensive oil reserves, and their geographic location was vital to the United States’ strategic interests of containing the Soviet Union. However, the Shah’s failed leadership resulted in his being deposed by members of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and yielded lost future opportunities for the United States.
The Soviet Union was also influential in Iran and the region for their security interests. However, the Soviets were no more successful than any other powers that had intervened in the Middle East, particularly with their intervention into Afghanistan. Ten years of failure in Afghanistan and the subsequent fall of the Soviet Union left the United States as the remaining superpower authority in the Middle East.
Concurrently, with the culmination of the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein was positioning Iraq to take aggressive action against Kuwait as a way to resolve the country’s faltering economic conditions that resulted of its war with Iran. The U.S. government was aware of Hussein’s economic situation, and while attempting to maintain good relations with Iraq, failed to avert their invasion of Kuwait in 1991. The U.S.-led coalition pushed Iraqi forces from Kuwait but left Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq. Hussein put on a façade of the victorious leader until his world fell in on him with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The author writes that these developments were of Hussein’s making and ultimately resulted in his downfall. Though victory was swift, the result was a fragmented Iraq on the brink of dissolution. Karsh is critical of the United States’ policies in Iraq after the fall of Hussein, because these policies sowed the seeds for the growth of the Islamic State.
Karsh pays particular attention to Western nations’ decisions and policies regarding the pursuit of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan and how these factors affect the expansion of the Islamic State. The author is particularly critical of the feckless regional policies of the Obama administration to address the real threat the Islamic State poses to the region and the world. He is quick to point out President Barack Obama’s failure to fulfill his campaign promise of disengaging from the conflict in Iraq and being sucked into a “quagmire.” In addition to the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Karsh argues that Tehran’s mullahs’ duped the Obama administration regarding their country’s nuclear ambitions. The Arab Spring, that never was, is a subject that Karsh describes as events that dragged the Middle East back to the early twentieth century.
A common thread throughout Karsh’s book is the Arab’s unending opposition to the existence of Israel. Their resistance continues to be pursued through violence regardless of the influences of any foreign interference such as the Egyptian-Israeli conflicts in 1967 and 1973. The challenges of establishing a Palestinian homeland again resulted in conflict with Israel and the Beirut bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in 1983. Karsh concludes his book on the same premise as he states in the beginning: Middle Easterners blame others for their afflictions; yet, they fail to realize it is they who are responsible for their circumstances. He points out that violence is the means to achieve the ends in the Middle East.
The Tail Wags the Dog is a well-documented book by a respected and authoritative scholar. Karsh uses a number of creditable sources to provide an accurate historical account and treatise of the Middle East beginning with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and those who influence the complicated actions in the region. This book is not merely a sterile composite of historical events, but it includes the author’s perspective on how the Middle East has arrived at its current state; his opinions may be considered controversial. These two points, historical accounting and opinion, contribute to the real value of this book. While The Tail Wags the Dog provides context and comment, it should be coupled with studies from other points of view to form a better comprehensive understanding of the Middle East. This assessment is the main critique of this author’s book; those interested in strategic-level security matters will find compelling value in Karsh’s work in association with an encompassing study of the Middle East.
Book Review written by: Brig. Gen. John C. Hanley, PhD, U.S. Army, Retired, La Crosse, Wisconsin