Strong Horses and Small States

At first glance, one might think that the only things Lee Smith’s The Strong Horse and David Hirst’s Beware of Small States have in common are a catchy title and Middle Eastern subject matter. The former makes a sweeping attempt to provide a master metaphor for Arab politics, while the latter focuses on the history of Lebanon. Both have their (quite different) strengths, but a close inspection will reveal that they are united by a troubling commonality: a propensity to leave nuance by the wayside.

The Strong Horse emerges from Smith’s work as a Middle East correspondent for the Weekly Standard. He sets forth a thesis so astonishingly facile that he can legitimately claim to have introduced an entirely new form of Middle East journalism: how to figure out those pesky Arabs without thinking too hard or avoiding generalizations. Arabs, explains Smith, gravitate toward the most powerful participant—the titular strong horse—in any political contest. This is not simply the essence of Smith’s book; it is the book. For Smith, virtually every political conflict and its outcome in the Arab world can be understood when viewed in light of his “unassailable” strong horse theory.

Meanwhile, David Hirst (former Middle East correspondent for the Guardian and author of the influential The Gun and the Olive Branch) derives his book’s title from a cautionary remark made by Mikhail Bakunin in 1870. “What he meant,” Hirst explains of the Russian anarchist, “in that era of European war and geopolitical upheaval, was not only that such diminutive polities were peculiarly vulnerable to the machinations of greater ones, but that they were a source of trouble for their tormentors too.” Subtitled “Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East,” Beware of Small States relates the already well-documented history of Israeli designs on and misadventures in Lebanon, from the latter’s inception as a modern state in 1920 until today, with the wider Arab-Israeli conflict—itself hardly an ignored subject—receiving a good deal of attention. Only in the final few chapters, which tackle events of the last decade, does Hirst, who remains obsessively critical of Israel throughout, offer any fresh insight. Indeed, if The Strong Horse is simplistic and reductionist, Beware of Small States is almost entirely unoriginal.

Yet this doesn’t mean that either book is without merit. When Smith takes a break from trying to mold everything in the Arab world in such a manner that it conforms to his thesis, he actually makes a few perceptive observations about specific political developments. Anecdotes about Salafists, Sufis, and liberals—especially in Egypt—are coupled with brief, engaging histories of the movements from which their subjects have emerged. Meanwhile, Hirst’s book, for all its reproduction of material that has already been covered, and the author’s excessive lambasting of Israel, emerges as useful in one major sense. If there is anybody left who believes that Israel has never been the aggressor in its many conflicts with Lebanon, here is a single book that will put that delusion to rest.

The Strong Horse is subtitled “Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.” Smith outlines the two camps within the Arab world and their ongoing battle for dominance: the pro-U.S. conservative bloc of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Lebanon’s March 14 alliance on one side, and the Iran-backed radical bloc of Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas on the other. Strangely, however, he does not elaborate on his contention that “the clash that led to 9/11 was less the conflict between the West and Islam than the conflict between the Arabs themselves,” except to imply that the 9/11 attacks were the result of jihadists being effectively exiled from the lands where they want to cause change.

For the most part, Smith limits his discussion to countries in the eastern part of the Arab world—the Mashreq—such as Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and those in the Persian Gulf. Early on, he makes clear that Arab nationalism, though originally articulated by Christians, basically reflects the views of mainstream Sunnis and, thankfully, he doesn’t buy into its orthodoxies. (Interestingly, he sees it as beneficial in at least one respect: as a means of patching over differences between Arabs who would otherwise be at one another’s throats, because fighting is what they are given to doing.) But how does his view that Arabs aren’t a single nation square with his application of the strong horse theory to “the Arabs”? For Smith, it’s almost as though the Arabs miraculously become a nation only when he wants to characterize them negatively.

Smith asserts that “[t]he Islamists make war to win power; the regimes fight to maintain it. And so in the end, there are only two laws of Arab politics: the first is to seize power, after which political legitimacy is granted provided that the second law is observed—to maintain power.”  Several examples—Egypt, Syria, and even brief references to Iraq and Algeria (which is in the Maghreb, or the western part of the Arab world)—seemingly prove his point. Even Lebanon, which Smith concedes boasts “the kernel of a democratic polity,”  isn’t very different. Smith shows how a politician such as Walid Jumblatt can go from implacable hostility to Syria and Hezbollah in the aftermath of the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri (2005) to a position today that marks a 180-degree turn, reconciling with Syria and Hezbollah. All of this Smith explains in terms of the strong horse principle—itself based on an observation by Osama bin Laden that people naturally prefer a strong to a weak horse.

