A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts

By Ahron Bregman, September 4, 2008
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By Lawrence Freedman
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20

In the summer of 2006, the daughter of Sir Lawrence Freedman, a professor of war studies and one of the world's most important strategic thinkers, asked him a question about the Middle East. Recalling this conversation, Freedman writes: "The straightforward answer she sought got lost in the complexities of what Hamas was up to in Gaza, the state of Israeli politics, the role of Syria, the rows over the Iranian nuclear programme, and the fallout from the insurgency in Iraq."

Following this conversation, Freedman sat down to write this book. He dedicated it to "Ruth, who asked the question", adding: "I'm sorry the answer is so long."

The 600-page A Choice of Enemies is one of the most fascinating, comprehensive, clearly written, and subtle accounts I have ever read on United States' engagement with the Middle East. It provides an account of how successive American presidents, from Jimmy Carter to George W Bush, "engaged with the Middle East" or, more accurately perhaps, how and why successive US presidents have failed to get it right in the Middle East. Indeed, at one point, Freedman admits that it is "a depressing, at times tragic story..."

The book's title identifies what Freedman regards as the crux of the problem for US decision-makers. Faced with the unfolding dramas of the Middle East, they have to choose whom to oppose and whom to support, and then how, with what conditions and to what extent, to oppose and to support. Freedman notes with astonishment that, in making these choices, America often seems to have ended up in a fight with almost everybody, often uniting against it people that otherwise have very little in common.

He takes 1979 as his starting point, as it was during this time that a new era opened in the Middle East, marked by the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein's emergence as Iraq's leader and the signing of a peace deal between Israel and Egypt.

Much of the book deals with US efforts to make peace between Israel and its enemies. With regard to the thesis advanced by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, namely that Israel has a lot of noisy, influential American supporters who demand US backing for almost anything Israel chooses to do, Freedman is dismissive, explaining that these claims are "exaggerated and in many cases plain wrong".

His underlying argument is what one would expect from someone who himself has been deeply involved in policy making in the UK, namely that America needs to be more pragmatic in its goals in the Middle East. As for the use of force, Freedman's advice is that the US should come to terms with the fact that its ability to effect change in the Middle East is limited. "For Americans," he writes, "the challenge is to revive their diplomatic skills, learning how to work with the local political grain without losing a sense of purpose and principle, pushing parties to co-operation, supporting social and economic along with political reform, and encouraging a positive engagement with the rest of the world."

Will the soon-to-be-elected American President heed this sensible advice?

Ahron Bregman teaches security issues in the Middle East at the Department of War Studies, King's College London

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011