The prolific Rubin, lately of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, has given us a brilliant but maddening book about one of the most contentious, controversial, and important topics in all of contemporary international politics: what is the matter with the Arabs?
The book is brilliant in several ways. First, Rubin is essentially right in his core analysis, which is that the dysfunctions of Arab politics are the fault of fearful rentier elites who have found a formula for preserving their power at their countries' expense. This success within failure works like a computer loop: as things get worse, elite demagogues manipulate elements of the sacred to blame outsiders for the people's woes, turning them back to these same elites whose policies produce only more woes.
It is brilliant, secondly, in the historical comparisons and metaphors it employs to get the basic thesis across. Rubin describes how a naked emperor manages to take the rhetorical offensive with such skill that he persuades the well-clothed that they are the ones running around in the nude. In a memorable passage, Rubin employs Churchill's famous metaphor about dictators riding on tigers to encapsulate the entire politics of the Arab world. More importantly, he compares Middle Eastern reactions to the fear of modernity with those of an earlier time in Europe to very useful effect.
And it is brilliant in some of the taxonomic formulations it provides. Rubin summarizes the Arab system as being composed of four legs: demagoguery, ideology, populism, and external conflict. A chapter on "The Regime's Success, the Nation's Disaster" impressively lays out the elements of the dysfunctional system in a comprehensive fashion offering no less than eleven elements: state control of the economy, state control of the intellectual means of production, communal solidarity around the ruling group, a well-organized benefits system for supporters, a well-organized punishment system for dissenters, redirecting the people's anger and frustration elsewhere, the building of national solidarity around the regime, the antidemocratic nature of the main opposition groups, the illegitimacy of the democratic alternative, the lack of class struggle, and the lack of accountability.
Rubin illustrates his argument with copious quotations from the region and uses case studies from Iraq, Syria, and Iran to deepen his observations. He also devotes effort to how Middle Eastern politics both interprets and confounds the policies of the U.S. government.
All that said, the book is maddening, too. It is repetitive and disorganized in places. Many flashes of insight are not developed. The economic side of the picture is insufficiently detailed. And, Rubin gives us little in the way of a practical guide for how the dysfunctions of Arab politics can be fixed. One hopes that this talented author's future books will go through a more thorough editing process.