Peter L. Hahn. Crisis and Crossfire: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc., 2005. 223 pp.

Kelly Shannon


Peter Hahn’s Crisis and Crossfire is a solid overview of U.S. policy in the Middle East since World War II. Hahn organizes his brief but information-packed book around four major themes: the increasing level of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, the Cold War, Arab and Iranian nationalism, and the perpetual Arab-Israeli conflict.

The account begins with the origins of U.S. involvement in the Middle East during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Hahn argues that the Middle East held no strategic or political value for American policymakers prior to World War II, so there was little official U.S. involvement in the region. American leaders were content to let Europeans attempt to dominate the region. However, the onset of World War II, followed by the Cold War, convinced American policymakers of the region’s geographic, strategic, and economic importance. Oil and Middle Eastern proximity to both Europe and the Soviet Union were especially important. As Americans became more involved in the region’s affairs in an effort to keep out Soviet influence and to promote stability, their increasing entanglement ultimately led to the current war in Iraq and to continued active involvement in the region for decades to come.

Hahn focuses mainly on high politics. He takes the conventional route of casting U.S. presidents as his main actors. Other American policymakers appear only when they directly influence policy or when they travel to the Middle East to engage in negotiations. Non-U.S. actors play an even smaller role. Hahn only focuses on them when their actions influence or constrain the possible policy choices of American leaders. The British, Egypt’s Nasser, Yassir Arafat, Ariel Sharon, and the Ayatollah Khomeini all make appearances, but Hahn barely mentions the ordinary residents of the Middle East. Any interaction between Americans and Middle Easterners outside the realm of elite diplomacy is not important to Hahn; neither are the non-Executive branches of the U.S. government nor the American public.

Despite the limited focus of his study, Hahn provides a clear, if conventional, overview of U.S. Middle Eastern policy that would be especially useful for teaching undergraduates. While Hahn’s book is narrative-driven, he does provide his readers with compelling and provocative arguments. Regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, Hahn implies that Truman’s clear bias in favor of the new state of Israel inflamed Arab-Israeli tensions from the beginning and made Arab states in the region deeply suspicious of American actions thereafter. Hahn writes that “passive” American policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict prior to Jimmy Carter’s administration resulted in “rising animosity on all sides of the dispute“ and the “seepage of Soviet influence into certain Arab states” (134). Hahn also points out that active attempts to promote peace, especially by Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, achieved only mixed results. Yet, it is unclear whether Hahn is arguing that the U.S. should have taken an active role in promoting peace from the beginning or whether any attempts at peacemaking are doomed to fail.

Regarding U.S. policies outside of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Hahn stresses that American leaders were quite aware that nationalist movements in the Middle East were not Communist in nature, but they still viewed nationalist movements through the lens of the Cold War. Therefore, they chose to suppress revolutionary movements in favor of stability because they wanted to avoid any opening for the Soviets to infiltrate the region. Successful revolutionary governments could also threaten U.S. interests by nationalizing oil companies and taking other similar actions. Thus, Hahn provides a rationale for U.S. covert actions like the one that removed Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically-elected Prime Minister of Iran, in 1953 and propped up the Shah. Mossadegh, while not a Communist, nationalized the Arab-Iranian Oil Company and received most of his support from the Communist leaning Tudeh party. Ever even-handed, Hahn stresses that, while covert action against Mossadegh seemed the best solution, American policymakers could have considered a more “amicable” solution had there not been “vast cultural differences” between the Americans and Mossadegh (38).

Finally, Hahn demonstrates how anti-terrorism replaced anti-Communism as the top priority of American policymakers after the end of the Cold War. While Arab nationalism still posed problems, new concepts like “rogue states” and “terrorism” dominated American thinking. In this new framework, revolutionary Iran and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein became the biggest threats. However, Hahn argues, the U.S. unnecessarily involved itself even deeper in the region when President George W. Bush “conflated the Iraq problem with the scourge of terrorism” and invaded Iraq in 2003 (105). Now the U.S. faces an indefinite military occupation in the Middle East. Only time will tell how this new situation will play out.

In all, Hahn’s book is a concise and compelling introduction to U.S. policy in the Middle East. The inclusion of twenty-two primary documents in the Appendix provides readers with further insight into U.S. policy. The book’s strength lies in its broad focus, for Hahn is one of few historians to examine U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East in its entirety since World War II. Most other monographs on the region focus on a shorter time period or only on a few Middle Eastern countries. Thus, Hahn’s book provides a clearer picture than most others of U.S. Middle Eastern policy as it evolved over the past half-century. Hahn’s focus on elite policymaking does mean that he covers little new ground, aside from his examination of post 9/11 policy, and he does not provide a novel methodological approach. Rather, he synthesizes the work of hundreds of other historians into one brief, accessible narrative. Thus, this book would be an ideal introduction to the topic of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, especially for undergraduates, but it cannot provide the depth and analytical nuance that a research-based monograph offers. Hahn’s book should be the starting point, not the last word, for anyone interested in how the U.S. became bogged down in the Middle East.