Sunday, February 28, 2010

Jeffrey Feltman learns about the Middle East from this guy

"Yet despite the jarring apparition of occasional perspicacity, his 200-page effort at myth-busting is potholed with mistakes, misjudgements and lapses in logic. Right up front, for instance, Smith asserts that Sunni Arabs have crushed minority challengers and ruled “by violence, repression and coercion” for 1,400 years. Yet one might have assumed that Sunni rule would be natural here, considering that nine-tenths of Arabs happen to be Sunni Muslims. (And not the 70 per cent that Smith strangely proposes, a figure quite unattainable even if one throws in not just religious minorities, but ethnic ones such as Kurds in Iraq or Berbers in North Africa.) More inconvenient still to this theory of an endless Sunni Arab reign of terror is the simple fact that during most of the years since the birth of Islam, the region’s rulers have not been Sunni Arabs. Some have been Shia by sect, such as the Fatimid caliphs who ruled Egypt, the Hijaz and much of the Levant from 969 to 1171. Since that time most of the region’s rulers have been ethnically Turkish, such as the Mamluk and Ottoman sultans who controlled the Arab heartlands uninterruptedly from 1260-1918. If basic historical errors damage Smith’s argument, so too does his shrillness. In one passage, he declares that there are only two rules of Arab politics: to seize power, and to maintain it. This is a system, he says, where survival is the sole objective. But surely, one cannot help thinking, such has been the main goal of politics everywhere since the dawn of time. It is hard to avoid the impression that in ascribing uniqueness to Arab approaches to power, Smith’s real intent, despite his protestations to the contrary, is to convey a subtext, the essence of which is that the only language Arabs understand is force – and that force, therefore, should be America’s policy as well...Elsewhere Smith informs us sagely that Arab women “hold men in contempt if they are not willing to kill and die for Arab honour.” Arabs, we discover, regard any man who says he wants peace with his neighbour, “not a peace that comes through destruction and elimination, but a real peace,” as a traitor. No wonder, for this is a people so tribally ferocious, he insists, that they hate Americans, “Not because of what we do or who we are but because of what we are not: Arabs.”...The other motive for Smith’s smearing of the Arabs appears, predictably enough, to be political. From early in the book he sets out to prove that American policy, and in particular its support for Israel, has absolutely no correlation with America’s unpopularity in the region. On the contrary, enthuses Smith, the Jewish State is not merely a great strategic asset, but a regional strong horse that the Arabs have grown to fear and therefore to follow. Suffice it to say that his resort to obfuscation, insinuation and cant reflects the extreme difficulty of making such assertions persuasive. As Smith seems unable to appreciate through the smoke of his own rhetoric, the Arabs’ weakness is not so much the result of the instability that cripples their states and societies, but its cause. Whatever America’s intent, its hapless indulgence of Israel does nothing to address this, and much to weaken even its closest Arab friends. This book is saddening, and not only because unwary readers may swallow some of this Kool-Aid and conclude that America’s proper role is to cudgel unruly Arabs. That certainly appears to be the author’s purpose. It is saddening also because Smith, like the imperialists of old, is not completely wrong in his critique of Arab society. Yet to picture Arab faults as both sui generis and hopelessly beyond repair is no help at all. Had Smith argued with sympathy rather than contempt, and sought to understand rather than smugly condemn, he might have been worth listening to." (thanks Mohamed)