Manic Moments: A catalogue of America’s Middle East blunders is a must-read for Obama

Martin Woollacott in The Guardian:

Trouble The great virtue of Tyler's book is that it is so relentlessly personal. It may be criticised by some for the limited attention it pays to underlying causes, such as America's determination to secure oil resources and the constraints of the cold war, or to cultural factors, such as the west's early infatuation with Israel's military successes, and, more recently, the Christian right's beliefs about the end of the world. But Tyler is a reporter, not an academic. He is interested in moments – moments when confused and angry leaders and their counsellors swear at one another, weep, get drunk, or tell outrageous lies.

Moments such as the one where William Sullivan, the American ambassador to Iran, irritated by Zbigniew Brzezinski's pursuit of the chimera of a last-minute military coup to save the shah's regime, told him there was not the faintest chance of such a thing, adding cuttingly: “Do you want me to translate it into Polish?” Moments such as the one where Bill Clinton, still just president, rang Colin Powell, the incoming secretary of state in George W Bush's new administration, to tell him that Yasser Arafat was “a goddamned liar” who had destroyed the chances of peace. The blame for the failure at Camp David, as Tyler writes, belonged to Ehud Barak and Clinton rather than to Arafat but, cheated of the achievement that might have balanced the Lewinsky scandal, a self-righteous and self-deceiving Clinton was intent on “poisoning the well”.

Or moments such as the one where Henry Kissinger, entrusted with a message from Nixon to Brezhnev calling for joint superpower action to end the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and then proceed to a just settlement of the Palestinian question, simply decided, in mid-flight to Moscow, not to deliver it. Nixon's message, Tyler writes, “threatened to undermine the record Kissinger was seeking to create; that he and Nixon had run the Soviets into the ground and they had protected Israel”. The truth was that the Russian leaders had reacted cautiously and moderately when war broke out, and that Nixon himself had a statesmanlike grasp of what was necessary. But a joint US-Russian initiative “would have thrust Kissinger into the thankless and perilous task of applying pressure on Israel”. So he simply dumped the message. He later encouraged Israel to violate the ceasefire that was supposed to end hostilities so that it could better its military position. With these acts of disobedience – acts which were also, as Tyler says, arguably unconstitutional – Kissinger closed off the possibility that the 1973 war could have been ended on terms which would have left Israel in a less powerful position, making it more amenable to an ensuing push for a settlement by the Americans and the Russians.

More here.