- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 21, 2006


By Milton Viorst

Modern Library, $21.95, 224 pages


By Alan G. Jamieson

University of Chicago Press, $29.95, 256 pages


The authors probably did not mean to dispirit me quite so badly, but reading these two essential source books on the background of today’s Middle East frustrations makes one come away with a couple of gloomy insights. Such as:

While nearly all Arab nations, cultures and religious sects hate the United States, the state of Israel and Western civilization in an order of intensity, they are equally suspicious of each other to an astonishing degree. Thus the odds of total Arab unity to either expel the West’s presence or to resolve their own conflicts are slim to none.

Whether one starts with Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 A.D., or the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 612 A.D., the collision between the West and Islam has been marked by incredible stupidity and greed on the side of the Christians and intransigent savagery and self-destruction on the part of the Islamists from that day to this.

Every American president of the past 100 years bears some of the blame for the heritage of arrogance that has fueled today’s crisis. Both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson chose ardent Zionists as U.S. ambassadors to the Porte of the Ottoman Empire. Since then the best that can be said is that most presidents have committed sins out of ignorance; something that cannot be said of the British or the French, whose cupidity and brutality in this past century defies belief.

Other conclusions: If Israel were suddenly to vanish, few Arab leaders would notice and none would be pacified. The United States cannot abandon its commitments to the region any more than it can increase the effectiveness of its effort. Things will get worse before they get better. Only the Arabs themselves can solve their problems and 14 centuries of history argues against that happening.

Either of these books is a valuable primer but together they provide the two requisites of any handy library on a topic — hard facts and authoritative interpretations as a guide. And in these perilous times we need all the guidance we can get; a sense of history is mandatory if the future is not to be a bloody rerun of the past.

The book by Alan Jamieson, a Canadian-based researcher and author, takes more of a straightforward textbook in reviewing the history of the conflict between adherents of the two religions, which at the time of Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin saw the Arabs more than a match for the Europeans on numerous occasions.

Both Mr. Jamieson and Mr. Viorst raise an important question about that superiority. There was a flowering of culture and the sciences, of trade and learning, of medicine and humanity in the early Islamic era that cannot be denied. Yet the 10th century saw the zenith of that superiority, a withering of that culture and a deterioration into mutual mistrust and misery that festers today.

This is an important observation because of the truth that far too many wars (and nearly all civil wars) are started by groups that see themselves imperiled — culturally, economically, religiously — by the march of modernity. Think of the American South as it looked at the industrialization of the North in the 1850s. Then consider the other truth, that those who start such wars of self-preservation invariably lose them but bring down a destruction that is damaging to both sides.

Of the two books, “Storm from the East” is by far the more accessible and valuable as a source of insight. Mr. Viorst is one of the ornaments of a style of Washington journalism that is sadly vanishing. He does his own reporting, having covered the Middle East as a reporter and researcher since 1960. He eschews the television babble shows. And while he makes his opinions clear, he speaks with an authority that demands serious consideration.

Both authors correctly tax President George Bush with being woefully ignorant of the historically ingrained distrust and antipathy the Arab world has for the West in general and the United States in particular. President Bush’s belief that American troops would be greeted as liberators was only one of a succession of grave miscalculations.

As a result, Mr. Viorst writes, “Despite its 150,000 troops in Iraq, the Bush administration is not equipped to head off this war. The president’s strategy is based on an ignorance of the dynamics of Iraq and the Arab world, and he has staked his personal prestige on a victory of which the prospects are slim.

“Pleas by his representatives to Iraq’s factional leaders to reconcile their differences fall on deaf ears. Instinctively, they regard Americans as crusaders from across the seas, as meddlers in Iraqi affairs. This attitude has left America with military muscle but no moral power. Unable to control the forces of disorder, Americans can kill but they cannot stop the killing, leaving them without a plan either for winning or withdrawing.”

That is about as good a statement of where we are as you can get. Unfortunately, but understandably, neither author answers the obvious question of where we go from here. Mr. Jamieson rather lamely appeals to “men and women of good will” on both sides to intercede. Mr. Viorst puts the ball more firmly in the Arab court, specifically the Arab League of Middle Eastern governments which have much to lose by a destabilized Iraq and which could, in theory, broker an end to the sectarian violence.

A final quibble; more akin to the strange case of the dog that did not bark in the night. Bill Clinton’s eight years of confronting Islamic terrorism began with the first attack on the World Trade Center in his first year in office. Yet neither author provides more than a single page of references to just what the Clintonistas thought they were doing. Only a little more consideration is devoted to George Herbert Walker Bush.

This is not intended to stir up the partisan who-shot-John blame game that has Mr. Clinton wagging his digits at hapless talking heads on television. However, we do need a better understanding of what President Bush’s predecessors thought was going during their watch if we are to come up with a workable solution other than the current one of hanging on and muddling through. Sadly, perhaps because of the space limitations of these two primers, neither has provided a full examination of the options, assuming there are some.

These books are a good start. But we need more information nonetheless, and the sooner the better. That is our responsibility.

James Srodes is a Washington journalist and author.

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