April 29, 2008

The Real Causes of Grievance

Abu Muqawama bought and read the New York Review of Books yesterday mainly because of Max Rodenbeck's review of Robin Wright's Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East. Rodenbeck -- the excellent Middle East correspondent for the Economist -- had mostly good things to say about Wright's book but concluded with this rather damning criticism:

In many ways Dreams and Shadows is an admirable book. Yet despite Wright's determination to be objective and her skill at her craft, there is something unsatisfying about the approach to journalism that she represents here. Perhaps it is a symptom of listening to the world from Washington, where the rumble of think tanks, the clatter of talk shows, and the whine of politicians synthesize into an agenda that often clashes with the sounds of the Middle Eastern jungle. Wright does try to challenge that agenda, yet does not really escape being informed by it.

She takes pride, for instance, in relying on local sources rather than distant "experts." Yet many of her local informants are famed talking heads, working in institutions that are furrowed pitstops for foreign correspondents. Often, too, the sort of questions they are asked reflect priorities set elsewhere. At one point, for instance, Wright describes three vital issues that Middle Eastern governments must address in order to accommodate pressure for change: political prisoners, womens' rights, and political Islam. Perhaps, but that sounds closer to concerns in Washington than to the more mundane things, such as jobs, the corruption of local officials, and the soaring cost of marriage, that actually exercise many Middle Easterners.

It occurs to Abu Muqawama that the attention of journalists based in the region to the issues people actually care about is probably why Rodenbeck is a better guide to the Middle East than, say, Robin Wright. DC-based journalists like Wright are probably better guides to U.S. policy toward the Middle East than they are to what's taking place on the ground. The reverse would be true of someone like Rodenbeck. But if you're a policy maker, to whose journalism would you defer? Abu Muqawama has his answer.