on January 26, 2010
Not only is this book informative, but is also one of the most easy-read entertaining books. It collects tidbits from several sources, including an interview with Edward Said in 2003, an interview with Eliot Abrams in 2008, and other substantiating material such as quotes from Said's writings or literature by other authors.
Smith's book is not a textbook per se. It is an attempt at understanding what goes on the mind of the people who are from the Middle East, or those who have written or helped shape policies about the Middle East. In some parts, Smith talks to average Joe Arabs. In other parts, he analyzes French foreign policy on the Middle East and what made former French President Jacques Chirac take an unexpected stance in siding with the United States on Lebanon in 2004.
Still, the most interesting dimension of this book is its theme: While the West and America have certainly contributed to shaping history and events in the Middle East, this history has been largely the making of Middle Easterners - a hypothesis that supporters of Arab nationalism, such as Said, disagree with.
Early in his book, Smith cites a few of the inter-Arab "brotherly" confrontations, where he identifies the role of the United States and the West as being somehow secondary: Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Syrian occupation of Lebanon (1990-2005), the civil wars in North Yemen (1962-1970) and Lebanon (1975-1990), the massacres of Saddam Hussein against the Iraqi Shiites and Kurds in 1991, and the massacres of Hafez Assad against the Syrians of Hama in 1982.
The Strong Horse, a coin phrased by none other than Osama Ben Laden, is a great read. It is worth your money.
As someone who has lived in the Middle East for over thirty- five years and followed its daily events I can attest to the truth of this book's fundamental thesis: i.e. It is not American foreign - policy which is responsible for the endless conflicts in the region, but rather its own historical cultural and political heritage. The tradition of the few ruling the many, of the strong ruler who manipulates the mass in order to stay in power, of the most violent and powerful being the ones admired and followed, is still in place. It is the strong horse not the weak which the great majority of the people in this region admire. Smith details the situation in the respective Arab countries and shows how they are simply not ready for the kind of democratic revolution the West, and primarily the United States would bring to them. Smith is as I understand it, calling for a more modest and realistic American foreign policy, one which in taking into account the inherent problematic character of the region does not entangle itself unduly in impossible tasks which can only lead to disappointment and disillusion.
This work is painful but realistic wake- up medicine for idealistic dreamers (Who in some cases consider themselves political 'realists') but really do not understand what the region is about.
on February 16, 2010
The Strong Horse is a unique book, with an amazing perspective. That alone makes it a jewel in this field where most other books are simplistic analyses of how the "the Western colonial powers" are to blame for everything that is wrong with the Arab culture, politics and use of terror. Compare this book with "The Arabs- A history" a recent book by Eugene Rogan from Oxford University, which typifies the romantic, guilt-ridden, British-naive view of the Middle East as a problem caused by horrible Western intervention. While Rogan's book is read like a piece of anti-Israeli/Anti-American propoganda devoid of any insight, Smith's book sheds a new and surprising light on the real root cause of this monumental war between the civilizations. The most insightful book in years, Smith says it all in the following: They hate us not becasue of who we are or what we do (a common misconception of well wishing liberals) but becasue of who we are NOT - Arabs. As anyone who grew up in Israel knows, Arabs only respect strength and despise weakness. Any sign of the other side weakening brings immediate violence from Arabs who believe deeper than any Westerner can ever understand that the world is about storng horses fighting. That ingrained attitude, cultivated in Arab boys since birth and dating thousand of years into Arab tribal history, makes a policy of appeasement a grave mistake. One wonders if Obama will ever read this book...
on November 19, 2010
Lee Smith's 'The Strong Horse' dismantles many of the false assumptions about the Middle East commonly held by scholars and observers of the region in the West. Most people have a difficult time understanding that not everyone is 'just like us', or holds the same values and ideals as do the citizens of Western democracies. The book's basic thesis should not be controversial: it is that human culture and belief matters, and that Arab political culture, unlike ours in the West, is and always has been violent. For readers used to thinking of the region as inhabited homogeneously by "Arabs", this book will help to break down that myth and demonstrate how Middle Eastern regimes are divided amongst themselves, and how they employ violence to advance their political ends.
