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Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East

By Michael Doran, (2016, Simon & Schuster, 292 Pages)

Reviewed by Steven R. Maher

This writer has reviewed several biographies of Dwight Eisenhower. Historians rate Eisenhower as one of America’s greater Presidents. Eisenhower balanced the budget (“better dead than in the red”), ended the Korean War, did not overreact to the Soviet Sputnik launch into outer space, and refused repeated requests from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to launch pre-emptive strikes against Red China.

It is against this backdrop of presidential success that one should read “Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East” with a considerable grain of salt. Author Michael Doran is a neocon. He was a Director of the National Security Council during the Presidency of George W. Bush. He was an assistant to Elliott Abrams. Abrams was pardoned by the first President Bush for withholding information from Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal.

In a February 2003 article in the highly prestigious Foreign Relations Magazine, Doran endorsed the invasion of Iraq which took place one month later, stating: “If an American road to a calmer situation in Palestine does in fact exist, it runs through Baghdad.” “Calm” is not an adjective used often to describe Palestine after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

It does mention in Ike’s Gamble’s biographical section, on the back flap, that Doran “has served as a Middle Eastern adviser in the White House and as a deputy secretary of defense.” It does not mention that this was during the Bush 43rd Presidency. The book is totally silent on Doran’s connection to Bush.

The reviewer starting researching Doran’s background after finishing the book becomes deeply suspicious of what he had read. Doran’s approach reminds one of Dick Cheney’s cherry picking of evidence on Iraq’s nuclear weapons to justify the Iraq invasion. Doran had slim proof to back up some of his assertions, used highly questionable sources, and stated a version of events extremely different from the generally accepted story. The impression one gets is that Doran knew his association with George W. Bush would discredit this book in the minds of many readers.

Neocon hero

The book opens with Winston Churchill meeting Eisenhower after Ike was elected President in November 1952. This is significant: in the neocon world Churchill is an icon. George W. Bush kept a bust of Churchill in the oval office throughout much of his Presidency.

The British Empire was nearing bankruptcy because of World War II. It didn’t have the money to maintain its far-flung empire. Doran gives the impression the world would be a better place if Eisenhower had agreed to fund Britain’s empire. That would have made sense to the dyed in the wool imperialists, bankers and businessmen in London but was opposed by British subjects in Africa or Asia who wanted their independence.

Doran conveys this through “the James Bond” analogy of American bankrolling the British through international institutions while Britain maintains its empire. He cites the first novel in the James Bond franchise, Casino Royale, where Bond loses all his money at a game of baccarat with a Soviet agent. The day is saved by American agent Felix Leiter, who gives Bond a wad of cash and a note reading: “Marshall Aid. Thirty-two million francs. With the Compliments of the USA.” Doran notes, “Resuscitated with American funds, Bond continues to play, and of course,” trounced the Soviet agent. Leiter is the role Doran wishes the U.S. had played throughout the 1956 crisis. He morosely noted: “Eisenhower was no Felix Leiter.”

1956 Suez Crisis

In 1956 Nasser negotiated the British to withdraw their 80,000-man garrison from along the Suez Canal. Nasser’s military was not strong enough to drive them out. After the British withdrew, Nasser nationalized the canal. Enraged, the British and French persuaded the Israelis to enact a farce: Israel would attack the Egyptians in the Sinai and then the British and French, playing the role of unknowing innocents, would seize the canal on the pretext they were separating the warring countries.

In October 1956, the Israelis attacked and quickly overran much of the Sinai.
Eisenhower believed that if the United States were to support Britain and France in their gunboat diplomacy, the U.S. would become identified with western colonialism in developing countries. He also thought that if the U.S sided with Egypt in his crisis, the U.S. would be accepted as an honest broker to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Ike forced the British, French and Israeli forces to withdraw from the territories occupied during a brief war with Egypt. Doran portrays Eisenhower as a naïve President with a simplistic viewpoint of the Middle East. Doran asserts Eisenhower’s poor judgments collapsed American’s position in the Middle East in favor of Nasser. This wasn’t exactly the case. The Israelis seized the Sinai in the 1967 war and Nasser died three years later without achieving his dream of being President of a unified Arab super-state. Anwar Sadat later negotiated the return of the Sinai after the Yom Kippur war.

