MideastWeb Middle East Web Log
Smith, Lee, A Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations,
256 pages, ISBN: 0385516118
Lee Smith has written a different kind of book about the Middle East, with a different message. It is part travelogue, part reportage, part analysis and part polemic. In the world of books about the Middle East, "A Strong Horse" is a horse of a different color. Smith's book is reminiscent of Tom Friedman's, "From Beirut to Jerusalem." Avoiding the cliched dogmas of neo-conservatives, MESA (Middle East Studies Association) academics, State Department honchos and Israeli "Arabists," Lee Smith talks horse sense about the Middle East and America's role in it. Abdul Halim Khaddam (former vice president of Syria), Elliot Abrams, Edward Said, Nathan Sharansky, Tony Badran, former terrorists and Nasser-era officials, and a gallery of "just folks" are among the people Smith met and interviewed in his travels. They provide an array of perspectives that show the subject matter as it appears from the outside looking in, from the top looking down, and from the bottom looking up at what seem to be the vagaries of power and policy.
With this book, Lee Smith has not just added another voice to Middle East punditry. He has added another dimension to the "received" understanding of the Middle East. Like many great discoveries, it is obvious, but it only became obvious after someone pointed it out. Smith points out that the Middle East has an "inside" as well as an "outside." He argues that internal, rather than external factors are the main drivers of the conflict between the United States and the countries of the Middle East. Inter-Arab and inter-Muslim power struggles and rivalries, rather than hatred for Israel or America, are the cause of the terror attacks of 9/11/01. For Americans, 9/11 was an extraordinary event and a wake-up call. For the Middle East, it was just a somewhat extravagant extension of conflicts that have been going on for about a thousand years, expressed in different ways: Shi'a-Sunni rivalry, the desert vs the city and other struggles between various minority groups and the Sunni majority, and between different factions of the Sunni majority.
Democratization of the Middle East, the great project of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, is a nonstarter in most of the countries of the Middle East according to Smith, for the simple reason that most of the Arabs are not interested in it. Arab liberals, if they exist at all, are a small and powerless minority. The source of most of the repression in the Middle East is not repressive regimes but repressive family life and mores, and attempts to change that meet indifference or resistance. The one possible exception among Arab countries, according to Smith, is Lebanon. But the would-be Lebanese revolution of the March 14 Movement fizzled because its leaders sacrificed their principles to their fear of Lebanese civil war, and, perhaps even more, to their fear of "Sister" Syria. They waited for America to act as their savior, but America failed them.
Smith attacks the venerable shibboleth that the Israeli-Arab conflict is the key to unraveling the problems of the Middle East. Israel is a convenient scapegoat and the Israeli-Palestinian arena is a good place to fight proxy wars between Middle East countries, but eliminating Israel won't eliminate the underlying conflicts within the Arab world that exploit this issue. Iran, with its nuclear weapons program, is not primarily a threat to Israel, which has nuclear weapons and can defend itself. The Israel vs Iran issue is used as a shield to hide the embarrassing fact of inter-Muslim rivalry. Iran is a threat to its own neighboring US allies, oil rich Arab states, largely Sunni, that cannot defend themselves and never showed much inclination to do so.
The famous "Arab street," according to Smith, does not exist. In the Western imagination, the "Arab street" forces decisions on leaders and drives policy decisions. But the Arab street is led to chant the slogans that someone wants them to chant, and Arabs do not speak with one voice and do not all want the same thing. Arab nationalism is more a creation of the Western imagination than a real factor in Middle East politics.
The title of the book, "A Strong Horse," comes from Osama Bin Laden's observation that people will prefer a strong horse to a weak one. This has always been a geopolitical truth, and it is perilous to forget it, as the US administration is learning, and will yet learn, to its cost. It is especially true of weak and unstable regimes that can only survive with the aid of a powerful protector.
Rather than disengaging or avoiding confrontation, Smith argues, America's only course in the Middle East is to act as a strong horse. America must command respect by standing up to Iran and providing a shield for its Arab allies, using military force if necessary.
We can argue about whether or not such a course is wise or politically feasible after the debacle in Iraq and given the current unpopularity of the Afghanistan war. It is certainly perilous. But one point cannot be dismissed: If America's Gulf allies perceive that it is weak, they will defect and seek the protection of whoever is perceived to be stronger. America will lose control of the Persian Gulf, of its oil supplies and of the strategic position it affords, and America will ultimately lose all of its allies in the Arab Middle East. No amount of foreign aid will keep Egypt or Jordan or Saudi Arabia loyal to its US alliance if the US cannot protect them from Iran, and the same is true of every other Arab or Muslim ally in the Middle East. Regimes that do not defect will be attacked and replaced, as is happening in Lebanon. That is the geopolitical game that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is playing. He means to get the United States out of the Middle East and supplant it as regional hegemon.
Lee Smith has slaughtered a herd of holy cows of Middle East dogma in this book. His horse sense agrees with the views of many of his Middle Eastern interlocutors, but who ever asks people who live here about the Middle East? The ideas go against the grain of a great deal of received wisdom. A lengthier and more methodical presentation might have been warranted to back such revolutionary claims. However, a longer, more methodical book would have probably been less engaging, charming and enjoyable to read.
