[See Part 1] This is the second half of a review and summary of Storm From the East: The Struggle Between the Arab World and the Christian West (Modern Library, 2006), by Milton Viorst. As noted earler, this sort of review is worth conducting (at least for me) because what was once the Arab-Israeli conflict has broadened and intensified to become almost a simmering global conflict with no prospect of ending soon. And just because the West won the Cold War is no guarantee we'll win this one. This post covers events in the Middle East from WWII to the present. Section headings below are chapter titles from the book.
Civil unrest and conflict was tempered by WWII, as German and Allied forces ranged across North Africa and the Middle East. The closer the Germans got, the more complete was Jewish support for the British, but as the threat receded the old animosity between occupier and colonials re-emerged. It took the British and French a decade after WWII to realize that empire and colonialism were dead.
Britain and France had not reconciled themselves to colonialism's demise. At best, they made small concessions, untidily, in niggling bargaining, while chaos dominated the Arab streets. They failed to grasp that, in barely more than a generation, their own practices had transformed the red coals of Arab nationalism into an inferno. Independence came to most Arabs after World War II, but painfully, producing a bitterness that has fed nationalist excesses to this day. (p. 88.)
Much of early Arab nationalism was rather secular, but after the war religious nationalism gained momentum. The key figure was Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928. It spread. Here is Viorst's description of al-Banna's program, which sounds no different from the present Islamic fundamentalist vision:
[L]iberation of the umma from foreign rule and the establishment, in its place, of a state of all Muslims, governed by the shari'a. ... He envisaged the allegiance of the Arabs to a rigorous Islamic puritanism, from which the corrupting ideas of the West would be permanently extruded. (p. 87.)
In 1952, Gamal Abdul Nasser led Egyptian army officers in a coup, unseating the Egyptian monarchy. He pursued "nonalignment," siding with neither the US nor the Soviet Union in their Cold War struggle, but he accepted Soviet military arms after the US and Britain declined assistance. Then, in 1956, Israel attacked and routed Egyptian forces assembling in Gaza and the Sinai, following which French and British troops parachuted in to defend the Suez Canal. Under surprising pressure from the US (which was also dealing with Soviet threats to intervene on the ground), France and Britain were forced to withdraw their troops. The Suez Crisis marked the end of an era and made Nasser (who was credited with the expulsion of the French and British) a hero to the Arab world.
In both Syria and Iraq, military government under the ideology of the Ba'ath party brought stability at the price of authoritarianism. Despite the resemblance and despite the rhetoric of Arab unity, Syria and Iraq remained rivals. Here's an insightful commentary by the author:
Though Islam promotes the cohesion of the umma, the Muslim community, Arabs have always been riven by political rivalries. Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus have historically represented competing poles of power. (p. 114.)
Lebanon's uneasy arrangement fell into civil war in 1958. Eisenhower sent 3,600 Marines to Beirut. Here's a description that you'll remember: "It was a measure of Lebanon's cultural divide that the navy reported bikini-clad young women — surely Christian, since Muslim girls would not have dressed that way — cheering as the leathernecks waded ashore" (p. 119). I guess those were the good 'ole days in Lebanon. American diplomats helped calm things down, and the Marines left in October with the status quo ante more or less restored. I cite this minor episode to suggest that history has a way of repeating itself (this wasn't the last time US Marines showed up in Lebanon) and to show that Lebanon has always been a mess, a natural focus of conflict in the region.
The defining moment of this period came when Egypt's Nasser demanded that UN peacekeepers vacate their positions along the Suez, then started moving Egyptian troops into the Sinai. Jordan and Syria moved their armies forward. The Israelis then launched a preemptive strike on June 5, 1967, and soundly defeated the assembled forces within six days (hence, the Six-Day War). Results: Nasser and his Pan-Arabism were discredited, Israel's military was supreme in the region, but the lightning victory by the Israeli military set a standard they could not realistically match in future conflicts.
Welcome to the modern Middle East. Following the debacle of 1967, states surrounding Israel either made peace of some sort (Egypt and Jordan) or at least abandoned direct attacks (Syria). In their place, a series of non-state organizations, garnering financial and material support from around the Arab world, picked up the banner of Arab resistance and employed (with more effectiveness than state armies) various forms of guerrilla tactics against Israel.
Yasser Arafat moved into leadership of the PLO around 1970. The PLO championed Palestinian nationalism on its own terms, and the strategy they eventually employed was "to adapt guerrilla warfare to a global battlefield" (p. 136), most spectacularly by killing a dozen Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. But the PLO was also a divisive force, almost igniting an Arab civil war in 1970 when the PLO landed three hijacked airliners at an airfield in Jordan. King Hussein turned the army against the PLO, which threatened to unseat the government, and neighboring Arab countries were mobilizing. The PLO survived Black September by fleeing to Lebanon. Just as a footnote, we should recall that Arafat shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating the Oslo Peace Accords.
The various other non-state militant groups in the Middle East that we've all heard about — Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Fatah, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda — have employed similar tactics but added fundamentalist Islam to the ideology, broadening their appeal (to Muslims) and fortifying their followers. They sometimes resort to terrorism and violence, other times negotiate, on occasion fight pitched battles against opposing army troops, but are always ready to slip off to the mountains or even just disappear into the local population. It's a deviously simple strategy that seems to be working better now than it ever has before, partly due to military technology like shoulder-fired missles, RPGs, and anti-tank weapons that allow even rag-tag, mobile irregular forces to pack quite a punch if they are properly armed. Hezbollah sure surprised the Israelis last month. This strategy even has a catchy new label, asymmetric warfare.
My Own Concluding Remarks
And that pretty much brings us up to 2006. There's some stuff I left out of the last section — the Iranian Revolution of 1979, putting a Shi'ite regime into power; the assassination of Anwar Sadat by Islamic Jihad in 1981; the Iran-Iraq War; the Kuwait-Iraq War; the US-Iraq War and its protracted aftermath — but I don't think those events are as central as these basic post-1967 facts: (1) there is still an Israel which is a lightning rod for Arab unrest; (2) the non-state terrorist organization model has proved a successful mode of resisting Israel; and (3) that mode of organization has now been franchised globally against the West. Add longer-range missles and/or nuclear or other WMD capability to this mix, and soon we'll all feel like the folks in Northern Israel. It's a sobering scenario.
Viorst, the author, sounds a more hopeful note. He recalls that the West spawned its own militant ideologies, fascism and communism, and struggled mightily, but in the end successfully, to expel them from the body politic. He thinks that moderate Islamists are the ones who will need to rise to the challenge and reclaim Islam and its umma from the militant fundamentalists, and that America needs to get out of the way. I wish there were more "moderates" that looked like they were rising to the meet this challenge. Hopefully when the time is right they will appear, whether America gets out of the way or not.
I've never really done as long a summary of a book as I have here, but with these two posts as a foundation, I hope to comment from time to time on current events as they unfold. And unfold they will.