Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Joel S. Migdal's "Shifting Sands"

Joel Migdal is the Robert F. Philip Professor of International Studies at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, and has been writing about the Middle East and state-society relations worldwide for more than forty years. Among his books are The Palestinian People (with Baruch Kimmerling), Through the Lens of Israel, Strong Societies and Weak States, and State-in-Society.

Migdal applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Shifting Sands: The United States in the Middle East, and reported the following:
Turning to Page 99, I was pleased to find one of the most familiar photos of the last half century. It was of three beaming world leaders—Jimmy Carter flanked by the president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, and the prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin. The picture captured the crowning moment of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, the brokering of the peace treaty between the two most powerful countries in the region, which had been at war for three decades. The treaty was significant not only at the Camp David photo shoot in 1979; it has withstood extraordinary pressures and crises and is still intact 35 years later.

The image of the three leaders is one of several iconic photos that mark America’s checkered participation in the everyday life of the region since 1945. The first is of FDR, ailing and only weeks away from his death, meeting near the Suez Canal with Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the first king of Saudi Arabia. That photo marked the moment that the United States became a permanent player in the Middle East. Another is almost a mirror of the 1979 photograph: here Bill Clinton is with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and Chairman Yasser Arafat, clasping hands on the White House lawn. This image marked the optimistic beginning of what turned out to be a stillborn peace process. (In this one, Clinton and Arafat are smiling broadly, but Rabin is nothing but dour.) Perhaps the last iconic photo is of George W. Bush on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln proclaiming “mission accomplished” in Iraq. The Middle East appears to have a way of twisting straightforward statements into irony.

Shifting Sands explores what lies behind these photos—America’s roller-coaster ride in the region, from that meeting with the Saudi king to the war in Iraq in the 2000s to the Obama administration’s attempts to deal with the brutal aftermath of the Arab Spring, Iran’s nuclear (and other) ambitions, and the lingering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The book is an interpretation of U.S. efforts to apply a fixed strategy to a moving target, to a region whose dynamics have changed dramatically in the last 70 years.
Learn more about Shifting Sands at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue