The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran Hardcover – Jul 19 2012
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"David Crist's painstakingly researched and elegantly written account of the United States-Iran cold war is an earnest chronicle of this shadowy history. ...Deserves a spot on the short list of must-read books on United States-Iran relations." —Karim Sadjadpour, The New York Times
"Lucid and thoughtful... Crist has written an important and timely book that should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding how the United States and Iran went from close allies to enduring adversaries." —The Washington Post
About the Author
Dr. David Crist is a senior historian for the federal government and frequent adviser to senior government officials on the Middle East. As an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Crist served two tours with elite special operations forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and was part of the first U.S. military forces inside Afghanistan who overthrew the Taliban. He received a B.A. from the University of Virginia and a master's and doctorate in Middle Eastern history from Florida State University.See all Product Description
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Meticulously researched, with great insights into US government decisions and actions, but also written in a very fluid and easy to read style, this book is nothing short of a true masterpiece.
It illuminates the stubbornness, stupidity, arrogance, misunderstandings, errors and transgressions that determined the relationship between the US and Iran for the past 30 years - on both sides.
Naturally, there is more detail available on the US side than with the decision making process involved in the Iranian government. It also certainly helped the author that he is the son of a former CENTCOM commander, and thus had unprecedented access to documents and personnel, including former secretary of states. But he tries to tell the story in a fair way, putting blame were it belongs, on either side. The Iranians are not portrayed as demonic evildoers, and the US is not portrayed as the helpless victim of the Ayatollah's machinations. To be honest, reading how the US governments in the past 30 years have played this game, left a distinctive feeling of horror with me - what a bunch of amateurs and self-promoting idiots! But to be fair, the Iranians also seldomly acted like a responsible and caring state.
I found it especially enlightening to read about how the Iran-Contra weapons for hostages scheme came into being, who was involved and how it was carried out eventually. But this is just the tip of the iceberg - reading this book, I could not help but come to the conclusion that this kind of action is not an aberration, but it is the normal modus operandi of the US government.
After reading this book, I now have a much better understanding why we are at loggerheads with Iran, why it is so hard to jump over one's shadow and why it is next to impossible to come to a peaceful cooperation. The book offers no recipe for rapprochement or reconciliation, it also does not provide an outlook on the future of US-Iranian relations. But just to understand why we are where we are now is a first step towards a possible solutions of this conundrum. This book should be required reading material for all government people who deal with US-Iran relations.
I would give it 7 stars, if I could.
The Reagan administration (1981-89) takes up approx. three hundred pagesor more than half the book. This may not indicate any political bias either way as the Regan administration was tasked with dealing with the Iran-Iraq war, the 1983 marine barracks bombing in Lebanon by Hezbollah, and Iran-Contra affair. No president since Reagan has been tasked with dealing with quite so much on the Iran front.
This twilight war, like any other war conventional or otherwise has ebbed and flowed, perhaps explaining why some presidents get so much coverage, while some get decidedly less. The war was hot during the Reagan and Bush II administrations, while other presidents had other concerns (Bush I had the Gulf War, while Clinton had his own personal conduct to deal with, for example.)
Crist because of his unique position is able to take the reader on ships and airplanes that had the task of patrolling the Persian Gulf with the pilots and crewmen while simultaneously taking us inside presidential administrations to detail the decision making and infighting among administration officials, which I feel is the ultimate strength of the book.
The Iran issue created divisions within every American presidents administration and perhaps surprisingly within the leadership of Iran towards the United States as well. This ultimately creates a book where both sides come out looking equally at fault and no president comes out looking spectacular. Both Iran and the United States have missed opportunities to potentially lessen the hostilities.
A remarkably fair and even handed book, highest recommendation.
Although there are a few places in the book that could use some editing, overall it flowed very well, and covered an extremely complex topic in depth without simplifications, and with what to me, at least, seemed like very little bias. Much of the time it certainly felt as if the information were so detailed as to be classified... which really added to the sense of completeness.
Altogether an impressive book and a worthwhile read.
