BOOK REVIEW Reconfiguring the Middle East Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future by Stephen Kinzer
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
While the Barack Obama administration has achieved a "reset" to calm hitherto
stormy relations with Russia, it is still adrift in the unforgiving terrain of
the Middle East. Over the last two years, the United States has tried donning
the roles of a neutral peace broker and a conciliator in this region, but the
stalemates and dangerous face-offs have not died down. Chances of new wars that
would embroil the US remain high in the Middle East, despite Obama's attempts
to reach out to foes and restructure equations with allies.
Inferring from award-winning foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer's new book,
it appears that the main reason why the US
continues to mope around without breakthroughs is its inability to "reset"
toxic partnerships with Saudi Arabia and Israel. The author maintains that
unless Washington inches closer to Turkey and Iran, while distancing itself
from Saudi Arabia and Israel, the Middle East is doomed to repeat old patterns
of war, terrorism, autocracy and despair.
Kinzer begins with a historical overview of popular struggles for democracy in
Iran and Turkey, both of which were inspired and aided by the US. American
sympathies for Iran's constitutional democracy movement go back to figures like
Howard Baskerville and Morgan Shuster, a schoolteacher and a lawyer who lived
in Iran and assisted anti-monarchical and anti-colonial movements at critical
junctures before World War I. Iranians of that era saw the US as a benevolent
anti-colonial foreign power that was unlike exploitative European imperialists
such as Britain and Russia.
Around this time, radical Turks inspired by ideas of liberty and
parliamentarianism challenged Ottoman absolutism. Mustafa Kemal's war against
"backwardness" and concerted push for modernity by infusing principles like
self-determination and citizenship had parallels to the career of George
Washington in the US. In 1923, Kemal established the first ever republic in a
Muslim country and transformed Turkish society along Western Enlightenment
lines. He carved out a secular state, a novelty in the Middle East which was
imitated by Reza Shah in Iran, albeit not with the same degree of success.
In the nascent Cold War years, the US was welcomed in both Turkey and Iran as a
necessary democratic counter to Soviet expansionary designs. But the Central
Intelligence Agency-orchestrated coup d'etat against Iranian prime minister
Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953 sullied the American image irreparably. Kinzer
captures the angry outlook of Iranians since that catastrophic blow as follows:
"We had a democracy once, but you (Americans) took it away from us!" (pg 99)
Anti-American sentiment also rose in Turkey in the 1960s in response to the
massive Cold War-induced US military presence in the country. A low-level civil
war and repeated military coups in Turkey from the 1970s onward were serious
setbacks to democracy that the US abetted in the name of containing communism.
Washington enjoyed manipulating the pro-Western client regimes in Turkey and
Iran (up to 1979), but it had scarce goodwill at the societal level in both
these countries during the Cold War. Many Iranians who participated in the 1979
Revolution to overthrow the "pro-American Shah" ironically hoped for a return
to the democracy the US had robbed from them in 1953.
In Ayatollah-ruled Iran, a strong democratic consciousness survives despite the
stunting of civic life by an oppressive Islamist theocracy. Kinzer cites the
spontaneous uprising after the disputed 2009 presidential elections as evidence
that "Iranians, like Turks, grasp the essence of democracy and want the freedom
that their Turkish neighbors enjoy." (pg 141)
The century-long experience of fighting for (and intermittently losing)
democracy sets Turkey and Iran apart from their neighbors in the Middle East.
Kinzer believes that the memory and yearning for democracy is most advanced in
these two countries, making them "good soul mates for Americans." (pg 11)
Shared political values and culture allow them to be more promising allies of
the US than Riyadh and Tel Aviv. The "old triangle" (US-Saudi Arabia-Israel)
has not yielded stability in the Middle East and has kept unleashing waves of
violence and repression.
Kinzer proposes a new American grand strategy involving a fundamental shift
away from coddling Saudi Arabia and Israel, states that have not served US
long-term interests. During the Cold War, a tight alliance between Washington
and Riyadh was sealed by oil, arms procurement and covert funding of
anti-American movements around the world. This occurred in spite of what Kinzer
characterizes as "the vast cultural and psychological chasm that separates
Americans from Wahhabi Arabs". (pg 146) A society dominated by religious
zealots who detest modernity, Saudi Arabia is the antithesis of the American
way of life.
The US-Israel special relationship is, of course, underpinned by shared values,
ideals and Biblical traditions, but Israel's importance to Washington during
the Cold War stemmed from its Saudi-like role as a secret conduit for training
and arming regimes and rebel groups that the US could not openly associate
with. As "dirty war" contractors for the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia
destabilized societies on a global scale. But with no superpower rivalry around
anymore, argues Kinzer, the US has a chance to re-imagine its retrogressive
relations with these two Middle Eastern powers.
The author contends that the optimal solution for democratizing Saudi Arabia
would be for Washington to untie its intensely intimate camaraderie with the
al-Saud family. This course will permit Saudi society to "mature in its own
way, make its own mistakes, and find its own path". (pg 182)
To resolve the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kinzer recommends that
the US impose a peace plan of its own by drawing upon past UN resolutions. Such
a bold move can only occur if Washington can overcome the
"Israel-right-or-wrong mantra" in the American body politic. How the Obama
administration or its successors can practically override the Israel lobby is
perhaps too sensitive a topic for Kinzer to grapple, but such a path does hold
clues to a more peaceful future in the Middle East.
In the past decade, Turkey has emerged as a hyperactive international
peacemaker. Ankara's blending of Islam with democracy has lent it a newfound
legitimacy in the Muslim world, which had previously dismissed it as an
American lackey. Turkey's conscious reinvention after "decoupling" itself from
the US has yielded substantial soft power benefits. Kinzer urges Washington to
welcome this development instead of feeling irritated at the loss of an
Although the Obama administration prematurely rejected the Turkish-brokered
initiative to resolve the Iranian nuclear program crisis, it is in the US' best
interests to be guided by Turkey on major outstanding problems in the region.
Kinzer cautions against the typical American habit of not "listening to other
powers", which could undo a potential recalibrated partnership with Turkey.
Viewing Turkey as a vassal state and expecting it to be a "yes man" is now
outdated, especially as it has widened its global reach as a problem solver
after the European Union threw up insurmountable barriers to admitting it as a
Whether Washington likes it or not, Iran too has grown like Turkey into a major
regional power in the last decade. An accommodation with the regime in Tehran
serves American strategic interests, but such a deal must not come at the cost
of crushing Iran's besieged civil society and pro-democracy movement. A lasting
normalization of US-Iran ties may have to wait until moderate democratic forces
find their feet in Iranian politics.
To generalize that the US has got it all wrong in the Middle East is easy and
almost cliched. Correcting the imbalances in Washington's relations in the
region requires a sea change in the domestic balance of power within the US as
well as a mitigation of neo-imperial motivations in its foreign policy.
Kinzer's thesis of "reset", however out-of-the-box, is premised upon an
uncritical and benign understanding of the nature and purpose of US foreign
policy in the post-Cold War world. But his message that the US should carefully
live up to expectations of nourishing democracy and freedom in the Middle East,
without overly interfering in the region, is a decent and hopeful one.
Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future by Stephen Kinzer. Times Books,
New York, 2010. ISBN: 978-0805091274. Price: US$26, 288 pages.
Sreeram Chaulia is Vice Dean of the Jindal School of International
Affairs in Sonipat, India, and the author of the forthcoming book, International
Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in
Conflict Zones (IB Tauris).