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Engel book cover

Even though I find the subject of the Middle East depressing these days, I LOVE Richard Engel’s reporting, so I was excited to get an advance copy of his book And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East from NetGalley in return for my honest review. Overall, I will just say I am so happy to have read this book, because I learned so much! Engel lived in the Middle East for decades, is a fluent Arab speaker, and has the gift of being both an entertaining storyteller and a patient teacher. My own bias leans left, and I found my negative opinion of the Bush administration’s actions reinforced…but I really looked forward to the opportunity to evaluate my uncertainty about the actions of the Obama administration by learning more about the history and current situation in the Middle East, including Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Libya and, of course, Syria.

This book reminds us that if our view of today’s Middle East consists of looking at “those people” and their rebellion in the streets in recent years and thousands of refugees streaming to escape recent battles, we may have forgotten (or perhaps never knew?)  that “In the eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries, the Islamic world was a main center of culture and civilization…leader in astronomy, algebra and poetry, experiencing a golden era as Europe sank into the Dark Ages.“

The Middle East of today is a mess, no doubt about it, and the book does a great job explaining the origins of today’s conflicts, detailing how during World War I, the “Ottomans sided with Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm. Russian Empire had collapsed…leaving England and France to feast on the ottoman carcass.”

After the end of that war, the …”lines that separate Jordan, Syria and Iraq were mostly drawn by England and France” the “Middle East was reorganized, redefined, and the seeds were planted for a century of bloodshed.”

There was a lot of jockeying for position for the land being carved up. “Lebanon, a Christian enclave…was of special interest to France…Sunni Muslim Wahhabi fanatics aligned with Ibn Saud, a warrior chief from a desert outpost in central Arabia…Iraq was a jigsaw puzzle, a forced combination of three Ottoman provinces, each dominated by a different ethnic or religious group: the Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center, and Shiites in the south.” No surprise that Iraq seems like it is broken – it was never a cohesive state to begin with. (Very Alice in Wonderland-ish, IMO)

Engel’s view of the reason for the mess that is the Middle East today? The “flawed and cavalier treaties of World War I explain to a large degree why the Middle east remains unstable and angry today…even carefully drawn borders…would have been problematic in a region that had no concept of nation states or parliaments. But the European victors made a total hash of it. Ethnic minorities were divided and put in different states. The Kurdish people were scattered among five nations. Syria was reduced to a tiny fraction of the powerful Ottoman province it once was…Iraq was cobbled together with different Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds and given almost no access to the sea…the house of Islam was in pieces and humiliated…the afterthought of victorious European powers.”

He sees the decades after World War I and right up until the George W. Bush administration as being the years when “big men” ruled the region. When he moved to the Middle East, Mubarak was in complete control in Egypt, Hussein in Iraq, Gadhafi in Libya, Assad in Syria, and both Jordan and Saudi Arabia were kingdoms ruled by their own “big men.”

In the mid-90s, Engel optimistically moved to Egypt with no job, and set out to report on the region.   Egypt is a large country with large problems. Discussing events up to and including the Arab Spring, he notes, “Rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait could buy their way out of trouble pumping money into the pockets of their people, but a big, poor country such as Egypt faced a severe reckoning. Economic resentments, not religious or ethnic division, had sent Egyptians into the streets. “

In Egypt, what had “kept it all together was Islam. Islam was the solution, or at least that’s what the Muslim Brotherhood was selling…a political and religious organization that was officially illegal. ” As Engel looks back on the people he encountered on a daily basis, he notes that the “fundamentalism that I saw in my neighborhood… wasn’t violent”… (it was) “about helping the poor”…(it) “wasn’t the kind of urban meanness you find in many American cities.” As things heated up, he sees “the fundamentalist mentality—the rage, the anger, the hate, the feeling of being left behind by history, the sense that Islam was under attack and needed to defend itself.”

After several years in Egypt, Engel moved to Jerusalem, where he was “expecting to report on the birth of a new state, Palestine, instead I saw peace talks collapse.” After 9/11, everything changed, including the degree to which people cared about what was happening in Palestine. There was a “bloody conflict…the outside world, especially the United States, paid little attention to the Palestinians’ second uprising. It was a sideshow after 9/11. “

After the Bush Administration decided (for, as Engel reminds us, “no reason”) to invade Iraq following 9/11,  all the action for a foreign correspondent seemed to be in Baghdad, so of course that is where he relocated. As he notes, in retrospect, he “had no idea at the time how bad Washington would bungle it, how inept the Iraqis would be at managing their own affairs, and the horrible forces—the rot deep within the Middle East—that the war would ultimately unleash.” As time passed, Engel finds he “grew increasingly skeptical that the US had a plan to manage Iraq. The Americans arrived with decisiveness and purpose but then seemed to improvise everything else.” There was “no plan to deal with Iraq after invading it.

