[by J. Scott Shipman]
When President Obama made a heartfelt opening, a smug Iranian leadership viewed it as a ruse or the gesture of a weak leader. Iran spurned him. Obama fell back on sanctions and CENTCOM; Iran fell back into its comfortable bed of terrorism and warmongering. Soon it may no longer be twilight; the light is dimming, and night may well be approaching at long last. [emphasis added]
Thus concludes senior government historian David Crist’s The Twilight War, and be assured Crist’s language is not hyperbole. Crist masterfully details the tumult of U.S.-Iranian relations from the Carter administration to present day. Using recently released and unclassified archived data from principals directly involved in shaping and making American foreign policy, Crist provides the reader an up-front view of “how the sausage is made;” and, as with sausage, the view often isn’t pretty for either side. Crist’s access wasn’t limited to U.S. policy makers, as he conducted interviews with principles on the other side as well, for instance, he had secret meetings/interviews with pro-Iranian Lebanese officials in south Beirut. In all, Crist estimated he interviewed over “four hundred individuals in the United States and overseas.”
Crist begins his story with the Shah of Iran in the last days of his leadership, as popular sentiment was turning against both his regime, as well as his American enablers. He reveals the Carter administration’s fleeting notion of military intervention following the fall of the Shah, and includes details how the clerics reigned in professional Iranian military members, purging the “unreconstructed royalists.” From the start, the U.S. learned how difficult, if indeed impossible, relations were going to be with the new Iranian leadership. One State Department report summed up the situation:
It is clear that we are dealing with an outlook that differs fundamentally from our own, and a chaotic internal situation. Our character, our society are based on optimism—a long history of strength and success, the possibility of equality, the protection of institutions, enshrined in a constitution, the belief in our ability to control our own destiny. Iran, on the other hand has a long and painful history of foreign invasions, occupations, and domination. Their outlook is a function of this history and the solace most Iranians have found in Shi’a Islam. They place a premium on survival. They are manipulative, fatalistic, suspicious, and xenophobic.
While I am certain the writer of this report was not intending to be prophetic, as it turns out this paragraph captures the essence of our conflict. Each American president has thought himself equal to the challenge and each has thus far failed.
The Twilight War includes the birth of Hezbollah, accounts of the Marine barracks bombing in 1983 (from the men who were there), and the details of the Kuwaiti request for American protection of their tanker fleet from the Iranians. From this decision, the U.S. committed military force to protect Middle East oil—a difficult and at times, contentious decision. This decision resulted in continued sporadic confrontations between the U.S. and Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf.
Crist’s book is an illustration writ-large of a book previously reviewed here at Zenpundit.com; Derek Leebaert’s Magic and Mayhem, The Delusions of American Foreign Policy—as both “magic” and “mayhem” figure large in our on-going relationship with Iran. Most U.S. administrations when dealing with Iran came to rely on the “magic, ” and often divorced, or worse, ignored the realities.
At 572 pages, the fast paced narrative is a must read for anyone wanting insight into the origins and issues that remain in the ongoing U.S.-Iran conflict. The Twilight War is exhaustively sourced. Crist says in the Notes his book was twenty-years in the making and it shows. Further, this book comes with excellent maps, so keeping up with the geography is made easier.
Tom Ricks said, “this is the foreign policy book of the year, perhaps many years,” and Ricks may be right. The Twilight War is an important and timely book on a vital topic, and comes with my strongest recommendation.
A copy of The Twilight War was provided to this reviewer by the publisher.