Editor's Choice: Leadership, Lives and Lines in the Middle East

Faithful readers of this column know my preference for recommending well-written books that increase our understanding of U.S. foreign policy by stressing the tensions between domestic politics and international imperatives historically. They also value my insistence that generational perspectives matter in sorting out the more sustainable volumes from the steady output of more forgettable analyses. Where we are depends on where we have been in a messy world of crises abroad and gridlock at home in the worlds of both theory and practice. And, of course, where we might be going.

Often it is journalists of wide experience and capacity to synthesize who publish worthwhile books, usually preceded by summaries in leading publications like Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, International Security or the more popular The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, or The Economist. Web sites, too, are previews of coming attractions. Race, class and gender perspectives are also mandatory today whether in scholarly tomes or on blogs. Understandably, academics with narrower disciplinary approaches or fixations lag behind events, although eventually their more grounded overviews are equally required for additional perspective and balance.

With these familiar caveats in mind, and with the reminder that the run up to elections in the United Kingdom in 2015 and in the U.S. in 2016 is underway, it is clear that no region of the world looms larger in political and economic calculations than the Middle East, despite President Obama's much touted and delayed "pivot" to Asia.

Three new 2014 books help us understand the complex paths taken and not taken since the Arab Spring.  Against the headlines of awkward summit meetings, drone strikes, collapsed peace processes, land grabs, coups or other leadership changes, internal displacement and refugee suffering, volatile oil prices, poor chemistry between Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, ISIS/ISIL beheadings and worse, both essay and book length treatments are welcome.

Lawrence Wright in Thirteen Days in September retraces in detail the course of negotiations that produced the accords that bear the name of the presidential retreat at Camp David. Wright, as in his much praised earlier book, The Looming Tower, gives us history we thought we knew in a easily read prose style that stresses the personalities, the strengths and weaknesses of Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin and their numerous advisors, who, against all odds, came to agreement. As a playwright, he is especially accomplished at providing dramatic back stories that illuminate why the three leaders did and said what they did. In fact, this book is the outgrowth of what began as a play performed to acclaim in Washington's Arena Theater in the spring of 2014.

Ever alert to the importance of religion in each leader's development, Wright recounts how tactics and strategy played out daily, as the key players  each kept a keen eye on each other and on what was going on at home while they were sequestered away from the press and felt freer to reveal their foibles and display their histrionics.

When Sadat or Begin  brought specific or vague proposals to meetings, Carter tried to orchestrate, mediate, facilitate, or broker, precisely the many and varied roles the U.S. plays in the turbulent region decades later, with role of banker added into the mix after Camp David. The back stories explain much of the posturing and squabbles among the staffs who had their own agendas to sort out. In the American case, the already well known conflicting priorities of Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski had parallels in the Sadat and Begin entourages. The Israelis and the Egyptians, like the Americans, had their own internal battles or tirades over the wording of documents, the issues of trust and the persistent desire to win the allegiance of Washington in the longer term, first with Carter and then perhaps beyond.

As the tension builds from day to day, even though we know the outcome, Wright's  apparent digressions into the rival concepts of Judaism, Islam and Christianity or the contacts of some of the participants before  the Camp David summit, enrich the story. For students of  contemporary international relations, the most interesting passages deal with how Carter embraced Henry Kissinger's "constructive ambiguity"  expressed in the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué allowing the U.S. to begin the convoluted path toward establishing diplomatic relations with China while not appearing to abandon all ties with Taiwan. As a peanut farmer and then a nuclear engineer, Carter valued order and discipline.  As president, his  obsession with detail served him well as he studied prior diplomatic precedents that seemed to work, at least for the short term. In turn, his own success would be studied by future U.S. officials eager to promote American solutions to other conflicts in other regions like Asia and Europe.

As Wright quickly points out, an even more telling example was and remains the U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 which ambiguously speaks of "territories" in ways that allowed some participants to insert "all" and others to insist on "the" only when the word is used.  Fittingly, 242 ultimately ended up  in an Appendix to the final documents emerging from Camp David.