Crist usually strives to be fair; he often describes US officials as mistaking their own diktats as "relations"; Iranian officials unfortunate enough to be involved in efforts by the US State Department at "dialogue" are subjected to demands for total submission (and Crist is right). Likewise, violent actions against US military personnel are bad news, but frequently legitimate guerrilla tactics against a secret belligerent; in the US news media, all such combat is spoken of as terrorism. This is important because the US government would become an active participant in the Iran-Iraq War, supporting the aggressor. The Iranian security establishment had very compelling justifications for attacking US assets where possible.
(An example of the latter: in 1983, the US embassy in Beirut and then a barracks for US marines were attacked by bombers possibly linked to Iran's Guards Corps. At the time, the US government had become a combatant in the Lebanese Civil War, yet the marines were led to believe they were peacekeepers.(1))
Problems in the scholarship arise in Crist's choice of secondary sources, such as what he used to put together a narrative of the early phase of the Lebanese Civil War. It's a fiendishly complex war, and explaining it is hard. But Crist jumps through the first five years, to when Syria's Hafez al-Assad became an adversary of Western intervention. Overlooked is the phase when Syria invaded to staunch al-Fatah's conquest of Lebanon (1976), and support a peace process among the religious groups(2).
Also overlooked is the great doubt on the part of US military investigators that any of the events took place remotely in a manner described by Crist. He routinely describes in novelistic detail planning and execution of acts by named parties, then mentions in a endnote that in fact this is all conjecture (e.g. 133-135, and endnote 33 for that chapter) (3). On pp.516-520, there is a very detailed passage--again, in uncharacteristically good prose--describing with complete certitude how Iranian agents infiltrated the Iraqi militia, armed anti-US insurgents, and even directed operations against US military personnel/interests. Endnote 7 for this chapter attributes most of the narrative to Felter & Fishman, "Iranian Strategy in Iraq"(2008). I found this document online, and--like Crist--highly recommend it to anyone interested. It is quite detailed, although its chapter on lethal aid to the anti-US resistance in Iraq is mostly extracts of allegations and rebuttals by Baghdad, Washington, and Tehran(4), and does not support Crist's account.
Another source used by Crist (cited, p.519) was S. Azad, "The Qods Force--Godfather of al-Qaida?" hosted by website "News Blaze." The article was purported to have been written in 2007, but I quickly traced it to a book published in 1993 by an obscure publisher of lifestyle books.(5) It is often mentioned that Iranian society is opaque, so usually reliable sources are not available. But in that case, conjecture and raw allegation should not be treated as established fact. This obviously applies to Crist's odious inferences about the Iranian motives--for example, on pp.394-395, he quotes Hamas Rapporteur Osama Hamdan claiming that Iranians never cared about the Palestinians but merely saw them as a convenient cause to beat the USA with. If Mr. Hamdan really thinks that, I feel sorry for him but he's wrong. The lot of the Palestinians is horrible, and invalidates absolutely any moral position Washington makes about its role in the region. Simply saying that the Iranians don't REALLY care about this is not a serious argument.
After the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, the book changes tone a great deal. The role of Iran as adversary is overshadowed by that of scapegoat. Poorly-substantiated rumor and efforts by the CPA to defend its disastrous performance in Iraq replace the author's own interviews with historical actors. Events become overburdened by rationalizations, and Crist is too removed from anything real. Instead, he becomes a skeptical rapporteur for the US military command, rather than an historian.
(1) October 1983 Marine Barracks Bombing, Beirut: a common allegation made of Hezbollah is that it carried out this bombing, that killed 241 US Marines. The same day a barracks of French peacekeepers were attacked. In both cases, the USG/GoFr were carrying out conflicting roles, a point Crist mentions. An account of the Pentagon's report on the 23 October bombing ("Report of the DoD Commission on Beirut International Airport Terrorist Act") does not include a single mention of any entity known as Hizbullah or Hezbollah, but of course this does not preclude the existence of groups that would become Hizbullah in 1985 (the year it came into existence). The report does mention (p.63) that the explosives used were commonly available all over Lebanon, and later forensic studies--as opposed to polemics--do not invoke any "proto-Hezbollah."
See, for example, Major John J. Ziegler III, "From Beirut to Khobar Towers: Improving the Combating Terrorism Program," Research Report, Air Command & Staff College, Air University (April 1998). Despite the antagonistic relationship of Tehran and Washington at the time, the report never fingers Iran.
