Book review: Quicksand by Geoffrey Wawro

The title of this book is taken from a quote by British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey at the dawn of the twentieth century who said that “The Arab question is a regular quicksand” and that, along with the subtitle America’s pursuit of power in the Middle East, tells you pretty much what this new book is about. In its 610 pages, Wawro, a professor of military history at the University of North Texas, tries to provide a comprehensive overview of that region, with its complex interplay of tribal and religious conflicts, overlaid with superpower geopolitical meddling because of its oil and other strategic values.

The period covered by the book starts at the end of World War I and the declaration by the then British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour that seemed to promise a “Jewish national home” in what was then Turkish Palestine. That set in motion a complex train of events involving many countries that Wawro tries to weave together into a comprehensive and yet coherent story. He goes into great detail on some aspects and necessarily glosses over others but in the process provides a useful single reference work for those trying to understand what is going on the region.

The first half of the book takes us up to around 1970 and devotes entire chapters to the history of Egypt and Nasser, the Suez crisis, Iran, the creation of Israel, the emergence of oil as valuable energy source and a political weapon, and the Six Day war, leading up to the Nixon era and the ‘Nixon Doctrine’. The second half takes us right up to the present and has chapters on the first Gulf war, the history of Iraq and the rise of Saddam Hussein as a US protégé and ally, the rise of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the second Gulf war against Iraq. Interweaving through all this is Israel’s role in the region and its relationship to the US.

The book is, frankly, depressing. One sees the same meddling being done over and over again by the great powers in the region, first Britain, then Russia, and finally the US; one sees feckless rulers of Arab countries imposing authoritarian rule and harsh conditions on their people even as they live in luxury. The worst hit are the Palestinian and Afghan people, whose conditions and prospects steadily worsen over time as they are used as pawns serving other people’s agendas.

A central feature of the book is the cynical and cruel policies of Israel as it constantly seeks to expand its territory by force and then drive out the indigenous Palestinian people using terror, oppression, and coercion, a process that continues to this day with its deliberate building of settlements in the occupied territories even as it keeps stalling on negotiations. From the time of President Truman onwards, Israel used its lobbying power in the US to get vast amounts of military and civilian aid and thwart any attempt at establishing a viable Palestinian state. The book documents the amazement of Israeli leaders at how easy it is to get US presidents and other US leaders to take actions that are in the interests of Israel and not that of the US. Even recently, Israeli prime minister Netanyahu was caught on tape saying with contempt how easy it is to manipulate US policy and that repression of Palestinians is a deliberate policy of Israel. Even he thinks that the kind of support Israel receives in the US is ‘absurd’.

Netanyahu is quoted as saying:

In the film, Mr Netanyahu says Israel must inflict “blows [on the Palestinians] that are so painful the price will be too heavy to be borne … A broad attack on the Palestinian Authority, to bring them to the point of being afraid that everything is collapsing”.

When asked if the US will object, he responds: “America is something that can be easily moved. Moved to the right direction … They won’t get in our way … Eighty per cent of the Americans support us. It’s absurd.”

Just this week Netanyahu let the moratorium on settlement building in the occupied territories expire, a direct slap in the face of president Obama and Hillary Clinton who had asked for a continuation, and all they could say in response was to give a limp statement that they were ‘disappointed’. Of course, the entire ‘peace process’ is a façade designed to stall for time while Israel continues to steadily annex Palestinian lands.

The fact that Netanyahu’s brazen contempt for the US government and its people made hardly a ripple in the news here is indicative of the protection Israel receives in the US because of the Israel lobby. For more details on who makes up the Israel lobby and how they operate, the book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt constitutes essential reading. I wrote a review of this book some time ago: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

The long-standing and cynical exploitation of the Afghan people is another crime of colossal proportions. The US, smarting from its defeat in Vietnam in 1975, helped lure the Soviet Union into Afghanistan in order to bog them down in their own unwinnable war in a country that is notorious for destroying its enemies and invaders by attrition. If any country deserves to be labeled as ‘quicksand’ it is Afghanistan. The USSR took the bait and in 1979, like the US in 2001, invaded the country and imposed a puppet government that in addition to serving the superpower’s geostrategic goals, sought to at least partially modernize the country by reducing the influence of religion and introducing some reforms and advancing secular and modern ways of thinking such equal rights for women, more freedom of the press, etc.

