UW Today

February 25, 2014

Joel Migdal book ‘Shifting Sands’ considers American role in Middle East

News and Information

Book cover for Joel Migdal's book "Shifting Sands"

Chang Jae Lee / Columbia University Press

Joel Migdal is a longtime UW professor in the Jackson School of International studies and the author of several books, including “Through the Lens of Israel,” “Strong Societies and Weak States” and “The Palestinian People: A History” (with Baruch Kimmerling). He answered a few questions about his new book, “Shifting Sands: The United States in the Middle East,” for UW Today.

Q: What is the concept behind this book?

A: The Middle East is on the front page almost every day with stories of the latest crisis. “Shifting Sands” provides a broader understanding of the region — a way to make sense of daily events and of the United States as a player in the region.

Q: Why did you decide to write the book?

A: In late 2008 and early 2009, I was lecturing in the community on the latest crisis – the Gaza war. Several people who heard those lectures suggested to me that I had a book in the making. I was actually headed off on a sabbatical to work on a different project, but decided that perhaps I really did have something important to say on this troubled part of the world and the U.S. relationship to it.

Joel Migdal book talk
7 p.m., Feb. 25
UW Tower Auditorium
Free but registration requested.
Presented by the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.

Q: You write that, “For more than half a century following World War II, Washington applied a fixed strategy to a moving target” — hence the “shifting sands” of the title. Why was this true, and what has been its effect?

A: As a global power after World War II, the United States needed a broad strategy for being involved in so many regions, many for the first time. The Cold War became the framework with which U.S. leaders began to think about these unfamiliar areas, pushing them to find some way to be involved in all corners of the world without bankrupting the country. The result was policies that tended to underplay the important differences from region to region.

Q: How did the George W. Bush administration differ from those before it in viewing the Middle East and responding to its crises? And how does Obama administration compare to those before it?

A: There were two radical turns in U.S. foreign policy. The first was by FDR and Truman, in which they made the United States into a global power. The second was by George W. Bush, in which he discarded key limitations that had been built into U.S. foreign policy, including sharing the burdens of being a player in every corner of the world with regional allies.

The Obama administration has sought to return to some of the pre-Bush tenets, but that has been difficult both because of the economic crisis he inherited and because a return to old policies looks now like a retreat.

Q: You write that you believe the United States can do more in the Mideast than merely, as one critic said, “keep disorder at bay” despite the “abject failures” of its policies in recent years. Briefly, how can the U.S. encourage peace and democracy in the region?

A: There certainly are limitations on what the United States can accomplish in the region, especially in as volatile a period as the one it is experiencing now. Still, the U.S. is a formidable player in the Middle East; even today it must use its leverage in three ways: serving as an active mediator in regional disputes; engaging in direct negotiations with its own antagonists, like Iran; and working to build new regional alliances.

Q: Finally, what do you hope your readers will learn from this book?

A: With so many crises occurring simultaneously — in Syria, Egypt, Iran, Palestine-Israel and more — my hope is to provide readers with a frame in which they can place diverse disputes and events and understand American foreign policy in that light.

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