April 05, 2010
On the Relative Strength of Horses
From Lee Smith's The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations:
This is a book about Arab poilitics, society, and culture, which is to say this is a book about some Arab idea and the force they have on how people live from day to day in the region. I have tried to discuss those ideas as dispassionately as possible, although I recognize that the main thesis -- that violence is central to the politics, society, and culture of the Arabic-speaking Middle East -- is likely to cause unease. Nonetheless, the idea that people naturally prefer the strong horse to the weak one is this part of the world seems to me unassailable; it is impossible to understand the region without recognizing the significance of violence, coercion, and repression. That doesn't mean that I think the Arabs only understand force -- a charge frequently leveled by many critics against, for instance, the Bush administration. It just means, I think, that force is at the core of the way most Arabs understand politics, and that therefore there is no way to understand how the Middle East works without understanding the concept of the strong horse. It is not a moral judgment but a description.
A few weeks ago, in an interview I conducted for the blog with Deb Amos, I linked to a review of Lee Smith's new book that had been written by Max Rodenbeck, the Economist's longtime Middle East bureau chief. The review was uncompromising in its brutal criticism of Lee's book, and Lee -- who I met in Beirut in 2005 -- took some offense at my linking to it. Despite the fact that I made clear in the post that I had not yet read Lee's book and could not pass judgment on it, Lee perhaps thought I was endorsing the criticism. So I offered to give him some space on the blog to respond to Rodenbeck but never heard back from him. I then actually sat down and read the book. It's well-written, and the reportage is often engaging. But I had a major objection to the above thesis and asked Lee if he would be up for the kind of Q&A sessions I have held with other authors. Lee very politely declined, which was his right, especially since he knew that I could not offer the kind of whole-hearted endorsement I gave this book or this book or this book.
What was the problem I had with the book? I had two, really, and I do not want to get lost in the forest on account of the trees, so I'll stick to addressing the major theme. The first question I would have had for Lee would have been, "What is so Arab about the strong horse thesis?"
I know the quote about the strong horse comes from Osama bin Laden, but if you are going to write a book about how one people -- the Arabs -- live their lives according to this underlying principle, should you not also explain how other peoples are different? I asked Lee if he had ever read a book I often cite on this blog, The Logic of Violence in Civil War by Stathis Kalyvas. There are two ways of thinking about popular support, Kalyvas explains: "One way is to think of it as an attitude, preference, or allegiance, and the other is to emphasize behavior or action."
When studying civil wars and insurgencies, a funny thing happens when you start measuring popular support in terms of the latter: "The higher the level of control execised by an actor, the higher the rate of collaboration with this actor -- and inversely, the lower the rate of defection."
We all, then, more or less obey a "strong horse" principle in conflict environments. Kalyvas found this to be true everywhere from my home in East Tennessee (looking at violence during the U.S. Civil War) to his home in Greece (using microcomparitive evidence taken from the Greek Civil War). Political loyalty is less endogenous than it is continually shaped and re-shaped depending in large part on which faction or party exerts control over an area. When Lee argues Arabs obey a "strong horse" principle, he is right -- but his thesis isn't unique to the Arabs.
The second problem I have with Lee's book is what I believe to be an underdeveloped understanding of American force and its limits. About three years ago, I was having a beer with a friend in Kramerbook's when Lee walked in. We all three knew each other from Beirut and soon began talking about the intransigence of the Syrian regime. Lee shocked us by suggesting quite seriously that one option would be to bomb the presidential palace in Damascus or perhaps the residence in Latakia. I had breakfast with the same friend on Easter Sunday, and I checked with him to make sure I had remembered this conversation correctly. (I had.) What shocked me is that Lee had not seemed to think too seriously about the political effect he intended to achieve with this act of force. Coercive strategies and the force that make them possible are viable options, sure, but entire books have been writtenexplaining how the coercive power of the threat of violence largely goes away once the violence is actually exercised. Forget the international outcry or the domestic consequences of an act of war absent congressional consent -- my worry is that bombing the presidential palace in Damascus would not significantly affect Syrian behavior and would only serve to highlight the limits of American military power. (Kind of like when Hizballah took over West Beirut in 2008 and we ... parked a U.S. Navy destroyer off the coast of Lebanon. The way that act read on the streets of Beirut was not "America is strong" but rather quite the opposite.)
But here is Lee, at the end of his book, conceding that "foreign powers cannot impose political solutions in the Middle East" but arguing that we should be ready to liberally use military force in the region in order to strengthen Arab allies. "Americans ... should understand that he who punishes enemies and rewards friends ... is entitled to rule." It is often said that there exist no military solutions in the Middle East -- only political solutions. "For foreign powers," Lee argues, "the reverse may be true."
Holy Clausewitz, Batman! So we're just supposed to use military force and hope folks get the message? Drop some bombs and wait for the desired political effect?
When Kalyvas writes about control and collaboration, he is talking about exercising real control over a population. The kind of control the U.S. Army exercised with tremendous resources and manpower over Baghdad in 2007. Lee is actually quite critical of counterinsurgency, as he thinks it necessarily leads to negotiations with people he feels the United States has no business talking to. ("We rightly refuse to have relations with groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, but if we continue to see our struggles in terms of COIN, in due course we will have no choice but to open up relations with all these so-called non-state actors.") He also think it distracts from dealing forcefully with Arab regimes since COIN advocates often argue on behalf of sub-national engagement strategies.
But I have served in two U.S.-led wars and studied many others, and I cannot help but agree with Gen. Sir Rupert Smith that force, when exercised by the United States and other powers, has very real limits. When I read an editorial in this morning's Wall Street Journal arguing that the Obama Administration is not serious about stopping Iran's nuclear program, for example, I have to ask (along with Jeffrey Goldberg) where I might find a viable military alternative to the current course of action. What is the military alternative, and is it credible?
I'll conclude with this: if you're going to make a case for the use of violence to realize a political end, you're not going to find me in the back of the room wearing a Code Pink t-shirt and waving a banner. But you will find me with my hand politely raised asking how, exactly, the use of force is meant to achieve the political end. What are the interests at stake? What are the resources available? What are the desired end states? What are the risks and possible unintended effects? How are we mitigating those risks and unintended effects, and what contingency plans are we developing for when things go wrong? (And things will go wrong.) And what is your plan, by phase, for how force will be used? By all means, let's have a conversation about the use of force. But it has to be a mature discussion, and you better think through the questions I just asked. Because hope is not a method -- not for the Obama Administration, and neither for those who casually recommend the use of force in the political sphere.