Wracked by insurrection and terrorism, the Middle East is going through a traumatic time but most of its problems can be traced to one short war between Arabs and Israelis nearly half a century ago, says a Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian who spent his formative years in the region.
“The Middle East is going through a terrible moment, everything is collapsing, the artificial borders set by the British and the French… then the American intervention in Iraq in 2003 led to blowback and many unintended consequences,” journalist-turned-author Kai Bird said in an interview.
These consequences include a spell of unbridled violence which has still not died down while spawning vicious terror groups like the Islamic State.
“It is a big tragedy… I feel responsible as an American. US must withdraw. Americans do not know what they are doing in this part of the world,” said Bird, who was five when his family moved to East Jerusalem where his father was American consul, and spent a considerable part of his early life there as well as Cairo, Beirut, Dhahran (Saudi Arabia) as described in “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978” (2010).
Bird traces the region’s problems to the “Six Day War” or the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, which was unintended but ensued when Arab “sabre-rattling” led to an Israeli pre-emptive attack.
“One moment the slide-down began was the June 1967 War which planted all seeds of present troubles… the occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem corrupted the Israeli state and its objectives, it disgraced and humiliated secular, nationalist leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser and left the field open for the Islamists,” he said.
And the loss of credibility of existing Arab leaders was, in the long run, self-defeating for the Israelis for it created a new crop of “radical, embittered and uncompromising” enemies, he said, but contended that the Islamists do not present a viable alternative.
Islamist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas no doubt reflect the frustration of people but “priests, rabbis and mullahs rarely have solutions to problems of the 21st century, like education and employment”, he said.
Bird however says the Palestinian militants of the 1970s were different from the contemporary terrorists of Al Qaeda and now IS.
Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled, whose photo cradling an AK-47 and wearing a bullet ring, attained iconic status, had never intended to kill anyone in both the hijackings she committed in 1969-1970, he noted, adding she had condemned the 9/11 attacks.
“I met Leila Khaled, who now lives in Amman. She is still unapologetic about what she did. But it would not be fair to call her a terrorist. She was a professional revolutionary who put on spectacular political theatre,” said Bird who attended the Jaipur Literature Festival last month.
In his latest book “The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames” (2014), Bird reveals another less known but tragically unfulfilled story of the Middle East – of the CIA agent who was the first to forge ties with the PLO and set on the process that ultimately led to peace talks.
“Ames was a legend inside the CIA… fluent enough in Arabic to read local newspapers and crack jokes. What made him a good spy was the fact he was a good listener. His story is significant because he created the first channel between his country and the PLO by befriending Hasan Salameh, the bodyguard of Yasser Arafat.”
But this link became known to the Mossad, who sought to disrupt it by assassinating Salameh and ultimately succeeding in 1979, he said, adding Ames was himself killed in the 1983 suicide bombing on the US embassy in Beirut.
“So far this story has not been told…except in a novel (‘Agents of Innocence’) by (journalist-author) David Ignatius who knew the story but couldn’t report it,” he said.
Bird, who won the Pulitzer in 2006 for “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer”, said he is undecided about his next book but it will not be on the Middle East.
“It is too depressing and I’ve said all I have to say… I might write biography of an American leader, may be (President) Ronald Reagan. I like big stories, a big subject.”