THE STAKES

America and the Middle East

The Consequences of Power and the Choice for Peace

By Shibley Telhami

Westview. 204 pp. $24

By now, it is much more than obvious that many Arabs and Muslims don't love Americans. Why do they feel this way? Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has written a book that tries to explain.

The Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and a frequent contributor to newspapers and television programs on the Middle East, Telhami is an ambassador of the moderate Arab perspective. A Christian Arab born near Haifa, Israel, in 1951, he has had a lifelong interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

One of many books to examine U.S. Middle East policy in the wake of Sept. 11, The Stakes is a useful primer for readers new to Arab and Muslim perspectives who, because of the terrorist attacks and pending war with Iraq, want to learn more. Unlike Edward Said and Noam Chomsky on the left and Daniel Pipes and David Horowitz on the right, Telhami can be counted on to avoid the inflammatory. He is a clear writer, careful with facts and easy to read. Unfortunately, his well-tempered book contains little that is new or striking.

The Stakes succeeds as description; it often disappoints as analysis. Its strategy -- Arabs think this way, Americans think another way -- will be clarifying mostly for the novice. Telhami writes that "much of the world sees terrorism as an instrument, not a movement," while the Bush administration defined terrorism as "a movement, an ideology, or a political coalition." (In the president's Sept. 20, 2001, speech, he called terrorists "the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the twentieth century . . . fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism.")

Arabs also tend to think that the means of attack -- even the targeting of civilians -- do not necessarily discredit the cause, a position Telhami does not embrace but says stems from Arabs' seeing Palestinian suicide bombings as "acts of national liberation." Americans, Telhami says, feel that the suicide bombings call into question Palestinian claims for a homeland; in his view, Americans should be more critical of Israeli killing of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza.

In answering the question "Why do they hate us so much?" -- the title of his second chapter -- Telhami says that Americans tend to think that Islamic fundamentalism motivates anti-American sentiment. This, he contends, is not the case: Arabs hate Americans because of specific policy issues such as the Israeli occupation of Palestine, sanctions against Iraq and the stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War. A deeper anger stems from Arab military humiliations in the region at the hands of Israel, actions that the United States has backed with aid and arms.

Telhami believes that Arabs and Muslims are liable for their share of distortions. Many, he writes, still have trouble believing that Osama bin Laden is responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. "There was a tendency to reject the evidence out of hand, in the same way that some African Americans rejected evidence against O.J. Simpson. . . . They didn't trust the system, they didn't trust the messenger, and they didn't trust the message. Mistrust of the United States is so widespread, and U.S. power is seen to be so overwhelming, that the evidence itself is suspected to be fabricated in order to justify American policy." Telhami criticizes "this tendency to avoid accountability" but believes it is an understandable symptom of powerlessness.

Why should Americans care about Arab and Muslim public opinion? Ignoring Arab sentiment, Telhami argues, will allow the authoritarian states that dominate the region to beef up security to stifle public dissent. Facing mass detentions, torture and other repressive measures, young men will be more likely to turn to terrorism out of desperation.

Telhami goes on to posit that the United States cannot successfully quell terrorism as long as the question of Palestine is unresolved. This is a reasonable perspective, if not a terrifically original one. But the United States has tried, off and on since the 1970s, to broker a peace agreement, to no avail. Telhami attributes American failure partly to its perceived favoritism toward Israel. "[Israel's] decisive military edge is in large part owing to America's backing, and although its economy has become less dependent on the United States over time, Israel continues to receive substantial direct and indirect American aid. More importantly, the power of America in international organizations shields Israel from UN Security Council resolutions."

Telhami doesn't suggest outright that the United States should cut aid to Israel or vote against Israel in the United Nations, but merely that we should "not underestimate" the importance these U.S. policies have in shaping perceptions. In the end, he advocates more diplomacy, with the United States taking the lead.

As he sees it, an invasion of Iraq will only exacerbate terrorism, not quell it as the Bush team hopes. Telhami agrees with the predominant Arab view that America should not invade Iraq, because as awful a tyrant as Hussein is, the United States cannot guarantee a stable democracy in his place. A long U.S. military presence to help rebuild Iraq would be perceived as American imperialism. Telhami believes that Hussein's not using chemical weapons against American troops in the Gulf War is a sign that he is rational -- he knew that to do so would prompt an all-out American response to end his regime.

Each of the positions Telhami lays out has already been discussed at length, in the media and in academia, since Sept. 11. The Stakes is a mild-mannered warning to the United States and a plausible assessment of how things stand in Arab eyes. But unfortunately it reads like a graceful compendium of op-ed pieces rather than the enlightened, brilliant formulation we need. *

Lorraine Adams reviews frequently for Book World.