But this book also suffers from a number of serious flaws. Firstly, it lacks a truly coherent structure. Smith interweaves accounts of his personal experiences with historic material, contemporary politics, political analysis, and cultural commentary, and reaches conclusions by drawing on all these sources. Although this makes the book somewhat 'lighter' than an academic text, it can also make it difficult to follow and relate back to the book's thesis. The second issue is related to the first: this book resembles more a work of journalism than an academic text. This is not entirely surprising given Smith's background as a journalist, nor is it necessarily a weakness in itself. Footnotes are used very sparingly to support what is, in the academic world at least, a controversial thesis. In light of this it would have been a good idea to devote more time to making the book more academically robust. While conversations with individuals from the Middle East can be helpful in giving us glimpses of 'street wisdom', they cannot entirely substitute for rigorous scholarship. The book is also quite brief on some points, such as Israel's role as the strong horse, and at times makes some highly inaccurate generalizations.
All in all Smith's book is worthwhile and interesting - just be aware that you are buying a work of political commentary written in a journalistic fashion, and be critical as you read.
on May 22, 2010
"The Strong Horse" is one of the best works I've read on Arab politics in years, because it incorporates both historical perspective and the kind of feel for Arab politics you only get from following Arab affairs through the Arab media. I remember after going to study in Jordan years ago, after having completed my undergraduate education in Middle Eastern Studies, and thinking that all the courses I had taken hadn't taught me anything useful about Arab societies, because much of what is produced in academia is written by activist-minded academics who spend too much time talking to Middle Easterners who think the way they do, not the way most Middle Easterners think. The book is breezy and opinionated, not an authoritative treatise for sure, and I wouldn't expect anyone to agree what everything. But I think this is a very good presentation of what Arab politics and societies are really like.
The key challenge in understanding Arab politics, which Smith passes, is steering clear of the Scylla of liberal mirror-imaging (Arab problems arise from victimization by us, can be fixed by progressive reform) and the Charybdis of neoconservative mirror-imaging (Arab problems arise of victimization by their own, can be fixed by democracy) to realize the the region's problems are far more deeply rooted than could ever be caused or fixed by anything the West could ever do.
There are two central points. The first is the theory of the "Strong Horse" - more than anything, Arab politics is driven by the societies' need for the next Arab champion; first it was Nasser, later Hamas or Hizbullah, for some Osama bin Laden (the latter has lost his luster now, however.) This phenomenon arises from a combination of a deep historical memory of Arab and Islamic greatness combined with the last several generations of Arab societies being dominated by the need to react and reassert themselves in the face of a superior - at least in wealth and power - Western civilization. Yes, there are Arab liberals, "human rights" activists, etc., but they do not drive events.
The second is a corollary to the first: those who obtain and maintain power are usually the most efficiently ruthless. Circumstances differ; the monarchies of Jordan and Saudi Arabia can be less ruthless than Syria's ethno-sectarian fascist state because of the former's strong tribal base and the latter's wealth, but power is maintained by power. You can read the book for a more detailed description but the last paragraph of the book summarizes it well:
"The Americans tried a political solution, democracy, and that, along with 9/11, revealed the region's politics for what they truly are... Americans, as long as they have the will to stay, should understand that he who punishes enemies and rewards friends, forbids evil and enjoins good, is entitled to rule, and no other. There is no alternative, not yet anyway, to the strong horse."
on March 9, 2010
This book takes a fresh approach to the problems of international terrorism based in the Middle East. That is, it provides a cultural context for the violence and puts responsibility for it on those who facilitate and support it.
Violence is the norm for Arabs of the region, whose culture is based in tribalism, says the author. There is no non-violent mechanism for the transfer of power from one ruling regime to another in the Arab states. One tribe, the strong horse, rules until it is overcome by violence, and most of the machinations that result in international terrorism are the result of conflicts between Arabs. These conflicts have little to do with what the US or other Western countries have done. International terrorism in the region is Arab politics writ large, inflated by oil money and the need for oil.
on June 14, 2010
The book's greatest strength comes from the author befriending real Arabs in their homelands. They have something illuminating to say too.
Close behind is the author's explanation of a lot of the REAL politics behind the news headlines. Having paid a little more than typical attention to the Middle East over the last 40 years, I've often been puzzled by events reported in the news and even high quality magazines which never seemed to hang together as cogent explanations for events. This book goes a long way, for example, in putting the position of the House of Saud in perspective (rich bumpkins, like Jethro in the Beverly Hillbillies is the impression I got.) Syrian politics was especially enlightening - the despised Alawali ruling minority MUST engage in causing external troubles for others to ensure their own hold on power. This is the ONLY explanation of events in Lebanon I've ever read that have offered some logic and perspective.
One area that I thought could be developed but wasn't was in categorizing Arab political culture as "low trust." By comparison, The US and the UK have been high trust societies where we can reliably expect civil behavior from our fellow citizens. The Arab cultural and political span was achieved by military conquest and held together by frequent political violence from its start down to today. The follow-on empire under the Ottoman's used divide-and-conquer as their standard political management tool, along with sharp brutal reprisals against populations. Little wonder that fear and competition within a tribalist Arab society with many minorities has reduced their creative capacity.
