A review of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, by Lee Smith

When Islamist terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, the consensus view was that “the world had changed.” And it did, at least as far as America was concerned. As a result of the murder of nearly 3,000 civilians, the United States initiated wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—where, combined, over 200,000 soldiers are still stationed—and a broader, more nebulous “War on Terror” that shows no sign of abating. Though the United States had played a crucial role in Middle Eastern politics since the end of World War I and the subsequent breakup of the Ottoman Empire, never before had it risked so much blood and treasure, never mind prestige, on righting the region’s dysfunctional and intractable political culture.

Though an act of mass-casualty terrorism on U.S. soil seemed era-defining and world-changing for Americans, it was hardly so momentous for the people on the receiving end of our attentions, that is, the hundreds of millions who populate the lands stretching from the Maghreb of northern Africa to the Persian Gulf. For them, violence has always been a tool of politics.

“9/11 was evidence of a clash all right, but the clash that led to 9/11 was less the conflict between the West and Islam than the conflict between the Arabs themselves,” writes Lee Smith, a visiting fellow of the Hudson Institute and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations. A New York-based cultural journalist for most of his career, Smith was so shaken by the attack on his home that he up and left for the Middle East to learn Arabic, travel the region, and discover for himself why America is so hated. “Strange as it sounds, the attacks on New York and Washington were not really about us,” he decides. This will come as a shock to commentators on the Left who believe that American foreign policy—namely, support for Israel—led to 9/11, as well as those on the right who argue that it is our duty to democratize the region in order to promote a healthier political culture. By blaming the region’s anti-Americanism on failures in American foreign policy, both sides suffer from a severe case of myopia, Smith argues, not to mention profound ignorance of Islamic and Arab history.

The belief that the United States is to blame for the Middle East’s ills is a function of both “our own narcissism and the tendency of Arab nationalists to blame outside forces for the problems of their region.” Thus anti-Western rhetoric, honed over decades by Arab and Muslim leaders from Wahhabi clerics to Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser to Osama bin Laden, corresponds closely with the analysis on offer from many on the left which condemns American foreign policy for the “blowback” it inevitably produces.

Smith goes back hundreds of years to the first encounters between European empires and the peoples of the Middle East and discovers that cultural stagnation and a series of military defeats—from Napoleon to the Ottomans—produced in the Arab world a deep sense of civilizational humiliation that it nurses to this day. He explores the development of Wahhabism, and its understanding of the principle of Tawhid, or “unity of God,” which permits Muslims to kill anyone—even other Muslims deemed insufficiently devout, i.e., Shiites and Sufis—in pursuit of the restoration of the ancient Caliphate. Smith reminds those who believe that America’s problems in the Middle East began with the creation of the state of Israel that jihad “is a fourteen-hundred-year-old political institution that is like a bottomless cup filled to the brim with the martial energies of young men who, as all Arab rulers know, must be either used to advantage or killed, lest they turn on the ruler.”

Armed with a reactionary, obscurantist ideology, Islamists entered the Arab political space in the only way they knew: violence. Sayyid Qutb, the chief theorist of 20th-century militant Islam, called for holy war against the Arab regimes that he believed had failed in the task of “restor[ing] the contemporary umma [community of believers] to its rightful place as the best of all nations.” For his “purgative” agitations, he was summarily executed by the Nasser regime. Islamists were not alone in using violence to further their ends; on the contrary, as Smith details, violence is the basic tool of Arab politics and always has been. Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization, established as a secular outfit with support from the Soviet Union, used terrorism from the get-go. The region’s police-state regimes have always ruled by fear and murder. “September 11 was just the business of Arab politics as usual.”

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Some readers may find Smith’s blunt assessments of the Arabs’ stunted political development repetitive, but they help to puncture the naïveté of the anti-American Left, liberal internationalists, and pro-democratization conservatives, all of whom are trying to fix a system that Smith believes to be hopelessly broken. The problem is that the Arab world is plagued by a “political culture that has no mechanism for either sharing power or transmitting political authority from one governing body to another except through inheritance, coup, or conquest.” It’s a cliché to say that the Arab world “respects power,” but it has the benefit of being true. It’s why Smith takes his title from Osama bin Laden’s admonition that “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”

Smith chooses as a microcosm of Arab and Muslim power politics Lebanon, the benighted Mediterranean strip of just four million people where every regional player has blood on its hands. There, a Christian-Sunni alliance, backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States, is pitted against the “resistance bloc” consisting of Syria (which occupied Lebanon for a quarter century and continues to meddle in its domestic affairs) and Iran, both of which arm and equip Hezbollah, a Shiite terrorist organization that instigates wars with Israel, attempts coups against Lebanon’s government, and intimidates the country’s Shiites into confessional submission. As the Obama Administration moves from failed engagement with Iran to yet another round of supplications to Syria (including appointing the first U.S. ambassador there since 2005), a key question is whether our policymakers will realize that the authors of regional instability are Tehran and Damascus.

In a chapter on the “Middle East Cold War,” Smith explains how Israel has earned tacit support from the Sunni regimes in Amman, Cairo, and Riyadh, becoming the region’s unlikely strong horse in the struggle against Tehran, Damascus, and their sub-state proxies. The region’s Sunni leaders are loath to admit this—Saudi Arabia most of all, it being, in Smith’s words, “a paper strong horse” unable to defend itself against Baathist aggression 20 years ago or to prevent Persian nuclear ambitions today. Witness, for example, the lack of outcry from Arab regimes over Israel’s pummeling of Hezbollah in 2006, a war that many Arab leaders quietly wished had gone further. Or their non-reaction to Israel’s unilateral destruction of a North Korean-supplied nuclear reactor in Syria a year later. This is a sea change in attitudes from when Arab regimes actively sponsored wars against Israel. Today, though they may flog for propaganda purposes the Palestinian issue, they are far more concerned about Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.

No doubt, Smith paints a depressing picture of the region, and does not offer much in the way of policy prescriptions for the United States other than that it muddle through and play the strong horse by backing its allies and furthering its interests with credible threats of force. The foremost concern now, obviously, is Iran’s role in destabilizing the region. Though skeptical of American attempts to promote democracy, Smith finds himself sympathetic to the region’s sparse set of liberals, who are stuck between the rock of the old regimes and the hard place of the resistance bloc. Lauding their persistence and democratic vision, he is frustrated by their fundamental weakness: in a place where violence is the coin of the realm, Arab liberals are unwilling to use tactics that for centuries have defined the region’s politics. Hardly a cheerleader for the war in Iraq, Smith believes the removal of Saddam Hussein was justified on national security grounds, and argues, contra most “realists,” that we have a great interest in defeating the forces arrayed against the young, democratic state we helped midwife.

Part memoir, part reportage, and part history, The Strong Horse is bracing. But what Smith cannot foretell, and what the next two and a half years of this administration may determine, is the advisability of betting on America.