Lee Smith says it has always been hard for Americans to understand exactly why peace in the Middle East is so elusive, and why violence and terrorism are so pervasive and persistent in the Arab world.
He says those questions became even more difficult to answer after the 9/11 attacks by a group of Sunni Arab terrorists that killed 3,000 people on American soil, and after the massive U.S. military deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Smith says American academicians and journalists often cite a list of root causes for Middle East turmoil, in which the U.S., the West and Israel usually play a big part: a history of colonialism and economic exploitation, the creation of Israel and American support for the Jewish state, the politics of oil, Western backing of repressive Arab regimes and the U.S. military presence in the region.
'Culture of Violence'
Smith concedes these are factors in Arab perceptions of the West. But in his new book, "The Strong Horse: Power, Politics and the Clash of Arab Civilizations," the Hudson Institute scholar argues that the principle cause of continued violence in the Middle East — and the reason so many peace initiatives have failed — is Arab culture itself.
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It is a political culture, Smith argues, in which violence has always played a central role. "Of course, it was not America's hand that blew up mosques in Iraq. It was not the Bush administration that conducted a campaign of terror in Beirut, assassinating Lebanese politicians, journalists and civil society activists," says Smith. "And the U.S. State Department sentenced no opposition figures, intellectuals, journalists or bloggers to prisons in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere around the Middle East, where they were subject to torture, rape and murder. It was Arabs who did this to other Arabs."
Smith believes that is the main lesson American policymakers should learn: that Arabs today are divided against themselves.
"A clash of Arab civilizations; clashes between Arab regimes and their own people, the regimes and their domestic rivals and insurgencies, clashes between Arab regimes themselves," says Smith. Perhaps most importantly, there is the clash between world views, where on the one hand, there is the democratic and progressive trend embodied in the venerable and still extant tradition of Arab liberalism, and on the other hand, the bloody and violent current represented by far too many of the region's seminal figures."
Smith is an Arabic speaker who moved to Cairo after 9/11 determined to find out what motivated the al-Qaeda attackers. He has spent the past nine years crisscrossing the Middle East in search of the answer. Smith took the title of his book, "The Strong Horse," from a quote by Osama bin Laden, who said, "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse."
Smith believes Arabs are trying to stabilize and strengthen their societies after centuries of Ottoman control, Western colonization and decades of conflict while also looking for that strong horse to lead them out of their troubled past. Faltering Arab states like Yemen, which faces new threats from young, radicalized Muslim insurgents, also need help maintaining the rule of law and exploring democratic pathways to political reform. Smith argues that the United States can and should continue to play that role.
"There is no evidence that the U.S. is any less strong than it has always been. So I think it becomes clear that even if we want to reduce our regional profile, an issue like the Yemen issue makes it clear that this is not possible," says Smith. "I think the U.S. can certainly be of assistance. I think that one of the things that a 'strong horse' does is not just punish his enemies but he rewards and protects his friends."
Struggle for supremacy
Smith sees a clear distinction between the two world views vying for regional supremacy in the Middle East. On the one hand, there is Iran and its allies in the so-called "resistance" block, including Syria, the Palestinian group Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah. And on the other hand, there is the United States and the American-backed Arab regimes, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
Smith says the U.S. and its allies cannot afford to lose to the other camp. "It would be very bad for the U.S. and even worse for our allies in the region, because that would affect the political culture of the region to show that resistance ideology has scored a victory and that moderation and compromise are not as successful as resistance ideology," says Smith. "So it would be a very bad thing for U.S. interests and U.S. allies in the region."
Smith believes a victory for what he calls "the culture of resistance" would enshrine violence and vengeance as the manner in which all grievances, real and imagined, are routinely addressed.
The author acknowledges that after nine years of large-scale U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, and with the nation's economic difficulties bearing down on them, many Americans feel the temptation to pull the U.S. strong horse out of the region.
But Lee Smith's new book concludes that diminishing the American presence in the Middle East at this moment could create dangerous new instabilities that could worsen, not improve, the prospects for peace in the region.
Smith believes that would be especially true in the Arab Gulf states, where the U.S. for decades has ensured the security of the world's largest oil reserves.
"The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations," by Lee Smith, is published by Knopf Doubleday.