Rough Ride in the Middle East

What is America’s role in the Arab civil war?

The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, by Lee Smith, Doubleday, 256 pages, $26

For years the tag line on Lee Smith’s articles said he was writing a book on Arab culture. Instead, the longtime journalist has just published The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, the title reflecting a less neutral, all-purpose approach toward a region he sought to discover after the 9/11 attacks.

Smith’s book will not please those who view the Middle East’s subtleties with uncritical sympathy. The author eschews the obligatory attempt to reconcile the region’s values with the West’s, and refuses to blame the United States for the Arab world’s predicament. “September 11 is the day we woke up to find ourselves in the middle of a clash of Arab civilizations,” Smith writes, “a war that used American cities as yet another venue for Arabs to fight each other.”

Smith, a friend I first met in Beirut in 2003, has written a bold and significant book that refreshingly rejects the conventional wisdom about the Middle East. It is somewhat contradictory, but in an instructive way. Smith doesn’t try to conceal his developing uncertainties as his narrative progresses, so that what may sometimes seem like inconsistency becomes an honest reflection of his growing realization that his initial hopefulness about the Middle East was unjustified. Ultimately he falls back on an unabashedly American reading of the Arab world that reflects well why the American public has soured on its government’s involvement there.

Smith’s thesis that the United States is caught up in an Arab civil war is not new, but it is substantially correct. Mainstream American thinking, he writes, has mistakenly regarded the Arab world as “a monolithic body, made up of people of similar backgrounds and similar opinions.” This view, Smith believes, is disturbingly close to the Arab nationalist belief that “Arabs, by virtue of a shared language, constitute a separate and single people.”

For Smith, Arab nationalism is a by-product of Sunni supremacy in the region, which the Sunni community has defended through violence “for close to fourteen hundred years.” Violence, he writes, is “just the central motif in a pattern that existed before Islam and is imprinted on all of the region’s social and political relations.” The great Arab historian Ibn Khaldoun viewed history as “a matter of one tribe, nation, or civilization dominating the others by force until it, too, is overthrown by force.” Smith calls this the “strong horse principle,” alluding to a quote from Osama bin Laden: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.”

Smith alighted in the Middle East unencumbered by the guilt that so many young foreigners seem to bring with them. That guilt, the result of a particular interpretation of Western colonialism, is often accompanied by an embrace of prevailing local attitudes. Smith, by contrast, didn’t come to the region in pursuit of a new identity. He came here to understand, as an American, why Arab extremists had murdered his countrymen.

“It was hard not to take 9/11 personally,” he writes in his opening sentence. Some may think this line betrays an author whose conclusions were fixed before his journey began. A familiar description of Smith, doubling as an accusation, is that he is a neoconservative, with his dual perch as a writer for The Weekly Standard and a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute. Yet that label conceals the extent to which Smith approaches his topic as any liberal would: by moving to, and trying to communicate with, a world very different from his own, while retaining his own identity.

At first glance Smith’s “strong horse” conceit smacks of reductionism, since Middle Eastern societies are far more complex than the formulation suggests. But the nuances mean little when the principal factors underlying political action by states in the region are violence, intimidation, suppression of dissent, and regime survival.

Power is at the heart of politics everywhere, but Arab societies have few means of counterbalancing the stifling authority of the state and its security organs, which usually serve the interests of brutal, family-led kleptocracies. From Syria to Saudi Arabia to Jordan to Egypt, from Algeria to Tunisia to Libya, violence, sometimes explicit but usually implicit, is the glue holding state and society together, at the expense of consensual social contracts. Blaming this situation on the West, three generations after the end of colonialism, only absolves these malignant regimes of their crimes while paternalistically implying that Arabs have no say in their own future.

But does that mean the West is entirely innocent when it comes to perpetuating the region’s foul realities? Is it incapable of altering them in a positive direction? Here is where some readers might disagree with the implications of Smith’s argument, and where he sometimes disagrees with them himself.

If we accept that the Middle East is being shaped by a clash of Arab civilizations, that what we are witnessing is a civil war in Arab societies, there must be two sides to the conflict. If there is violence, there must also be those rejecting violence; if there is extremism, there must be those opposing extremism.

Yet how does this square with Smith’s view that in the region “bin Ladenism is not drawn from the extremist fringe, but represents the political and social norm”? That description suggests that if there is a clash of Arab civilizations, it must be not between liberalism and illiberalism, violence and nonviolence, but between advocates of different shades of illiberalism and violence.

