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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book review: "The Strong Horse"

Lee Smith is a reporter, commentator, author and visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute. Immediately after 9/11, he flew to Egypt to find out "why the Arabs hate us."

His conclusion, after years of living in Cairo and Beirut, is not so much that Arabs hate the West as it is that their own sectarianism is the driving force behind their actions.

The Strong Horse: Power, Politics and the Clash of Arab Civilizations is a combination of memoir and analysis of his time in the Arab world since Al Qaeda's attack. The name of the book is based on a quote by Bin Laden, where he says "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse."

Smith's book shows that this is close to the truth in the Arab world. While many Americans tend to support the underdog, Arabs will gravitate - not necessarily like, but gravitate - towards the stronger party.

Smith goes through the history of Arab sectarian violence. He convincingly shows that, to the Arab world, tribalism is still far more important than anti-Americanism or anti-Westernism. The hatred between the many players in the Middle East - Sunnis, Shiites, Salafis, Alawites, Maronites, and many others - is the driving agenda behind most Arab actions. His asides detailing the history of these groups are worth the cost of the book itself.

To Smith, the existence of despotic Arab regimes seems a necessary evil as the Arab world moves into an unknown future, a transition that is still being violently played out. If Syria and Egypt were not so heavy-handed in their treatment of the various Arab groups, the result would be - Lebanon.

It is indeed ironic that the most liberal Arabic-speaking country, the one that the West would think is the closest to a Western-style democracy, is also the most unstable and the possibly most dangerous. Smith believes that the imposition of a strong leadership in most Arab nations not only forces stability from without but also from within, as the Arab people themselves will tend to side with the group - the government - that shows the most power.

Smith tends to blur the differences between Arab thought and Islamism, seeming to put the latter is a specific form of the former, which is not quite true. His organization of the book is a little jumpy as well, and he ignores the Maghreb countries altogether. Nevertheless, his arguments are compelling if not altogether persuasive. For example, he meets with Natan Sharansky at the end of the book, and although much of his argument is that Sharansky is wrong and that the Arab world does not yearn for real democracy, he doesn't attack Sharansky's arguments head-on.

He also touches upon Israel's role as a de-facto strong horse, but doesn't go into much detail on the topic. His final chapter on Israel, meant to be the culmination of his argument, is disappointing.

However, there is no arguing with the fundamental theme of the book. In the days after 9/11, Al Jazeera - representing pan-Arab thought - lionized Bin Laden. As the US and Western allies marginalized went after Al Qaeda, though, Bin Laden's popularity has gone way down. No one is loving the West and they might rail against Western interference in Arab affairs, but their respect for the Western allies has certainly increased.

This attraction to being on the winning side is, in many ways, the real threat from Iran to the Middle East. Whether the US likes it or not, it has become a major player in the Arab world. Its only real counterbalance is Iran, whose leaders are keen on expanding their influence. If the US wavers in its commitment to its Arab allies - and even to Israel - Iran will gain an extraordinary victory.

I am not a big fan of US aid to Israel. I would prefer to see Israel be more economically independent, and freer to act in its own interests. Unfortunately, the truth is that if the US would "punish" Israel by even symbolically withholding aid, the reverberations throughout the Arab world would be far-reaching. If pro-US Arab governments would perceive that the US commitment to Israel's security was not as strong as it has been, they would be extraordinarily nervous about the US commitment to their own security. They would naturally want to look for other patrons to align with - and Iran is the only other game in town (since publicly allying with the Jewish state is unthinkable.)

The Middle East is a mess that many Americans naturally would like to abandon, but the downside of doing so would be catastrophic. Like it or not, America is the "strong horse," and it is not a role to be relinquished without serious thought about its consequences.

This may be the single most important lesson from Lee Smith's thesis.