In the latter days of the conference, after Carter reluctantly presented an American drafted proposal in order to keep Sadat and Begin from leaving the Maryland sanctuary, this deliberate ambiguity in 242 would take on symbolic as well as actual significance as Begin, Sadat and their teams faced the prospect of losing American support should the talks break down totally. The worries over any subsequent blame game helped keep the leaders present, if rarely co-operative. Since the U.S. and the Soviet Union were in the midst of their own fraught efforts at detente, their larger global considerations were part of the shifting context, too.

Readers who want to follow up on Wright's analysis of top leadership as an appropriate main focus of Middle East affairs will profit from reading or re-reading Martin Indyk's Innocent Abroad (2009). Indyk, as U.S. Ambassador to Israel  and as Middle East advisor to Presidents Clinton and Bush, highlights  some of the same misperceptions and wishful thinking that have plagued American policy in the Middle East before and after Camp David. Equally recommended is David Grossman's Sleeping on a Wire (1993) in which the human element of the Israeli-Palestinian inter-communal struggle is documented, as it is in throughout his large fictional and non-fictional oeuvre.

For readers more concerned about Ukraine than the Middle East, reading or re-reading Richard Holbrooke's To End a War (1995) shows important parallels in U.S. European policies  as well as stylistic patterns in America negotiation and bargaining experiences. Holbrooke's high stakes gamble brought to an end one phase of the Balkan wars at the equivalent of Camp David's seclusion, Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Ohio, where hostile Bosnia, Serbian and Croatian leaders met for twenty days and where failure was also a prospect throughout the talks, so that the resulting partial successes at the end seemed miraculous.

The two 2014 edited collections on the post-Arab Spring shift attention from the intimacy of Wright's full length treatment stressing leadership interactions to the diverse viewpoints of American and British scholars deeply trained in Middle East politics. In these accounts we would expect to find a concern for "lines in the sand" and other phrases we associate with official pronouncements from American presidents and others charged with formulating and executing policies that must include non-state actors and expanded global agendas.

Each of the two edited books has a clearly stated purpose and in each the editors, who are also contributors, have tried for conceptual coherence and a consistent point of view. The results are impressive in both cases. In the IISS volume, Toby Dodge and Emile Hokayem  attempt to link Middle East "security" to the American 'pivot" to Asia and the rise of ISIS. Compiled as a way of recognizing the 10th anniversary of the Manama Dialogue with the Gulf States, the chapters are policy oriented and deal largely with state actors in the regional setting as they have responded to the Syrian civil war and the Iran-Saudi Arabia multifaceted competition for regional dominance.

The broad scope of the book invites imbalance in scope and uneven writing from country specialists. Dodge and Hoyakem insist in their own chapters that the Arab Spring's opportunities and disappointments must be seen in the broadest historical framework, one that explains the requirements of state power and institutional viability that may or may not yield legitimacy over time and space. They set the stage admirably for nuanced  chapters that cover reactions from "outsiders" like Russia, India and China to the United States with its more complicated insider/outsider relationship with key players in the Gulf and beyond.

Like Wright, Dodge and Hoyakem and their contributors are concerned with political leaders as they have navigated new terrain since 2011. By stressing the interplay of domestic and foreign imperatives in Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, by reporting on carefully selected polls on public opinion  and by eschewing less important quantitative measures,  the authors as a group make their tentative assessments appear more persuasive, even as events continue to unfold unpredictably.

Dana Allin portrays American policy as a demonstration of "restraint" and "retrenchment as have others. While many pundits have moved on to monitoring President Obama's "legacy shopping" in both domestic and international policy, Allin painstakingly distinguishes the rhetorical over performance of Obama, as seen in the Cairo 2009 speech, and the alleged under performance on the ground both in the Syrian civil war and in the revived "peace process" between Israel and the Palestinians. He argues that there are patterns to this behavior. He compares Obama's declared policy to what other previous presidents attempted, among them Kennedy, Eisenhower, Reagan, and concludes, as have others, that retrenchment does not always work out well. The extent of unintended consequences is a more interesting research project now in the Middle East  than prior to the Arab Spring, especially in Libya. Egypt, Yemen, and in the Gulf, too.