But the USSR soon became found itself waging a guerrilla war in which they were confronted by the nationalist mujahadeens and the Taliban, al Qaeda, other religious groups, and assorted warlords and murderous thugs, all of whom were heavily supported by the US who provided them with money and sophisticated weaponry and expertise. When the USSR realized that Afghanistan was a hopeless cause and they had to leave, it tried to warn the US that it had created a monster in that country that would later turn against its patrons. Wawro writes that Gorbachev offered to make a deal with the US in which USSR would leave Afghanistan but together with the US they would try to put in place a government that would retain at least some of the reforms and not be a threat to the West. But the US was more interested in having the USSR humiliated and ignored the offer. The end result was an Afghanistan that ended up being ruled by the Taliban who provided a refuge for bin Laden and al Qaeda. We all know where that led.

Political cartoonist Ted Rall, just back from a visit to Afghanistan, says that there have been some definite improvements in that country since the US invasion of 2001, just as there was when the Soviets were there. (Rall’s cartoon log of his trip can be seen here in slideshow format as well.) Despite the staggering corruption of the US-backed Karzai government, there are more schools, clinics, and medical services, better roads and communications, some relaxing of restrictions on speech and the press, and more freedoms for women. But what will happen when the US leaves? The history of that country, especially the example of Taliban rule after the USSR left, does not encourage optimism. It will likely revert to a period of ghastly repression because the Taliban now is even worse than the Taliban then.

Quicksand is well written and an easy read, despite its length. As I said before, it is a good reference book to have for a comprehensive summary of the history of a region that is the source of much of the world’s conflicts. It is also a chronicle of the cynicism and duplicity of political leaders willing to sacrifice the lives of vast numbers of real people for short-term political gain and to enrich the pockets of the few.


  1. Steve LaBonne says

    Candidate Obama made mildly encouraging noises suggesting some small but meaningful degree of independence of mind on a number of topics touched on in this post.

    President Obama, though, has been a bitter disappointment.

  2. says


    Perhaps you did this in your earlier posts on the Israeli lobby, but I was waiting for you to connect the dots from what Kevin Phillips called “American Theocracy” to this unflinching, bipartisan, and counter-productive support for Israel. Elsewhere you have written about American exceptionalism -- the jingoistic fallacy that America is God’s chosen country. For the Christian conservatives, it is not too much of a stretch to reach out to the self-appointed protectors of the Biblical lands, and supply them with state-of-the-art weaponry with which to kill Palestinian civilians who are easily conflated with Islamic terrorists. Combine a simple-minded, dualistic worldview with values based on fairy stories and this is what you get.

    An America in which religion was a marginal activity would be less likely to pursue this foreign policy, though I do wonder if there is also some kind of cold, realist calculation going on here. Israel is still expected (in some circles) to act as a proxy for American interests, possibly to the extent of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities perceived as an existential threat. They have, after all, done it before. One of the problems with this, however, is that the proxy is so thinly-veiled that no-one in the Arab world would be fooled and hatred of America will receive yet another boost. As Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback trilogy explained so well, the chickens have come home to roost. The saddest part of it all is that the average flag-waving American has absolutely no bloody clue about any of this history. Exceptionalism indeed -- exceptional ignorance.

    By the way, there was one presidential candidate who called it like it was -- Ralph Nader. Nader has been highlighting Israel’s state terrorism for years. He was also the only one to correctly diagnose the incestuous relationship between big business and both major parties, and call attention to the obscenely bloated military-industrial complex which remains curiously untouchable even in these straitened times. There was a candidate for real change in 2008, but those who thought it was Obama were simply suckered by slick marketing.

  3. says

    I wish someone would address the usual argument made for the support of Israel: they’re the closest thing to an established Democracy in the Middle East (which allows for a freer press and the above documentary). Thus they’re more westernized, more like us and therefore less of a threat to us. Call me a cynic but, unlike science, what bores me about politics is what’s left to say once you conclude everyone is a self-centered player looking after his own interests? That someone is more self-centered? More self-interested? More selfish? And competing laundry lists of dirty deeds? Those with more power are always going to magnify the selfishness of their deeds simply because they have the power to take bigger actions. It amazes me there’s any restraint at all in the world when it comes to the violence and cruelty we’re all capable of. So if brow beating our opponents into moral submission actually works at restraining us from indulging in our far more violent instincts, I’m all for it.

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