Historian wrote seminal book on roots of Mideast conflict
David Fromkin, a nonacademic historian whose definitive book on the Middle East warned the West against nation-building by partitioning antagonistic religious groups behind arbitrary boundaries, died June 11 in Manhattan. He was 84.
The cause was heart failure, his nephew Daniel Soyer said.
Fromkin, a lawyer and investor, became a published author only in his 40s and a professor in his 60s.
His seminal book on the Middle East, “A Peace to End All Peace” (1989), traced the roots of conflict in the region to the creation of unsustainable nations there through artificial mapmaking by European diplomats in the early 1920s, after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
He concluded that those self-serving cartographers had grossly underestimated the indigenous population’s enduring faith in Islam as the foundation of everyday life, politics and government, and that they had failed to account for the Middle East’s lingering resentment of Western imperialism.
“A Middle Easterner need not be especially cynical, considering the region’s oil and strategic situation, to suspect that America is pursuing its national interests rather than disinterestedly promoting democracy and the welfare of western Asia,” Fromkin wrote in 2005 in an op-ed article in the New York Times.
“One lesson of recent history is clear, however,” he continued, directing his advice to fellow Americans. “The prospects in the Muslim world would be brighter if both the tearing down and the building up were done by Muslims rather than by us. Berliners brought down the wall; yet it was we who overthrew Iraq’s dictator, not the Iraqis.”
Fromkin advocated other constraints on U.S. military intervention overseas.
“As a general rule, the United States should go to war only to defend its vital interests,” he wrote in “Kosovo Crossing: The Reality of American Intervention in the Balkans” (1999), in which he examined the conflict between American ideals and battlefield realities in the Balkans during the 1999 NATO bombing campaign to stop atrocities in Kosovo.
Whether or not the U.S. intervention was altruistic, he wrote in that book, “the Kosovo war raises the question of the extent to which America, in the world outside its borders, has the power to do good — or even whether it knows with any certainty what ‘good’ is.”
He lamented in 1994 in the New York Times Magazine, “Our record of leaving honest, decent, democratic new local leaders behind after we intervene is not a good one.”
Authored seven books
David Henry Fromkin was born on Aug. 27, 1932, in Milwaukee to Morris Fromkin, a lawyer, and the former Selma Strelsin, the sister of Albert A. Strelsin, the industrialist and arts patron.
He is survived by two sisters, Sari Fromkin Magaziner and Marcia Fromkin Prester.
Fromkin earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and graduated from the University of Chicago Law School. He was the author of seven books, the first of which, “The Question of Government: An Inquiry Into the Breakdown of Modern Political Systems,” was published in 1975.
In 1995, he wrote “In the Time of the Americans: FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur — the Generation That Changed America’s Role in the World,” in which he argued that after World War II Americans were given a rare second chance to correct the shortcomings of Woodrow Wilson’s oneworld idealism.
As Richard Reeves wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “The United Nations is Wilsonian; NATO represents the kind of big-power peace enforcement envisioned by TR.”
Among Fromkin’s other books were “Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?” (2004), which journalist Avedis Hadjian, writing for CNN. com, called “a fast-paced, gripping guide through the complex set of reasons and emotions that led to the 20th century’s seminal conflict”; and “The King and the Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and Edward the Seventh, Secret Partners” (2008).