Blaming the West has become the most pervasive method of teaching for many Middle East studies departments, which are becoming the heart of pop-culture academia. Efraim Karsh, a distinguished professor of Middle Eastern studies at Bar-Ilan University and professor emeritus at King's College London, in his latest book The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East, dispels this myth.
"Britain's 'original sin,' if such was indeed committed, lay not in the breaking up of Middle Eastern unity but in its attempted over-unification." Overall, the blunders of the great powers were in trying to impose their own wishful thinking instead of obtaining a real understanding of the Middle East.
Unpopular truths abound. Karsh shows that descriptions of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, the secret bargain between London and Paris to divide the Middle East into spheres of influence, "as the epitome of Western perfidy couldn't be further from the truth." In fact, rather than being aimed at suppression of the Arabs, the agreement "constituted the first-ever great-power recognition of an Arab right to self-determination."
Karsh underscores the challenges the Zionist enterprise encountered with Britain, specifically the barefaced anti-Semitism of the ruling elites, charged with executing the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine (and the Balfour Declaration):
"In the case of the Jewish nationalism, this outlook was aggravated by the pervasive anti-Semitism within British officialdom (the last high commissioner for Palestine, Gen. Sir Alan Cunningham, for example, described Zionism as a movement where 'the forces of nationalism are accompanied by the psychology of the Jew, which it is important to recognize as something quite abnormal and unresponsive to rational treatment') and by the frustration with their inability to patronize the Jews in the way they condescended to the Arabs.... Off the record, most of the officials here will tell you that the Jews are above themselves and want taking down a peg."
Moreover, the British reputation for untrustworthiness was well-deserved. A telling expression of this came from Cunningham himself, who "put the matter in far blunter terms: 'Zionism has exhausted its usefulness to Great Britain and has become more of a liability than an asset.'" In contrast, US presidents were very much in support of the Balfour Declaration.
Harry Truman, for example, saw himself as Cyrus the Great, and Karsh highlights that "all American presidents without any exception endorsed the Balfour Declaration. So did Congress in a joint resolution on 30 July 1922, amplifying this move during World War II with several resolutions and declarations supporting unrestricted Jewish immigration and the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine."
But in the Obama administration we have witnessed an unprecedented level of cluelessness and disregard for reality, above all the conflicts within Islam. In the process, Karsh writes, "the Obama administration went out of its way to deny, ignore, euphemize and whitewash anything smacking of Islamic violence, radicalism or expansionism." This is the driving force behind Obama's attempt to facilitate the rise of 'moderate Islamists' and to see the Muslim Brotherhood as an outlet of moderation.
This inability to recognize that groups like the Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah use democratic catchphrases to promote their Islamist agendas somehow has eluded US decision-makers.
The author does not present a rosy picture of the region, but his analysis is grounded in historical facts and represents a deeper understanding of the current crises. Above all, Western policy- makers should take careful note that the region is becoming more volatile and radicalized, not because of the West but by its own hand.
Karsh concludes with the difficult message that "violence was not imported to the Middle East as a by-product of foreign imperialism but has rather been an integral part of the region's millenarian political culture."
The book is a must-read for those seeking a lens on the Middle East that is rarely expressed or tolerated in most academic and policy circles.
The writer is executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and a research fellow at the Middle East Forum.