Why write a book about myths in the Middle East? Mythologies in the Middle East are not new. Past American presidents have often thought they could reshape the region, believing that our preoccupations and fears were shared by those in the area.
President Eisenhower thought that Arab leaders shared the fear of godless Communism, and he assumed they would join us in containing the Soviet threat and creating an anti- Soviet alliance in the Middle East. But Eisenhower failed to realize that internal rivalries and the conflict with Israel mattered more to Arab leaders, and his policies were costly and ineffectual as a result.
President Kennedy had a better grasp of emerging realities in the developing world, realizing that in much of the "third world," leaders tended to be driven by nationalism and were not about to submerge their goals to a United States- led anticommunist crusade. But his administration, too, somehow believed that it could identify with the needs of the nonaligned and wean a nationalist leader like Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt away from the Soviet Union without his seeking to play us off against the Soviets for Egypt's (really his own) benefit.
For its part, the Johnson administration badly misread the events leading to the 1967 war by failing to understand Nasser's need for a victory and what it would take to prevent him from expelling the United Nations Emergency Forces from the Sinai desert.
Similarly, the Nixon administration was very slow to pick up on the significance of Anwar Sadat's expulsion of the Soviet military from Egypt in 1972. Had his administration understood and responded, there might not have been the 1973 war, which cost the Israelis dearly and risked a superpower confrontation, with the Soviets reportedly moving nuclear weapons toward the Suez Canal. However, for the Nixon administration at the time, habits and perceptions of Middle Eastern reality were shaped by the belief that Sadat could not be very different from Nasser.
Even the Carter administration was slow and grudging in its initial response to Sadat's announcement of his readiness to go to Jerusalem and address the Israeli Knesset. The president and his advisers had a fixed image of the Middle East and were convinced that only a comprehensive approach to peace could work. Sadat seemed to be spoiling their plans and undermining the logic of an approach in which all the Arab states and the Soviet Union would go to Geneva to launch a peace conference. They failed to see that for Sadat, this meant creating a lowest common denominator path in which Syria had a veto over what Egypt could do; indeed, that Syrian rejectionism could prevent Egypt from recovering the Sinai desert. President Carter and his advisers were operating on fixed assumptions of how the Middle East worked and couldn't believe, therefore, that Sadat would actually go his own way, separate himself from the weight of the Arab consensus, and produce something meaningful. They failed to see that he could transform the landscape of the region by staking out a separate posture. Somehow they were so locked in to the myth of Arab unity that they could not, at least initially, grasp that Egypt, the largest Arab state, could break through the isolation of Israel and crack the taboo on dealing with it -- and that this would produce an electric reaction within Israel and create a historic moment for peacemaking in the Middle East. Fortunately, Walter Cronkite and the other leaders of the American media at the time saw the essence of the moment and rushed to cover it, bringing along the Carter administration in their wake.
In all these cases, and others, a basic misreading of the region misled and produced misguided policies. Assumptions about the region were typically wrong and cost us. In the past, we certainly paid a price for not understanding the region. But today the potential costs of being wrong are far higher.
Historically, the Middle East has not been central to our national security concerns. True, ensuring that no hostile power gained control or leverage over oil's free flow may have been a vital interest, but we still tended to look at the area through a certain prism: once the Cold War began, our main preoccupation was the Soviet Union. All concerns were derivative of the conflict with the Soviets.
We might have paid a price for mistaken assumptions about the region, but the price, like the region itself, was secondary. Developments in the region mattered in the first instance because of how they might affect the competition with the Soviets. The Soviets could not be allowed to gain leverage over the oil supply or improve their position in a geo- strategically significant crossroads like the Middle East. The USSR posed an existential threat to the United States. But the Soviet Union no longer exists, and the threats that preoccupy us today are centered in the Middle East.
Today, the greater Middle East is the locus of our main national security concerns. In fact, while the free flow of oil remains important to us and others internationally, we have an array of other preoccupations and dangers that drive our foreign policy and that will confront President Obama -- and they are nearly all in the Middle East: the war in Iraq; the growing threat of revolutionary Iran and the danger of its possessing nuclear weapons; the increased risk of proliferation generally, and the danger of the worst weapons falling into the worst hands; the emergence of apocalyptic terror groups and the radical Islamist ideology that drives them; the Arab- Israeli conflict; and the widespread hostility toward the United States that is far more acute in the Middle East than anywhere else.
There is no doubt that the preeminent threat of our time is that radical Islamists -- most of whom emanate from the Middle East -- may get their hands on a nuclear weapon. All agree about the cataclysmic nature of nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, there was a sense that both the United States and Soviet Union made similar calculations about not using such weapons, and therefore deterrence was successful. Yet it remains unlikely that Islamist religious extremists who embrace suicide bombing are deterrable. They may look at the use of such weapons as a means to reach some form of religious imperative against others, critical to achieve what they consider the legitimate objective of creating an Islamist caliphate or facilitating the return of the Hidden Imam (more on this later) while securing their own benefits in another world. It is precisely the ascendance of such a school of thought that should lead us to oppose the Islamists, even as we seek to partner with those non- Islamist forces in Arab societies who are uniquely positioned to discredit them in a way that we are not. This obviously does not mean taking force off the table to deal with such threats, but we are better positioned to use force if we are seen as having first exhausted all other options.
This is an excerpt from my new book, Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East, co-authored with Dennis Ross. To learn more, visit my website. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Myths, Illusions, and Peace by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky. Copyright © 2009 by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky