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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Its All Our Fault, 5 Jun. 2009
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This review is from: Last Chance: The Middle East in the Balance (Hardcover)
David Gardner's "Last Chance" is an arresting and authoritative examination of the crisis in the Middle East. It is animated by a sense of outrage against the West's (by which he means the US and UK's) policy missteps in the region, but this does not subtract from the intellectual robustness of its argument.

Gardner is Associate Editor and Chief Leader Writer of the Financial Times, and was previously the newspaper's Middle East Editor. Not only is he literate and well-informed about the region, but he has also interviewed many of the principal actors. In addition to advancing his main argument, "Last Chance" comprises a series of close-to-standalone essays on various dimensions of the region and its troubled politics: Islam, the Sunni/Shia split, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and even Turkey and Pakistan. These sections are master-classes in precise analysis. They provide an invaluable foundation for understanding the broader issues.

The main theme of this book is that the West has done much to create the crisis in the Middle East and the related breakdown in its relations with the Islamic world through its indiscriminate support of Israel, its propping up of anti-democratic and corrupt Arab (and Pakistani) regimes and its failure to engage constructively with Iran. None of these arguments is new, but they are lucidly and passionately articulated here. Gardner's observation that "there is no legal or moral reason why Hamas - or anyone else - should recognize a state that refuses to define its boundaries" is illustrative of the freshness of his writing.

Ironically, Gardner's view that the West should clear the way for democratic processes in the Arab world by rejecting "Arab exceptionalism", is not dissimilar to that of the "irresponsible" Bush administration. He glides over this by suggesting that the neocons' mission to democratize the Middle East was a Trojan Horse strategy disguising their true intent to intimidate the world through a demonstration of American military supremacy and establish a self-interested hegemony in the region. However, the risks of removing a strongman from the "blinding mosaic of tribal, ethnic and religious rivalries" are now self-evident, as Gardner notes: "Yes Saddam Hussein, a vile and cruel tormentor had gone. But dozens of little Saddams took his place." The other demonstrated model of power transition in the region is "one man, one vote, one time." The resulting regimes -" a blur of men in turbans" - are no more inclined to foster democracy, liberal economics or human rights than the strongmen that preceded them. Gardner views these risks as unavoidable and acceptable.

Searching for a model of Islamic politics that we can look forward to if we remove the casus belli conditions discussed above, Gardner points to Turkey. He compares the rise of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) to Christian Democracy in Western Europe. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen, as does the evolution of politics in Indonesia, that other large Moslem nation which has reached for democracy and tolerance of diversity but is currently experiencing a resurgence of fundamentalist zealotry (see Andrew Beatty's "A Shadow Falls: In the Heart of Java"). It is almost certainly true that the actions and attitudes of the West will have a major influence on how both of these states develop.

"Last Chance" is a wake-up call at a potential turning point in Western policies in the Middle East. President Obama's Cairo speech gives the impression that he has downloaded Gardner's book to his Kindle. There are positive signs that the new Commander-in-Chief gets it - in s''a All'ah.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 27 Nov 2009 14:15:05 GMT
Last edited by the author on 27 Nov 2009 14:25:06 GMT
Hi Diacha, thanks for another interesting and descriptive review!

Again I think I'd like to throw my 2 cents in here as Gardner's understanding is indicative of the West, still struggling to understand the situation...

You quote Garner as saying: "The main theme of this book is that the West has done much to create the crisis in the Middle East and the related breakdown in its relations with the Islamic world through its indiscriminate support of Israel, its propping up of anti-democratic and corrupt Arab (and Pakistani) regimes and its failure to engage constructively with Iran."

This one sentence already contains a minefield of difficulties and anomalies for me; the West found itself in the Middle East via the British Empire during the First World War when the Ottoman Turks sided with Germany (incidentally, the Armenian genocide became a blueprint for the Holocaust as German officers took notes from their Turkish allies whilst the industrial murder of the Armenians was being carried out).

