The Mess They Made

By Gwynne Dyer. McClelland & Stewart, 267 pp, $21.99, softcover

The Middle East is clearly no game of pick-up sticks, though the U.S./U.K. coalition has tried to simplify it into one, swapping out nearly a dozen interim presidents for Saddam Hussein while civilian life expectancy and the economy crumble. And with Gordon Brown putting on Tony Blair's big boots and George W. Bush counting down to November '08, thoughts turn to the endgame–when western forces get yanked out and the whole thing goes boom.

Gwynne Dyer, the Canadian-born historian of war whose syndicated column appears regularly in this paper, puts the region back in its autonomous role with his latest book, The Mess They Made: The Middle East After Iraq . "Although Bush will leave defeated and disgraced," he writes, "he has set events and emotions in train that will transform the region–if not quite in the way he intended."

Not that Dyer doesn't get sniffy about the colonial high jinks. "The occupation of Iraq was the most spectacularly incompetent and corrupt operation carried out by the government of any developed country in many decades, and it turned the high probability of a major insurgency in Iraq after the invasion into the certainty of countrywide violence, despair, and anarchy."

Mess does an excellent job of providing context for the region, with potted histories of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Afghanistan, et al. Dyer, long a believer in the extended cycles of history, then builds on the background to argue that the will of Iraqis cannot be checked forever, just as open elections and democratic freedoms won't necessarily guarantee a peaceful, non-Islamist government in Baghdad or in Iraq's neighbouring countries.

What should America do? Look out for its own future, since it (like the UN) has frittered away its post–WWII moral capital on this fiasco. "Invading a country with one-twelfth of its [the U.S.'s] population illegally, without provocation, and on false pretexts, and then mismanaging the occupation so badly that it loses the subsequent guerrilla war, suggests that the United States is not only a dangerously erratic superpower but a seriously incompetent one." (For domestic corroboration, read Al Gore's The Assault on Reason .)

What should the West do? Nothing, Dyer says. "Outsiders to the region have no solutions left to peddle any more (nor any credibility even if they did have solutions), and they no longer have the power or the will to impose their ideas. For the first time in a century, the region is going to choose its future for itself–and it may, of course, make a dreadful mess of it."

Hear that, Bush? Go home before you make this mess worse.