Is that what Smith really wants to say? I wonder. The author’s views changed between the beginning of his travels and the completion of his book. He watched the 2003 invasion of Iraq, leading to elections two years later. He followed events in Lebanon in 2005, when popular protests after the assassination of a former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, forced Syria’s army out of the country. He also watched how the law of the gun returned to both countries.

Smith lived in Egypt and visited Syria. He met many a cosmopolitan liberal: not just well-known figures such as the actor Omar Sharif and the Nobel-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz, but also lesser-known people yearning to live in open, intellectually challenging societies. He also saw how endangered a species they had become. Smith arrived with hope, then lost it, and that transformation is visible in the variations throughout his book—his shifts between uncompromising despair and sporadic optimism, which mirror the mood of countless others vainly trying to discern neat finalities in the Middle East.

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  • Alan Vanneman||

    Michael Young on Lee Smith? Doesn't sound good. This is a profoundly evasive review. Anyone who's read even one of Lee Smith's columns knows that he is violently, not to say tediously, pro-Israel--a country that I guess is not in the Middle East, because Mike doesn't mention it. I'm guessing that Mike found this book violently, not to say tediously, anti-Arab, but doesn't quite have the nerve to say so.

  • Drax the Destroyer||

    The potential for Arab states to transcend their current condition depends crucially on their capacity to become democratic...

    A democracy alone is not going to solve their problems, just like how America's permutation of democracy didn't rectify the sin of slavery until the last century (to some extent). The middle east, like any group of collective patriarchal pious followers of a dubious faith (aren't they all?), does not respect individual rights. In essence, the region is still ruled by feudal lords, whose positions of power are determined by birth and not merit. Regarding Iraq, democracy favors the majority (Shias) who will, by human nature, attempt to subjugate/disenfranchise their former overlords (Sunnis) because it's hard to forgive those associated with the people who kidnapped your father in the middle of the night and murdered him because he was "talking".

    The cliché', however true, is that the region needs a renaissance, where thinkers, philosophers, and scientists overthrow the irrational forces that will seek to enslave them while pulling the wool over their eyes. Unfortunately, the West's presence and previous/current actions do not absolve it of responsibility. Without the grievous errors committed by short-sighted British, French, and American policy-makers, Arabs would have less of a reason to rally behind their kleptocracies in order to defend their land from an outside threat. It's like that movie Independence Day where the world's surviving armies unite despite some of their irreconcilable differences. The unfortunate thing in this analogy is that the West is the perceived as an alien invader, evil incarnate, and bent on destruction. That perception may seem like hyperbole, but it's no different from believing that all Arabs are goat-fucking, wife-beating, fanatics who hate Jews, voting women, fireworks, baseball, and mom's apple pie cooling on the windowsill.

  • ||

    "That perception may seem like hyperbole, but it's no different from believing that all Arabs are goat-fucking, wife-beating, fanatics who hate Jews, voting women, fireworks, baseball, and mom's apple pie cooling on the windowsill."

    But thinking that every Arab irrationally views the West as alien invaders is somehow better?

  • ||

    But thinking that every Arab irrationally views the West as alien invaders is somehow better?


    Hell, it's not even a little bit true in some of the most despotic regimes in the Gulf (except Saudi). It helps that in the UAE, for example, that the despot is the son of the most widely admired and loved (by his people) expired despot of modern history, but hey - that sort of thing helps.

    In a number of societies of the Gulf, they have come to terms with the West's presence, mostly because the West spends a whole lot of money that they then use to erect audacious monuments to their wealth. It's a fragile kind of detente, but it's certainly not "Western invaders bent on destruction". It's more like "Western tourist pricks giving us money for laying on our beaches".

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    Almost all leaders of ME countries are despots of sort, even the recently-outvoted premier of Iraq al-Maliki shows great reluctance to leave his comfortable seat.

    Nevertheless, the gap between relatively mild autocrats of rich countries like the sheiks of Dubai vs. cruel rulers of 100% totalitarian police states like former Saddam's regime is huge. Very huge.

    People may dislike non-democratic regimes for absence of liberty, but the true hate is born out of torture, gallows and the awful combination of gold-plated palaces standing over misery of regular citizens.

  • Drax the Destroyer||

    "But thinking that every Arab irrationally views the West as alien invaders is somehow better?"

    First, I personally know that not every Arab thinks that because half of my extended family is from the Middle East, and most of them fucking left for a reason. The ones that are still there try their best while the government steals their shit and destroys the few liberties they have while explosions from rockets, aircraft missiles, tanks, and suicide bombers occasionally kill people. Despite all of that, most of those people at least admire the promise of the West. Moreover, the article mentioned something about cosmopolitan lovers of democracy or some such claptrap that are an endangered species. Since that is probably true, I certainly can't think every Arab thinks the West is nothing but a marauding force of technologically-gifted third-world rapists.

