Books by Smith, Lee

Smith, Lee. The Strong Horse. New York: Doubleday, 2010. ISBN 978-0-385-51611-2.
After the attacks upon the U.S. in September 2001, the author, who had been working as an editor in New York City, decided to find out for himself what in the Arab world could provoke such indiscriminate atrocities. Rather than turn to the works of establishment Middle East hands or radical apologists for Islamist terror, he pulled up stakes and moved to Cairo and later Beirut, spending years there living in the community, meeting people from all walks of life from doormen, cab drivers, students, intellectuals, clerics, politicians, artists, celebrities, and more. This book presents his conclusions in a somewhat unusual form: it is hard to categorise—it's part travelogue; collection of interviews; survey of history, exploration of Arab culture, art, and literature; and geopolitical analysis. What is clear is that this book is a direct assault upon the consensus view of the Middle East among Western policymakers which, if correct (and the author is very persuasive indeed) condemns many of the projects of “democratisation”, “peace processes”, and integration of the nations of the region into a globalised economy to failure; it calls for an entirely different approach to the Arab world, one from which many Western feel-good diplomats and politically correct politicians will wilt in horror.

In short, Smith concludes that the fundamental assumption of the program whose roots can be traced from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush—that all people, and Arabs in particular, strive for individual liberty, self-determination, and a civil society with democratically elected leaders—is simply false: those are conditions which have been purchased by Western societies over centuries at the cost of great bloodshed and suffering by the actions of heroes. This experience has never occurred in the Arab world, and consequently its culture is entirely different. One can attempt to graft the trappings of Western institutions onto an Arab state, but without a fundamental change in the culture, the graft will not take and before long things will be just as before.

Let me make clear a point the author stresses. There is not the slightest intimation in this book that there is some kind of racial or genetic difference (which are the same thing) between Arabs and Westerners. Indeed, such a claim can be immediately falsified by the large community of Arabs who have settled in the West, assimilated themselves to Western culture, and become successful in all fields of endeavour. But those are Arabs, often educated in the West, who have rejected the culture in which they were born, choosing consciously to migrate to a very different culture they find more congenial to the way they choose to live their lives. What about those who stay (whether by preference, or due to lack of opportunity to emigrate)?

No, Arabs are not genetically different in behaviour, but culture is just as heritable as any physical trait, and it is here the author says we must look to understand the region. The essential dynamic of Arab political culture and history, as described by the 14th century Islamic polymath Ibn Khaldun, is that of a strong leader establishing a dynasty or power structure to which subjects submit, but which becomes effete and feckless over time, only to eventually be overthrown violently by a stronger force (often issuing from desert nomads in the Arab experience), which begins the cycle again. The author (paraphrasing Osama bin Laden) calls this the “strong horse” theory: Arab populations express allegiance to the strongest perceived power, and expect changes in governance to come through violent displacement of a weaker existing order.

When you look at things this way, many puzzles regarding the Middle East begin to make more sense. First of all, the great success which imperial powers over the millennia, including the Persian, Ottoman, French, and British empires, have had in subduing and ruling Arabs without substantial internal resistance is explained: the empire was seen as the strong horse and Arab groups accepted subordination to it. Similarly, the ability of sectarian minorities to rule on a long-term basis in modern states such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq is explained, as is the great stability of authoritarian regimes in the region—they usually fall only when deposed by an external force or by a military coup, not due to popular uprisings.

Rather than presenting a lengthy recapitulation of the arguments in the book filtered through my own comprehension and prejudices, this time I invite you to read a comprehensive exposition of the author's arguments in his own words, in a transcript of a three hour interview by Hugh Hewitt. If you're interested in the topics raised so far, please read the interview and return here for some closing comments.

Is the author's analysis correct? I don't know—certainly it is at variance with that of a mass of heavy-hitting intellectuals who have studied the region for their entire careers and, if correct, means that much of Western policy toward the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire has been at best ill-informed and at worst tragically destructive. All of the debate about Islam, fundamentalist Islam, militant Islam, Islamism, Islamofascism, etc., in Smith's view, misses the entire point. He contends that Islam has nothing, or next to nothing, to do with the present conflict. Islam, born in the Arabian desert, simply canonised, with a few minor changes, a political and social regime already extant in Arabia for millennia before the Prophet, based squarely on rule by the strong horse. Islam, then, is not the source of Arab culture, but a consequence of it, and its global significance is as a vector which inoculates Arab governance by the strong horse into other cultures where Islam takes root. The extent to which the Arab culture is adopted depends upon the strength and nature of the preexisting local culture into which Islam is introduced: certainly the culture and politics of Islamic Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia are something very different from that of Arab nations, and from each other.

The author describes democracy as “a flower, not a root”. An external strong horse can displace an Arab autocracy and impose elections, a legislature, and other trappings of democracy, but without the foundations of the doctrine of natural rights, the rule of law, civil society, free speech and the tolerance of dissent, freedom of conscience, and the separation of the domain of the state from the life of the individual, the result is likely to be “one person, one vote, one time” and a return to strong horse government as has been seen so many times in the post-colonial era. Democracy in the West was the flowering of institutions and traditions a thousand years in the making, none of which have ever existed in the Arab world. Those who expect democracy to create those institutions, the author would argue, suffer from an acute case of inverting causes and effects.

It's tempting to dismiss Arab culture as described here as “dysfunctional”, but (if the analysis be correct), I don't think that's a fair characterisation. Arab governance looks dysfunctional through the eyes of Westerners who judge it based on the values their own cultures cherish, but then turnabout's fair play, and Arabs have many criticisms of the West which are equally well founded based upon their own values. I'm not going all multicultural here—there's no question that by almost any objective measure such as per capita income; industrial and agricultural output; literacy and education; treatment of women and minorities; public health and welfare; achievements in science, technology, and the arts; that the West has drastically outperformed Arab nations, which would be entirely insignificant in the world economy absent their geological good fortune to be sitting on top of an ocean of petroleum. But again, that's applying Western metrics to Arab societies. When Nasser seized power in Egypt, he burned with a desire to do the will of the Egyptian people. And like so many people over the millennia who tried to get something done in Egypt, he quickly discovered that the will of the people was to be left alone, and the will of the bureaucracy was to go on shuffling paper as before, counting down to their retirement as they'd done for centuries. In other words, by their lights, the system was working and they valued stability over the risks of change. There is also what might be described as a cultural natural selection effect in action here. In a largely static authoritarian society, the ambitious, the risk-takers, and the innovators are disproportionately prone to emigrate to places which value those attributes, namely the West. This deprives those who remain of the élite which might improve the general welfare, resulting in a population even more content with the status quo.

The deeply pessimistic message of this book is that neither wishful thinking, soaring rhetoric, global connectivity, precision guided munitions, nor armies of occupation can do very much to change a culture whose general way of doing things hasn't changed fundamentally in more than two millennia. While change may be possible, it certainly isn't going to happen on anything less than the scale of several generations, and then only if the cultural transmission belt from generation to generation can be interrupted. Is this depressing? Absolutely, but if this is the case, better to come to terms with it and act accordingly than live in a fantasy world where one's actions may lead to catastrophe for both the West and the Arab world.

March 2010 Permalink