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.

History is not always as clear-cut as Smith claims. For instance, the tensions between Arab nationalism and political Islamism were genuine, even though they were neutralized over time as Arab nationalism failed. By positing the timeless and absolute nature of the Middle East's pathologies, Smith misses dynamics that might temper his bleakness.

The potential for Arab states to transcend their current condition depends crucially on their capacity to become democratic, a subject that forms the conceptual core of this book. Smith very much wants to believe in democracy because he believes in the democrats he met and befriended throughout the region. He is wary of political realists who dismiss the notion that democratization should be a mainstay of American foreign policy, who think Washington should not trouble itself with the domestic behavior of its partners, dictators or democrats.

Yet Smith ends up concluding, as have many prominent realists, that while Arabs would like to choose their leaders, "the accommodations and compromises between contending points of view, which [are] the signature of a democratic and secular society…have no foundations in a region where history has convinced people that there was always good reason to fear your neighbor." Smith nevertheless adds that for Americans to give democracy a chance in the Middle East, they would "have to show they were willing to protect the few genuine and useful allies they had, and continue to go after the groups and regimes that were doing all they could to crush any genuine liberal upsurge in the region."

In other words, Arab democrats need the helping hand of American power. But if Arabs lack the foundations for democracy, what can American assistance build upon? 

Although Smith does not resolve this contradiction, he provides the elements of an answer by describing his own experiences. The Middle East is not uniform. America removed a mass murderer from power in Iraq and it helped Lebanon's Cedar Revolution succeed, but it will not soon rock the boat in Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Washington's interests and relationships vary, and so too must its actions. Good policies are rarely applied uniformly. America's inability or reluctance to promote liberty in the same way everywhere does not mean it should do so nowhere, especially since liberal orders are likely to be more stable in the long run. 

The debate over promoting liberty in the Middle East is now taking place on the margins. Most of those writing about the region abandoned the topic long ago, believing that acknowledging the project's merits would mean justifying George W. Bush's war in Iraq. Smith, notwithstanding his doubts, refuses to be so simplistic. He is happy that the Middle East problems are "now being fought out where they belong, not in lower Manhattan, but in the region itself," where "there is no alternative, not yet anyway, to the strong horse."

Still, there is no guarantee that Manhattan, Washington, London, or Madrid will be spared further shocks from a region that exports its troubles with uncanny ease. Who will emerge as the strong horse years from now? It might not be America, unless it redeploys its most potent weapon, a hope for liberty. 

Contributing Editor Michael Young is the opinion editor of the Beirut Daily Star and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle (Simon & Schuster).