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In Search of the Good News
A journalist travels the Middle East, looking for change.

Reviewed by Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Sunday, March 16, 2008

DREAMS AND SHADOWS

The Future of the Middle East

By Robin Wright

Penguin Press. 464 pp. $26.95

Although he wasn't a pessimistic conservative himself, George Orwell used to say that "plans for human betterment do normally come unstuck, and the pessimist has many more opportunities of saying 'I told you so' than the optimist." Nowhere does Orwell's point apply so sharply as in what we call the Middle East, even if, as Robin Wright's absorbing new book shows, we really do need a less vague and inaccurate expression for what is now the most frantic and dangerous region on Earth, stretching across western Asia between the Indus and the Mediterranean, or even North Africa to the Atlantic.

A diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, Wright has been covering the region for three decades. In Dreams and Shadows, she ranges from Iran to Morocco, which is to say over two continents and several thousand miles, amidst different peoples with mutually incomprehensible languages (even if most are versions of Arabic) and widely disparate religious practices (even within the broad range of Islam). Metternich contemptuously dismissed Italy as no more than a "geographical expression," but the Middle East isn't even that. All that unites this vast amorphous area is recurrent violence, economic stagnation and political failure.

Readers sometimes complain that newspapers print only bad news. Well, Wright is in fact an optimist, and she has done her best to give the good news. She describes the way many brave and decent people are struggling to free their countries from autocracy or worse, and she seeks out "a budding culture of change." In one country after another, men and women want to use economic empowerment and freedom of expression, enhanced by new technology, as the means to political liberation. But she is an honest reporter, and the story that emerges from this book is not quite the one she would like to tell. She cannot conceal the truth that change is slow to come when it comes at all.

In 1983 Wright was in Beirut when zealots blew up the U.S. Marine barracks and killed the largest number of American military personnel in one attack since Iwo Jima. She was in Iran to witness the revolution of 1979 and its accompanying bloodshed. And five years ago she covered the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Senator McCain now says that the surge is working, and others insist that America can still win. We'll see, but the brighter side of this whole story is not easy to perceive.

That phrase "Middle East" is often shorthand for one physically small aspect of it, the bitter and intractable conflict between Jew and Arab in the Holy Land, and in her chapter on "The Palestinians" (not a place like the "Egypt" or "Iran" of her other chapters) she comes up against the great paradox of American policy: Democracy was meant to be the solution, but it turns out to be a problem.

As some of us shyly suggested might prove to be the case, free elections have had outcomes highly unpalatable to Washington. Wright quotes the Hamas leader Osama Hamdan's sarcastic observation that the United States has been like the prince in search of a Cinderella who will fit the shoe, but "if the people who are elected don't fit into the American shoe, then the Americans will reject them."

Democracy is problematic in a different way in Egypt, where successive governments have shown little enthusiasm for free and fair elections. Polling stations and political meetings are terrorized by young brutes for whom " 'thugs' is the widely accepted euphemism" (as Wright oddly puts it; not all that euphemistic, one would have thought). And country after country either has sham elections, like Morocco, or a regime of pure terror, like Syria.

On occasion Wright's story hiccups with non sequiturs. Her beloved Lebanon is a democracy, albeit flawed, which ranks highest of any Arab country on an international freedom index. But she writes that "ironically, Lebanon is also strictly secular," when she means that it is secular in theory but swamped by religious conflict in practice.

Other tics in the book are characteristic of American higher journalism, from splashes of borrowed profundity to "get-color-in-your-copy." Chapter epigraphs from "French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre," "Russian playwright Anton Chekhov" and "American artist Andy Warhol" are more portentous than illuminating. And when Eugene Ionesco says that "dreams and anguish bring us together," is it even true?

One person after another gets a thumbnail physical description, such as "a slim woman with an easy demeanor" or "a trim man with short white hair and a short white beard." But would that lady's politics be any different if she were plumper, or the man's importance greater if his hair were still brown? This might be called the school of insignificant detail: "Amin stopped to light another Marlboro." The relevant word is "insignificant" rather than "detail." When A.J.P. Taylor observed that Bismarck, almost uniquely among Prussians of his age and class, was a smoker, it told us something of the man's unconventional or even radical character. Do we really learn anything by knowing that Amin prefers Marlboros to Pall Malls?

All of these are distractions from what is otherwise a compelling narrative -- and a sad story. Many of the people Wright meets are truly admirable, but her book only emphasizes that they are, almost by definition, politically impotent.

This is not just a question of gloom about the present moment. One of the better epigraphs, from the Palestinian political analyst Rami Khouri, tells us, "We're coming out of a bad millennium in the Arab world." It would be nice to think that the next millennium will be better, and Wright believes that violent jihadism is a passing phase. This may be true in the sense that nihilistic rage with no attainable object is quite obviously a dead end. Even so, bear in mind that this new "revolt of Islam" was quite unforeseen 50 years ago. Those were the days when, as a Middle East hand of an older vintage than Wright's said to me dryly not long ago, "We thought that the Baathists were the voice of progress."

There is indeed a related conclusion to be drawn from this stimulating if depressing book: just how often the Middle East has confirmed that grimmest of all laws, the law of unintended consequences. Few Americans foresaw the Iranian revolution and its likely outcome, but then even the Iranians, or many of them, didn't initially take Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seriously, Wright says. Some saw him as a mere bumpkin when he banned billboard ads featuring Western celebrities like David Beckham and closed down theaters and converted them into religious centers. They know better now, and so do we.

Likewise, as for Lebanon, Yitzhak Rabin -- Israeli defense minister at the time, once and future prime minister, and to date the only Israeli premier to have been assassinated -- said that of all the surprises, good or more often bad, that came out of the Israeli invasion in 1982, "the most dangerous is that the war let the Shiites out of the bottle. No one predicted it; I couldn't find it in any intelligence report."

All too many people have been saying "no one predicted it" about that other scheme of human betterment, the invasion of Iraq five years ago, and still mutter about what intelligence reports said beforehand. Actually, some of us did predict the current woes, or something like them, and can now say, "I told you so," though it gives no pleasure to say it. Robin Wright's book ought to teach our rulers a thing or two, but they often seem quite unteachable. *

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include "The Controversy of Zion" and "Yo, Blair!" He is writing a book about Winston Churchill.

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