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Joel Migdal

Shifting Sands

The United States and the Middle East

Columbia University Press 2014

New Books in American StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Middle Eastern StudiesNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in World AffairsNew Books Network October 10, 2014 Christian Peterson

Any person who turns on CNN or Fox News today will see that the United States faces a number of critical problems in the...

Any person who turns on CNN or Fox News today will see that the United States faces a number of critical problems in the Middle East. This reality should surprise few. Stunned by the Al-Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001, the George W. Bush administration sent U.S. troops to Afghanistan as part of a larger “war on terror” and invaded Iraq in 2003 to “disarm” Saddam Hussein. At this very moment, the United States still has troops in Afghanistan and continues to employ drones to kill “terrorists” in places like Yemen. It has put together a coalition of states, including some Arab governments, to begin the process of taking back the huge swaths of territory that the extremist jihadi group ISIS has taken in Iraq and Syria. The Middle East has also not just “stood still” for U.S. policymakers to find their bearings. The “Arab Spring” and “Green movement” in Iran have raised profound questions about the future of government and authority in the region.

In his work Shifting Sands: The United States and the Middle East (Columbia University Press, 2014), Joel Migdal addresses the question of why U.S. policymakers have had so many problems accomplishing their goals in the region since the end of World War II. Employing clear prose without the polemics and scholarly jargon that so many books on this subject contain, he explains how the U.S. government has far too often ignored the complexities and history of the Middle East when acting in the region. While Migdal’s periodization of events in the Middle East and the place of Israel in U.S. foreign policy may strike some as too revisionist, he offers a number of valuable suggestions about how U.S. policymakers can best navigate the shoals of the region in the coming years  Even if readers do not find all of these arguments persuasive, they will benefit from grappling with his critiques and insights. Shifting Sands stands out a useful reminder of what can go wrong when policymakers ignore historical trends and assume the universal applicability of the American experience.