Review: 'The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East' by Efraim Karsh

Reviewed by: Bradley Lineker & Samar Batrawi



Efraim Karsh. The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East. London & New York: Bloomsbury/ Continuum, 2015. ISBN: 978-14-72-91046-2. Pp. 236. Hardcover. £21.99.

The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East is the latest book from Efraim Karsh, professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and King’s College London. While situated in his wider project of challenging the supposed orthodoxies inherent in the study of the region, Karsh’s core argument in this book is the alleged need to shift explanations for the region’s instability away from external pressures and instead place them squarely upon ‘Middle-Easterners’[i] themselves.[ii]

While the simplicity of the book’s title intimates that this argument is embedded into a straightforward package, the ambiguity of the subtitle (for the uninitiated, it reads: ‘a complex discourse in a complex geographical region’) hints at the dichotomy between the stated aim and the text’s actual structure and content. On the one hand, Karsh manifestly fails to give a voice to the apparent orthodoxy inherent to scholarship on the Middle East – which considerably weakens his claim to disprove it – and on the other hand, Karsh, instead of taking an approach based on assessing the work of other scholars, chooses to try and prove how this other position is incorrect by retelling the history of the modern Middle-East across a paltry 192 pages of generously-spaced text. While these two dichotomies would be themselves enough to mar the text, together, with the book’s polemical style, Karsh’s blithe historical determinism, the use of a narrow selection of English-orientated sources, and the seemingly random selection of chapter topics, they mortally undermine any attempt to construct a convincing platform to change approaches to the Middle East.

Situated within the same paradigm of Karsh’s other work, then, this book is at best a  sketch of the professor’s reading of the formation and present make-up of the modern Middle East, book-ended between an argument that does not explicitly resonate in the detail of the text; at worst, it is a disjointed collection of chapters written to support a charged political stance without enough meaningful evidence-based discussion, aesthetically covered by a singular-deterministic narrative on a region known for its complexity. Indeed, ‘Middle Easterners’ (as Karsh calls them[iii]) are subject to sweeping and unverifiable generalisations, such as the following assessment:

‘[f]or Western observers, the passage “from dark into light” that was the “Arab Spring” meant transition to a liberal, secular democracy. For Middle Easterners it meant a return to the Islamic sociopolitical order that had underpinned the region for over a millennium[,] as the schizophrenic state system established in its place after World War I failed to fill the void left by its destruction.’[iv]  Perhaps the most toxic misunderstanding of ‘Middle Easterners’ and Muslims in Karsh’s book is illustrated by his casual replacement of the word ‘Islamist’ by ‘Islamic’, equating the collective, organised, and political Islam, denoted by the word ‘Islamist’, with the personal religious devotion designated by ‘Islamic’.[v]

The book begins in the early 20th century[vi] and is thereafter divided thematically into 8 other chapters that follow a loose chronological structure and which range from the Israel/Palestine conflict,[vii] American policy in Iran,[viii] Soviet engagement in the Middle-East,[ix] an assessment of American policy since 2001,[x] as well as a breezy chapter on today’s Middle East. While historical in scope, the book is stylistically a right-leaning polemic tentatively based in international relations discourse. Indeed, one of the core historical premises used by Karsh is that Islam was born in fire[xi] and that this ‘imperial aggressiveness,’[xii] and the wider predisposition towards violence,[xiii] survived the fall of the Ottoman Empire ‘to haunt Islamic and Middle Eastern politics … [in] the twenty-first century.’[xiv]

However, at times, it appears that Karsh has constructed – with a remarkably fine-tooth comb – a specific historical narrative, coloured by patterns of thinking that have emerged in the post-American intervention world, to support his own political stance on the modern Middle East. His own narrative, as he openly admits, is to expel the influence of foreign powers on the Middle East;[xv] to thereby pointedly blame indigenous groups for the relative instability. This is mirrored in the detail used to prove fairly basic points, which does not, as he surmises, facilitate reader understanding but rather seems self-serving and out of place. This is certainly evident in his discussions of the birth of Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians: the former is accorded significant attention and detail – to promulgate a specific founding narrative – whereas, in the case of the latter, he makes no mention of the forced displacement in 1948, excepting one cryptic defensive paragraph that makes the bold claim that Palestinians left despite the wishes of the Jewish forces.[xvi] Moreover, in the sub-section ‘Courting Hitler’, Karsh lists every Arab overture to the great enemy of ‘perfidious Albion’[xvii] in the 1930s and 1940s in a way that is inescapably spiteful, especially upon reflection of the way his argument unfolds in the rest of the book. For instance, while Arab overtures towards Hitler are judged in moral terms,[xviii] Karsh upholds the same patterns of behaviour – of playing one great power off against another – as the accepted norm in international relations in his depictions of the Cold War (he essentially glorifies Egypt on this regard)[xix]. Finally, Karsh often criticises the Middle East’s preponderance to harmful religious exclusivism, while, often within the same sentence, arguing that Israel is an example against this trend – despite evidently being an entity enthused with patterns of institutionalised religious exclusivism.[xx]

While ultimately lop-sided to Karsh’s political paradigm, the book does manage to provide a decent overview of some of the events that it covers: such as the politics behind the post-First World War fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire’s possessions in the Levant and ancient Mesopotamia, as well as a good American-based summary of the intelligence failure during the Iranian Revolution. However, even the book’s strongest sections are marked by the fact that the issues they cover are always better covered elsewhere in more specialised studies.


Bradley Lineker is currently a fully-funded ESRC doctoral candidate in the War Studies Department, King’s College London, where he studies refugee shelter provision in Jordan. He has extensive experience working as a consulting research analyst with the UN and the private sector on contexts like Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Kenya, Somalia and Syria. Follow him @BradleyLineker.

Samar Batrawi is a doctoral candidate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, where she studies social movements in Palestine. She has worked for the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling in Palestine, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation in London, and the Clingendael Institute for International Relations in The Hague. Follow her at @SamarBatrawi.




[i] Karsh, The Tail Wags the Dog, p. 2, p. 157.
[ii] Ibid., pp. 1-2.
[iii] Ibid., p. 157.
[iv] Ibid., p. 183.
[v] Ibid., p. 188.
[vi] Ibid., p.9.
[vii] Ibid., pp. 31-48, pp. 49-62.
[viii] Ibid., pp. 63-80.
[ix] Ibid., pp. 81-102.
[x] Ibid., pp. 153-174.
[xi] Ibid., p. 188.
[xii] Ibid., p. 155.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 187.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 155.
[xv] Ibid., p. 2.
[xvi] Ibid., p. 59.
[xvii] Ibid., p. 19.
[xviii] Ibid., pp. 35-37.
[xix] Ibid., pp. 1-2.
[xx] Ibid., p. 189.





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