    Referencing ID was an analogy on my part where I said "It's like that movie Independence Day..." not "It is that movie Independence Day..." It's a convenient, albeit lazy, way to draw a comparison between two disparate things like a shitty movie and the complexity of Arab views of the west.

    For those unfortunate enough to “be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” I don't see how a force that killed your family due to "collateral damage" with a weapon that cost more money then you could make in 10000 lifetimes could be seen as anything BUT an alien invader. I know when the Rigelians vaporize my wife and children with a Thorium-infused laser built in the Geltor Quadrant, my views of their entire civilization might become a little a skewed.

  • ||

    I think what John and I are saying is that there's a rather significant swath of the Arab world that hasn't been subject to what your family experienced. That makes the aggregate Arab view of the West even more conflicted and complicated than you're arguing.

    Interesting that there are a lot of ex-pats that moved East and South from all the bombing and death, too, and are doing quite well. Maybe it's because they see the southern coast of the Gulf as a little outpost of the West, but I doubt that's the main draw.

  • ||

    but they do all hate jews.
    i once had a conversation with a really nice egyptian woman in egypt, a grandma, who talked about her kids and grandkids and I should be married and I was so pretty that alot of men must want to marry me and her hopes for the future, and how the US and muslims should be better friends, and how she felt that Hitler was right about the jews, because they were such troublesome people, bad people, who cared only about themselves. Not that she approved of the holocaust, but really, they kind of deserved it. And she was a nice as she could be. at moments like that your realize even though we all have our hopes and dreams and love our families, we are not all alike.

  • Brn||

    That sounds like so many conversations that I had when I was living in the UAE too.

    It was impossible to have a rational conversation about Israel or "the Jews", who were responsible for every bad thing in the world. Every bad thing that the US did was because we were brainwashed by our "Jewish owned media".

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    "Arabs would have less of a reason to rally behind their kleptocracies"

    They don't rally behind their kleptocracies anymore than Soviet people rallied behind Brezhnev. The dictators just keep the lid on a boiling kettle and pretend to the world that everybody loves them. If they lose power suddenly - well, watch Iraqi civil strife how the real "rallying" looks like. Not even presence of foreign armies in the country prevented quite some bloodshed between former neighbors in the same neighborhoods.

    Semi- and fully-totalitarian regimes are experts in performing spectacular "manifestations of national unity" on the main squares of their capitals, but aside from naive Westerners, no one buys that for genuine support.

    We had very meticulously organized "spontaneous demonstrations of the working class in support of Communism" in the former Czechoslovakia, and politicians like Syria's Assad family learnt that kind of art from the former Eastern Bloc.

    Rallying behind kleptocracies ... hehe, of course you're going to "rally" on state holidays, when you're told by your boss "buses are prepared on tomorrow 7:00 am - be there or lose your job", and, as a bonus, you get the rest of the day off.

  • ||

    All good points. They hate their governments more than they hate us. In fact, one of the reasons why some of them hate us is because they see us as supporters of their governments.

  • ||

    You can't even really throw "all" Arabs in that pot, though. Strange as it may seem, there is a massive amount of love for some of the rulers over there. It's almost totally in the immediate southern Gulf states not named "Saudi", but it's there. Demonstrations, staged or otherwise, supportive of the regime or otherwise, simply don't happen. They're kept fat and happy by three things:
    1. Oil money
    2. A huge tourist economy
    3. Leaders who are perceived (in some cases, rightly) as benevolent fathers who led their countries out of the stone age in less than 50 years.

  • ||

    And I think the Saudis are growing tired of their religious state.

    http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article.aspx?id=175779

    The radicals only resort to terrorism because few people would voluntarily live that lifestyle.

  • ||

    Saudis are certainly tired of their unaccountable ruling class. Coupled with diminishing oil brib...err payouts throughout the 90's and 00's, and they were getting pretty pissed. Now that the price of oil has come back to a semi-high level, they're a little less impatient, but I do think the tide is turning.

    Of course when it does, there will be a whole lot of people pissed off at both their regime AND the West.

  • ||

    But I think most of them just want to live a Western lifestyle. Every Saudi I have ever met, granted a sample of about 10, hates the religious police, wants a VISA to the west, a nice house, a big TV and a car.

