September 19, 2020

My name is Khaled. I don’t wish to alarm you, but watch your back, my friend over there wants to kill you.”

The first week of May 1986, Urumchi airport in far western China, I was waiting for a flight to Kashgar en route to the Khunjerab Pass over the Karakoram mountains into Pakistan. 

A well-dressed man in his 40’s, Egyptian it turned out, had sidled up to me. Over his shoulder, 20 feet away, a younger man glared, giving me the evil eye.

I extended my hand. “Thank you for the warning, but why on earth would he want to kill me?” He answered, “Because you’re American and two weeks ago Reagan bombed Libya (April 15, in retaliation for a Berlin nightclub bombing).”

I replied, “First I’ve heard of it, traveling in China for the last month, haven’t seen any headlines, but please tell your friend – nodding in his direction – I didn’t vote for Reagan, don’t agree with him on much of anything, not my guy.” Khaled said, “I will tell him, but still watch your back and go with God.” It was my first personal encounter with the Muslim world, indeed, with any Muslim. And one of them wanted to kill me.

Five years later, 1991, just before Christmas. I arrived Jerusalem from Cairo, my picture of Israel the one painted by Leon Uris in his novel, Exodus, a tiny Jewish democracy struggling to survive in a sea of hostile Arab neighbors. Four days in, I was walking in Silwan, what was then a predominately Palestinian neighborhood just outside the Old City. Suddenly, two jeeps with six Israeli soldiers pulled up to a three-story house hanging down the hillside, followed by several mini vans spilling a dozen men and women, obviously religious and very agitated, onto the street. “Settlers,” an old man hissed. Waving what appeared to be some kind of court order and backed by the soldiers’ Uzis, they forcibly evicted a family from the top floor of what had been home to six generations of Palestinians. “This is just wrong,” I said to myself. “Might makes right? Did they forget why Israel was created?”

And with those two encounters the Middle East was now and would remain bright on my radar screen. I returned to Israel and the West Bank in 2000 and 2011, and since have traveled elsewhere in the Muslim world, Bosnia (1992 – 1995), Egypt (1994), Turkey (2015) and Morocco (2018).

Earlier in 1991, eight months before I arrived in Israel for the first time, the U.S. had routed Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in the First Gulf War, and after 9/11 invaded first Afghanistan and then Iraq, starting wars that almost twenty years on are still not done, and both America’s reputation in the Middle East and the conflict between Israel and Palestinians have gone from bad to worse.

The inevitable questions followed. “Is this just the nature of the Middle East, of the Muslim world? Have U.S. policies contributed to the development of American values, e.g., democracy, rule of law, etc., in the Middle East, or have we caused more harm than good? Why are we, the “leader of the free world,” more despised than admired there?

Trying to answer those questions propelled me into what turned out to be an 18-month odyssey – at times more than I bargained for, so many rabbit holes – of reading, research and writing, culminating in A Century of U.S. Meddling in the Middle East, the 25 following posts, 130 pages in all, starting with Sykes-Picot at the end of WWI and ending with the 2003 war on Iraq. 

[Navigation note: the 25 posts cover three pages of the Meddling in the Middle East dropdown menu; at the end of page 1, after you finish reading Post 8, Israeli – Arab Wars of 1967 and 1973, you will see page 2 and page 3 in the bottom left, just click and go to access the following posts.]

Entire books have been written on events I try to sum up in just pages, and no doubt some will quibble about this or that, especially about what was left out. But my goal was not exhaustive scholarship, rather to distill, after much sifting and winnowing, the gist of past events into cogent quick reads – most take less than ten minutes. I like to think that they could be the syllabus for an introductory course for upper level high school or first year university students .

My point of view, formed after I did the hard work, inevitably comes through unvarnished here and there, including the introduction, which I actually wrote close to the end of this project. There likely will be some – I have already heard from two – who take particular umbrage at what they perceive as “harsh” and “unfair” comments about Israeli policies vis a vis the Palestinians. If so, I invite them to re-read Post 6A, in which I make clear that “I support the right of Israel to exist and to exist where it is. . . . Both the Holocaust and the historic Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria prior to the diaspora give Jews righteous claims to live there and create a state in which Jews can be safe and never again be at anyone’s mercy.” My less positive, critical, observations are not anti-Semitic; quite the contrary, they reflect – see Post 6 – the views of many Israeli and other Jewish historians and journalists.  

Jon Walker MacLeod

September 1, 2020


Leave a Reply


We live in perilous times, democracy is under attack, rationality and compassion are in short supply, and our planet, our home for 200,000 years, is burning up. We must resist, we must work for a better world. MacLeod Post is my voice in that struggle.

Follow Blog

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.