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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Michael Widlanski on the Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations by Lee Smith

Filed under: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Palestinians, Saudi Arabia, Syria, The Middle East, Turkey
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 23:1-2 (Spring 2011)

What is the key to understanding the Middle East?

Sometimes a perceptive outsider can grasp the political culture of a state or a region better than a native observer or an academic.

Lee Smith is such a person, offering a revealing anecdote for each occasion. Smith is knowledgeable with regard to the political doctrines of pan-Arabism (qawmiyya), homeland nationalism (wataniyya), or Pan-Islam, and he is able to look beyond them. The “strong horse” is a metaphor and symbol for the type of strength that evokes empathy for Osama Bin Laden among the Arab masses and drives a seemingly liberal Egyptian academic, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, to support Hizballah. According to Smith, the Arabs want a winner-a strong horse, not a dead one.

Smith fulfills a role in the Middle East that is similar yet more difficult than that of Alexis de Tocqueville in America, William Shirer in Nazi Germany, or Rebecca West in the Balkans. This is a tough assignment-tougher than an American assaying Germany or a Frenchman discovering America. Successfully studying the Middle East requires crossing tremendous divides of language and culture, and few Western observers, especially journalists, are willing to expend the amount of time and effort needed to acquire the necessary linguistic and cultural skills.

Like Samuel Huntington, Smith says that there is a civilizational conflict, but, for him, it is not so much the Islamic East clashing against the West. It is more of a clash within the Arab-Islamic East. As Smith says, “the clash that led to 9/11 was less the conflict between the West and Islam than the conflict between the Arabs themselves” about who will decide who is a true Muslim or a true Arab.

This is a violent discourse whose language is not so much Arabic as it is the language of power, used not just by nations but by entities-organizations and pseudo-states-that still operate on a tribal level, meting out violence to earn respect and establish a pecking order. Smith’s insight into the continuing tribal nature of Arab politics is not uniquely his.  For example, Philip Carl Salzman and, earlier, Ernest Gellner published similar insights, but Smith buttresses his observations with telling incidents.[1] This kind of analysis is a bracing antidote to the politically-correct bromides offered by too many Western statesmen who think the ouster of an Arab autocrat (Egypt or Tunisia) or the defeat of an Arab totalitarian (Libya or Iraq) automatically leads to democracy.  Smith’s sober discussion should be required reading for civil servants who are officially described as  intelligence officers but who are challenged when it comes to seeing the proverbial dots, let alone connecting them.[2]

Smith cites medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) for enunciating “what I call the strong horse principle-not Western imperialism, nor Zionism, nor Washington policy makers-…ha[ve] determined the fundamental character of the Arabic-speaking Middle East.” Instead, he says, “bin Ladenism is not drawn from the extremist fringe but represents the political and social norm.” That norm, Smith asserts, is the constant search for power-Iraq invading Kuwait (1990), Egypt invading Yemen (1960s), the PLO trying to unseat the Hashemites in Jordan (1970), among many examples. This kind of argument is very familiar to Israeli ears and lips: Israel, like the United States and Britain, is really not the source of Middle Eastern violence. Even if Israel had never been founded, and even if America had never entered the Middle East, there would have been much violence in the Middle East, writes Smith, because that is the way it has always been.

Many observers view the Middle East solely through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict, particularly the Palestinian-Israeli aspect. When Israel builds settlements in the West Bank or adds rooms in a Jerusalem neighborhood, officials in the U.S. State Department contend that this inhibits America’s ability to act or to wield influence to stop slavery and genocide in Sudan, to block arms proliferation in Iran, and to quell terror in Iraq. When Al-Qaeda attacked America, many in Western intelligence agencies, such as Michael Scheuer of the CIA, claimed Bin Laden was repaying America for its aid and support for Israel. Lee Smith dismisses such notions: “if we think that we are to blame for what is wrong with the Middle East-it is because of two things: our own narcissism and the tendency of Arab nationalists to blame outside forces for the problems of their region.”

Osama Bin Laden himself gives a better explanation: America is no longer the strong horse-the powerful and symbolic leader it once was. Instead, groups like Al-Qaeda and Hizballah have come to be seen as stronger horses. In order to restore a semblance of stability to the Middle East, America, Israel, and the other Western countries must reassert themselves and become the strong horse once more.

Smith is not contending that “force solves everything,” but that abjuring the use of force, when one lives in a rough neighborhood, means inviting an attack by bullies. At the same time, Smith admits that military power has limitations: “foreign powers cannot impose political solutions in the Middle East, not for long anyway.”

America, says Smith, is stronger than its enemies believe, but it has wasted its strength on noble but unwise attempts to plan and promote democracy in a region where the concept has as much chance as planning to grow orchids in the desert.

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[1] See Philip Carl Salzman, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008), where Salzman argues that the “tribal spirit” inhibits modernization and civil society. See also Ernest Gellner, ed., Islamic Dilemmas: Reformers, Nationalists, and Industrialization (Berlin: Mouton, 1985).

[2] The best recent examples of this are Western officials who see the Muslim Brotherhood as a largely secular and nonviolent social welfare organization, such as James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, in congressional testimony in February 2011.

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DR. MICHAEL WIDLANSKI teaches political communication and comparative politics at the Rothberg School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and has just completed a book on Western links to Arab-Islamic terror.