The concept of a worldwide jihad is alien to us because it has been some 300 years since the Ottoman Empire began to recede territory as the technological advantages of the Industrial revolution allowed us a much greater advantage. Before the 300 year lull, jihad had been going for 1000 years. This decline began with the two day battle at the Gates of Vienna in 1683, the specific day and month of that battle was September 11th.

So too were the Crusades started as, contrary to mainstream belief, a defensive war after Islam had spread from the Middle East, across north Africa, Spain, and many inroads into Asia as far as Western China. The last straw was the Muslims taking Jerusalem, Christianity's Holy Land.

The "indiscriminate propping up of regimes" also sounds like Garner going with the status quo's line on the accepted norm, rather than reading what Islamists say, in their own language.

With Israel, it has ceased to become 'Dar al-Islam' (land of Islam) which is the legal status (under Shari'ah) given to land conquered by Islam, and returned to unconquered status 'Dar al-Harb' (land of war). Islam will spread across the globe, if Muslims are pious enough (or so their holy book tells them). When they cease to remain on the strict path Allah has set out for them, he punishes them, as the Prophet Mohammed taught his followers in their first major setback. Therefore, in the strictest sense of the teachings of Islam, in order to defeat the Zionists (or Jews, when they speak in Arabic), Muslims must become more strict in their observances, so that they may be rewarded with successful conquests once more and turn Israel back into 'dar al-Islam'. But the problem is that America, via its Christian voters, keeps on supporting Israel. Thus the Islamic conquest becomes almost impossible, and is the reason for bin-Ladin et al calling us Crusaders (it's a softer way of saying Christians, as they don't want to rally the West against their cause).

The proping up of Pakistani regimes, is again, much the same problem for jihadists like Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although I don't mean to defend the Pakistani regimes in any way who have continually played games supporting the West's assault on Afghanistan, whilst providing financial support and safe-havens for the Taliban at the same time. But clearly, the jihadists want Pakistan for its nuclear weapon, and if it were allowed to topple the regime in Pakistan, it would most certainly be a catastrophe.

Again, with regards what constitutes a 'legitimate regime' in the Middle East (from various Middle Eastern perspectives), Garner seems clueless. In Egypt, for example, there are endless repeats on TV of the spurious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This antisemitic fervour plays into the hands of extremists who are quick to exploit anti-Israeli sentiments as a means of rallying the populous to their cause. Thus any Egyptian regime's lack of support for all out war against Israel causes that regime to lose support.

As the 1956 war showed, Egypt is of critical importance to the survival of the West, thanks to the Suez Canal. Egypt recently arrested 8 Shia Hezbolla terrorists before being able to carry out an attack, thanks to Mossad intelligence. Al-Qaida is training to the south of Egypt, in Somalia, where it would like to take control of Egypt and strangle the West's economy. So what we would see in Egypt, if Mubarak's regime falls, is a cold war between Iranian backed Shias, and Saudi backed Wahabis (al-Qaida), as well as all out assault on Israel in collusion with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbolla from Lebanon (you might wonder where the Palestinian people would fit into a plan like this, I wonder too). In other words, something much worse than Afghanistan or Iraq. Yet Garner seems to take the argument for 'propping up of regimes' at face value.

So what could Obama do in a situation like this, presuming he'd not only read this book, but listen to a range of experts and analysts.

The West cannot create democracies in every Middle Eastern country. It would bankrupt the West to even try, as we can see from Iraq and Afghanistan; which is exactly why the media-savvy supporters of terror, hijack such grievances for their own ends.

Personally, I don't think the democracy of Turkey can be replicated elsewhere in the Middle East. The Turks are not Arabs and have a long history of colonising many places; they were world travellers (so to speak) and imported much culture and customs from their former colonies. They are a different people to the puritanical Wahabists of the Arabs currently spreading like wildfire (the long-time enemy of the Turks, incidentally). But I totally agree that a new strategy needs to be devised by the West...
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