"A Strong Horse" is a painless way to get an education or re-education about the Middle East. You may take issue with some of the author's views, but whether you agree or not, after reading this book, your understanding and perception of the Middle East will probably be changed forever.
Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000780.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.
Replies: 2 comments
Mr Smith's political perception is complete crap. His book is obviously another "paid-for" tome from the propaganda machine of western interests.
He seems to base everything on two premises:
First, not everyone wants to eliminate Israel. In addition, Smith fails to mention whether he believes the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel would change the politics of the region. Because he fails to mention this, it is reasonable assume he prefers the status quo.
To my thinking, creation of a Palestinian state would establish a beginning point for new diplomatic relations throughout the region -relations based on rule of international law and mutual respect. It would delineate an end to de-facto rule by the stronger powers over the weak (hegemony).
What a remarkably foolish and short-sighted statement. These states cannot defend themselves largely because the USA wants it that way. If they could defend themselves, they could potentially threaten US hegemony which secures and controls oil production. On the other hand, if there were no US troops stationed in these countries, much of the supposed threat from Iran would evaporate.
Iraq attacked Iran in the early 1980's because the USA wanted it to do so. The USA funded, supplied, and directed much of that war. Hundreds of thousands were killed. The purpose of the war was to cripple the regime of religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who had overthrown the Shah in 1979, who himself had been installed in a CIA-managed coup back in 1953.
Clearly Iran has a history of being threatened, attacked, and undermined by US hegemony. The only reason for it is oil. After what the USA has done to Iran, it is amazing to hear Western shills claim Iran is the bad actor.
The place to begin is for the USA to use force (if necessary) to end Israel's 40-year-long occupation of the West Bank. That is the proper place to make an example of a "strong horse". Without doing that, the USA will never be viewed as an honest arbitor whose judgement and integrity are deserving of respect. For too long the USA has operated on the premise that respect of it's military force alone is enough to solve the problems of the region. That experiment has failed. Force without integrity is oppression. It only produces instability, corruption, and anarchy. Demonstration of integrity along with a military capacity would lay a stable foundation for long term regional peace and security.
More colonialist drivel. If America were out of the picture, the quote "need" for protection would evaporate.
Further, the concept of "demonstrating" strength is just code for killing people. Of course, Western analysts think this idea is fine, since people aren't likely to die in their neighborhoods. On the other hand, ask a few Iraqis what they think of America's demonstration of strength through Donald Rumsfield's "shock and awe" program at the beginning of the last war. Or ask a few Iranians what they think of the oppressive regime of the Shah, who was installed and backed by the CIA. It's not a good way to win hearts and minds.
Posted by Kiev500 @ 02/21/2010 10:56 AM CST
UNDER THE SIGN OF THE INKED FINGER: It seems that the traditional Arab "mindset" has always been controlled by whoever has the longer sword. Arab loyalties traditionally are easily switched to the perceived violent â€śstrongmanâ€ť of the family, tribe, region, country, religion, etc. for the sake of protection and power.
However, contrary to the authorâ€™s contentions against â€śdemocracyâ€ť being a â€śstarterâ€ť for Arab countries, this very day seems an excellent example of an Arab people who have found that the ultimate â€śstrongmanâ€ť resides in another type of â€śswordâ€ť that is much longer and stronger than the â€śswordâ€ť of violence. That sword is the â€śsword of democracyâ€ť which was adeptly wielded this week in the hands of the individual and average Arab in the voting booths of Iraq and then that â€śsword of democracyâ€ť was resheathed under the sign of the inked finger of a democratic future.
The article seemed to get the â€ścart before the horseâ€ť in its contentions that â€śThe source of most of the repression in the Middle East is not repressive regimes but repressive family life and mores, and attempts to change that meet indifference or resistance.â€ť Because freedoms in the voting booth empower and strengthen the average person wherever he resides, I contend that Arab countries will require a â€śdemocratizedâ€ť country to provide the freedom for a â€śdemocratizedâ€ť family base to emerge. The Iraqi peopleâ€™s will to have a democratic country seems full evidence that â€śthe source of repressionâ€ť of â€śthe family and moresâ€ť cannot be addressed until the individual person is free from the countryâ€™s government as their initial â€śsource of repression.â€ť Destroying the heavy hand of government and providing individual freedom allows the individual to then exercise that freedom against other sources of repression, including family and religion, without fear of reprisal from the government.
Therefore, I contend that the Iraqi people represent a proud and opposing evidence to the authorâ€™s statement that "Democratization...the great project of...the Bush administration" is a "nonestarter" for most Arab people. I think democratization is the most important â€śstarterâ€ť framework which will allow any Arab people to break out of the â€śindifference and resistanceâ€ť against the â€śrepressive family life and moresâ€ť that is the â€śsource of most of the repression in the Middle East.â€ť
Posted by DawningOfANewDay @ 03/08/2010 01:04 AM CST
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