The best books on American (mis)adventure in the Middle East

Randall Fowler Author Of More Than a Doctrine: The Eisenhower Era in the Middle East
By Randall Fowler

Who am I?

I'm a Communication professor at Fresno Pacific University and former Fulbright grantee to Jordan. Growing up in west Texas I was always fascinated with other countries. I encountered Arabic in college, and I quickly fell in love with a language and society that reminded me so much of my home—in fact, the word “haboob” is used by Texas farmers and Bedouin herders alike to describe a violent dust storm. While I was teaching English in Amman, I realized how much I enjoy learning how different cultures come to understand one another. My driving passion is to explore the centuries-long rhetorical history tying Americans and Middle Easterners together in mutual webs of (mis)representation, and this topic has never been more relevant than today.


I wrote...

More Than a Doctrine: The Eisenhower Era in the Middle East

By Randall Fowler,

Book cover of More Than a Doctrine: The Eisenhower Era in the Middle East

What is my book about?

Nowadays, the Middle East can seem a quite complicated place. Between ISIS and Iran, Arabs and Israelis, Kurds and Turks, Yazidis and Druze, not to mention oil, Islam, terrorism, Judaism, and Christianity, the issues and conflicts that divide the region often appear bewildering to the average American—much less the ever-changing question of what U.S. foreign policy should be in the region.

My book cuts through those issues to directly explain the origins of American intervention in the Middle East during the Cold War. I use the lens of presidential rhetoric to trace the arguments, fears, and actions that drove U.S. policymakers to get involved in this important region in the first place. I show that many of the anxieties commentators currently voice about the Arab Muslim world are rather similar to the worries felt by Eisenhower and his team. My book demonstrates how major events like the Suez Crisis, Eisenhower Doctrine, coup in Iran, and the 1958 marine landing in Lebanon are still quite relevant to us today. 

The books I picked & why

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American Missionaries and the Middle East: Foundational Encounters

By Mehmet Ali Dogan (editor), Heather J. Sharkey (editor),

Book cover of American Missionaries and the Middle East: Foundational Encounters

Why this book?

This edited volume features some of the world’s leading scholars on the experiences of American missionaries in lands ruled by the Ottoman Empire during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Covering the efforts of Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Mormons, and more, this book illuminates the messy interplay of religion, science, politics, and nationalism in the interactions between these missionaries and the native inhabitants they encountered. It dispels common myths that shroud this topic and shines a light on understudied issues such as the challenges of textual translation in cross-cultural contexts, the role of gender in evangelism, and competing visions of social change at work in education.


America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East

By Hugh Wilford,

Book cover of America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East

Why this book?

A deeply interesting dive into the world of espionage and the early days of the CIA, this accessible book by Hugh Wilford provides an excellent entry point into the exciting movements, people, and ideologies that crosscut the Middle East in the years after World War II. Focusing especially on personalities like Kim Roosevelt and Miles Copeland, this book shows why many Arabs even today suspect the CIA may be behind far more than it lets on. For American audiences, this book will provide an intriguing journey into a world that is unfamiliar to most and fascinating to all, illuminating the role U.S. spy agencies played in creating the modern Middle East.


The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East

By Andrew Scott Cooper,

Book cover of The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East

Why this book?

A highly readable tome, Cooper’s account of how the oil politics of the 1970s revolutionized U.S. foreign policy and the Persian Gulf is a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about the political landscape of the Middle East. Cooper traces the personal interactions among the Shah of Iran, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford, and the House of Saud in the midst of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the consequent oil embargo, the formation of OPEC, and the early stirrings of revolution in Iran. Perhaps most helpful, this book dispels many misperceptions about Iran under the Shah while also showing how the United States played an integral role in weakening his regime prior to the 1979 revolution.


Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy

By Kathleen Christison,

Book cover of Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy

Why this book?

The Arab-Israeli conflict can be bewildering for many Americans to wrap their head around. While there are a number of excellent books on the topic, I find Perceptions of Palestine to be a helpful, engaging diagnosis of the issue from a U.S. diplomatic perspective. Christison, a former CIA officer, provides an exhaustively researched and well-informed answer to the question of why the United States tends to favor Israel over the Palestinians in the realms of public opinion and policymaking. This account is both sensitive to the struggles of the Palestinian people while also recognizing the real-world limitations of American policymakers. No matter one’s position on this issue, Christion’s book provides a welcome analysis of the tensions at play in conflicts over Israel-Palestine.


In the Name of Terrorism: Presidents on Political Violence in the Post-World War II Era

By Carol K. Winkler,

Book cover of In the Name of Terrorism: Presidents on Political Violence in the Post-World War II Era

Why this book?

While not a book about the Middle East per se, Winkler’s In the Name of Terrorism traces the rise of terrorism as a concern in U.S. politics and charts the narratives, frames, metaphors, and rhetoric used by presidents to make sense of terrorism to the American people. Focusing specifically on the evolution of “terrorism” as a concept in the leadup to the 9/11 attacks, this book provides vital background for those who wish to understand, as George W. Bush put it, why “they” hate “us.” A wide-ranging volume that effectively bridges the Cold War and the War on Terror, readers will better appreciate the importance of the president’s language choices after finishing this captivating book.


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