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In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria
In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria
by Andrew Tabler
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.52
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Must-Read Narrative on Syria under Bashar Assad, May 6, 2012
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A captivating insider perspective, over the course of two days I only put down "In the Lion's Den" out of necessity, and wished there was more when I finished.

"In the Lion's Den" offers an unparalleled view on life in modern Syria: the oppression of citizens and foreigners, the corruption, the changes to the system under Bashar, the "Damascus Declaration" and the rise of the opposition, and significantly, Syria's relations with the United States. Tabler makes clear that one cannot fully understand the situations in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, and the wider Middle East without having a firm grasp on Syrian politics and Syria's foreign endeavors.

Tabler's privileged position as an adviser to an NGO under the patronage of the President's wife - we learn that some consider deceased President Hafez al Assad's wife to still be the "First Lady" - allows him unprecedented access to the powerful actors defining Syrian life from 2001-11. He meticulously charts the specific dates on which events occurred that shaped the history of a nation and region.

Bashar Assad's reign begins with hopes for reform and change, but positive political change never comes. Repressive laws written generations ago remain on the books, and even Asma al-Assad's NGOs exist in legal limbo. Tabler slowly comes to understand the myriad forms of power the state exerts on its population and the factional balancing act the president must play to remain in power during particularly challenging times.

Tabler chronicles the plethora of techniques the regime uses to psychologically imprison its population and to keep foreign powers guessing. As in Ryszard Kapuscinski's works, Tabler elucidates the seemingly trivial but critical details that keep the Syrian people constantly guessing. Casual looks or the lack thereof from the President's wife reveal an employee's closeness to power. Gossip is disproportionately influential. Cryptic comments from powerful individuals cause nervous breakdowns.

Despite having myriad sources within the regime, Tabler is still left unknowing. In experience after experience, Tabler realizes that one of the most powerful instruments the regime uses to control its population is to leave people in the dark. Knowledge is rarely forthcoming. Rumors and conspiracy theories abound with claims that an "old guard" is preventing Bashar from taking action or trying to overthrow him, or that certain figures close to Bashar - like Assef Shawkat and Maher al-Assad - have enough power within an alleged close-knit power circle that he cannot oppose them.

Regardless of the Sopranos-like drama within the ruling family, the people are left in what Tabler describes as "the Blackness." Incredible violence occurs, assassinations take place, officials are replaced, but no one knows why. It is amazing that Tabler survived in that environment for so long - likely a testament to his canny reading of the subtleties of the regime, but he finally finds himself unwelcome in the country that hosted him for nearly a decade.

Despite political stasis, Syria dramatically changes under Bashar's reign. A demographic boom in the 1980s, a drop in oil production and smuggling, US sanctions, the end of control over Lebanon - a regime cash cow, and a free trade treaty with Turkey all force the regime to make dramatic economic changes simply to stay fiscally afloat. Tabler masterfully describes how President Assad uses the new economy to empower himself over other state actors, becoming the chief arbitrator in a system without rule of law and predicated on bribery.

The Bush and Obama Administrations craft policies to counter the regime's deleterious effect on Middle East stability succeeding in some areas and making mistakes along the way. Tabler provides sound advice to policymakers for future encounters with Syria, and helps his audience understand the political, religious, and economic conditions that led to the Syrian uprisings during the Arab Spring.

"In the Lion's Den" is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding Syria during the 2000s.

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East
House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East
by Anthony Shadid
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.55
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Must read for anyone interested in Lebanon, May 3, 2012
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"House of Stone" is a primer on Lebanon. Anthony Shadid beautifully illuminates the larger themes of the Middle East - language, ancient and modern history, and war, while intimately weaving in the personal and intimate details that manifest both Shadid's attentiveness to individual personalities and thorough understanding of his milieu. The unique identities of his subjects come alive in his descriptions of their superstitions, minor gestures, and customs. Lebanese culture comes to life in his description of the proper way to serve coffee: guests first, then family, and finally hosts. The beauty and dignity of Marjayoun and south Lebanon serve as the backdrop to plum thieves, gossip, conspiracies, and vendettas that reveal the quirks of a small town.

On multiple occasions, Shadid made me laugh out loud and at other times made my eyes well up with tears as he describes the hilarious and emotional moments of his contemporary experiences in Marjayoun and the difficult journey his ancestors made from the town to Oklahoma. His descriptions of the big personalities and the refined are precise and prescient. His relationships with Shibil, Assaad, Hikmat, Cecil, and Dr. Khairallah change Shadid's perspective and offer readers a glimpse into issues of identity and memory and that which is uniquely Marjayoun, "The accent of the place... words that belonged specifically to the town" (56). Shadid wrestles with the loneliness, pettiness, and at times depression of village life all of which is undergirded by a much more profound sense of history, of loss, and of existential anxiety about the future.

