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Reviewed by Norvell DeAtkine

Lee Smith, The Strong Horse; Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, Doubleday: New York, 2010,  ISBN 978-0-385-51611-2, 239 pp., $26.00

The title of this book is taken from an observation by Osama bin Laden that people naturally prefer a strong horse to a weak one, and as a succinct summary of Arab politics.  While a rejoinder might be that the world thinks that way, in fact it is somewhat alien to American thinking with their traditional sympathy for the underdog.  Therefore we have a difficult time in viewing the Arab world through an American prism. While this may not seem to be a startling revelation, American Middle East policymakers seem oblivious to it.

This book is unlikely to appear on many Middle East course syllabi or in the shelves of most of our Middle East scholarly learning centers, which is unfortunate because the arguments put forward are desperately needed as an antidote to the lock step shibboleths and conventional wisdom that form the basis of much of the scholarship of U. S. Middle East studies.

Much of the conventional wisdom that forms the basis of our understanding of the Arab world is challenged here, and rightly so. To be sure, the challenges are not always to the Leftish world view but also some well established views of the Right as well.  For instance, the author disputes the concept of the clash of civilizations; the collision of the West with the East (although he acknowledges that many within the extreme segment of the Islamic and Arab population do see it that way). His primary theme is to portray the major clash as one within the Arab world, between those who are amenable to a western approach to tolerance and rule of law and those who continue to rely on the Arab tradition of violence as the determining characteristic of Arab political culture.

Thankfully Smith steered clear of the issue of Palestine, observing that it is not the main problem in the region. He writes, “[T]hat a broad consensus of prominent policy makers, academics, analysts, and journalists so relentlessly advertise this conviction [that Palestine is the key issue] does not mean they are correct, only that their obstinacy retards our understanding of the region.”  Such a focus only enables a simplistic approach to regional problems thus making it attractive to politicians who wish to view foreign affairs through a domestic prism.  As important as Palestine is, it has to be viewed along with a multitude of regional issues including ethnic, religious, and ideological disputes.

Smith disagrees with those who claim that endemic anti-Americanism is simply a result of the Arab state-run media and fiery sermons in the mosques inciting people against the United States. Nor is it, he maintains, a function of Arab leaders using the issue as a distraction from the abysmal conditions in their country.  Anti-Americanism is often used because it resonates so well with the population, particularly the elite. It is deeply connected to Arab nationalism and its cult of “resistance”, which broadly means resistance to the United States.

Using survey and polling data in the Arab world implies a belief in the term “the Arab Street,” as if there were some attitude that pervades the entire region. It is a frequently used term to describe Arab political orientation.  The idea that the mood of the Arab people can be determined by random surveys, no matter how “scientific” they claim to be, is a chimera. The Arab world, like the so-called Islamic world, is far from monolithic. As T. E. Lawrence wrote, “there is a world between the Bedouin at Azrak and the peasant at Amman – though the journey is only fifty miles. Only a criminal would wish to make them all alike.”

Correctly observing that Arabism is a Sunni viewpoint generally shunned by the Shi’a who sees it as an ideology preserving Sunni hegemony, the author also takes issue with scholars who view Arab nationalism at odds with Islamism, but rather that both are intertwined.  Surprisingly, he also takes issue with the often-used expression of Islamism being an attempt to turn back the clock; rather it is a rational attempt to come to terms with modernity, albeit often a violent one. He observes that Islamism or Islam is not the fundamental obstacle to Arab democracy.  It is the norm of Arab politics in which violence is an embedded attribute.

Smith also observes that the globalization concept, with its claim that the wonders of new means of communication would bring East and West closer together, has not closed the gap.  Often it has brought increased polarization. “Paradoxically,” as Smith wrote, “what the rise of new media has really done is increase the ability of Arab regimes to project power across the region and interfere in the workings of other states.”  In terms of bringing our worlds closer together the author wrote, “The ethnocentric fallacy that everyone wants our way of life just because they desire our consumer goods has led to the untenable conclusion that goods like the internet, cell phones, and satellite TV are capable of transforming fundamental values and ideas.”

Hence Smith views U. S. public diplomacy initiatives in the name of soft power as a “waste of money.”  The reviewer would put it another way. The problem is not the idea of influencing the Arab world, which we very much need to do, but rather the feeble ways we attempt to do so. Showing happy Muslim Americans and extolling the joys of democracy has little resonance in the Arab world.  In tune with the strong horse concept, we should be portraying our military, economic, and people power.

Perhaps the most trenchant part of this book is the chapter on Syria, which he calls “the regime of terror.”  To Lee the U. S. administration’s passive attitude toward the unchecked arrogance of Syria is demonstrative of the strong horse concept. Part of the U. S. problem with Syria, he writes, is that many American journalists and academics fervently believe that Syria is the key to better U. S.-Arab relations and the regime can be reasoned with. It has not turned out that way. This is connected to a perennial problem which confounds accurate reporting in the Arab world.  In order to have access to the dictators who rule the Middle East, journalists must be careful to ensure that delicate egos are not pricked. An adverse report spells the end for any future access. That was a persistent problem with Saddam and continues with the Assad’s. As the meetings of U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell with Bashir Assad continue, Syria shows no sign of turning away from Iran, and is realizing their goal of absorbing Lebanon into the Syria orbit.End.

Norvell B DeAtkine
Norvell B DeAtkine

Norvell B. DeAtkine is a retired Colonel, a graduate of West Point with an M. A. from the American University of Beirut in Arab Studies. His extensive overseas service includes combat service in Vietnam, an assignment in Korea, and 8 years in the Middle East. Among his positions held were as an artillery battalion commander and deputy commander of a Corps Artillery. Following his military service he taught for 18 years as the director of Middle East studies at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.


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