Robin Wright, RIGHT, a well-known American journalist, has reported from Middle East capitals for years. Her latest book, Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East (Penguin Press), will be of interest to readers who seek more than just a cursory understanding of a complex region in constant turmoil and flux.
Wright, who has been on the staff of the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, ranges far and wide as she analyzes developments and trends in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Morocco and Iraq, and among the Palestinians.
Although she deals with Israel in passing, as she must, she does not, strangely enough, devote a complete chapter to the Jewish state. This is quite an omission for a writer striving to get to the bottom of things.
As befits any good journalist, Wright is a realist and a pragmatist. But sometimes, as at the beginning of her tour d’horizon, her judgments are questionable.
She acknowledges that Islamic extremism has progressively grown into a major force, but claims it is no longer “the most important, interesting or dynamic” force in the Mideast. Instead, she says, “a budding culture of change” challenging the status quo should be regarded as “the preferred means of making political decisions and producing change” today.
In this connection, Wright observes that “a major engine of change is youth.” Given the fact that the Mideast has witnessed a seven-fold explosion in population over only three generations, Arab regimes that fail to provide sufficient jobs and housing may well face threats to their legitimacy.
And while there is an element of truth in this argument, Wright herself admits that nascent reform movements throughout the Arab world, particularly in Syria and Egypt, have been pushed aside or simply crushed.
In Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, emergency law has been in effect since then-president Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamic radicals in 1981. And in Syria, the deeply entrenched Baathist regime, headed by Bashar Assad, has arrested reformers and warned them that Syria’s stability is of paramount importance.
Amid all these currents, Islamic fundamentalists, though harassed by authoritarian Arab governments, prosper.
Wright admits that free and fair elections, a laudable goal in an area blighted by autocracy, have not produced the desired results.
The example that immediately comes to mind is the 2006 election in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, during which Hamas defeated Fatah, with all its sombre and still unfolding consequences. If this is democracy, who needs it?
Another example is Iraq, still occupied by the United States and its allies following the 2003 invasion to oust that arch-dictator, Saddam Hussein.
Democracy has indeed begun to stir in Iraq, but the disintegration of Iraq since the allied invasion has evoked fond memories of the previous dictatorship and emboldened Arab strongmen who prefer the stick to the carrot.
I agree with Wright’s thesis that the three pivotal events that redefined the region in the 20th century were the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the creation of Israel in 1948 and the Iranian revolution in 1979.
Regrettably, Wright does not flesh out these themes, but in her discussion of Lebanon, she elaborates at length on the two forces, identity and youth, that will be at the heart of change in the Mideast for decades to come.
In a reference to the so-called Cedar Revolution, which compelled Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon, Wright describes it as “the first broad popular movement to demand sweeping change and get it.” But as she rightly points out, it was merely the “opening round” of a much longer political battle.
The same sectarian system that spawned the 1975 civil war is still firmly in place, and Syria – which has yet to officially recognize Lebanon as an independent and sovereign nation – continues to pull the strings.
Wright’s analysis of Lebanon’s most charismatic political figure, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, is instructive. Though she credits him with being a shrewd and formidable politician, she exposes him as an intractable individual who cannot come to terms with Israel’s existence, who naively believes that Israel is “weaker than a spider web,” and who once described the Israelis as “the descendants of apes and pigs.”
In accordance with other observers, Wright blames Hezbollah for having exposed Lebanon to ruin by forcing a war on it in the summer of 2006.
By taunting Israel with a cross-border raid that prompted Israel to bomb and invade its northern neighbour, Hezbollah not only needlessly sacrificed Lebanese lives, but lost its operational base close to the Israeli border and its element of tactical surprise.
Yet Nasrallah won some points, too. Having fired almost 4,000 rockets into Israel and thereby paralyzed the Galilee, Hezbollah produced what ordinary Arabs have yearned for: military effectiveness. Yet Wright neglects to mention that Egypt set this precedent when the Egyptian army stormed the Bar-Lev Line in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Not surprisingly, Wright respects Egypt’s status in the Arab world. As she puts it, “Egypt has the clout to bestow legitimacy on any idea, and to change the direction of the region.”
Her view of Syria is less generous. “Syria still has illusions of grandeur,” she writes, adding that the Syrians are hobbled by a sense of self-importance.
In her opinion, Syria faces serious problems because dissatisfaction with the status quo is growing, spurred by a confluence of demographics, economic realities, international pressure, the rise of the Internet and the collapse of Iraq’s Baathist regime.
Wright is hard on that Palestinian icon, the late Yasser Arafat, accusing him of masterminding a series of terrorist incidents, ruling autocratically and turning a blind eye to rampant corruption within the ranks of the Palestinian Authority.
She states that the downfall of Iran’s pro-western Pahlavi monarchy was “the only original revolution” in the past century in the Mideast. “It introduced a genuinely new political ideology [and] a unique and aggressive form of political Islam.”
She thinks, not without good reason, that the strategic balance of power has begun to shift toward Iran as its allies have grown stronger.
Hamas has reinforced its grip on the Gaza Strip, while Hezbollah held Israel to a draw in the Second Lebanon War. And in Iraq, Shiite militias, apparently armed and trained by Iran, challenge the Americans.
Clearly, the Middle East is in a state of ferment, and in Dreams and Shadows, Wright analyzes events and trends that should be watched carefully in the future.