  • ||

    Yeah, but that's a very self-selected sample, John. You're talking to Saudis who have already taken the plunge and are therefore already predisposed to that attitude. There are different Saudis who just hopped over a border and are living large, but in a pretty hybrid way.

    What neither of us has likely talked to is the Saudi who doesn't have the means to leave the Kingdom, hanging out in the desert outside Riyadh or in a shitty shack in the suburbs of Jeddah.

  • MNG||

    I think the populations there hate their regimes, but they also hate Israel apart from that and hate what they see as our support for Israel and their regimes. So we get plenty of the hate too, and it's genuine. It's really not that hard to understand how they can do all of that with some feeling of consistency.

  • ||

    Some of the populations hate their regimes. It's hard to believe or accurately describe the widespread love of the ruling class in the UAE, but it's absolutely real.

    As a consequence, the hate for Israel is mostly reflexive and not terribly genuine - they express it because they think they should. Hell, the regime they love so much engages in trade with Israel, though it's quite under-the-table.

    There's resentment for sure. But it's nothing like the boiling hatred seen in areas closer to Israel. Again, it's very complicated.

  • MNG||

    I think they express it partly out of a feeling of identity with the Palestinians (whatever their differences they identify with them more than with Israelis who most Arabs feel don't "belong" there at all) and partly out of the same frustration most of the world shares at some of Israel's seemingly more egregious actions. I imagine this is fueled by knowing that since our support is going to be quite consistent nothing will be done about the latter.

  • ||

    The feeling of identity with Palestinians IS a factor, probably bigger than hate of Israel. It goes from half-hearted, humanitarian-based sympathy to full-on financial support, but it's really pretty distant once you get beyond the immediate neighborhood.

  • ||

    It is genuine. But there isn't much we could do about it. The regimes use the hate of Israel and the West to deflect the hate directed against them. Israel could disappear tomorrow and the regimes would just find some new grudge to stoke.

  • ||

    Again, John, not everywhere. Most Emiritis don't really give a shit about Israel one way or the other, despite what their newspapers say. Qataris have healthy debates about it. Bahrainis don't much care about anything but being a playground for partying Saudis. Omanis don't care about much aside from surviving from day-to-day in a place that is almost completely bereft of the same tourist influences of its neighbors, lacks oil, and doesn't have much infrastructure. Yemenis mostly just care about taking sides in their own civil war.

    Israel is pretty far from the minds of most of the everyday citizens in these places. Hell, even in Kuwait, they largely don't care. They may put on a show, but it's pretty half-assed.

  • MNG||

    I hear that from the right a lot, but it sounds incredible to me. We have to believe that the hate is totally manufactured, that the actions of Israel itself have nothing to do with it. It's just Arabs sitting around projecting or being manipulated by their goverments, which, of course, we are told by the same folks their governments sincerly hate. Doesn't that sound less appealing that just taking Arabs at their words?

  • ||

    MNG,
    1. Are you assuming I'm "on the right"?
    2. It may sound incredible to you, but it's true. I've been there. The only time Israel comes up is in the editorial pages and on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya (i.e. the opinionmakers). No one talks much about it otherwise. They don't think it's right what Israel does and they feel kinship with Palestine, but the societies that are physically far away from the conflict and do business with The Zionists have a very real cap on that hate.

    So yeah, I'm taking the Arabs I know and talk to at their word. I'm taking most of the citizenry of places I've been at their word.

  • MNG||

    I agree that in many Arab states the people don't wander around obsessed with hate for Israel (or the US for that matter). People have better things to do with their days. I agree with your statement that they feel a kinship with the Palestinians and feel the Israeli's often are guilty of some serious things.

  • ||

    It is both. The Arabs and the Israelis have been at war for decades. It hardly surprising that they hate each other. But it is also hardly surprising that regimes use that hate for their own political advantage. But don't kid yourself into thinking that those regimes give a shit about the Palestinians and don't make things worse for Palestinians for domestic purposes.

    There is only a Palestinian refugee problem because none of the Arab states will take them in. The Arabs kicked out hundreds of thousands of Jews after the 1948 war, yet we don't have a Jewish refugee problem. Gaza is a hellhole not only because the Israelis built the wall and won't let anything in but also because the Egyptians have closed their border and won't let any supplies in either.

    Israel is not without sin in this. Their policies in the occupied territories are barbaric. But no less barbaric than the internal policies of many Arab countries. And the effects of those policies could be greatly reduced if the Arab countries would actually do something to help the Palestinians.

    The Left is biased against Jews and hates Israel. The Right is biased against Arabs. As a result, both sides refuse to accept the fact that both the Arabs and the Israelis and the Palestinians for that matter are to blame for the plight of the Palestinians.

