Mini-Book Review — Smith — The Strong Horse

Smith, Lee, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, Doubleday, 2010, 256 pp.

Strong Horse is a series of conversations, observations and recollections of the author’s experiences in the Middle East over the last decade … focusing on Cairo, Beirut, Israel and Damascus. Living in Brooklyn, Smith took the events of 9/11 as a personal challenge to study in the region. That led him to discussing the political and social culture of the Arab world with individuals as varied as Sufi scholars, Koranic recitators, Lebanese Druze warlords, and Cairo doormen … engaging as well with more famous names such as Naguib Mahfouz (Egyptian Nobel Laureate in Literature), Edward Said, Omar Sharif, and Natan Sharansky.

As the title of the book suggests, Smith feels the conflicts of the Middle East are largely an internal clash of Arab civilizations and involve the “captive” peoples (Copts, Druze, Christians, Jews, Sufis, Shia, etc.) who must somehow survive with Sunni majorities and governments in the region. The spillover of violence into the West, while constant, is therefore largely a secondary effect. The key question, the author believes, is over “who’s the real Muslim?” Since that bloody debate, by definition, doesn’t extend to the infidels, violence in the non-Muslim world is usually some form of manipulation in benefit of domestic agendas. The evidence of the last decade suggests the Arabs reserve the lion’s share of their bile and violence for each other. Though they provide unrelenting warnings about the dangers of inciting further violence by Muslims (through American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan), such concerns never seem to translate into a lighter hand by authorities within the region. It is this observation which leads Smith to propose that “strong horse” politics was, is, and will be, a enduring principle in the Middle East … and widely supported by Arabs of every persuasion.

For Smith, Arab antagonism to Americans and Westerners is fundamental, being as they are neither Muslim nor, more importantly, Arab. The various Arab tribes and sects who feud endlessly amongst themselves do not permit any profound reconciliation with the Other, either across the religious and ethnic boundaries or within them. Muslim willingness to leverage Western allies against other Muslim powers is built right into Islamic history, as outlined with methodical effort in Efraim Karsh’s Islamic Imperialism: A History, reviewed earlier on chicagoboyz here.

The author’s conclusion after his travels and conversations over the last decade is that “overthrow, domination, and eventual collapse” is a political pattern long established amongst the Arab tribes, largely reinforced (not introduced) by Islam, recognized for over half a millennium by Arab historians, and it shows little or no sign of change in the 21st century. The strong horse is the model for successful political change in the region. It was not chosen as a metaphor by Osama Bin Laden on a whim. And it resonates deeply within Arab culture. It is the aspiration of all participants in the political process in the Middle East, in Smith’s belief … and any discussion of peace (as opposed to interim truce) is a form of cultural betrayal. And punished accordingly. Despite the fact that this cultural habit reiterates destructive cycles without end, it cannot be relinquished without giving up a fundamental cultural narrative. The toxic results are self-evident to modern Arabs but if Smith is to be believed, they are caught in a situation where all they can do is “double down” on the model of political change that has served them very poorly in the past. Struggling to cope with the impact of two centuries of Western technology and culture, the Arab hope is that an Arab Strong Horse will arise. The reality is that it is the United States, and inadvertently Israel, that have found themselves in the role of Strong Horse in the Middle East. The burden of the role is that all parties in the region look to gain favor and/or manipulate the destruction of their domestic and regional competitors by playing games with the Strong Horse. As Smith quotes in passing, Arabs are better at feuding than warring. At the point at which they are able to escalate conflict to war, inevitably it is their culture and self-regard that pays the price. What was true of Napoleon in Egypt is now true of America in the Middle East.

Apart from giving the reader the interesting opportunity to listen directly to ordinary Arabs from many walks of life describe their world to Smith, Strong Horse does a fine job of introducing the history of the theme of “renewal” that has been developed by Arabs since Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in the early 19th century. That invasion was to shine a light on the backwardness of Arab technology and power that’s reverberated through the centuries. Like Bernard Lewis before him, Smith notes that the Arab world’s failures in the military and technology realm are not merely political failures. Because Islam is the newcomer amongst the People of the Book, a failure to dominate Christians and Jews, and suppress the various “heresies” within Islam itself, casts doubt on Muhammad’s authenticity as Prophet and the essence of his message. Apostasy is a major concern in the Muslim world. The response of the “liberal” strain in Arab culture to the shocks of the Industrial Revolution and European dominance was not to begin a process of Koranic hermaneutics (a process, as noted here, fraught with danger to this day), but rather a house-cleaning of Islamic hadiths or commentaries, and an attempt to return to the time when Islam was unsullied by Sunni-Shia splits, by Caliphate collapse, by Mongol disruption and Turkish hegemony. The good old days, in other words. And a very tall order for any political philosophy.

