This posting is written by Dr. Thomas Mitchell, a frequent contributor to this blog, who is an independent scholar on the Mideast conflict, among other subjects:
Beyond America’s Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East by Stephen P. Cohen (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2009; 256 pp.; $27.00) is an attempt to provide readers with a basic overview of American diplomacy in the Middle East since World War I, with an emphasis on the post-World War II era. Rather than being organized chronologically, it is organized by country in separate chapters with an initial prologue and a chapter on Woodrow Wilson’s involvement with the Middle East at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919.
There are separate chapters on Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Israel and Lebanon (the latter two combined into a single chapter). Then there are four chapters dealing with Zionism, the creation of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This account runs through the Second Lebanon War of 2006, but does not include the Gaza war of 2008-09.
The jacket blurb states that Prof. Cohen has made over 150 trips to the Middle East in a professional and personal capacity in 40 years, starting with the 1967 war. He is the president of the Center for Middle East Peace and Development. And he has taught at leading universities in the United States and the Arab world. He is also associated with Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum. Unfortunately, beyond relating a couple of incidents from his own experience, we see very little of this personal involvement. The book appears to be the product of its extensive bibliography.
Cohen offers no brilliant solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no magic formulas or conspiracy theories that explain everything. For those wishing for something a little lighter than William Quandt’s The Peace Process or Dennis Ross’s The Missing Peace, this book adequately covers the main points of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as the history of America’s interactions with the main players in the region: the Zionist and Israeli leaderships, the Shah of Iran, the mullahs running the Islamic Republic and the various Arab nationalists from Gamel Abd al-Nasser to Saddam Hussein. He attempts to explain why the various players behave the way that they do based on their cultures, biographies and political circumstances.
This book is not necessary for veteran students of the conflict, but they might learn a thing or two. It is recommended for those who know the region mainly through the news media. It could serve as a supplementary text for an introductory course. This is not “must” reading but good for those wishing to flesh out the stories that they’ve heard over the years.