  • MNG||

    "The Left is biased against Jews"

    WTF? Intellectually the left is fairly dominated by Jews. Have you ever seen the voting patterns of Jewish US voters? They're a big part of the left dude.

  • ||

    That is why Mersheimer and Walt are welcomed in Leftwing circles. That is why Leftists in Europe and the US have Marches with radical Islamists.

    Once you start talking about the "Jewish Lobby" and "Zionism" you pretty much fit the description of being biased against Jews. Antisemitism was always socialism for dumb people. But the collective guilt of class belonging to socialism and race belonging to antisemitism always ran hand and hand. It is one big nasty collectivist stew. And as a result, liberals fall from one to the other and people like Stephen Walt get held up as serious thinkers.

  • ||

    Yes, today the Left is biased against Jews. You can see it in any European country, where the Left participates in rallies that have banners such as "Death to All Jews" as the *least* ugly stuff. This attitude comes about in spite of much of the US Left being Jewish, because they identify with being an "intellectual" more than with being a Jew.

    On campuses, where most of the Left in the US is created, you cannot be anything but Left if you expect to be taken seriously in much of student society. Most Jewish students I met "on the Left" were certain they were among "the intellectuals", *because* they were on the Left.

    The Jews are now hated as an extension of the hatred of Israel by the Left. This is strange to some who remember that the Left supported Israel at its founding, as a model for Social Democracy. Israel now is hated by the Left since they "betrayed" those calling themselves "the socialist camp", between 1956 and 1967. In that time-frame Israel picked policies leading to their survival in an area of heavily armed Soviet client States. Then, when the only outside Army to conquer Arabia in 200 years put troops east of the Red Sea in Yemen, the US took notice that Nasser's Soviet client state was a threat to Mideast oil. The US then truly made friends with Israel, who were the only possible counterbalance to the Egyptian Army. That started the real criticism of Israel on the Left.

    When, in 1967, Israel destroyed the Egyptian forces facing them, and forced Egyptian withdrawal from the Arabian Peninsula, the Left's disdain for Israel went ballistic.

    So, the Left began in the 1960s, by hating Israel's "betrayal" of "the socialist camp", and by the 1980s were beginning to broaden that to many Jews who were *not* "on the Left". Since 1991, when the Soviet exemplum for the Left vanished, they have had little to cling to in Foreign Policy but their opposition to Israel. In that their allies all hate Jews, the Left has allowed that to rub off on them, because it makes it easier to work with their allies that way.

    And *that* is how the Left became anti-Jewish.

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    Think this: most of the Arabs 300+ miles away from Israel know around nothing about Israel personally.

    Outside Syria, Egypt and Lebanon, direct military confrontation with Israelis is an unknown thing. No burnt villages in Kuwait, no refugee camps in Morocco, no high electrified border fences in the UAE.

    Therefore, any feeling towards the Israelis must be rather impersonal in those distant places.

    Media can't make you *really* hate someone, at least when it comes to the mass population. Of course there will be outliers radicalized by mere words. But in most cases, personal hatred needs personal reason - loss or fear of loss.

    Most Arabs know that they risk nothing from Israel.

    As for taking someone at their words, I wouldn't take any politically active person at their word, Arab or European or Chinese. Normal people from the street, yes, but political activists usually have an agenda.

  • ||

    MK, you said what I was trying to say, but better.

  • ||

    they have always hated their regimes. There is a saying, me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the village, me and my village against the world, or something like that. Not agreeing amongst themselves does not mean not hating jews or christians or for that matter hindus or anyone else. Loyalty to Islam is first, last, and always regardless of anything else.

  • ||

    Who's "they"? Because I have quite a bit of experience that says the situation is way more complicated than "they have always hated their regimes."

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    I believe that, for instance, Jordanians or Moroccans highly respect their respective monarchies.

    Apart from young urban radicals, which are in opposition in almost any culture :-D

  • Keyboard Commando||

    An old Palestinian buddy of mine said that a couple of times only he laid it out thusly "Brother against brother, brothers against cousin, brothers and cousins against the Infidel."

    He himself was a gentle soul and more than happy to be away from all that shit.

  • Brn||

    Actually you can't throw all 'Gulf states not named "Saudi"' in one pot either. In my three years in the UAE, I met many Emiratis who didn't like much of what they saw as Western pollution of their Islamic culture.

    These people would openly praise their leaders, but only because it is unhealthy to not do so. (One of my co-workers told me that people who criticize the sheikhs openly end up "behind the sun" (i.e. never seen again).

