Jonathan Kwitny, Endless Enemies(New York: Congdon and Weed, 1984).

This book canvasses the record of US government intervention in every corner of the Third World (Europe, Canada and Australia are omitted), and concludes with an essay entitled “On Capitalism, Communism and Freedom.” That’s a good many bangs and a whimper.

US policy, Jonathan Kwitny believes, is “a majestic and heroic instrument. It was crafted and launched with genius and love.” The only thing Mr. Kwitny can find wrong with US policy when it intervenes in foreign parts is: “It is just out of place.” Such one-liners—and there are many of them—offer an intellectual elasticity that everyone from Patrick Buchanan to Vernon Walters—to stretch our current government’s intellectual polarities as far as they go—can find something here to agree with.

One quick test of the “out-of-place” hypothesis is to consider how the book treats US intervention in one place where every US president since Truman thought fundamental US interests were at stake—the Middle East. How disappointing then that Kwitny’s picture of this region is dominated by the periphery (Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan) which he has visited, rather than by the core (Arab world) which he has missed, and must accordingly take on faith. That is hardly an acceptable tool of analysis, not even at the messianic Wall Street Journal where Kwitny is employed. His succinct judgement about the political future of Afghanistan deserves wider application, not least of all to his own book: “The world is certainly not as simple as Americans would like to have it.”

How much simpler can an account of US intervention in the Middle East be if it is virtually silent about Israel? In one passing mention, Kwitny gives the impression he thinks the 1973 Arab-Israeli war was a plot masterminded by the international oil majors and the “Islamic oil producers” to create an artificial oil shortage and thereby raise prices and profits. In his only other attempt to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict, Kwitny resorts to the small print of a footnote and defends US support of Israel “for the strong cultural and moral reasons…and the purpose of this book isn’t served by getting into the merits and demerits of those reasons.” When journalism by faith is joined to an assessment of Afghan political history based on a bicycle tour of 1967 and a conversation with two mullahs some time after the Russian intervention of 1979, simplifications are bound to occur.

Several will sound familiar because they have been told before. Kwitny, like the Wall Street Journal, Senator Jesse Helms, and that regional division of American business that has been called sunbelt capitalism, appears to believe that the history of modern economic enterprise has been wickedly diverted from the conduct of free markets and honest competition. The culprits are said to be the Rockefeller family, their trusts and corporations (particularly Exxon and Chase Manhattan), and a long line of hirelings—Allen Dulles, John Foster Dulles, Dean Rusk, Henry Kissinger, et al. With targets as culpable as those, Kwitny can’t be all wrong, and he isn’t.

But Kwitny misses the failure of the non-Rockefeller oil companies to defend free enterprise any more than Exxon or Mobil. [1] And his selections fit, perhaps coincidentally, a theory long advocated by Israel’s American supporters: that big oil, big banking, big defense contractors and the Republican Party have such intimate ties to the Arab world that they are always plotting to turn US policy against Israel. Kwitny offers no evidence to substantiate the point or argue its merits. Instead, he resorts to the old newspaperman’s trick of the blind attribution to conclude about George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger: “Under Reagan, it was widely reported, they swung US policy away from Israel and toward the Arabs in the dispute over Palestine.” If you are ready to believe that, you are ready to buy out CBS for being too liberal.

Kwitny’s selectivity raises other questions. Why focus exhaustively on the 1953 coup in Iran, and omit the 1980 coup in Turkey, where a not-dissimilar cast of CIA men doubling as Northrop salesmen and US journalists is still hard at work justifying the very same process of “free enterprise,” arms sales, and intervention in neighboring countries’ affairs that Kwitny claims to deplore? Could this be because the Wall Street Journal is a cheerleader for the Turkish regime and prints whatever can be said in its favor? Why criticize the oil embargo the US implemented to help cripple the Iranian nationalist regime in 1953 and ignore the embargo imposed—with editorial prompting from the Wall Street Journal—on Libya in 1982?

It is difficult to know whether Kwitny’s conclusion is a product of naivety or guile. What can he mean by suggesting that US foreign policy, opposition to which he selectively endorses, “usually has nothing to do with the US system?” Our system, he declares, “encourages free choice.” All the US should do in the Middle East, he recommends, is to “focus on protecting its legitimate trading interests.”

No one can deny Kwitny’s contention that on occasion US intervention in the Middle East has been decided by diplomats, military men and spies whose eye has been on fat commissions, consulting contracts, and benefits payable after they retire by US corporations or local regimes. At the very least, that has produced faulty investments like the shah. But Israel reflects neither a “free choice” in domestic US terms, nor a “legitimate trading interest” in the region. It has, however, been a very effective tool of US policy, if the goal of that policy has been to police the region without the commitment of US troops, and ensure that the Arab states depend on Washington for their protection. Kwitny has an admirable distaste for some of the tactics of imperialism, but this does not seem to bother him at all.


[1] For those details the reader should turn to Christopher Rand’s Making Democracy Safe for Oil (published 10 years ago and unjustifiably forgotten), or the 1974 Senate hearings on the multinational oil corporations on which Kwitny seems to have relied too selectively.

How to cite this article:

Claudia Wright "Kwitny, Endless Enemies," Middle East Report 133 (June 1985).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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