(My Middle East)

77 days with a journalist, Lebanon, and a list of non sequiturs

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Summer reading Vol. 4 | Engaging the Muslim World

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The fourth edition of the summer reading series is Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole. I hadn’t read a whole lot of Cole’s work before this, maybe just his recent Iran stuff, so this a nice change of authors from Friedman last week.

When I read academic books I usually keep a small page of paper with me to jot things down that I want to remember. For this book, I kept a lot of notes. Which isn’t to say that the book was particularly good or bad, but that Cole went after dozens of topics, anything from Energy Independence to Wahhabis, and Syrian Baathists.

The book  didn’t quite read like one continuous work rather a series of essays on different topics. It was a little bit disconcerting because even inside each chapter Cole would use ‘breaks’ to jump around to different decades and subtopics inside that chapter.

Because the books includes so many topics, its clearly wasn’t academically exhaustive. Cole sometimes glosses over details to help make his point. A particular reach was his insistence that VP Dick Cheney wanted war with Iraq to secure accesses to Iraqi Oil by American companies. But the books is instructive in pointing out the hypocrisies and incongruity in American foreign policy. Cole points to the lack of logic behind American claims that most Saudi Arabian Wahhabis are radical or the irony when the Ford administration authorized a plutonium reprocessing plant in Iran in the 70’s (Cole is insistent that Iran is not attempting to get a nuclear weapon, a claim that David Sanger in The Inheritance, my next book, strongly disagrees with)

In the end Engaging the Muslim World is a series of reminders about the very western, Americanized way that most people in the U.S. view the world. If you’ve spent your life watching American TV and reading the New York Times, its a great reminder that there are other perspectives out there and American policy isn’t nearly as clear cut as its made out to be.

That being said, Cole uses the end of every chapter to make sweeping recommendations about policy changes and leaves little room for nuance on complex issues, he always seems to have an excuse for what America is doing wrong that makes one ideology not match up with another. But the book is a great jumping off point for a start of a much more through analysis into all the topics Cole covers.

Heres some of the key points that Cole brings up (his ideas not mine):

  • U.S. has acted to protect its energy interest in the world, installing and backing up oil regimes (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq). Neomercantalism is dying/dead
  • Oil dependency doesnt work, most alternative fuels wont work either
  • Solar is the way forward
  • U.S. needs better relationship with “Islamic oil”.
  • U.S. backed the militant Islamic fighters in the 90’s who are not fought as terrorists
  • Muslim world and Western world are equally religious. Secular politics in America is disconected from grass roots America
  • Saudi 9/11 connection not plausible. Bin Laden hated Saudi royal family
  • King Saud was the counter weight to Nasser
  • Wahabis not killing people (very sympathetic to Saudi Arabia)
  • Abdullah acts in ways better for Saudi and America than Fahd did
  • U.S. surge in Iraq achieved dubious results partially by more ethnic cleansing
  • Hypocrcy of not granting Iraqis Assaylum in any reasonable numbers even those who helped Americans
  • U.S. ignores leftist insurgents because it doesnt fit the message
  • Federally Administered Tribal Area in Pakistan outside of the law, no local administrator. Pashtuns have system of equality
  • Pakistan military/intelligence funds the Taliban
  • Iraq invasion increased Iran power
  • Ahmedinijad not global threat. Khameini holds the cards
  • Iran won’t attack Israel
  • US nuke approval in Iran in 76
  • Great Game (pre-WWI) to partition Iran between British and Russians made Iran deeply suspicious
  • Democratically elected Mossadegh deposed in CIA coup bad for relations
  • Hezbollah = Small paramilitary
  • In the conclusion: Stop being bigots, no more Islamiphobia or American/Islam anxiety, West needs to translate enlightenment ideas and books that aren’t available in the Middle East, engagement is the key, international frustration over Palestinian issue is building, energy demand will become a crisis

Final Rating (out of 5): 3.5

Summer Reading Ratings

Killing Mr Lebanon by Nicholas Blanford: 4.5

In the Path of Hizbullah by Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh: 3.7

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman: 4.0

Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole: 3.5

The Inheritance by David E. Sanger

The Great War for Civilization by Robert Fisk

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Written by stephenddockery

July 24, 2009 at 11:15 am

Summer reading Vol. 3 | From Beirut to Jerusalem

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The third book on my summer reading list was From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman. Some of you may know that I particularly dislike Friedman’s current Op-Ed pieces where he parachutes into a city and makes outlandish claims. But this book, does not fall into that category. Apparently there are definitive good Friedman and bad Friedman eras.

To start off this book is not the place to go for a primer on Lebanon or even Beirut. Friedman has relatively little to offer that isn’t covered better elsewhere when it comes to understanding the state of Lebanon. I would recommend Fisk or Mackey for that.

From Beirut to Jerusalem is a bit like extended Op-Ed pieces on several different topics, which is what he’s best at. In the Beirut section Friedman tackles the PLO, particularity Arafat, Beirut psychology, and the nature of Middle East governments in general. His ability to explain things in a way a Western audience understands is the selling point of his writing, it particularly shines through when he explains the reasoning behind government decisions in the Middle East, what he calls “Hama rules.” That being said the Beirut section is defeintly the weakest part of the book, it is often repetitive with writing on Lebanon and the Palestinians thats covered in more depth elsewhere.