Smith interweaves his conversations with modern Arabs with the history of Arab political thought, especially the pan-Arab movements that sought to respond to European occupation, and more latterly (post-Nasser), the 20th century rise of Islamic “purification” as a political solution to Arab woes. To kick things off, the author turns to the Arab world’s most widely-known medieval historian. Ibn Khaldun identified the Arab pattern of “rise and fall” some six hundred years ago. Even then it was seen as a very old tradition. Ironically, Khaldun’s own scholarly efforts, greatly admired in the West, were to subject him to abuse and imprisonment by the authorities of the day. For me, as a reader with a passing familiarity with the scientific and cultural history of the region, this detail of the great historian’s biography jumps out. As Smith notes, and other authors such as Toby Huff (The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West) and Christopher Beckwith (Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present) substantiate in great detail, intellectual innovation in the Arab World is often rewarded with torture, assassination, and death. Often the innovators are outsiders (Ibn Khaldun a Tunisian, for example, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) a Spanish Muslim) and their lives are often spent back-pedaling from insights and commentaries of their youth. A golden age of scholarship and organized education appeared to be in collapse by the early 12th century, with the writings of Al-Ghazali bringing the Arab enhancement of Hellenistic philosophy to a permanent end.

Smith, however, focuses not on the time when the Arab world gave up its lead (and its interest) in natural philosophy but on the the liberalizing and modernizing trends of the 19th and 20th century as they appeared in the Middle East. Ironically, and as noted in Michael Oren’s book Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present (reviewed here on cb), so much of American involvement in the Middle East began as an accommodation to the limits of Christian proselytization in the Ottoman Empire. It was through medicine and education (the “American University in …” system) that American missionaries came to influence the region. And indeed, they were the “good guys” (in contrast to the British and French) for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. The intellectual discussions amongst Arabs of the way forward eventually generated a movement of “return to Islamic basics.” This approach fully accepts the West’s technology but rejects its political and cultural values. The process of suppressing dissent (weeding out heretical or fantastical hadiths), and promoting intellectual agendas through violence, is often undertaken by the individuals in society (e.g. doctors, engineers) who are notably apolitical in our own world. Just as the natural philosophers of an earlier Arab era found themselves under attack, the political/religious philosophers of this later era contend with their national authorities. In their appetite to become the Strong Horse, they set up a cycle of violence which often consumes them personally.

Smith works his way through the history of the last two centuries in the region and identifies the intellectuals of the period that came up with the approaches we now know as Wahhabist or Salafist, and the eventual evolution of organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The guiding lights of the modern Arab rationale for worldwide jihad are all there:

Muhummad ibn ‘Abd Al-Wahhab 1703-1792 (casting a baleful eye largely on other Muslims)
Jamal-al-Din Afghani 1838-1897
Muhammad Abduh 1849-1905
Rashid Rida 1865-1935
Sati’ Al Husri (1882-1967)
Hassan al-Banna 1906-1949 (formed Muslim Brotherhood 1928)
Sayyid Qutb 1906-1966

The story of how Arab intellectuals responded to the Western world … casting hither and yon for a solution to their inability to fulfill their religious destiny and assume their correct role over dhimmis and heretics … meeting failure at every turn … is solemn reading. No bad idea appears to have been left untried. Domestic politics in many Middle Eastern countries appear to outsiders to consist of a fearsome police state riding herd on a bubbling stew of various ethnic, religious, and sectarian divisions. Every new technological innovation, from firearms, to explosives, to television, and cell phones opens up a new front for argument, then oppression and violence.

The Arab ability to generate and maintain antagonism within their own world appears inexhaustible when presented in this light and Smith looks to explain this. Israel, to the author’s mind, is a convenient bogeyman in the region which now performs the role of designated Strong Horse. Street cred comes from resisting that Horse. The reality is that the Arabs and the many minorities undermine each other’s national and economic aspirations. The security services of the Middle East are demonstrably capable of working with nominal enemies to destabilize (or, better yet, threaten the destabilization) of their next door neighbors. Every Arab man’s hand apparently against the other. With mutual assured destruction for whatever clans are at the top of the Arab nation-states should they stray from the ancient habits. Ironically, it is now Israel that acts as buffer and guarantor for the Sunni states against a resurgent Persian Shia state, and Arab Shia populations throughout the region.

Cultural habits seem to work against forming a consensus that would actually create the pan-Arabism that was so urgently longed for in the middle of the 20th century. All, however, are apparently certain that the Jews and Americans are the cause of all their suffering to a minute degree. Washington, in this worldview, watches every Arab nation and power group with a close eye. All through this book, Smith is a conscientious and generous rapporteur of these viewpoints. The reality, as those of us in the West know all too well, is that the citizens of the G8 are industriously indifferent to the Arab world except when absolutely compelled to be otherwise. In some ways, I suppose this is the more grievous insult. To be despised is one thing. To be ignored, entirely another. Does this mean more generations of Arabs “acting out” in order to gain status, or favor, or assistance? That’s a sobering thought but I think this book goes some way to making that case.

