And Then All Hell Broke Loose, By Richard Engel, Simon and Schuster, 2016
Is this a story about 20 years in the life of a journalist, or is it the story of the Middle East? It is a bit of both. It starts with as excellent a synopsis (of the background to the Iraq War and the Arab Spring) as I have seen in five pages. Engle gives us a useful but glossy overview of the rise of the Muslim religion and its interaction with Christianity during the Crusades.
The description of the life of a journalist, starting as a free lance stringer and ending up as chief foreign correspondent for NBC, I would call it sketchy. Little light falls on how the media machinery actually works. He describes his own switch from print media to broadcast media as a question of which client had the most money.
As to the Iraq War, the book remains thin, not analytical. We get the sense of danger, of luck, the lack of planning by occupiers. The occupiers didn’t know what they were doing, and they didn’t understand what they were getting into. Engel is good on the background of the Sunni–Shiite hostility, a religious schism that began in bloodshed in the seventh century and has been shedding blood ever since. He describes how the US policies and its lack of common sense created an armed Sunni rebellion that led to the rise of ISIS.
As compared to Emma Sky’s The Unraveling, reviewed here in 2015, Engle’s book is less revealing, more like a sound-bite. Engle dropped into a situation where he used his skills as a journalist to gather random views from taxi-drivers, teenagers, and fellow journalists. He knew Arabic, and conversed with insurgents, but he seemed not to have much contact with the generals or leaders, except in the context of press briefings or brief interviews. He makes an honest attempt to understand jihadists whom the media call insurgents or terrorists. I would call it useful, but not an in-depth analysis.
The section on Syria, his last Mid Eastern assignment, is the most interesting section. He supplies information I have not heard before: that the first wave of insurgents were expecting help from the United States because the U.S. had played an active role in Libya. When that help did not come, they were dismayed. They then accepted help from ISIS and thereafter ceased being anything but ISIS. He points out that ISIS and Sunni interests so overlap, we can’t make out where they dissect.
Engle declares it was George W. Bush’s bad call on Iraq and Obama’s wavering that brought about the Syrian debacle. Engle’s analysis is overly simplistic. How and why those decisions were made is another story, not told here. What he does tell us by his own experience, as opposed to his analysis, is that we will never understand the shifting loyalties, how labels and identities can change overnight, how we can’t trust anyone in the Mid East, and how our own policies and statements can end up misunderstood. He blames Bush’s “misguided” Iraq decision and Obama’s “inconsistent and confused action” for the meltdown in the Mid East that occurred in just 15 years. It was a period when dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, and Syria were overwhelmed by powers that had erupted from small beginnings.
Engle, like Emma Sky, says that the decisions and statements of American presidents had an outsized and mostly unintended impact on the lives, deaths, and destinies of millions. Sky herself, and the generals for whom she worked, felt that that the distant White House was making decisions about people they did not know or understand, often with tragic consequences.
Engle’s book is an easy read and rolls like a TV show. Amazon reviewers give the book extremely high ratings. He tells the story with just the right blend of personal experience, interviews, and background, most of which is drawn from his dispatches and notes from which he often quotes. He makes a stab at predicting how the mess will sort itself out by suggesting dictators will eventually emerge and create some kind of order out of the chaos. Something like that has already happened in Egypt....