(2) Charles Winslow, Lebanon: War and Politics in a Fragmented Society, Routledge (1996), pp. 198ff or p.281. Initially, the Assad regime in Lebanon was very cooperative with Western interests, and only veered away when it became clear Washington was insisting on a totally unrealistic outcome. At that point, Damascus was obligated to shore up its credibility among Arab nationalists.
Crist repeatedly ignores the urgent constraints faced by Arab & Iranian policy makers. He depicts the Kuwaiti authorities as sleazy for trying to get somebody--anybody--to defend their access to the Strait of Hormuz in the early days of the "Tanker War" (initially, Washington refused and the Kuwaitis turned to Moscow.) Crist regards this as a form of treachery; most people would regard it as the bare minimum of self-preservation.
(3) The passage in Crist describing the planning and execution of the 1983 Beirut International Airport Bombing is extremely plausible--in fact, Crist's usually terrible prose style abruptly improves. But then, after rattling off names and places, endnote 33 begins, "The identity of the men who carried out the operation remains unclear." In other words, the detail makes it look as though Crist is certain, but in fact he knows LESS about this matter than he does about other events.
(4) Felter & Fishman, pp.73-80, describe the evidence for Iranian lethal aid to the insurgency. This boils down to supplying Shi'a militia with machined paraboloid disks used in the production of explosively formed projectiles (EFPs). These are purported to be beyond the capabilities of any group in Iraq (although the extraordinary precision Crist--not Felter & Fishman--imputes to their usage DOES require capabilities that are almost as demanding as their manufacture). While I remain skeptical of the claim that no militant group in Iraq could have produced the EFP plates--see Fred Burton,"The Imminent Spread of EFPs," Stratfor (11 April 2007)--Felton & Fishman pretty much confine their allegations to this in particular.
The Badr Brigade is the military wing of the Iraqi Shi'a movement formerly known as SCIRI (now ISCI); it was created by Iraqi Shi'a living in Iran prior to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. The Quds Force is a branch of the Iranian Armed Services responsible for cultivating "firm power" (Crist likens it to "a blend of U.S. Special Forces and the Peace Corps").
(5) Crist's endnote cites the website "News Blaze" and the article date of 2007. It was originally published in Mohammad Mohaddessin (editor), Islamic Fundamentalism: The New Global Threat, Seven Locks Press (1993), p.102. This anthology was republished in 2003 with the new chapter title, although the article never mentions al-Qaida, or even comes close.
Crist's elegant writing style combined with his detailed account of events presents an engrossing story of how the crisis between the United States and Iran began and continues to this day.
From events that grabbed daily headlines such as the United States Embassy takeover in November 1979 resulting in 52 Americans held hostage for 444 days, the Iran-Iraq war 1980-1988, the 1983 suicide bombing of U. S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, the Iran-Contra affair, operation Desert Storm 1991 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq to those less publicized.
Events that Crist details are also those that did not remain in the news or never appeared, such as how the revolution in Iran in 1979 was viewed by the Pentagon as a possible opening for the Russians during the Cold War to move into Iran to gain a warm water port. The continuing conflict between the United States and Iran in the Persian Gulf in the 1980's with incidents involving the USS Stark and USS Vincennes. Also how the mining of areas of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman by Iran, which resulted in oil tankers and the USS Samuel B. Roberts being struck by mines, escalated an ongoing crisis
Crist covers military and political decisions made over the last 30 years by both the United States and Iran and how they at times escalated tensions and caused loss of life. Crist's reveals how inept our government can be when administration officials at times misread intentions and at other times fail to act on aggressions against the United States. He also lays bare the difficulty of dealing with a regime unwilling to discuss its nuclear aims and where divisions exist among those ruling Iran.
David Crist's "The Twilight War" is a fair and unbiased account of the ongoing conflict between the United States and Iran. I think everyone with any interest in world events ought to read it and it should be required reading for college students taking courses in United States and Mid Eastern history and policy. Crist did not attempt to provide a solution to the ongoing crisis with Iran and to his credit he kept his book to the point without attempting to insert any personal views.
I highly recommend "The Twilight War." I could not put it down once I started reading it; it is definitely 5 star reading.