International Security Studies


Book Launch-- A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East

May 20, 2008 // 4:00pm5:30pm

This meeting was co-sponsored by International Security Studies and the Middle East Programs.

Against the current backdrop of the Iraq war, the standoff with Iran, the failure to find a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the continuing terrorist threat posed by Al Qaeda, Professor Freedman's penetrating new book argues that three events in 1979 set the terms for U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

The first of these three events was the 1978 Camp David accord that led to the March 1979 treaty between Egypt and Israel. That agreement removed Egypt from the military equation, thereby lifting the threat to Israel from a major conventional war, but did not address the Palestinian issue. In so doing, the terms of Israel's security challenge shifted from the external to the internal. (Freedman noted, however, that with the bellicose anti-Israel rhetoric of Iran's President Ahmadinejad that that trend might be reversing somewhat.)

The second key development in 1979 was the Iranian revolution. Under President Nixon, Iran under the Shah was considered a "pillar" of U.S. regional policy, while Carter called the country an "oasis of stability." The 1979 revolution was brought about through a coalition of religious and nationalist political factions. In its aftermath, however, the Islamists launched a successful battle with the left-wing nationalists and consolidated power under the newly-established Islamic Republic of Iran. This Shiah government constituted one component of the radical wave in the Middle East after 1979.

The third and final pivotal event of that year was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late December. The invasion was a culmination of events set in motion in 1973 when a secular coup ousted the Afghan monarch. After the communists seized power in 1978, the Soviet Union under Brezhnev increasingly identified with the so-called Afghan "revolution." Moscow's decision to intervene militarily on a large scale was taken to prevent the collapse of a Communist regime in a contiguous country to Islamist forces. Soviet forces battled the Afghan Mujaheddin until their withdrawal in 1989. The rise of a Sunni regime under the Taliban in Afghanistan constituted the second a second component of the post-1979 radical wave.

Another event of secondary importance in 1979 was Saddam Hussein's elevation to the presidency of Iraq. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the United States tilted toward Iraq against revolutionary Iran. That orientation continued through the decade and ended only after Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.

The roots of the problems the United States faces today in the Middle East lie in the momentous events of 1979. Freedman observed that the Middle East is the "graveyard of foreign policies….. Nobody seems to get it right [because] the region is full of tensions."

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Experts & Staff

  • Robert S. Litwak // Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director, International Security Studies
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