It’s in the section on Jerusalem that Friedman’s best comes through. Friedman is Jewish himself and its something that he doesn’t hide when reporting or writing and thats what make this section so valuable. He analyzes the composition of the Israeli state, its search for identity and tumultuous relationship with American Jews. Friedman conveys this so well because they are all things that he has an intensely personal relationship with. You can feel the ups and downs of his personal relationship with Israel in his writing, and he doesn’t shy away from injecting his own thoughts into the writing. I rarely felt these personal additions took away anything from the book, his writing is by no means a historical account of anything, but like a good Op-Ed piece a different way of looking at a subject. Its very readable and would be a good starting point for approaching the reading

Heres some of the key points I pulled from the book, according to Friedman. This was published in 1989 but much of it holds true today:

  • Arafat was hopelessly locked between unhelpful Arab governments and a base of support with unrealistic goals. It was the West Bank Intifada that represented a realistic and natural Palestinian resistance
  • PLO failed to make any settlement when they had the chance. Their leadership was hopelessly disorganized.
  • Tribalism and self preservation guide most decision making by Middle East governments. Their history is one where the most powerful man must be ready to ruthlessly defend his honor, property and territory and are ready now to do the same. Friedman compares this way of self preservation to the rationale behind brutal suppression of dissidents in a rulers country, like the Hama massacre.
  • Labor and Likud really aren’t that much different.
  • Israel lacks its own definitive identity and can’t be a serious player in making peace and determining another states identity until it figures out who it is. The differences between secular Israelis, Orthodox Jews, messianic Zionists, and ultra-Orthodox is what keeps the country do divided, particularly on the peace plan.
  • Unusual and often resentful relationship between American Jews and Israeli Jews, both blame each other for not living up to expectations. Reform Judaism that is everywhere in America is barely present and not accepted in Israel
  • Israel has no real reason to give up its land. It has almost all the power in the peace process and It feels more secure with the current limited threats than creating a state for its adversaries. No countries willingly give up land.
  • Israel is featured so prominently in the media because of its connection to the Bible, the way the Western world views the world. Israel is held to a higher standard by most and people love reading about its misdeeds or successes because of that Bible connection, so other countries where worse things could be happening get less attention.

Final Rating (out of 5): 4.0

Summer Reading Ratings

Killing Mr Lebanon by Nicholas Blanford: 4.5

In the Path of Hizbullah by Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh: 3.7

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman: 4.0

Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole

The Inheritance by David E. Sanger

The Great War for Civilization by Robert Fisk

Written by stephenddockery

June 28, 2009 at 5:12 pm

Summer reading Vol. 2 | In the Path of Hizbullah

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What happened to Vol. 1.0 you ask , well that was Killing Mr Lebanon, which I already wrote about in past posts, and received a stellar rating of 4.5 out of 5.

The second item on my reading list is In the Path of Hizbullah by Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh. For those who want an understanding of what Hizbollah is, how it works, and what it’s about, that isn’t tainted by Western preconceptions, this is a good place to start. Hamzeh goes through detailed numbers graphs and research to give you an idea of every working part of the Hizbollah apparatus (if you do get your hands on a copy of the book, check out the graph on page 46 that shows all 19 sections of Hezbollahs operation.) That being said, its not a completely ideal work on Hezbollah. The writing tries a little too hard to be academic with convoluted sentence structure and questionable word choice making the book not easily approachable for an average reader (but at only 150 pages it’s not so bad). Also occasionally the Hamzeh can be a little overly glowing about Hezbollah, which is understandable given the sensitive nature of his subject, but is also something to look out for.

Some of the key points I pulled out of the book:

  • Hezbollah is a committed and principled organization, it has a complex structure of which the resistance arm is only part. Hamzeh steers clear of an in depth analysis of Hezbollah’s weapons, and instead focuses on their political and social network.
  • Hezbollah’s social services are far more advanced and help far more people than does the government of Lebanon, not to mention most other small states.
  • Hezbollah’s tie to Iran is difficult to understate, millions of dollars for its political and military aims are channeled through the supreme leader. That being said, Hezbollah is not tied to the government of Iran, but rather the supreme leader, Khamenei, who is essentialy at the head of Hezbollah’s religious government based on Velayat-e Faqih. Khameni and can provide final arbitration and guidance for Hezbollahs leaders.
  • Hamzeh thinks Hezbollah uses politics and democracy to achieve its aims, not because it is a democratic institution. In fact the system of Velayat-e Faqih is not very democratic at all.
  • Islamic order is it’s the final goal. Currently resistance is the key to achieving that. Hezbollah will continue to resist: until Jerusalem.

Final Rating (out of 5): 3.7

Summer Reading Ratings

Killing Mr Lebanon by Nicholas Blanford: 4.5

In the Path of Hizbullah by Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh: 3.7

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman

Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole

The Inheritance by David E. Sanger

The Great War for Civilization by Robert Fisk

Written by stephenddockery

June 22, 2009 at 3:09 pm