A Fractious Region
By Jackson Holahan
With fists raised and mouths agape in apparent discontent, the several men gathering outside a mosque compose just a fraction of the unruly mass that is mobbing the local streets. Are they protesting or rejoicing? Either way their strained looks and fist-pumping fervor do not bode well for the photographer snapping this image only a few feet away.
This scene is the cover photo of Lee Smith’s "The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations." After eight-plus years of United States military involvement in the Middle East, this snapshot might seem accurate enough to the casual book browser. Disgruntled demonstrators nestled below minarets, protesting some injustice unbeknownst to the viewer, may seem too standard fare to some American readers, many of whom are tired of hearing about soldiers from Kentucky, Vermont, Texas, and California being bloodied and maimed on the other side of the world.
But just pages into the introduction, Smith, who is the Middle East correspondent for the Weekly Standard, shatters the stereotype evoked in the jacket’s photograph by stating that, “I give no credence to the idea that the Arab-Israeli crisis is the [Middle East’s] central issue.” Just one of a number of provocative assertions, Smith wastes little time in introducing a reexamination of Middle Eastern history that calls into question even the most conventional of American and Western beliefs.
To begin with, he argues that 9/11 was not an attack on America but rather the extension of an inter-Arab fight exported to the new battleground of lower Manhattan. “Bin Ladenism is not drawn from the extremist fringe but represents the political and social norm [of the Arabic-speaking Middle East].” Smith explains these two conclusions, as he does the Middle East’s political philosophy writ large, using the “strong horse” principle.
Borrowed from an Osama bin Laden quote, Smith’s strong horse theory is grounded upon the conviction that, “[V]iolence is central to the politics, society and culture of the Arabic-speaking Middle East.” The strong horse is the person, tribe, country, or nation that is best able to impose its will upon others, the weaker horses, through the use of force.
Smith’s conclusion here is hardly novel. It is a reapplication of Thucydides’ famous aphorism from “The History of the Peloponnesian War:” “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.” However, Smith’s use of this age-old doctrine to better understand US-Arab relations is far from conventional. In a climate increasingly attuned to avoid offense, Smith’s strident declarations are bound to attract significant criticism. Despite this, Smith never wavers in his bold thesis that the Arab world has long been at war with itself and is currently on a path toward certain self-destruction.
“The Strong Horse” is both succinct and accessible. Smith’s conclusions are introduced early, restated often, and buttressed by both history and the author’s personal encounters during his travels throughout the region. His willingness to venture into the provocative sometimes has the effect of making his suppositions less sound. After rightly calling the rising epidemic of suicide bombing what it is — a death cult — he concludes that the Arabs as a people are, “losing their will to live.” His induction here is overblown, as no sweeping conclusion can accurately describe the mental state of hundreds of millions of the world’s people.
Intermittent inaccuracies aside, “The Strong Horse” is an important read for anyone interested in the Middle East, and particularly in the involvement of the United States in the region since 2001. Some will cast Smith’s zealous diagnosis of the cradle of civilization’s ills as ethnocentric jingoism. As harsh as his conclusions may be, they certainly are not unfair.
Smith is equally critical of a US foreign policy that has been shortsighted, inconsistent, and ill-informed. He is rightly wary of US alliances with regimes that at best pay lip service to our antiterror aims and at worst overtly support the very groups and individuals we are trying to target. Just as the American experiment with democracy in Iraq was an endeavor rich in optimism and egregious in miscalculation, so too, Smith argues, are US alliances with certain countries in the Middle East.
Smith advocates a US diplomatic and military approach to the Middle East that mirrors the nuance and complexity characteristic of the region’s numerous ethnicities, languages, histories, and competing claims to power. It is clear the US will need a large measure of Smith’s willingness to call the shortcomings, successes, and lies of the Middle East what they actually are if anything beneficial is to result from our activities in the region.