The Stakes: America in the Middle East

I found Professor Shibley Telhami’s The Stakes: America in the Middle East in the Eastern Market’s great used book store, Capitol Hill Books, a few weeks ago.  Then Professor Telhami started showing up on my radar, most recently as one of the contributors to Negotiating Arab-Israeli PeaceThe Stakes was published right as the Iraq War began and the edition I read included a new epilogue, written less than one year into the war.  So, the comments he makes related to the Iraq War are a bit handicapped in their accuracy given the timeframe within which he was writing them.   You could say he was prescient about the war, or you could say he was just being analytical and cautious.  Regardless, the book is not just about his views on the Iraq War, and the rest of his commentary is worth thinking about.  I’m bringing this up early, because it was the only distraction as I was reading the book.

Telhami’s first chapter covers five conflicting views of terrorism and concludes that the conditions in the Middle East which lead to terrorism are very important to the US.  The second chapter reviews the results of some polling before and after 9/11 regarding how the rest of the world (not just the Middle East, a key point) thinks of the US and also covers the propensity for embracing conspiracy theories in the Middle East.  Next, Telhami asks “does public opinion in the Middle East matter to the US?” and the answer is “yes,” because of the role public opinion plays in legitimizing state stances, the globalization of information technology (basically, everyone knows a lot more or thinks they do) and the empowering/repression balance that is affected by non-state actors.

Chapter Four covers the importance of the role of the Arab-Israeli issue.  Telhami comments on Osama Bin Laden’s references to the conflict and opines on why Bin Laden began to emphasize the conflict in his speeches, provides a mini-review of the peace process and describes the vicious cycle of a failure to have peace.  Chapter Five covers the role of the Persian Gulf region with a review of US policy on oil, Iraq, Saudi Arabia post-9/11 and more observations on oil and the US.  The final chapter includes Telhami’s guidelines for how to improve our reputation in the Middle East.   He argues against only using military power, with these four considerations:  1.) underestimating the limitations of power  2.) the motivations of others to challenge America 3.) the mischaracterization of the nature of the challenge and 4.) overlooking the values at stake. Two quotes from the end of this chapter sum up his tone nicely: “The thought that because we have the power, we should disregard the wishes of other people around the globe on issues that are often more vital to them than to us – and that we know what’s best for others better than they do themselves- would not be comforting to most Americans.” and “A policy toward the Arab and Muslim worlds that has the effect of turning America into a fortress, building barriers between the United States and nations that comprise over a billion people, and allowing fear to compromise civil liberties even in our own land is not the stuff of greatness.”

In the Epilogue, Telhami reviews some of the effects of the Iraq War to date and re-emphasizes the importance of the stakes at play.  Overall, reading the book was like listening to the author give a balanced presentation on how our actions affect public opinion in the Middle East, how we need to continue to differentiate between Arabs and Muslims, how important public opinion is for our fight against terrorism and how we need to carefully consider the costs of using only military power.  Throughout the book, Telhami does a good job of making the arguments for when to use military power as part of his discussion of the risks of using only military power.

The book’s cover indicates that is was a National Bestseller, but there is not much discussion of it left in the blogosphere.  It was favorably reviewed by Foreign Affairs, and you can read a very detailed review from Turkey here.

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