Year in and year out, the Yemeni crisis grinds on. Victorious rebels, precariously perched on the seat of government and drawing sustenance from a defiantly disruptive regional power, struggle vainly to subdue a fractious polity. Ousted government forces, chagrined by their defeat, enlist the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in their bid for restoration. The United Nations labors futilely to end the fighting, its efforts undone by the obstreperousness of local actors and the cynicism of international ones. Ghastly war crimes are routinely ignored. Too many other outrages clamor for the world’s attention. While these words evoke the events in and around Yemen today, they could just as easily describe the civil war that wracked that country for most of the 1960s, the subject of Asher Orkaby’s lively, eye-opening, richly researched, and insightful new book. The conflict began in September 1962, when Yemeni army officers, inspired by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, seized power in the nation’s capital, sending the monarch, Imam Muhammad al-Badr, into internal exile in the northern part of the country. To prevent al-Badr and his followers from forcibly returning to power, the newly proclaimed Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) appealed to Nasser for support. Nasser, eager to regain some of the regional prestige he had lost in previous inter-Arab skirmishes, and determined to weaken Britain’s position on the Arabian Peninsula, sent tens of thousands of Egyptian troops to Yemen. The royalist insurgency, meanwhile, gained the backing of neighboring Saudi Arabia. For the next several years, both Cairo and Riyadh remained engaged in the conflict, each refusing to pull back until the other showed a greater willingness to do the same. Despite the prominence of this Egyptian-Saudi contest, Orkaby resists the scholarly temptation to view the Yemeni civil war through the lens of the “Arab Cold War” (which pitted radical and conservative Arab states against each other) or of the global Cold War between the capitalist and communist camps. The Yemeni imbroglio was too murky and quirky to serve as a useful case study for such paradigms. Egyptian and Saudi policies exhibited little ideological coherence and instead reflected an eclectic mix of “historical conflicts, geostrategic interests, religious grievances, local agency, and pure happenstance.” As for the superpowers, they “found themselves supporting the same side in a civil war” (4). To Orkaby, the Yemeni conflict is best understood as a microcosm of several international dramas unfolding in the 1960s: “the final days of British colonial order in the Middle East, Cold War competition over imperial remnants, upheaval in the United Nations, and the decline of Arab nationalism” (2). Closer to home, “the civil war brought the international community to Yemen’s doorstep and transformed the former kingdom into a modern nation-state” (206). Orkaby ably underscores the ambiguities, anomalies, contradictions, and sheer oddities of the Yemeni affair. Prior to his 1962 ouster, al-Badr had positioned himself as a close ally of Egypt, and he was so eager for Soviet support that some called him the “red prince.” False reports that al-Badr had been killed in the coup, however, prompted both Cairo and Moscow to transfer their recognition to the YAR. Washington followed suit, even as it urged Egypt to withdraw its forces from Yemen and provided tangible military support to Saudi Arabia. In time, U.S. officials came to see Egypt’s presence in Yemen as a blessing of sorts. It obviated Soviet intervention and prevented Nasser from tangling with Israel (or so they assumed). The Soviets themselves may have hoped that the Yemen commitment would divert Nasser from a foolhardy showdown with the Jewish state. So Americans, Russians, and Egyptians could all agree on the legitimacy of the YAR and on the virtues of Egypt’s military intervention, though this consensus was rooted in deeper mutual suspicions. Sometimes, the contradictory nature of the Yemeni conflict seeps into Orkaby’s own analysis of it. In the space of a single paragraph, the author disputes the widespread claim that Nasser’s troop deployments in Yemen served as “an impediment to Egypt’s military performance [against Israel] in 1967,” while also crediting the Egyptian intervention with “[e]xacerbating the difficulties of coordinating the war with Israel” (175). He writes in the introduction that “[t]he economic and political burdens of Egypt’s intervention in Yemen contributed to the downfall of Nasser and the Arab nationalist movement in the Middle East,” only to end the book with this assessment: “Rather than a harbinger of defeat, the war in Yemen gave Nasser an opportunity to further his personal security, economic, and ideological agendas in the region in a relatively low-stakes conflict two thousand miles away from Egypt” (3, 205). It’s not hard to imagine how each of these apparent contradictions could be resolved. Egypt’s intervention in Yemen may have been self-defeating in some ways and advantageous in others. But the author has an obligation to highlight such discrepancies and provide an analytical framework that makes sense of them. The occasional neglect of this task unsettles the reader. Still, Beyond the Arab Cold War does so many other things well that one is prepared, even eager, to forgive such lack of clarity. Through truly impressive multiarchival and multilingual research (in U.S., British, Canadian, Russian, Israeli, Yemeni, and Swiss collections), Orkaby illuminates several key aspects of the Yemeni conflict that were previously shrouded in official secrecy or historiographical neglect. These include Israel’s clandestine military support for the royalist insurgency, UN efforts to monitor and manage the conflict, the activities of British mercenary forces, and, most notably, Egypt’s use of chemical weapons. Despite ample evidence of Cairo’s transgression, few of the other actors in the drama had an interest in raising the issue. The Soviets, of course, wished to shield their client from criticism. The Saudis, though initially prone to condemn the poison gas attacks, were constrained by the expectations of pan-Arab solidarity in the aftermath of the Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. The Americans and the British feared that an investigation of Egyptian war crimes would draw attention to their own international misdeeds, in Vietnam in the case of the United States, elsewhere in Arabia in the case of Britain. For neither the first nor the last time in diplomatic affairs, the pot ignored the kettle, rather than take the risk of calling it black. Orkaby’s book is further enhanced by a series of colorful scenes and characters. We learn that some of the perpetrators of the 1962 coup were so sure they would perish in the attempt that they spent the eve of the operation bingeing on a month’s salary’s worth of chocolates. Vivid, too, are the exploits of Bruce Condé, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who converted to Islam, took the name Abdul Rahman Condé, and threw in his lot with al-Badr’s insurgency. In addition to serving as the royalists’ principal liaison to Western officials and reporters, Condé captured the imagination of the world’s philatelists by issuing garish postage stamps in the name of the Free Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen. After the war Condé attached himself to another royalist cause, marrying the self-styled Olga Beatrice Nikolaevna Romanovskaya Dolgoroukaya, Princess of the Ukraine, a great granddaughter of the last Russian Tsar. Droll vignettes like these grant the reader a welcome respite from the violent upheavals of half a century ago—and from the knowledge of still deadlier traumas to come. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Diplomatic History – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 6, 2018
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