The tension of war and politics are constantly in the background while the tension, rivalries, and skilled labor of the warshe (the building site of Isber Samara's house which Shadid is re-inventing) play out in frustration and hilarity. Shadid introduces readers to the Arabic terminology used to describe the ancient objects and concepts he loves. His descriptions of cuisine, tiles, stone arches, fruit trees, the cherries of Shebaa, and flowers are enough to lift anyone's heart and send them on a vacation to south Lebanon in the spring to appreciate these treasures first hand.

Throughout, Shadid is reflective on his own behavior. He presents his own biases at face value, while allowing his subjects to speak for themselves. Like the author's personality, "House of Stone" is beautiful. Through his writing Shadid demonstrates that prior to his untimely death he had risen to the example of Dr. Khairallah, whom Shadid described as "the kind of man I wanted to be" (190).

As someone who lived through the wars and political events Shadid describes and knows a number of the characters who people his pages, I can attest that Shadid flawlessly and beautifully describes that which is uniquely Lebanese and Marjayoun. I highly recommend this book.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 5, 2012 1:15 PM PDT

Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda
Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda
by Aki Peritz
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.36
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Page-turning inside story on US global counterterrorism campaign, April 18, 2012
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Peritz and Rosenbach provide a concise history of US law enforcement and counterterror operations and planning. The US government response to terror threats in the pre-9/11 era was risk averse and cooperation between agencies inexistent. After 9/11, the Bush Administration quickly changed the rules, and Peritz and Rosenbach meticulously describe the positives and negatives and checks and balances that created current policies, while also offering proposals for making the system better.

According to Peritz and Rosenbach, the Bush Administration got a lot right. Federal agencies like the FBI and CIA began working more closely together and cooperating with other domestic agencies as well as with foreign intelligence agencies. They note "that nearly every capture or killing of a suspected terrorist outside Iraq since 9/11 - more than 3,000 in all - was the result of CIA cooperation with foreign intelligence services." In fact, they note that the immediate weeks after 9/11 created an environment within the CIA Counterterrorism Center that spurred creative thinking and empowered analysts to figure out the best ways to protect the United States. The Bush Administration changed laws and allowed government employees to overlook bureaucratic red tape to get their jobs done.

Unfortunately, the Bush Administration went too far at times, and Peritz and Rosenbach note that Bush Administration decisions continue to cause troubles for the US federal government in prosecuting terrorists and maintaining cooperative relations with foreign intelligence agencies pivotal in the effort to track down and try terror suspects. The creation of new agencies like Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence added more bureaucratic oversight and red tape without providing anything new or beneficial. The areas in which the Bush Administration overstepped its bounds - for example, torture and illegal domestic wiretapping - placed the US in legal and ethical limbo and continue to plague the Obama Administration. New laws enable FBI agents the ability to better track terrorists and prosecutors to try them, but the bureaucracy continues to operate within a hierarchical structure that enfeebles intelligence analysis.

Through technological innovation, bureaucratic and intelligence cooperation, new laws, and new interpretations on international policy norms, the Bush and Obama Administrations were able to successfully tackle the threat of Al Qaeda and to track down the perpetrators of 9/11. Peritz and Rosenbach argue that the find, fix, finish doctrine came about through a process of trial and error. The Bush Administration tried a number of things, some of which worked, while others harmed America's conception of self. However, in the end, their thesis is that the system worked. The US government created a new successful set of policies that allows the US to combat the threat of terror, and early Bush Administration overreach was corrected and/or is currently being addressed. In this way, "Find, Fix, Finish" is similar to Jack Goldsmith's Power and Constraint: The Accountable Presidency After 9/11 in which he argues that the federal system of checks and balances worked to correct government excesses.

"Find, Fix, Finish" is an exciting read, and will serve well as a college textbook or simply as an interesting work of history and policy proposal.

In the Wake of the Surge
In the Wake of the Surge
by Michael J. Totten
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.78
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Missing Chapter of the Surge's Success; The First draft of history, October 29, 2011
Michael Totten provides readers with the missing chapter about how Iraq went from a war torn battleground where American soldiers lost their lives daily to one in which the Iraq War faded from the front pages of newspapers. "In the Wake of the Surge" is a first person perspective of the Iraq surge from the point of view of the US military, which will serve as a useful first draft of history elucidating the on the ground implementation and consequences of General Petraeus' surge strategy. We learn from Totten what the US armed forces thought about the surge's successes and why they continued to support the American project in Iraq even as the American public increasingly lost faith in the war and Congress seriously discussed withdrawal. The successes of the US troops and the surge strategy receive full and faithful coverage from Totten, who allows officers and soldiers to speak for themselves about their experiences in some of the most violent regions of Iraq. Totten's gripping writing style draws readers in and keeps the pages turning as he describes terrain and experiences unfamiliar to most American readers.

