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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Lee Smith: The Strong Horse--Power, Politics And The Clash Of Arab Civilizations

I've been reading The Strong Horse: Power, Politics And The Clash Of Arab Civilizations by Lee Smith.

Lee Smith is a Middle East correspondent for The Weekly Standard who has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East--a fact reflected in his accounts in his book of meeting people from Omar Sharif to Edward Said.

A key point of the book is to address and dispense a number of myths with which we tend to approach the Middle East:

1. While we tend to believe--and the media reinforces--the idea that Western colonialism in the area is responsible for the Islamist terrorism, the truth is that the violence and conflict of the area is part of its status quo and has been for centuries

2. Contrary to the references we read about the "Arab Street," and the implication of a unified Muslim stance in the Middle East, the truth is that there are a variety of opinions--of which Sunni Islam is merely the majority.

3. The idea that the US just needs to find and strengthen the existing pocket of Arab Liberalism overlooks the fact that by its very nature Arab Liberalism is secular and therefore not popular--not to mention the fact that it is regularly crushed by the violent regimes in the area.

4. While we like to think that introducing democracy and technology into the Middle East provides the tools to bring about major change in the region, in fact these are in fact tools that are being used in the area--but in order to advance the existing culture of the Middle East, not to change it.
The Strong Horse provides a helpful counter-weight when reading about the direction of US policy.
For instance, Laura Rozen writes today in Politico:
Reports published this month in a Kuwaiti newspaper, echoed today by the Israeli press, suggest that the Israelis got intelligence that Syria was planning to or transferred Scud-D missiles to Lebanese-based Hezbollah, but were dissuaded by the U.S. from striking.

The Syrians suggest the reports were false and planted by American foes of stepped up U.S. engagement with Syria. The American skeptics of stepped up engagement with Damascus say that is not the case.

What is clear is that earlier this month, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an advocate of engagement with Damascus, traveled to Syria for meetings with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as to Lebanon.
In a chapter entitled The Capital of Arab Resistance: Damascus's Regime of Terror, Smith ascribes the blind eye turned towards Syrian sponsorship of terrorism to US policy during the 1990's, when it was thought that Syria could be brought to the table through "constructive engagement":
which meant that so long as Damascus made gestures toward peace, or just kept talking, the United States would overlook its occupation of Lebanon and its support for terrorist organizations. During this era, which you might call the golden age of peace processing, U.S. secretaries of state were frequent guess of Hafaz al-Assad in the Syrian capital--James Baker made twelve trips to Damascus; Warren Christopher, thirty-four; and Madeleine Albright, seven. It would, of course have been unseemly for America's chief diplomats to be seen so assiduously wooing a state sponsor of terror, and so the Americans simply buried the fact that Syria was supporting a wide array of terrorist organizations, from Kurdish nationalists in Turkey to Palestinian Sunni jihadis in Lebanon.
We can see today the result--or lack thereof--from this policy. By the same token, what was in fact created was a myth:
As a result, the myth took hold that no state was responsible for arming and funding terrorist groups: these groups were not shaped and supported by Middle Eastern states pursuing heir strategic interests; rather, they were all just rogue networks of stateless operators motivated by a wide array of grievances.
But more than just a myth came out of all this:
The fact that the United States spent more than a decade trying to cajole Damascus would have been bad enough had it only been a waste of American money, time, and prestige. What made the U.S. efforts even more problematic was that by trying so hard to work with the Syrians, American policy makers had effectively encouraged terrorism. The reason they were so intent on working with Syria, after all, was that they believed the Syrians had the ability to spoil peace efforts in the region. That sent a clear message: the easiest way to get the attention of world leaders and prove that you are indispensable to peacemaking is by killing people. To be sure, American policy makers sought to frame it differently, and tried to come up with explanations for why Syria, given the right carrot, would stop sponsoring violence throughout the region. But in doing so, the United States ended up, as it so often has in recent decades, excusing those who make violence their initial response to anything that offends them, and legitimizing terrorism.
Syria has played the US expertly--during both Republican and Democratic administrations, by both Assad and his son. Even now, there is no sign of  any change on the part of the US--thus the pursuit of cooperation from the country that is accused of murdering former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri.

Unfortunately, while Lee Smith's The Strong Horse may point out the foible's of US policy, it does not recommend how to get the US back on the right track.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad

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