The problem is that, for Smith, the tendency to support the strong horse is a peculiarly Arab trait, and all Arab politics can be collapsed into it. He does not consider that many people in liberal democratic countries with stable political institutions tilt toward this or that political party because of its clout and visibility. After all, what else could explain why so many American voters, despite agreeing with the ideals and even the political platforms of parties such as the Libertarians and the Greens, nevertheless end up voting Republican or Democrat? Reinforcing his contention that before us lies a specifically Arab trait is Smith’s belief that it is age-old in Arab culture. The Arab practice of gravitating toward the strong horse, according to Smith, dates back to the pre-Islamic era and persists to this day. This is why he resorts to it to explain outbreaks of violence or political conflict in the modern Arab world, rejecting the possibility that local circumstances play a determining role.

The author dismisses examples that contradict his theory. For example, when discussing stirrings of democracy in the Gulf, he claims that the project will end in failure because Gulf Arabs adopt the outward manifestations of modernity—such as technology—but not its core liberal values. And he points out that democracy in Iraq and the Palestinian Territories has simply led to increased power and legitimacy for extremist and sectarian parties with illiberal values. His explanation for this unfortunate development is that the George W. Bush administration naively thought that democracy is transferable and that it can be instituted from the top down.

Here, Smith is overly pessimistic—prematurely consigning an experiment in the Gulf to failure—as well as plain wrong in one major respect. Liberal democracy can in fact be imposed from the outside; that is precisely what the U.S. did in Germany and Japan, in concert with German and Japanese liberals respectively, following the Second World War. And while it can be argued that Germany had already had experience with (a flawed form of) democracy, the same cannot be said of Japan.

It’s too bad that Smith adopts such a gloomy view regarding the possibilities of liberal democracy taking hold in Arab lands, because arguably his book’s finest feature is its trenchant criticism of Arab intellectuals’ objections to the U.S. project for democracy in the Middle East—which he points out became an American priority after no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. He notes the hypocrisy of those who spent years lamenting U.S. support for Arab dictators, only to become even more anti-American when the U.S. finally decided to change course, deposing Saddam Hussein in Iraq and pressuring other Arab despots. And he justly ridicules their blaming all or most of the region’s ills on the U.S., but subsequently maintaining that the U.S. cannot possibly succeed should it attempt to improve the region’s fortunes in a direct manner: “In their view, apparently, foreign powers are all-powerful in the Middle East when they’re pursuing evil ends. But when they’re trying to bring about positive change—like creating democracy—they’re impotent.”

Funnily enough, however, Smith himself comes round to a version of this view. For although he faults the U.S. for not providing Iraqis, Palestinians, and other Arabs with a framework for liberal democracy before elections, he still feels that the project could not have succeeded: “It was not that the Arabs were incapable of democracy but that most of them did not want it, and those who did want it had not the means to win it.” As a result, explains Smith, democracy became primarily a matter of elections, not liberalism, and popular Islamic and sectarian extremists gained power. Yet Smith overlooks the fact that almost all liberal democratic countries include important checks preventing the tyranny of the majority, which is what happened in Iraq and Gaza. Nowhere in the West is democracy unfettered by constraints ensuring individual, women’s, and minority rights, as well as secularism, irrespective of the whims of the majority at any given time. Certain rights and freedoms are considered virtually sacrosanct—consider the U.S. Bill of Rights, or even the more general “unalienable” rights referred to in the U.S. Declaration of Independence—and not subject to simple referendum. Had the U.S. instituted such constraints in Iraq—by using its position to enshrine them in the constitution, for example—the situation in that country might have turned out differently.

Unsurprisingly, given his thesis that “violence is central to the politics, society, and culture of the Arabic-speaking Middle East,” Smith wholeheartedly endorses the use of Israeli force against the Palestinians and Lebanese. (This is all the more shameless given his professed love for Lebanon, which suffered so much from Israeli force in 2006—and not for the first time.) And his assertion that “Israel is the United States’ greatest strategic asset in the region” makes clear what he thinks the US position on the matter should be.