The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel
The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel
by Michael J. Totten
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.67
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Oral History of the Modern Middle East: judicious, nuanced, a page-turner, April 6, 2011
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It is hard to put down The Road to Fatima Gate. Totten turns arcane subject matter into flowing prose, and lets his subjects speak for themselves.

Michael Totten is not an academic, and he's not a political activist. He's a concerned American citizen who happens to be an excellent writer. This makes him a journalist, but that title doesn't fully suite him either, because it often implies reporting on deadline. His interest is not in parachuting into a foreign capital, interviewing the most important political actors and academics, writing about it, and leaving.

Totten truly wants to understand the Middle East. As is apparent in The Road to Fatima Gate, Totten arrived in the region for the first time already well versed in the academic and political theories on Lebanon, Israel, and the Middle East at large. However, those works did not describe the place Totten saw. Lebanon and Israel and the people living there were nothing like what he read in books and saw in the news. The first thing he needed to do was to reorient himself.

Totten writes that he was apprehensive on arrival in Beirut, but suddenly recognized that the images didn't match the place. A young man in a bar says to him, "You must be crazy to be here." Totten responds, ""You really think so?" I said. I didn't feel crazy to be there. That feeling passed after twenty-four hours" (7). But, of course, how could he know for sure? He didn't do what many journalists would have done: run to the politicians and the political risk consultants and the academics. He talked to the people. He went to their houses, dined with them, and drank tea. It seems his stringers were nice people he met along the way who offered to help him understand this complex place.

Totten recognizes that he could not fully understand the biases of his sources, so he talks to as many people as possible. Despite his initial bias against certain factions, like Hezbollah, Totten talks to them. What makes him different than journalists is that he is not looking to portray an overarching concept in a headline and 2,000 words, ie "Hezbollah Attacks Beirut, Settles Scores," "Does the US Need Dialogue with Hezbollah?," "Regional Instability Increases Sectarian Tension in Lebanon." He will describe those same situations and convey his positions on those matters, but only after letting the people speak for themselves.

Often times, Totten's sources hang themselves with their words and actions, like when Hezbollah's press relations manager threatens Totten and his photographer, and when Syrian Social Nationalist thugs beat Christopher Hitchens in the middle of a main thoroughfare as Totten tries to rescue him. At other moments, Totten provides a voice to political parties, like the Christian Aounists, little understood in the West (and even within Lebanon). His interviewees appear endearing, and it is left to the reader to recognize their naivete, which Totten often does not need to point out, as he does not selectively quote them and lets them speak for themselves over the course of many pages.

In this regard, he is more of an oral historian of the Middle East in the tradition of Studs Terkel than he is a journalist. Totten isn't just telling a story. He is trying to depict lives. An entire chapter is based on a long conversation at a cafe with the previously mentioned Aounists prior to a rally they held alongside Hezbollah to overthrow the government. It is a compelling read, and provides a fair assessment of these Christian men and their motivations for supporting what most Americans believe is a radical Muslim terrorist organization.

Like Terkel, Totten has his biases, which are apparent in the text, even if he is sometimes not even aware of them. Like any concerned citizen (and even oral historian) writing about a contemporary issue, Totten makes moral judgements, which will upset people who differ with his opinion. However, Totten reveals his thinking and the process through which he made his opinion. Often, the reader is left in agreement: "The spokesman hung himself with his own words," "That action was unjust," "They seem to be good people, but misguided."

My only major qualm with the work is due to something out of Totten's control: that he cannot be in two places at one time. Totten covers the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah from the Israeli side of the border. At that moment, the road he takes to Fatima Gate is from the south, and he does an excellent job conveying the physical destruction in northern Israeli and giving voice to bombarded Israelis. Not only do those chapters manifest the implications of Lebanon's unstable and violent politics on other countries, but they provide the reader insight into the minds and motivations of Israelis and how much their domestic interests are determined by foreign actors. Totten is so good at conveying the emotions and details of lives that it would have been nice to see effect of that violence on the northern side of the border.

Totten makes up for it with what I think is his best chapter - the one that reads like an action novel - on the 2008 Hezbollah invasion of Beirut.

Not only will The Road to Fatima Gate provide readers with fingerspitzengefuhl knowledge of Lebanon, but it will be a fun read, as well.

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