Allin also rehearses the familiar arguments about the contested U.S. role in the world. A residual belief in American "exceptionalism", redesigned for a more turbulent world, is at the heart of much of the "discourse" of what is and should be American foreign policy as political leaders and publics adapt to the structural changes in oil markets where corporate interests intersect with state interests and in the broader political universe where U.S. strategic and moral demands often conflict. How this complexity plays out domestically and electorally will be one of the more interesting aspects of the run ups in Britain and the U.S.

If policy conundrums bedevil the IISS writers in Middle Eastern Security, more theoretical challenges pose problems as intractable for the political scientists, historians, sociologists and economists who explore the impact of the Arab Spring on their disciplines. They, too, must wrestle  with imperial and colonial experiences that have shaped identities in the contemporary Middle East. They, too, must cope with how and why, like policymakers, they assumed stasis and stagnation as givens. They must confront how academe has encouraged narrower specializations that separated security and economic affairs in ways that produced "surprises" like the Arab Spring and afterward limited judgments about the unforeseen outcomes.

Marc Lynch, the editor of The Arab Uprisings Explained, embraces this challenge and has coaxed his contributors to follow his lead in a masterful introduction that insists on integrating newer technologies like social media and newer types of diverse authoritarianism into older political science frameworks. He also revisits prevailing hypotheses about agency and structure. Lynch seeks "a more dynamic model of political contention that takes into account the interaction of diverse actors across multiple levels of analysis." (p.3) Although initially confined to what such a shift would means for comparative politics, the authors agree that insights could be extended to international relations. Even when Lynch lapses into lamentable jargon like "dependent variables", his basic posing of unanswered questions is refreshing as when he wonders why some monarchies were able to contain violence by means other than repression or why regime reform in some places sometimes seemed to stave off protests only for a short time.

How did the leadership decisions to use or withhold the economic resources of the IMF, the World Bank, and the U.S. in collaboration with the wealthier Gulf states affect the course of the diverse regional uprisings? Have transitions shifted scholarly "paradigms"? In what ways do uneven or ambiguous developments in the Middle East resemble earlier democratization "waves" in Latin America, Africa or Europe after 1989-91? Should the level of violence in specific uprisings be the most important marker in categorizing outcomes? These are just a sampling of the many provocative questions Lynch himself poses as he urges the other political science contributors to stretch themselves in a more thematic direction.

Timing and sequence matter, along with demonstration effects, in a region with a long tradition of patronage and outsider interventions in the domestic politics of  regional neighbors. For the U.S. particularly, even with the new enthusiasm for "energy independence" reshaping American domestic politics in complicated ways, previous decisions taken to intervene directly, as in Libya, have led to consequences like civil war when local factions there have exploited post authoritarian chaos and disorder, thereby creating later options are less and less appealing for American political figures trying to balance the Middle East with other regions in world that look more potentially alluring like Asia.

That the Arab Spring and its aftermath have challenged Westphalian concepts of sovereignty and territory is widely accepted. Yet the advent of ISIS/ISIL  and Russian-Ukrainian battles suggests that observers would be foolish to assume that these concepts have disappeared as factors in international relations. Similarly, the seeming agreement that we are living in secular age exclusively has misled both theorists and policymakers.

That these episodes have challenged even newer scholarly theories of identity, gender and race has received less attention thus far. Nevertheless, these edited volumes as well as Wright's book are admirable first steps  in what will be an exciting time for both theorists and policymakers if and when they are able to shed their entrenched idée fixes, so that new "data" will not be put into old categories.

Linda B. Miller, Wellesley College, Brown University and Argentia Editorial Team

Matthew Hill