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Jenifer Vaughan

June 12th, 2024

Book Review – ‘What Really Went Wrong, The West and the Failure of Democracy in the Middle East’ by Fawaz A. Gerges

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Jenifer Vaughan

June 12th, 2024

Book Review – ‘What Really Went Wrong, The West and the Failure of Democracy in the Middle East’ by Fawaz A. Gerges

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

by Jenifer Vaughan

A comprehension of history through binary lenses fails to capture the nuanced complexities of reality, a point emphasised in a newly released book. This sentiment particularly resonates now amidst the ongoing horrors unfolding in the Middle East.

What Really Went Wrong: The West and the Failure of Democracy in the Middle East by Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, is an ambitious work that aims to make more coherent and to critically examine the region’s overlooked and misrepresented turning points of great significance, addressing a gap in existing scholarship.

The book explores in detail key events, primarily the C.I.A.-led coup that ousted Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh, and the U.S. confrontation with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s. Gerges contends that these crucial moments set the stage for enduring dissatisfaction, arrogance, and strife. By examining these historical upheavals, the narrative offers a distinctive perspective of the region’s challenges aiming to provoke a dialogue about the past that can alter present perceptions and guide future actions.

Two interconnected arguments are threaded through the book. First, despite tremendous challenges, those living in the Middle East have endured in their fight for self-determination and respect. Second, according to Gerges, nations in the region have been impeded in plotting their own destinies due to imperialism, the West’s pursuit of oil, the Cold War, and intertwined geostrategic ties. The author acknowledges as well that leaders throughout the region also bore responsibility for crises and provides examples of their egregious behavior too.

This book initially presents a challenging start, feeling sometimes redundant and verbose. However, once it delves into a detailed portrait of Mossadegh and the US-UK orchestrated overthrow, the narrative transforms. The storytelling becomes compelling, enriched with meticulous research, historical anecdotes and dialogue, making it an engaging read with a purpose: ‘Taking stock of this toxic legacy is a first step in resolving the dangerous standoff between the United States…and Iran that has endured for more than four decades,’ Gerges writes.

The same absorbing read continues as Gerges chronicles America’s decision to challenge Nasser in the mid-1950s, arguing that such actions not only altered the course of U.S.-Egyptian relations but also significantly influenced issues of war and peace in the Middle East. For example, Gerges argues that Nasser sincerely approached the United States in a genuine effort to interact on positive terms. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to gain in aspects of stability, commerce, and social advancement, the Cold War Washington hawks dismissed these proposals, ‘presenting only an ultimatum: our way or the highway.’ With scarce space to maneuver, Nasser sought nonaligned foreign policies that then, given the rigidity of the U.S., placed him in conflict with Washington, Gerges concludes.

The portrayals of interpersonal dynamics, inter-governmental meetings, and diplomatic gatherings, as well as the content of policy decisions found in the Egypt-related chapters stand out with Gerges aptly summarises, ‘The minefield that Nasser traversed included turncoat allies, a treasure that was Egypt’s birthright, and plotting so worthy of a spy thriller that would have been entertaining if confined to a movie.’

The book then turns its attention briefly, too much so, to Central America, examining Guatemala, demonstrating that comparable patterns were in motion there too. The CIA’s role in the overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz, employing Cold War strategies and anticommunist measures, prioritising international business interests over the well-being of the populace thus allowing readers to glimpse again the intersection of ideology and corporate interests central to American foreign policy during those years.

It is inherently challenging, as Gerges himself acknowledges, to determine what might have transpired in the Middle East, particularly perhaps in Iran and Egypt, had the U.S. pursued different foreign policy choices centered on, among other priorities, the aspirations of the regions’ citizens. The complexities of regional dynamics, historical contexts, and myriad influencing factors make it impossible to know, of course, with any degree of certainty what might have transpired – only what did.

However, reflecting on missed opportunities is crucial for gaining insights on how to navigate out of current challenges and can offer valuable guidance for the road ahead – this book merits scrutiny.


[To read more on this and everything Middle East, the LSE Middle East Centre Library is now open for browsing and borrowing for LSE students and staff. For more information, please visit the MEC Library page.]

 

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About the author

Jenifer Vaughan

Jenifer Vaughan has been the spokesperson at the United Nations Office of the Special Envoy for Syria since May 2019. This piece is written in the author’s personal capacity and does not represent the policies or views of the UN. She tweets at @jeniferfenton

Posted In: Book Reviews

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