  • ||

    Sure, there are those who are not as accepting of the Westernization, and some who would criticize their leaders. On the other hand, the criticism was usually qualified heavily whenever I heard it. You are right about open criticism typically being harshly punished. But the adulation in many cases was pretty fucking sincere (and extremely creepy, certainly by Western standards).

  • jtuf||

    I don't think removing the West from involvement in Arab lands will improve the situation. For centuries, Arabs scapegoated and oppressed Jews who were indigenous to those lands. Once the Jews fled a few decades ago, most of the haters just switched to going after Arab Christians and which ever branch of Muslims was a local minority.

  • The Ghost of T.E. Lawrence||

    "a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous, and cruel"

  • ||

    Of course Lawrence was talking about the tribes of the Arabian peninsula not the more cosmopolitan Egyptians or Iraqis.

  • ||

    http://www.firstthings.com/blo.....at-is-all/

    And if this is what Muslim liberation means, count me as a yes.

  • ||

    She went to Catholic schools, and she's a pole dancer, not a fanatical Muslim, I'm guessing.

  • ||

    No she is not. In fact I think "new model Muslim" is a more appropriate term.

  • ||

    There's a Catholic school down the road that has several Muslims, and a couple of Hindus. Going to a Catholic school does not require adherence to Catholicism, or even much of a diminished following of one's own religion.

  • ||

    A fair number of Muslims send their kids to Catholic schools. They don't want to send them to an Islamic school. But they do want them to be in a more conservative environment, which kind of failed in this case since she ended doing pole dances.

  • ||

    Their motivation is education, not "conservativeness". Catholic schools tend to do a better job educating. The second (and almost as important) factor is status. Outward showings of status are very important in cultural groups not far removed from that area of the world.

  • ||

    Conservativeness is part of it. Just becsause you are not some burka wearing fanatic, doesn't mean you buy into American culture in all of its decadence. My wife worked for several small small catholic colleges. Those colleges both had sizable Muslim communities. The schools recruited them because they tended to be full pays. And the recruiting appeal was to send your daughter to a more religious and conservative environment than a state school.

  • jtuf||

    Proof that the most effective way to liberate Arabs is to allow them to immigrate to America.

  • ||

    no, liberal orders are not likely to be more stable in the long run or any run. In fact, liberalism is destabilizing as Samuel Huntington said in his books. What happens is that the liberal order ends up doing alot of non liberal things to survive. The shah was a liberal. He was hated for that reason. To not be overthrown he did some bad stuff. Then the people who took over were far meaner than he ever dreamed of being, but for a while it was what the people wanted. They wanted strict religious rule. Then some of them got tired of it.
    liberalism means this. I can do whatever I want but I won't do it. If a person is elected that I don't like, I won't bomb something. If my group is at a disadvantage in some way, I will use the law to change things, but I won't create a civil war. I will cooperate and be peaceful even when I don't want to. If someone makes more money than me, I won't become envious and try to kill them. I will do all this and more although I really don't have to because no one's boot is on my neck. This is the agreement. Most cultures don't have it. Arabs dont have it. Liberalism means having an opportunity to get your enemies or to raise a ruckus or grab power. Then things get out of hand, and a strong man has to come along to restore order. And when that happens people are relieved, even the people raising the ruckus are glad that the strong boot has stamped down.
    Arabs have always been infighting. First, they need to arrive at some kind of consensus of no infighting. Then they can get the liberal order. But they may not want it. Remember these are people who have a lot in common ethnically and religiously and should be able to get along. But they can’t any more than the French and Germans could some time ago. We assume that the path taken by europeans will be taken by everyone and that everyone wants it. Not so. Liberalism is boring and tedious. Tolerance is a pain. There is a reason that russians like Stalin. Let’s not assume that liberalism is the natural condition of the world.

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    Nanda, the Shah was only "liberal" from the religious point of view.

    His way of ruling the country nevertheless bordered on totalitarianism.

    He wasn't overthrown because he allowed women to walk without headscarves.

    He was overthrown because his plays with agricultural collectivization and attempts to build crony state-run pseudo-capitalism tore the social fabric of Iran apart and mocked any sense of justice. The discontent people then swept him apart without thinking much what the next regime is going to be like. Just to get rid of the social engineering.

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    Sorry, aside, not apart.

    Non-native speaker here.

  • ||

    Indeed. The Shah was an enormous asshole. Iranian society has tended to always be more liberal than its leaders throughout its history, whether it be religiously or socially or economically, with one brief exception in and around 1979.

