Book Review: And Then All Hell Broke Loose

And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East by Richard Engel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Semi-autobiographical narrative history of the modern Middle East by the journalist Richard Engel who was embedded in Baghdad for the entirety of operation Shock and Awe, in Israel and Lebanon during the Second Intifada, and Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria during the Arab Spring. Some great accounts of life as a journalists embedded in a war zone (even being kidnapped and rescued in Syria by a pre-natal ISIS), a high-level overview of how the Middle East historically became such a disaster, and more recently how Bush and then Obama fucked up a fucked up situation even more.

Engel’s basic premise is that the Middle East is a powder keg of centuries-old blood feuds, with intermittent genocides and war crimes, between Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Jews, and Christians. These groups have seemingly no chance of coming to peaceable terms with one another. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in WWI the Middle East was “organized” into modern nation-states by the victorious Allied powers; these states often contained a volatile mixture of ethnicities, so to keep things stable and the oil flowing they’ve been run by a succession of “strong man” dictators in the mold of Saddam Hussein, Gadhafi, Assad, Mubarak, etc. To varying degrees these men run pseudo-Islamic ethno-police states with a strong cult of personality, disregard for human life and rights, and occasional internal purges and border wars. But most importantly (to the West) these leaders keep true Islamists suppressed, support a cold peace with Israel, and keep the oil flowing to international markets. In exchange we looked the other way on all but the most egregious abuses of power. After the Cold War the United States became the primary guarantor of Middle Eastern stability and the inheritor of this devil’s bargain.

George W Bush violated these terms by toppling Saddam on changing and tenuous pretenses. The war was easy, but he massively underestimated the pandora’s box he opened, naively expecting that by planting the “seeds of Democracy” he could grow a democracy in the desert and this would cure all evils. Instead, a recalcitrant Sunni minority launched a civil war against the new Shiite government that, for its part, seemed to have little commitment to its army or democratic institutions. The disaffected the delusional Sunnis, now out of power after years controlling the army and government, would become the foundation for ISIS and the destabilization of the region.

Obama muddled matters further by having no clear doctrine on the Middle East. He turned his back on longtime US ally Mubarak in Egypt, allowing him to be toppled by protestors in the Arab Spring. He went further in Libya, directing air power to defend rebels against another long-time US ally in Gadhafi. Citizens in Arab countries began believing they could count on US and NATO support in the event that they led a popular revolt against their own tyrannies. Yet when revels in Syria did exactly this, Obama blanched; later he would draw a red line, but when crossed he still did nothing. Engel contends this was a massive failure by the Obama administration, essentially encouraging a Syrian civil war that he would not then help to end. I found this convincing, though its sad the think that Obama’s idealism and values would lead to his biggest failure of foreign policy.

While these are what I’d call the “theses” of the book most of the content describes Engel’s life as a journalist or gives a high-level overview of Middle East and Islamic history. He covers topics like the early schism between Shiites and Sunnis, the Ummayad and Ottoman caliphates, the history of Israel, the founding of the House of Saud and Wahabiism, etc. He also describes working in a war zone and the work that entails: preparing safe houses, hiding $20k on your body, bribing police officers, getting smuggled over boarders. He even recounts being kidnapped for ransom in Syria by an ISIS precursor. The narrative is gripping; Engel lived through some incredible moments and mixes his history lessons in with his travels.

Lately I’ve been really enjoying this type of narrative history; I find them easy and fun to read while also learning plenty (I had about twelve pages of notes from this book). Highly recommend for anyone who likes the same.

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