With such a conclusion, I believe it can be safely said that Smith falls within the “school of skepticism” about Arab democracy but he is certainly more sympathetic to the culture and the people than some earlier authors who feel that Arab and Islamic culture is irredeemably toxic to itself and its non-Muslim neighbors. Smith is not so pessimistic as to write off the Middle East indefinitely, but he’s at best neutral about the potential for true liberal belief and behavior in the region any time soon. Tying modern antagonisms to ancient habits (which long predate European, let alone American intervention), he’s certainly not optimistic for the Arab world’s abandonment of terror and violence as an accepted method of governance, and dynastic succession. The architecture of Cairo itself gives him a perfect way to illustrate the shifting tides of Muslim belief as caliphate and Mameluke, Sunni and Shia, each build mosques in the city proclaiming their enduring authority and Islamic authenticity. Each, in turn, is overturned violently. To Smith, modern Egyptian political structure, irrespective of its European veneer and American subsidies, is entirely within the flow of Arab tradition of the past millennium. The momentary fluorescence of a Westernized model of Arabic culture in the 20th century, as illustrated by authors like Mahfouz or actors like Sharif, seem largely lost.

Latter parts of Strong Horse spend time in discussing the realities of Lebanon, Syria, and Israel … and the momentum created by Iran to use Syria and Hezbollah as their proxies in establishing Shia prestige in the Middle East. As noted above, ironically Israel becomes the region’s Strong Horse, providing indirect protection and stability for Sunni majorities west of the Euphrates by counterbalancing Iran’s military force. It’s hard to imagine that this state of affairs gives Arabs much comfort. Though Iran can bluster and threaten its Jewish and Sunni neighbors, it must (at least for now) work through proxies in order to make good on its threats. As for George Bush’s legacy of the last decade, Smith believes the events in Iraq and Afghanistan may well turn out to be the most momentous in Arabic history since the Mongols took Baghdad in 1258. In setting the Shia above the Sunni in Iraq, an Arab (rather than Persian) Shia power has been established. America, for better or worse, now has the power to intimidate all parties in the region whether it goes or stays. The natural zig-zagging of democratic America in forming foreign policy can only create heartburn in a region that must broker status with the current Strong Horse to compete with its domestic antagonists and regional competitors. What seems like transitory dithering in America translates to life and death in the Middle East. The US is in the position of arbiter and guarantor of a multitude of unofficial agreements which prop up the Arab world … whether freedom of the seas, access to oil, or military/technological subsidization. From Smith’s point of view, then, the US is cast in the role of strong horse whether wanted or not, and as such, people in the Middle East will see it both as tyrant and benefactor simultaneously, and indefinitely. That means complaints and begging aren’t likely to end any time soon. And idealistic American foreign policy, untempered by the application of real power, will perpetuate bloodshed.


Strong Horse is a fascinating, if unsettling, read because Smith lets the Arabs speak for themselves, across their various economic situations, locations and denominational differences. Arab dreams of the last fifty years have been largely dashed. A dread of the future is widespread. Yet it is matched with a world-view that still seems largely fantastical to a Western reader, and inevitably blood-soaked. The author’s conversations do seem to reflect a deep trust by the people who spoke openly to him. Where he asks follow-up questions, they are probing, if respectful.

This book is an excellent complement to more rosy assessments of political change in the Middle East. People with a long-standing interest in the region will find it a quick and somewhat contrarian view, by someone without a professional axe to grind. It’s a relief to hear about the region from someone who doesn’t have an academic, diplomatic, or journalistic career to advance. Strong Horse will also be of interest to those fascinated by the question of European, English and/or American exceptionalism. Does culture matter? Smith’s book would suggest that it does, and it will. For Israelis and Americans who find credence in Smith’s assessment, the book has rather ominous implications. Both countries will be co-opted into the ancient Arab political tradition of unquenchable grievance, of “Resistance to Illegitimate Power” … of people alternately vilifying and passively suffering the Arab governments of the day. America may yet be honest broker, bogeyman, and benefactor for generations of Arabs wedded to violence as their only tool for change.

Strong Horse is written well, and written for the general reader. It’s a quick read but for those with limited time or interest, you’re in luck. Radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt gave the book a careful and thoughtful reading, and then invited Lee Smith on his program for an extended interview. The transcript of their conversation here is a tribute to Hugh Hewitt’s intelligence. I wish my review could have given Mr. Smith’s book half as credible a summary. To Hewitt’s great credit, his interview manages to cover all the central points of a book while engaging the author in a deeper conversation about Smith’s views on the future of the region. For additional commentary by Lee Smith, check out his recent article in Slate on the Obama Administration’s treatment of the Israelis. Realpolitik at its grimmest.

3 thoughts on “Mini-Book Review — Smith — The Strong Horse”

  1. An excellent review! I’ll pick up a copy at my earliest convenience.

    If only their oil would run out! Then we could distance ourselves from them even more.

    Alas, that is not to be.

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