The author didn't hold out much hope for our democratization plans in Iraq, putting him in the Rumsfeldian camp; he also didn't see nor mention any success path for that policy. I remain unconvinced that the establishment of a political umbrella that makes violence unacceptable to the American occupiers is unworkable. We Americans have developed a workable sense of compromise and power sharing over the years. If the Iraqis found that this system worked for them AND they had some time to practice a democratic system, then maybe, just maybe, a more stable and peaceful Middle East could develop. Of course, the Iranians and the other Arab dictators will try to stifle this trend.
Comparing this book to Bernard Lewis' books on similar subjects, this is much more in the current day although with a pertinent explanation of background. Lewis is much more scholarly and has less to say to policy makers. Smith digs much deeper into areas of current events and current Arab attitudes.
Ultimately, it is a sad book. Arab societies are predicted by Smith to continue their millennial-long slide into cultural suicide. American and Western policy must, as a minimum, protect the rest of the world from being drug down with them. Bush at least offered a way back from decline, at great expense to America. Smith expected that to be a too kind offer and one that will ultimately fail. Maybe or maybe not but Smith makes a good case, especially in light of the current administration's policies and behaviors.
on August 16, 2010
Moving way beyong the norm for books written about the middle east and the inter warfare between Sunnis, Sufis, Shiites, the Druze, Maronites and Christines, (I hope I didn't leave anyone out)the author does an outstanding job of sorting out the relationships, the historical animosities and alliances of the factions fighting to be "The Strong Horse." Is it any wonder that middle eastern despots routinely have painting of them astride a large horse? I strongly recommend finding a quiet and peaceful place to read this book, take your time and think about what the author is presenting. It is nothing short of astounding, especially in comparison with the moronic soundbites of CNN et al. No wonder that Lee Smith (at least to my knowledge) has never deigned to explain the Arabic culture and history to a moron like Chris Matthews. I can just imagine the conversation, Matthews"ah ah ah Lee, now let me get this straight, the Sommis are the ones in the majority for the Muslims and the others are trying to form a coalition to overthrow them?" Smith: "not quite, maybe you should just read the book." Matthews: "no time, no time, I have to get to my next guest." "Now, Ms. Jolie, can I call you Angelina? tell us your thoughts on Hazbolah being terrorized by the Israelis?"
Read this book so you will never be confused with Chris Matthews.
on August 18, 2010
How do you become an adult in America and hold onto the worldview that Lee Smith held before 9/11?
This book gives a profound insight into the mindset of American intellectuals -- and how much of that worldview is fantasy.
Most serious people do not labor under the delusion that Arab culture is "westernizable" or that Muslims are "just like us." That is the author's starting point. While it is nice that Smith outgrew his early conditioning, it is a condemnation of our academic, journalistic, and diplomatic elites that they refuse to see what is evident to most regular people: Islam is irreconcilable with western ideals.
Smith discusses Arab politics in the context of death matches, where only the strongest and most ruthless are dominant. The strong horse gets the power, until a stronger horse comes along.
Smith does a good job of showing the American invasion in the light of his strong horse thesis: The US is perceived as STRONG. Our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan shattered the scorched-earth expectations of the middle east and confirmed for them our strength. It boils down to this -- Our haughty confidence in liberty and westernization is our strength, but our form of government can not be imposed on the region.
Smith does a decent job on the distinction between Arabs and the rest of the middle east.
Worth a read. Prepare to be aggravated with the dipsy-daffodil happy land that is the American left's idea of the middle-east problem.
Also, read Michael Yon.
on May 29, 2010
At last a book that tells about Arab civilization from within the Arab point of view.
Great use of history, plus evocative and convincing interviews and vignettes from the writer's time in the Middle East.
I'm about 60 per cent of the way through it, and I finally feel I have an explanation of Arabia-Islam that makes coherent sense.
The message of the book is scary--but scary realistic.
This is the book that should be read and digested by anyone writing about the Middle East.
I teach composition at the college level, and I may use this book as reading next semester. I want everyone in the U.S. to understand what Lee Smith is saying here. This has the best explanation of why Arabs don't understand democracy I have ever seen. From the Arab point of view--derived from Arab history--democracy is non-sensical. It's crucial for us to understand this.
You must read this book. The cliche for how important this book is: "It's serious as cancer." It's life and death for us to understand this world.