Book Review: Richard Engel Paints Grim View of the Middle East

The veteran NBC News correspondent reflects on two decades of reporting on bloodshed in the region — and sees more violence and volatility ahead.


November’s terrorist attacks in Paris boosted shares of defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co., if only briefly. Investors would be wise to expect Islamic extremists to spur more market-roiling mayhem, warns Richard Engel.

“The next ten years in the Middle East promise to be extremely violent,” the NBC News chief foreign correspondent concludes in his new book, And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East.

To be clear, markets aren’t a focus of Engel’s latest study, which is part memoir and part analysis. Engel acknowledges that when he set out from Stanford University to become a foreign correspondent, he chose the Middle East over China because he considers business stories “boring.”

But the Middle East long has been a crucial part of the global economic picture, and investors misunderstand it at their peril. Engel’s on-the-ground reporting from Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon and Syria provides perspective that’s often lacking from the pronouncements of U.S. politicians. Engel hunkered down in Baghdad as one of the few foreign journalists to endure the U.S.-led “shock and awe” campaign in 2003. In 2012 he was briefly kidnapped in Syria.

As narrator, Engel balances an appreciation of the Muslim world with skepticism toward extremists’ excesses. He learned Arabic on the job, and he’s fluent in the rift between Sunni and Shia Muslims, helping Engel to come across as a sympathetic observer to the violence that has wracked much of the Levant.

Though Engel stops far short of excusing the ideology of terrorists who murder civilians guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Soon after arriving in Egypt in the late 1990s, Engel began reporting on the Muslim Brotherhood. He quickly wearied of the group’s “conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism and litany of victimization.” Later in the book, he describes the plight of a Syrian teen whose right hand and left foot were hacked off by Islamic State terrorists. The boy’s purported crime? Plotting to escape a terrorist training camp.


Engel is equally clear-eyed in his assessment of U.S. policy in the Middle East. He describes the view of former president George W. Bush — who in February 2007 invited Engel to the White House to discuss Iraq — of the region as pure “fantasy” and writes that President Barack Obama followed Bush’s swagger with “timidity and inconsistency.”

Engel argues compellingly that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq destabilized a region that, while often venal, corrupt and not necessarily germane to Western interests, was at least predictable.

“By occupying Iraq for years and by reopening old religious wounds and upsetting the old order, the U.S. invasion was making a terrorist attack in the U.S. more likely than it would have been otherwise,” Engel writes. “Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and wasn’t a nest full of terrorists,” he says, denouncing the administration’s justification for war.

What’s more, Engel reasons that Bush’s vision of creating a Western-style democracy in Iraq was woefully misguided. Saddam Hussein and other Arab dictators were tyrants of a Baathist — hence secular — stripe, and when they fell, Iraq and other nations were plunged into uncharted territory, paving the way for Islamists to fill the vacuum. “Islam has never accepted a division of church and state,” Engel writes. “For Islamists the distinction is nonsensical and heretical.”

One of Engel’s strengths as a writer is his ability to succinctly convey complicated material. More scholarly scribes offer thorough accounts of Islam’s roughly 1,500-year history and nuances. Trained in the merciless brevity of network television, Engel knows how to write tight prose. He deftly boils down two decades of regime change and the ensuing chaos into a brisk read. Engel’s outlook for the region includes more sectarian bloodshed, and perhaps one-upmanship by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, followed not by democracy but by a return to dictatorship.

“I suspect people will eventually get fed up with the chaos,” Engel writes, “as they did in Egypt amid the turmoil that followed the Arab Spring.”

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