The typical reader picks up a book of previously published essays with a strong sense of foreboding and anticipated boredom. The stereotype of such volumes is a tedious grab bag lacking in continuity and freshness. Daniel Pipes's "The Long Shadow: Culture and Politics in the Middle East" (Transaction Publishers, 303 pages, $32.95) breaks the rules. This informative volume establishes the essayist as an authoritative commentator on the Middle East.
Unlike all too many social scientists these days, fond of converting regional politics into global theories, Mr. Pipes argues that the Middle East's complexities and contradictions are understandable only through studying the local languages, cultures and history.
He himself devotes an interesting section to the dramatic impact the West has had on local culture and religion, finance and commerce and, above all, the promotion of secularism in the Islamic world. "America is ubiquitous," he writes. But anyone expecting a more moderate tone to emanate, especially from Iran, should note that its new leader recently returned from a Moscow love fest with Mikhail Gorbachev, a visit that would hardly surprise Mr. Pipes, who writes: "However dangerous the Soviet Union, the United States always looks worse."
Mr. Pipes reminds us that Middle East politics are all too often viewed in exclusively Arab-Israeli terms. For this, he blames the media and its "obsession with Israel," which distorts and confuses our understanding of the region as a whole. Hostages, Palestinians and domestic Israeli developments all receive inordinate coverage because they involve the U.S. or Israel or both. Such stories as the Iran-Iraq war and internal conditions within Arab states get little attention until and unless they become tied to the U.S. or Israeli interests. "The Syrian government of Hafiz al-Assad could devastate one of its own cities, Hama, without a photograph getting out," he writes.
Except for a small essay on a trip to Kuwait, all of these articles were completed prior to 1988. The reader, therefore, has a benefit of hindsight. The U.S. intervened in the Gulf to guarantee neutral shipping; the Iran-Iraq War ended; the Arabs of the West Bank rose up in the "intifada"; the Gorbachev policy has been extended uncertainly to the region.
Yet, in many articles Mr. Pipes is prescient. Long before the Moslems of Soviet Central Asia were making headlines, Mr. Pipes was predicting their emergence from a quasi-colonial status. "Eventually, (though when is a matter of speculation), Uzbeks, Tajiks, and the others will become stubbornly nationalistic, and the Soviet regime will face unprecedented internal troubles." While he did not anticipate Iraq's successful offensive at the end of the war with Iran, his analysis of the geopolitical reasons for the carnage is the best brief review of the history of the tensions between these two countries this reader has seen.
Turning to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Mr. Pipes describes with equal clarity the congeries of pain, fear and frustration. In a short, poignant article, "Two Bus Lines to Bethlehem," he ponders how Jews and Arabs will coexist in a country in which even public transport is segregated. "That each people sticks to its own bus line explains why terrorists so often choose to attack buses," he writes.
Mr. Pipes also understands the role that the inter-Arab competition has always played in the Arab-Israeli conflict. "Multiple actors prohibit a lasting peace with Israel. Resolution waits for the Arab positions to be whittled down." He sees the PLO as a creature spawned by inter-Arab turmoil: "The PLO flourished by becoming an organization answerable to rulers rather than refugees." West Bankers, he writes, probably will emerge as the focal point for the Palestinian cause, and the ongoing intifada confirms that they have indeed taken steps to assume responsibility for their own future.
Mr. Pipes believes the U.S. has real enemies in the Middle East: terrorists, Syrians, Iranians, Russians, Islamic fundamentalists. He advocates a steely strong response and rejects any Carteresque genuflection to "forces beyond our control."
To this reader the weakness of the volume lies in the author's sometimes shortsighted view of the Soviet Union. The roots of recent transformations in the Palestinian movement may be found in Mr. Pipes's essays, but there is no hint whatsoever of the cooling relationship between Moscow and Damascus, or the Kremlin's attempt to press the PLO into a more pliant stance, never mind the recently commenced dialogue with Israel. Moscow may have changed less than its apologists would have us believe, but it has changed, and Mr. Pipes will have to take account of these moves in the future.
But these concerns are relatively minor. "The Long Shadow" is a provocative and insightful tour through the pitfalls of Mideast politics, history and culture.
Mr. Spiegel is a professor of political science at UCLA specializing in American foreign policy toward the Middle East.
receive the latest by email: subscribe to daniel pipes' free mailing list