In an outstanding piece of scholarship, Kramer tackles some thorny issues in a penetrating study that digs deep into the Arab psyche -- probably the finest of its kind. He presents the key facts and treats them objectively, without apology. Whoever seeks to understand the dynamics of modern Arab politics must read his book, with its clear presentation and crisp analysis untainted by the Arabists' romanticism.
When the decline of the Ottoman empire became irreversible in the nineteenth century, Arabs woke to a rapidly changing world in which Christian Europe asserted itself. As Arabs searched to deal with Europe, they developed the ideology of pan-Arab nationalism. But a succession of failed versions of Arab nationalism (liberal, anti-imperialist, militarist) signalled its inappropriateness.
Kramer then shows that the replacement of pan-Arabism with territorial nationalism and fundamentalist Islam did not relieve tormented Arab souls. Fundamentalist Islam is also beset by the weaknesses that brought down its predecessor, and especially the lack of democracy. Instead, fundamentalists such as Hasan at-Turabi ally themselves with army officers. If this trend continues -- as is likely -- it will recall the disastrous link that Arab nationalist ideologues made with young army officers in the 1950s.
Kramer proposes a bold alternative to the present stark situation: "a post-ideological Middle East, resting on a resolute pragmatism," but is the Middle East ready for new bonds that place interests above ideology? Probably not.