Thursday, May 31, 2012

Arabian War Games

The author of this book, Arabian War Games: Cataclysmic Wars Redraw The Map of the Middle East (iuniverse), is Ali Al-Shihabi.  Ali (a Saudi citizen) and I were friends at IC at age 14 but Ali left Lebanon shortly after the breakout of the Lebanese civil war in 1975.  I remember that we used to have heated political discussions then: he would defend the conservative Saudi government and I would--well, you know where Angry Arab stands, and you can extrapolate that on the past.  We both shared deep interest in politics back then and out disagreements (unusually for me) never became acrimonious.  We have not seen each other since except once in the 1980s when I moved to Washington, DC to pursue my PhD.  Ali studied in the US and then founded an investment bank in Dubai (and he sits on the board of the MBC broadcasting network).  He recently sent me a copy of his book, and I only promised him a fair reading although he expected that I would trash it.  As I started reading it, I was pleasantly surprised: 1) Ali has maintained his deep interest in politics despite his chosen career; 2) he maintains a healthy hostility to Zionism and to Israel and is very well-informed about Israeli crimes and designs; 3) he is familiar with the progressive literature against Israel and Zionism.  As I finished the book, I have this to say.  1) The book is certainly refreshingly original in its approach and scope: it is unique in its approach.  To imagine "cataclysmic" wars in the year 2013 (I wish he chose a year farther in the future) and to weave in the various conflicts of the region, is new.  2) Ali is an interesting story-teller and the book reads (in some parts) as a thriller.  3) I wish that Ali used less idiomatic American expressions in US and Israeli leadership meetings (and please, enough with "gentlemen" as an opening word for all statements made.)  And US officials call Netanyahu "Bibi" not Benjamin.    4) While the scenarios are rather interesting if a bit far-fetched, I would have suggested some tinkering with the plot if I had read the draft.  I think that the notion that Iran would advance to create an empire and that Israel would create an empire with little local resistance or international (in the case of the Iranian advance) is very unconvincing.  Ali has Iran advancing and taking over Bahrain, Kuwait, and parts of Saudi Arabia without much of an American response--so much so that Saudi Arabia had to resort to Pakistan's help.  The portrayal of the US leadership deliberations are rather unrealistic: the US would have responded much more strongly and much more forcefully. If the occupation of Kuwait by Saddam led to such a massive US response, one can only imagine the US response in the event of an all-out Iranian assault on the Gulf.  Also, even in the case of an Israeli advance (where the size of Israel is increased four times and where the Arabs in Israel are expelled), the US would have responded differently: especially during an Iranian assault.  5) Here is a major weakness in the scenario: why would Israel choose to begin its massive war at a time when Iran is attacking Arab countries?  Would it not be wise for Israel to let Arab public opinion build up against Iran and just watch the developments from afar?  6) The portrayal of Israel leadership is very realistic and Ali's fear from Zionist schemes to ethnically cleanse Arabs inside Israel is legitimate.  But his portrayal of Iranian leadership is less persuasive: there is less rationality to their debates than one expects. After all, and despite all the religious rhetoric and propaganda, the regime (even during Khumayni's days when he accepted the cease-fire with Saddam) reveals itself to be rational and primarily concerned with its survival.  7) the book portrays the Shi`ites of the region as fifth columnists ready at any moment to follow Iran's orders.  That is not quite the case, of course.  8) the portrayal of Hizbullah and its behavior is true about Hizbullah of the 1980s when the party was a mere tool of Iran.  Hasan Nasrallah is now probably more respected by the Supreme Leader than Ahmadinejad and his opinion probably carries more weight with him.  The notion that the Party would just follow without question an order from Iran without considering its own calculation is fallacious espeically if the order may bring about the downfall of the party.   In fact, Nasrallah spoke to that recently and said that Iran basically allows Hizbullah (i.e. Nasrallah) to determine its own course of action.  And the reference to Na'im Qasim as some powerful leader in the party is quite untrue.  He is probably the weakest among the men in the leadership.  And he basically (for his scenario) disregards the resistance powers of the party in the face of an all-out Israeli invasion.  9) The portrayal of the Saudi King in handling the crisis (and why is he still alive in 2013?) is very incompatible what our perception of the King as an illiterate and simple-minded man.  At least, Ali did not invoke a role for Khalid bin Sultan, and that saved the day (or the reading).  And US involvement in Saudi decision making is minimized.  10) I like that the author worked hard to keep information in the book pretty accurate and he is very knowledgeable about military affairs.  11) I think that the Mossad is far less capable and successful than what is portrayed in the book.  12) The Afterwards included some political observations and I wish that section was larger.  I agree with him that the peace process should be disregarded but I disagree with his solution: that Jordan would join in a federation with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza (and with an association with Israel's Arab minority).  No solution that allows the Zionist entity to remain on the land of Palestine is acceptable by me, of course.  His other political conclusions constitute a warning to Gulf states that the West would control their affairs (they don't already?) if they don't take matters into their own hands and create a unified Gulf state (including Yemen).  The author also has an in passing reference to the status of Shi`ites in the Gulf, although the constant references to them as "mobs" in the scenario can be seen as offensive.  It is a good read: I recommend it, political and methodological disagreements notwithstanding.   Finally, there are three trends in Saudi elite opinion:  one holds that Israel is and will always be the main threat and danger; a second opinion (reflected by Prince Salman's media) holds that Iran is the main threat and danger; while a third view holds that both Israel and Iran are the main threat and danger. Ali adheres to the last view.