As a foreign correspondent, over the years he had to deal with the business of the media, and there were many interesting oddities about covering the war in Iraq: “ I’ve never quite grasped…why the networks didn’t weigh the risks beforehand. Instead they spent millions preparing to cover the war from Baghdad only to pull out at the last minute.”

Saddam was clearly a bad guy, but Engel spells out the way in which the attempt by the Bush administration to link him with 9/11 is preposterous: he “imprisoned anyone who exhibited the slightest hint of religious radicalism,” which made the accusations by the Bush administration ”that he was in league with Osama bin Laden …so preposterous. Saddam was a murderous tyrant, but Islamic al-Qaeda style radicals only came to Iraq because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and not, as the Bush administration repeatedly claimed, the other way around. “

I found it fascinating to read’s Engel’s analysis of the growth of ISIS. He flatly states, “ISIS wouldn’t have existed without the US invasion of Iraq. It was born out of the Sunnis’ feeling of alienation, their belief that they’d been pushed aside—which, of course, they had been. Sunnis suffered a thirteen-century old injustice with power stripped from them by Washington and given to Iraqi Shiites and their coreligionists in Iran. This grievance is at the core of ISIS ideology. “

Looking at the situation in Syria, Engel draws parallels with Libya, as he spells out why Assad was unlikely to trust Washington: “Gadhafi had …made peace with Washington…his reward was Washington…used …force to back rebels who would tear him to pieces and put his body in a meat locker for public ridicule. The message certainly wasn’t lost on Syria’s Assad. What incentive did he have…to trust Washington?”

And, indicating the consequence of the US not helping in Syria, he notes, “Clearly, Syria would not be Libya. The cavalry from the West wasn’t coming. Instead, al-Qaeda was offering a helping hand. “

When Engel first went to live in Cairo, as noted before, things were held steady by the “big men” who, as he relates, “were part of the system the United States depended on for decades to keep a volatile and religious region of rich governments and poor people in line, and to keep the oil flowing. In the end, however, the big men were all undone by a fatal combination of their own poor management and the actions and inactions of two two-term US Administrations: Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.” (This is where my uncertainty about the efforts – or lack thereof—by the Obama administration to deal with the Middle East began to move toward a sense that things just got worse in the last 7+ years. Sad, after so many of us voted for Obama in large part because we were sick of what the Bush administration had done in Iraq, and believed Obama’s pledge to end that war.

What is his view of the “big men” in retrospect? “I like to think of the Middle East of the Arab big men like a row of old rotten houses. They looked stable and imposing from the outside but were in fact full of mold and termites, which they both contained and created the way old houses do if no one opens the windows or cleans them out. President Bush knocked down the first rotten house by toppling Saddam Hussein, unleashing the anger, ignorance, and Sunni-Shia rivalry inside. President Obama, by turning on old friends, was now helping to knock down another house. Worse still, Obama would later fail to follow through on this new promise when the wave of protest reached Bahrain and then culminated in Syria. The Bush Doctrine was attack foreign nations before they attack you, even if you attack the wrong country for the wrong reason, or for no reason, at all. The Obama Doctrine would turn out to be: help those seeking democracy when they are oppressed, except when you don’t want to and prefer to promise help while not delivering it. The combined impact of these two radical policies—radical departures from decades of trying to find Middle East stability—would be devastating. “ (a long quote, but so interesting to me!!)

I didn’t come away from reading this with an optimistic view of the situation. Engel notes: “These days, I no longer believe there ever are truly good guys or bad guys in a war, at least in the Middle East.” On a trip back to the States, he visited the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in DC. I was saddened as I read his thought that “after months of traveling and reporting I came to believe that Washington was trying to put out the fires of terrorism with gasoline. “

While unsettling, this book is totally worth five stars. It is a great read for anyone who wants to learn more about how this mess all came about, or who wants to try to understand the current situation in which the US finds itself. I don’t feel any better about the situation after reading it, I definitely don’t have a positive feeling about the actions of the Obama administration after reading it, but I definitely think I understand it much more than before. And I still LOVE Richard Engel, perhaps even more than I did before. FIVE STARS.