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Book Review: The Arab Dilemma

5:11 PM, Jan 13, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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Book Review: The Arab Dilemma

Lee Smith, a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard, Hudson Institute scholar, and a close student of Middle East politics, has been pondering the Arab world, with particular urgency, since 9/11. Resident in Cairo, Beirut, and New York, with a wide and varied acquaintance throughout the Arab diaspora, he has drawn some interesting--and in some respects encouraging--conclusions in this fascinating, complicated, eloquent study of what's wrong and right with the Arabs.
The main lesson, which American policymakers should fully comprehend, is that Arabs are not a monolith, in sectarian or ethnic terms, and that while some of the problems of the Arabs -- the legacy of colonialism, economic exploitation, Western support for repressive regimes -- have been caused by the outside world, the most destructive elements are self-generated. It is true that the historic perspective of the Arab world must be understood to be appreciated--centuries of Ottoman repression, the betrayal of Arab nationalism by the West after 1919, the creation of Israel in the wake of the Second World War, the politics of oil--but the basic fact is, as Smith demonstrates, that the Arabs are equally divided against themselves, still riven with tribal enmities, fatally divided over Islam, culturally reactionary. The sporadic violence and shifting loyalties of the Arab body politic are a product of their own pathology: Natural disunity, weak civil institutions, messianic religion. These are not insoluble problems, in Smith's view, but they run deeper in Arab societies than surface irritants such as Western policies or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Smith's particular insight, however, is that the Arab world is not in decline but in transition: A stable structure for Arab societies is in the process of construction, not deterioration; and the future of an Arab political culture has yet to be seen. Just as the notion of Arab democracy in Iraq is destined to be very different from what is practiced in Ireland or California, the character of Arab civil society -- varied as it is likely to be across North Africa to the Gulf states -- is still being formed in the wake of centuries of Ottoman control and recent decades of conflict.
That is where, in Smith's view, the role of the United States is critical. There is no pretending that the Arab world and the American republic have much in common--except, perhaps, a desire to accommodate to changing times and thrive in harmony--but the Arabs, still in their post-colonial phase, look to demonstrable power and leadership, even coercion, for guidance. This is the "strong horse" that the Arabs have historically ridden, and in the present day, only the United States can play that role. This is a plea, in effect, for confident, assertive American leadership in the Arab Middle East, not the reticent, apologetic tone adopted by Barack Obama in Cairo.
Lee Smith makes a compelling case that the United States must understand the ancient conflicts and enmities that animate the Arabs, but must also understand that America, alone among world powers, is uniquely qualified to guide the Arab world out of its troubled past.

The Strong Horse: Power Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations by Lee Smith; Doubleday, 224pp., $26

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