Poverty alone does not turn people into suicide bombers, and it is an "ethnocentric fallacy" that demand for consumer goods will transform fundamental values and ideas, observes Smith, a scholar at the Hudson Institute. The real problem, he writes, is that Arab societies do not want to be democracies.
Formerly a journalist, Smith spent eight years working in the Middle East trying to understand why New York, his home city, was attacked on September 11. His book—a combination of analysis and well written personal accounts from the region—offers an answer that may be unpleasant to hear, as it goes against notions about people that Americans hold as universal. Such notions, Smith explains, are misguided, making his book relevant to our understanding of the region.
Smith took his book title from Osama bin Laden's observation, "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse." The title should not be confused with the idea that Arabs only understand force. Smith argues instead that the political culture of the Middle East is simply such that power can only be changed through violence or inheritance, and violence is, therefore, an inseparable element of the region's political dynamics.
Many Americans assume that everyone thinks as they do. For instance, while shocking to many Americans, the use of violence to fulfill a political goal is nothing out of the ordinary to most people outside the United States. This flawed American thinking leads officials to conclude wrongly that rogue agents alone are responsible for terror, relieving Arab governments and societies of responsibility.
For Smith, clashes between different groups in the region drive the political dynamics of the Middle East, more so than the region's relationship with the West or the Israeli-Arab conflict. He sees Arab societal structure as the ultimate source of the region's problems; it produces a mindset that punishes free thought and does not value individual rights. The United States, he observes, is hated in the Middle East for what it is not—Arab or Muslim.
True, there are Arabs who do want democracy. But Lee describes how isolated they are and how severely their societies punish them. The mentality Smith describes is not limited to the Middle East. It is the same outlook that pervaded the Soviet Union and, today, Russia. While Smith does not make this comparison, it nonetheless proves his point: Despite all the jobs, technology, and official talk about engagement with the West, Russia has not been able to move away from political authoritarianism, largely because there was no real change in the Russian understanding of what a liberal democracy is. The Arabs, too, seem only to desire the "shiny gloss" of American culture, namely the Internet and iPhones, but not the American ideals of democracy and individual rights.
However unpleasant the truth may be, Smith's book is timely, important, highly readable, and essential to anyone interested in Middle East politics.