But Smith goes further. In correctly pointing out that Arab members of the pro-U.S. bloc, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and even Lebanon’s March 14 alliance, wanted Israel to destroy Hezbollah and Hamas in its recent wars with them, he finds an additional reason to justify Israeli force. It isn’t simply that violence is endemic in the Arab world to begin with, but that some Arabs support Israeli violence, thereby lending it further legitimacy. Smith does not mention that these countries, after having condemned Hezbollah and Hamas, felt compelled to criticize Israel publicly and harshly once the extent of its devastation in Lebanon (in the summer 2006 war) and Gaza (in the winter 2008-2009 war) became clear, nor does he entertain the notion that Israel’s devastating military campaigns deserve to be criticized irrespective of the position of these Arabs on the matter.

The subject of Israeli force, especially as unleashed against Lebanon, makes for a logical segue to Hirst’s book. For Hirst, Israeli force is simply something to be reviled. Rather than suggest a viable alternative to punitive military measures, Beware of Small States avoids any sort of engagement with the dilemma Israel faces. How is Israel supposed to deal with the Iranian and Syrian-backed Islamist fanatics on its northern border who, even when not launching attacks on Israel, are busy preaching the country’s destruction? And what about those other Islamist fanatics, the ones who believe in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, have taken over Gaza, and view any kind of political settlement with Israel as temporary albeit indefinitely renewable?

One needn’t accept that overwhelming Israeli force against Lebanon and Gaza is positive, the way Smith blithely does, or support Israel’s cruel and pointless blockade of Gaza, to realize that eschewing force entirely in a confrontation with Islamists is foolish and possibly suicidal. And one needn’t support Israel’s massive and oftentimes indiscriminate onslaughts—such as those which occurred in Lebanon and Gaza—to recognize that for force to have a deterrent quality, especially vis-à-vis martyrdom-obsessed Islamists, it must by necessity be disproportionate.   

Hirst, of course, focuses on Lebanon throughout. But only with his treatment of Lebanon in the first decade of this century does he offer anything new. He proves especially adept at analyzing Hezbollah’s dual role as a Lebanese resistance movement on the one hand, and an Islamic jihadist organization beholden to Iran and Syria on the other. This duality became more of a problem after the Cedar Revolution/Independence Intifada of 2005, which was prompted by the widespread belief among Lebanese that Syria had orchestrated the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Massive Lebanese demonstrations and international pressure forced Syrian president Bashar Assad to withdraw the Syrian army from Lebanon. But Hezbollah refused to disarm. Hirst explains that “Hizbollah’s fundamental reasons were its least admissible ones: its inability, on ideological grounds, to give up jihad, even if for the foreseeable future it was only able to practise it in symbolic ‘gradualist-pragmatic’ mode and, intrinsically linked to that, its dependence on an Iran and Syria for which, were it bereft of its weapons, it would have lost almost all its utility.”

In general, Hirst’s multi-dimensional account of Hezbollah and Lebanon compares favorably with Smith’s crude and simplistic characterizations (themselves very much of a piece with simplifications and mistakes concerning other Arab countries). For example, Hirst recognizes that Hezbollah “had two progenitors. If Iran was one—with Syria, so to speak, as midwife—Israel was unquestionably the other.” Yet Smith, who dismisses the claim that Hezbollah was in any way an indigenous response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, reduces it merely to “a collaborative venture between Iran and Syria.”

Smith also gets Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon wrong, claiming that it came in response to cross-border attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Israel decided to dislodge from Lebanon. Hirst reminds readers that the PLO had observed a U.S.-brokered ceasefire with Israel for several months before the invasion. Indeed, Israel decided that the ceasefire was counterproductive, not only because it implied recognition of the PLO, but because it prevented it from striking the organization as it rearmed. Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin cynically seized upon the attempted assassination of Israel’s ambassador in London by the anti-PLO Abu Nidal Organization as justification for its invasion of Lebanon. Begin and his minister of defense Ariel Sharon wanted to install a friendly regime in Lebanon—the old Israeli dream—with Bashir Gemayel as president, after which they could turn their attention to pacifying the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