    They traded a socially illiberal tyrant for a group of religiously illiberal tyrants.

  • ||

    Sounds a bit like the Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks were never popular and few thought they would actually take over. I read somewhere that Kerensky while he was teaching at Stanford in the 1960s was asked why he didn't have Lenin shot. He responded that he didn't consider Lenin import enough to shoot.

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    That is certainly plausible.

    Plus, Kerensky was quite liberal and probably didn't enjoy handing out death penalties.

    Death penalty was actually going out of style even in Imperial Russia pre-1914, down to units per year (in a nation of 100 million. Even Austria-Hungary had more executions), with internal exile to Siberia being preferred.

    Only with the bolshevik coup its use grew again - massively.

  • jtuf||

    The Shaw was overthrown by a coalition of Muslim radicals and Communist/Socialist radicals. Once he was gone, the Muslim radicals wiped out the Communist/Socialist radicals.

  • ||

    Artie Shaw?

  • ||

    INPEACH OBAMA In democratic societies like the United States, the voting process is a means by which citizens hold their government accountable, conflicts are channeled into resolutions, and power transfers peacefully. Our system of representative government works only when honest ballots are not diluted by fraudulent ballots. When elections become corrupted, democracy becomes threatened.
    The FBI has a limited role in ensuring fair and free elections in the United States. Election crimes become federal cases when:
    The ballot includes one or more federal candidates;
    The crime involves an election official abusing his duties;
    The crime pertains to fraudulent voter registration;
    Voters are not U.S. citizens.
    First Name: kenyan born at the white house
    Last Name: TRUTH
    Address: AMERICA
    Address: INPEACH OBAMA
    City: USA
    State: usa THE END OF AMERICA
    NPR archive describes Obama as 'Kenyan-born'
    Michelle say Barack born in Kenya
    Obama's grandmother say he was born in Kenya
    Subject: OBAMA SAID approval ratings are still very high in the country of my birth.
    Message: INPEACH OBAMA TO THE WEAK-KNEED REPUBLICANS AND DEMOCRAT
    obama people have no idea of the extent to which they have to be gulled in order to be led." "The size of the lie is a definite factor in causing it to be believed, for the vast masses of the nation are in the depths of their hearts more easily deceived than they are consciously and intentionally bad. The primitive simplicity of their minds renders them a more easy prey to a big lie than a small one, for they themselves often tell little lies but would be ashamed to tell a big one." "All propaganda must be so popular and on such an intellectual level, that even the most stupid of those towards whom it is directed will understand it. Therefore, the intellectual level of the propaganda must be lower the larger the number of people who are to be influenced by it." "Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way around, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise. "pelosi don't see much future for the Americans ... it's a decayed country. And they have their racial problem, and the problem of social &^% ...obama feelings against Americanism are feelings of hatred and deep repugnance ... everything about the behaviour of American society reveals that it's half &^%, and the other half &^& How can one expect a State like that to hold TOGTHER.They include the angry left wing bloggers who spread vicious lies and half-truths about their political adversaries... Those lies are then repeated by the duplicitous left wing media outlets who “discuss” the nonsense on air as if it has merit… The media's justification is apparently “because it's out there”, truth be damned. State: *usa Obama chuckles at America*
    If YOU PASS THE NORTH KOREAN BORDER ILLEGALLY YOU GET 12 YRS HARD LABOR, YOU PASS THE AFGHAN BORDER ILLEGALLY YOU GET SHOT. Under the Mexican law, illegal immigration is a felony, punishable by up to two years in prison,Mexicans who help illegal immigrants are considered criminalsThere is no immigration allowed in China, India, Bangladesh, Russia, Japan, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Turkey and MOST other countries YOU PASS THE AMERICAN BORDER ILLEGALLY YOU GET A JOB, DRIVER'S LICENSE, ALLOWANCE FOR A PLACE TO LIVE, HEALTH CARE, EDUCATION, BILLIONS OF DOLLARS SPENT SO YOU CAN READ A DOCUMENT. WE CARRY PASSPORTS IN OTHER COUNTRIES OR FACE JAIL TIME. REPOST THIS IF YOU AGREE!! ((STOP COMMUNIST OBAMA)) THE COMMANDER

  • ||

    Well that was unnecessary.

    And awesome. Anything that starts with the word "INPEACH" is ipso facto outstanding.

  • Joel||

    "Our motto: We Wanna Be MORE Like North Korea, China, India, Bangladesh, Russia, Japan, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Turkey and MOST other countries! That's Change We Can Believe In!

