The Strong Horse

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The Strong Horse
By Lee Smith
Doubleday, 2010

On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress. The speech was structured around a series of questions about the terrorist attacks that had occurred nine days earlier — who had conducted them, why they had done so, how the United States would retaliate, and what was expected of Americans. The second of these questions was phrased by Bush as follows: “Americans are asking, ‘Why do they hate us?’”

By “they,” Bush meant “the terrorists.” But the pronoun soon took on a broader meaning as it was appropriated by newspaper columnists. In the 6,791-word essay “The politics of rage: Why do they hate us?” that appeared in Newsweek on October 15, Fareed Zakaria looked beyond the motives of the 9/11 hijackers, to delve into sociological analysis of the countries they came from. Zakaria had become one of America’s most influential middle-brow public intellectuals, through his editorship of Newsweek’s international edition, his CNN world affairs show GPS, and his numerous books. In his essay, he planted the seed of one of the most pernicious ideas of the last decade’s war on terror: the idea of a collective responsibility, on the part of Arabs and Iranians, for the actions of Al Qaeda’s nineteen hijackers.

Zakaria focused not on Al Qaeda, but on the Arab world and Iran, whose dysfunction — the product of failed ideological projects, Western-backed authoritarianism, and resurgent religious reptilianism — had created a culture of visceral anti-Americanism that had culminated in the events of 9/11. “Arabs, however, feel that they are under siege from the modern world and that the United States symbolizes this world…. This is the culture from which the suicide bombers have come,” Zakaria wrote.

“Why do they hate us?” has become, not a question, but an indictment of nearly three hundred million people, the presumed problem behind Islamist terrorism. Like another, closely related, bromide — “They hate our freedom” — it presents a black and white clash of cultures in which “they” are both hostile and victimized, enemies who need to be rescued from themselves. As Zakaria concluded his essay, “If the West can help Islam enter modernity in dignity and peace, it will have done more than achieved security. It will have changed the world.”

Lee Smith, a correspondent for the neo-conservative Weekly Standard and a fellow at the right-wing Hudson Institute, has gathered these poisonous ideas into the underpinnings of his new book, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations. Smith takes “Why do they hate us?” to its ultimate, logical conclusion in a project that is striking for the violence that characterizes it, both in his recommendations — that the United States should fight wars to shape the Middle East, because imperialism is what the natives secretly desire (or at least what is truly good for them) — and in the sentiments that compelled him to write.

“It was hard not to take 9/11 personally,” Smith begins his book. A born-and-bred New Yorker, he was shaken by the attacks, and as they did for many Americans, they awoke in him a curiosity about the Middle East and its sorry state of affairs. Having swallowed the idea that his city’s tragedy was the direct result of an Arab malaise, it was easy for Smith to conclude that “September 11 is the day we woke up to find ourselves in the middle of a clash of Arab civilizations, a war that used American citizens as yet another venue for Arabs to fight each other.”

The title of the book, based on a statement by Osama Bin Laden that “people naturally prefer the strong horse to the weak one,” hints at a Hobbesian view of the natural state of the Middle East, which Smith claims has existed unchanged since even before Islam: a region based on tribalism and hatred of others, in which the biggest tribe — Sunni Arabs — has ruled “by violence, repression, and coercion” for close to fourteen hundred years. Never mind that non-Sunni empires like the Fatimid existed, or that for most of the last four hundred years it was ethnic Turks, not Arabs, who ruled most of the Middle East. Smith quickly dismisses external factors — European colonialism; Zionism; or the considerable military footprint of the United States, defending its strategic and economic interests in the region — to assert that it is “the strong horse principle… that has determined the fundamental character of the Arabic-speaking Middle East, where Bin Ladenism is not drawn from the extremist fringe, but represents the political or social norm.”

The Strong Horse is an explicit apologia, in that it refuses to look at any possible causes of anti-US sentiment that may be rooted in US behavior — such as, for instance, the self-evident fact that Osama Bin Laden is as much a creation of Cold War geopolitics as the product of regional dysfunction. It is not altogether clear that in this Smith was motivated by politics alone; rather, it might have been psychology that pushed him into the monumental intellectual dishonesty of ignoring the region’s recent history. Most of the book dwells on the experiences and personalities Smith encountered in several years of living in the region, mainly in Cairo and Beirut. His accounts are depressing, not only because of the slow agony of a discredited Egyptian regime or Lebanon’s constant turbulence and exploitation at the hands of its neighbors, but also because Smith was apparently never able to keep his meta-narrative of the region far from his human interactions. In Cairo, he went to Pub 28, a small, smoky bar in the upscale Zamalek district. This is how he saw that drinking hole, in a chapter on anti-Americanism:

“It was a melting pot of a different order of anti-Americanism: Americans too young, too confused, or rich to love or respect their own country; and wealthy Arabs, trust-fundamentalists, whose foreign education caused them embarrassment about the civic and moral deficiencies of their native land, a shame they turned into hatred of the world’s center of cultural, economic and political gravity, America.”

What a charming drinking companion he must make. The passage is typical of many of his interactions, and the most mortifying passage in the book may not be one of his grand generalizations about Arabs or Islam, but his description of Lana, an Egyptian woman with whom he becomes romantically involved, but who seems to have been first and foremost a diagnostic tool:

“Unlike those of most Egyptians, Lana’s affections were neither restricted to her family nor so abstractly expansive as to encompass all the umma. She loved Egypt and she loved Egyptians, and criticized and cursed her country and its people — and then despised me for giving her so much room to say whatever she wanted about Egypt.”

At its most promising, Smith’s book could have been a Western liberal’s exploration of Arab dysfunction, something Arabs have been engaged in for some time, from the UNDP’s Arab Human Development Report series and other academic exercises to the works of countless novelists. The British journalist Brian Whitaker’s recent What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East has been one attempt at this. But The Strong Horse is ultimately a simplistic account of the Arab predicament, one based on too fresh a psychological wound, too narrow a worldview, and too superficial and selective an understanding of this complex region to be satisfying.

Considering some of the howlers the book contains, it’s a worrying indictment of the American intelligentsia’s understanding of the Middle East that it has been generally well received, not only in conservative Jewish publications, where Arab-bashing is always welcome, but also in the New York Times and Christian Science Monitor. And what better confirmation of the popularity of Bin Laden’s “strong horse” concept as a prism through which to view American power than that Thomas Friedman — another early adopter of the “Why do they hate us?” trope — used the quote in an April 20 column.

The apotheosis of Zakaria’s “Why do they hate us?” and its epic vision of Arabs at war with a modernity incarnated by America may very well be Smith’s jaw-dropping statement: “The Arabs hate us not because of what we do or who we are but because of who we are not: Arabs.” It is a verdict so final, so total in its vision, that it leaves little room for hope. Such is his disillusionment with the Arabs, a people with whom he apparently finds very little shared humanity. He ends the book with the proposal that perpetual war be America’s foreign policy in the region — at least, as long as Americans have the nerve for it. “There is no alternative, not yet anyway, to the strong horse.”