Sources

There is a controversy over whether Eisenhower came to regret his actions in the 1956 Suez crisis. He had few sources to substantiate this assertion. Incredibly, one of these sources was Richard M. Nixon. Doran preferred to believe Nixon over Stephen Ambrose, an award-winning Presidential biographer.

Ambrose hadn’t resigned the Presidency after being accused of high crimes and misdemeanors, but Doran found him less credible than Tricky Dick. That should tell the reader all they need to know about this book.

Steve parked in Rose’s space …

From The New York Times:

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InCity Book Review

Secondhand Time, The Last of the Soviets

By Svetlana Alexievich, (2016, Random House, 470 Pages)

Reviewed by Steven R. Maher

If Americans want to know why Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is so popular among his own people, they might want to read Svetlana Alexievich’s “Secondhand Time,” subtitled “The Last of the Soviets.” It’s an oral history of what happened in the former Soviet Union after the 1991 collapse of the Communist state.

In 2015 Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her previous books were first person accounts of the Soviet Union’s unsuccessful war in Afghanistan, suicide by old-line Communists after the Soviet Union disappeared and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Secondhand Time is the latest in this genre.

While a history buff, this writer has not read a lot books of disparate “first person” accounts. This book is different. In Secondhand Time, Alexievich breaks the book down into readable blocks. She interviewed former Soviet citizens about aspects of how they handled the transition to democracy and free enterprise capitalism. She puts in well placed chapters, quoting newspaper articles, citations from books and other sources to create a refreshing change of narrative. The terrible difficulties faced by the average Russian at the grass roots level during the great transition to a Western style political and economic system are at the heart of this book.

Average Russian

The phrase “Average Russian” well sums up life in the Soviet state. Except for those who worked in the “nomenclature” – the Bolshevik bureaucracy – the best most citizens could aspire to was being average. Ordinary Russians could expect to live on a subsistence diet in substandard housing. But for a people who had known nothing better, this system provided for their basic needs, and made the Soviet Union into a superpower many Russians took pride in.

This all changed when Michael Gorbachev become ruler of the Soviet Union. When he introduced the “perestroika” policy of restructuring Soviet society, Gorbachev gave impetus to a flood of reform that he soon lost control of.

While Gorbachev remains an esteemed figure in the West, in Russia today he is a reviled figure, held responsible for collapsing the socialist economy before he found something to replace it with. There was no subtlety to what happened. There was no managed transition to a market economy. One day the Soviet currency was devalued, and within days ordinary Russians lost everything.

Russians had no idea what to do, or how to function under lassie faire capitalism. What entrepreneurial skills and drive they once possessed, had been killed by 74 years of Communist rule. Their bank accounts reduced to nothing, they searched their homes for anything of value to be sold at hastily built kiosks. Highly educated Russians with PHDs and doctorates found themselves washing dishes, digging ditches and cleaning toilets. Many could not find work at all.

The lucrative state monopolies, such as the oil companies, were divvied up among the Soviet leadership, who overnight went from being supposed Communist egalitarians to capitalistic oligarchs. Large, organized crime syndicates sprung up across the nation to shake down newly ambitious small capitalists, murder ordinary Soviet citizens and feed like vampires off the populace.

Crimes rates soared. Russians who lived in a safe society found themselves coming across corpses of murder victims while walking down streets. Raw and ugly racism emerged. Tajiks – a Central Asian, dark skinned people – became the African-Americans of Russian society, manhandled by law enforcement, discriminated against in housing and jobs, and exploited for their cheap labor. The number of Russians who benefitted from the change to a market economy were few and far between.

This all took place in a society where there was no safety net for the unemployed, the old or the ill. It took Americans two hundred years to develop social security and Medicare. No wonder many Russians yearn to go back to the old USSR. These people were derisively called “Sovoks.” In America, they would probably be called “deplorables.”

Preparation for Putin

Particularly chilling to read were the cries for a Stalin-like strongman to “make Russia great again.” The recount of terrorist attacks by Chechen Islamic terrorists in Moscow reminds one of 9/11. There are sections about mothers burying children killed in Chechnya, reminding one of American mothers doing the same for offspring killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Alexiewich sees this as being within the Russian tradition of having strong Tsars. History has prepared the Russians for a leader like Vladimir Putin. It’s no wonder he has such widespread approval among the Russian public at large.

The book has several flaws. Some of the chapters are too long, and an index would have helped. Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, this book’s subject matter is difficult to get through. But if you want to know why Putin is so popular in today’s Russia, reading this book would be a good place to start.