    "Oh, and Inpeach Obama."

  • ||

    No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President.

    It says "natural born" not "native born". Obama's mother was a US Citizen, making him a US Citizen.

    Stop this silliness.

  • ||

    Democracy is greatly over-rated as a "civilizing" influence. Economic freedom, a rule of law etc no matter the political structure civilizes to some extent, but not democracy. One could argue, in fact, that once a consistently voting majority of any nation discovers that it can vote itself benefits from the voting minority - in fact, from all a nation's tax-payers - then civilization begins to decay, as everything becomes politically determined and all power is subsumed into that of the state.

    Democracy isn't something one can impose by force, whether from foreign sources or from domestic sources. It arises from the development of the necessary and sufficient pre-conditions; mostly, it never develops, neither does a free-market economy.

  • ||

    Ike|5.18.10 @ 10:36AM|#
    "Democracy is greatly over-rated as a "civilizing" influence. Economic freedom, a rule of law etc no matter the political structure civilizes to some extent, but not democracy. One could argue, in fact, that once a consistently voting majority of any nation discovers that it can vote itself benefits from the voting minority - in fact, from all a nation's tax-payers - then civilization begins to decay, as everything becomes politically determined and all power is subsumed into that of the state."

    Agreed. Democracy, for the reasons you state is indeed detrimental to freedom.
    In order for democracy to deliver the goods, it *must* be limited by something near to a Constitution; it must be a Republic.

  • ||

    No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President.

    It says "natural born" not "native born. Obama's mother was a US Citizen, making him a US Citizen.

    Stop this silliness.

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    I wonder whether the clause prohibits potential homonculi or clones from becoming US Presidents.

  • jacob||

    Apparently it doesn't prohibit them from posting on reason

  • Fiscal Meth||

    The "Just War Clause" is the harbinger of all neverending wars. The only role of a military is to protect its own country's citizens, not to go to war with counties to serve/promote their interests. Let them mount their own revolution build their own schools settle their own civil disputes. It's the second they support efforts to kill Americans that they should see tanks at which point we should not be trying to bring them democracy or schools or food or hospitals, if we must be over there it should be to win a war with as few casualties to our own soldiers as possible and no other goal

  • ChrisO||

    An apparent flaw of the American political character is a desire to get involved in the internal affairs of every Third World shithole out there. Hopefully, not a fatal flaw.

    Over the long term, Switzerland's foreign policy is healthier for a liberal people than the British Empire's.

  • yes||

    Agreed. Switzerland was wise to not use its vast navy to project its power overseas.

    Seriously, don't give moral credit to a country for not doing something it had no power to do.

  • jtuf||

    Machiavelli got it right when he said you must make your people either love you or fear you. I take social science research with a large grain of salt, but one empirical study supports Machiavelli's advice. Terrorist incidents are most common in countries with moderate levels of oppression. In completely or nearly free societies, the people like the government enough to stay peaceful. In completely or nearly totalitarian societies, the people fear the government enough to stay peaceful. The challenge is changing a totalitarian society in to a free society without going through the blood shed that normally occurs in a moderately oppressive society.

  • jtuf||

    Anyone who goes to yahoo chat can see that Arabs run the gambit. They range from anti-semitic haters looking to insult others to tolerant chatters looking for interfaith dialogue. They go from folks who defend their governments' censorship of porn sites to guys in the gay chat room looking to cam. And that's just the people I've met since this March.

  • ||

    It's true that Arab culture lacks the foundations of liberty, but to assume that because it lacks those foundations liberty can never appear there assumes that the Middle East is hermetically sealed.

    Arabs can - and have - learned the principles of liberty from others.

    Iraq held elections recently and is currently undergoing a peaceful political transition. Yes, illiberal forces are attempting to derail that process, but that doesn't mean they'll succeed.

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    Liberty is contagious, as is democratic political system.

    In 1850, there were few functional democracies in the world, and even those had some serious flaws. Contrast it with today.

    If Russians, of all people, learnt at least to know and value some freedom of speech etc., to the degree that they oppose Putinist attempts to curtail it, then Arabs can learn that as well.

    Iraqi media scene is quite strong and independent - attacking home politicians in a way that is completely unseen in the rest of the Arabic world. How many TV stations are there in Iraq, 30? How many radio stations, 600? That is helluva noise for a region that was used to boring 4-hour speeches by the Leaders of The People.

  • ||

    Attaturk?; Oil?; Zionism?

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  • ปลวก||

    I think what John and I are saying is that there's a rather significant swath of the Arab world that hasn't been subject to what your family experienced.

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