Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism, Common Courage Press, 2003. $18.95, paperback

Stephen Zunes, associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco, has written a timely and informative book.

Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism has an ease of style not usually found in books dealing with complex issues like foreign policy. Written in an articulate and simple manner, Tinderbox makes clear the hidden ambitions and goals of U.S. policymakers and business interests, and shows how U.S. involvement in the Middle East, rather than challenging terrorism, supports it.

U.S. policymakers want Middle Eastern as well as American people to think of U.S. actions as benign and even-handed. This is especially true concerning the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

But, with uncritical U.S. support, the Israeli government has murdered, tortured and dislocated thousands of Palestinians. According to Zunes, “between 1972 and 2001 the United States used its veto power in the [UN] Security Council thirty-nine times to block resolutions critical of Israeli policies … more than all other countries have used their veto on all other issues during this period combined.”

More recently the Israeli government, borrowing a note from the Bush administration, used the cloak of “combatting terrorism” to further its aims. The United States supplied the hardware, Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets, while Israel bombed the Jenin refugee camp for eight days, killing or wounding hundreds and displacing thousands.

According to Zunes, U.S. support for these Israeli government policies has caused tremendous anti-American sentiment worldwide, especially since most of the world supports the Palestinian people’s right to statehood and the UN resolutions calling for Israel to leave the occupied territories.

The U.S. government backing of the brutal military oppression of the Palestinian people helps terrorist organizations gain support among the disenfranchised who feel they have no other options.

U.S. arms sales to wealthy Arab monarchs have had the same effect. But while U.S. policymakers and conservative Arab states share a common cause – curbing national democratic and progressive movements and preserving the status quo – many people in the Middle East strive for democracy and change.

“For autocratic Arab leaders the perceived threat from Israeli militarism serves as a pretext for their lack of internal democracy and inability to address badly needed economic and social reforms,” says Zunes. He adds, “The resulting arms race has been a bonanza for U.S. arms manufacturers …”

Understanding the ambitions of overall U.S. Middle East policy is even more important today as the Bush administration continues its hysterical drive to war with Iraq.

According to Zunes, many in the Middle East see U.S. ambitions to overthrow Saddam Hussein as hypocritical. They see the U.S. promise to enforce human rights and international law and disarm a military “rogue state,” and its offer of the carrot of democracy, as window dressing hiding other motives.

Many ask, “Why Iraq? Why Saddam?” especially considering that support for non-democratic nations has been a longstanding cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.

Addressing this question, Zunes notes that historically countries have exaggerated their own military strength, while minimizing the strength of their opponents in order to convince their enemies not to engage in aggressive action. But the U.S. government has exaggerated the military force of its opponents and downplayed the ability of the U.S. military and its allies to resist or overcome it. “From the perspective of deterrence,” says Zunes, “this would be totally foolish, since to exaggerate your enemy’s strength … would invite attack.”

“However,” he continued, “if a country’s national security is not really at stake and the primary goal of the government is to convince the public that it is worth diverting a large amount of the nation’s resources to military production and/or to engage in a war, making such claims then makes sense.”

Many factors account for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Some, like arms sales, are obvious. Other reasons are a bit more obscure. What is clear, though, is that the U.S. government has plans for the Middle East that very likely work against democracy, social and economic reform and peace.

The very real threat of terrorism has created an opportunity for many of us to learn more about the Middle East and to understand why so many people in that part of the world hate what the U.S. government is doing in our name. Zunes has provided that opportunity. Tinderbox is a much-needed critical analysis of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

– Tony Pecinovsky (tonypec@pww.org)