- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 25, 2009

By Claude Salhani
Xlibris, $29.95, 200 pages

Slick, sweeping, arrogant and ignorant prescriptions on what to “do” about the Middle East, and how successive U.S. administrations should “guide” or “reshape” it are a dime a dozen. Serious, knowledgeable first-hand accounts of the region are few indeed. So there is especial reason to welcome Claude Salhani’s new analysis-cum-personal memoir.

A personal note is necessary here. I am a good friend of Mr. Salhani’s and was his close colleague for a decade as we ran different sections of United Press International. It became my conviction quickly, which I still believe, that almost no one knows the Middle East as well as Mr. Salhani: He was raised in Lebanon — French, Christian, Lebanese and Arab at the same time. He has covered the region for major Western news agencies for more than 35 years and he has had the gift of being at the right places at precisely the moments that truly mattered.

Mr. Salhani experienced the Lebanese Civil War — which still ranks with the Iran-Iraq war as the greatest bloodletting the region has seen in modern times — with extraordinary courage. He was on hand when 241 U.S. Marines were killed in their sleep by a Hezbollah suicide truck bomber in 1983, and he tried to rescue them, by digging out the rubble with his bare hands. He covered the 1991 Gulf War and played a crucial role in saving the life of a defecting Iraqi officer — an altruistic move that resulted in a priceless haul of intelligence, as U.S. officers later discovered. He covered the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war from both sides.

This book is enriched by those experiences, not just in its analysis but by the wonderful — and often hair-raising — stories Mr. Salhani tells about his experiences.

On April 9, 1973, in a still generally peaceful Beirut, he even bumped into a commando squad of Israeli soldiers, almost certainly led by current-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who were on their way to assassinate three prominent Palestinian officials: Youssef Najjar (Abu Youssef), Kamal Adwan and Kamal Nasser — in revenge for the 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes.

The leader of the group called over to Mr. Salhani, “Go back, go back. It is dangerous here.” Mr. Salhani, typically rejected the advice and got what proved to be one of the first of a lifetime of remarkable scoops. But those comments could serve as an epigram of wise advice to the current Obama administration, as well as to many of its predecessors, who came to grief in the Middle East through thinking they could successfully impose on it, sweeping, simplistic solutions, whether of the right or left, without regard for the history, preferences, prejudices and experiences of its many peoples.

Mr. Salhani is in fact that rara avis — “rare bird” — a man of genuine good will. He moves easily in Muslim, Christian and Jewish circles alike. One of the most personally revealing stories in his book recounts how when he was a young boy, his two closest friends, a Jewish girl and a Muslim boy, made sure he (reluctantly) went to church regularly to say his prayers.

Mr. Salhani also transcends the simplistic liberal-conservative, Democrat-Republican, soft idealist vs. hard realist stereotypes that effectively monopolize public discourse on the Middle East in Washington. His general instincts and recommendations are cautious and conservative and he is certainly no pacifist. His loathing for Saddam Hussein is palpable. But he generally in the end gravitates to cautious, nonviolent initiatives through which the United States should engage the region and seek to reduce its manifest tensions.

Mr. Salhani excels in highlighting almost unknown or uncomfortable facts, without regard to whether he gores the oxen of Israelis or Arabs, right or left. One can disagree with his conclusions and analyses, but they are always worth taking seriously. This book is an education even to those of us who know, or think we know, the Middle East well. To the general reader, it will be a revelation. And no more humane or engaging guide could be imagined.

Martin Sieff is chief global analyst for The Globalist and author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East.” His next book “Shifting Superpowers: The New and Emerging Relationship Between the United States, China and India,” will be published in January 2010.

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