But while Hirst sometimes serves as a corrective to Smith, he has his own faults, even in his analysis of Hezbollah. Perhaps the most significant problem with Hirst’s book is that in several instances when he tries to appear nuanced, he is actually doing his best to have something both ways. For example, Hirst concedes that Israel didn’t provoke the 2006 war with Hezbollah, then promptly turns around and claims that Hezbollah’s infiltration of Israel and abduction of Israeli soldiers “was not entirely unprovoked.” (In fact, it was.) It is also somewhat misleading to state that Hezbollah’s “targets were military only” in that operation, for even though the main attack targeted an Israeli military patrol, it was accompanied by diversionary mortar fire on civilian settlements in northern Israel. As for Lebanese reactions to Hezbollah’s operation, Hirst observes: “Nor was it any secret that much of Lebanese public opinion was almost as outraged, from its perspective, as the Israelis were from theirs.” Shortly thereafter, however, the author reproduces the results of a notoriously unreliable poll by a Lebanese institute in which loaded questions were posed to a cross-section of Lebanese in a successful attempt to elicit answers that could be portrayed as supportive of Hezbollah.

On two occasions, Hirst observes that Hezbollah is ironically more popular abroad than in its own country. Instead of proceeding to point out that this is often the case with despots and radical movements, he disingenuously ascribes the phenomenon to “political and sectarian animosities” on the part of the Lebanese, as though it were irrational hatreds that prevent them from uniting around a theocratic militant group beholden to two foreign powers. (Interestingly, Smith’s explanation of Hezbollah’s popularity in the Arab world suffers from a lacuna of a different sort. For Smith, the phenomenon has nothing to do with resentment at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians or the Lebanese, but stems, once again, from Arabs’ inveterate predilection for the strong horse. He doesn’t even contemplate the possibility that the reason many Arab leftists and liberals support Islamic militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas is because anger at Israel has served to elevate any form of “resistance” to the level of something sacrosanct.) 

Finally, Hirst’s pretending that it is difficult to determine the winner of the 2008-2009 war between Israel and Hamas is both obtuse and callous. The author might be forgiven his starry-eyed view of Hezbollah’s performance in the 2006 war, as even Israeli military analysts rated it impressive. But Hamas managed no such feat in its confrontation with the Israeli army. Whereas Hezbollah’s battlefield successes overshadowed the terrible suffering of Lebanese civilians—Shiites most of all—Israel’s rout of Hamas threw the plight of ordinary Gazans into stark relief. To claim, as Hirst does, that it remains unclear who won because Israel didn’t achieve all its objectives is to obscure the salient fact that the Palestinian civilians of Gaza lost, and that they continue to suffer terribly as a result of the Israeli-Egyptian embargo.

Journalists who write books about political hot spots tend to sensationalize, so it’s no surprise that both Hirst and Smith conclude with a hyperbolic flourish. Hirst warns that if another war flares up between Israel and Hezbollah, “other members of the Islamo-nationalist camp might join in: Hamas; Syria; and even, most formidably, the rising regional hegemon and Israeli-American bête noire, the ayatollahs’ Iran. Together, they would wage a Hizbollah-style ‘missile war’ writ large.”

In fact, there is nothing to suggest that a future Israel-Hezbollah war would draw in Hezbollah’s backers. As Hirst mentions, Hezbollah did not attack Israel during the latter’s 2008-2009 assault on Gaza, and it is difficult to imagine Hamas taking upon itself the task of opening up a front in Gaza if Israel and Hezbollah go to war. For its part, Syria almost never engages in direct confrontation with Israel; its decades-old tried and true method is to prosecute war by proxy. And Iran, for all its president’s rants, knows full well how unpopular and controversial its uranium-enrichment project is with the international community, and that direct involvement in a Hezbollah military campaign—offensive or defensive—would furnish Israel and the U.S. with an excuse to strike Iran itself and possibly stymie its entire nuclear program.

But Smith outdoes Hirst in his apocalypticizing, by contemplating the possibility that Arabs may unite and direct their animosity to the U.S. Worse, he seems to acquiesce in the idea that, if this happens, “the Arabs” should be punished collectively for any major terrorist attack carried out by any of their number against the US in the future: “Another 9/11, or even a series of attacks, would not represent an existential threat to the United States, even if weapons of mass destruction were employed. But American retaliation against such attacks could very well constitute an existential danger to the Arabs.” Perhaps this is the inevitable result of a view that Arabs, for all their differences, are essentially the same—at least insofar as their penchant for the strong horse is concerned.

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