Dreams and Shadows:
The Future of the Middle East
Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (February 26, 2008)
Reviewer: Max Rodenbeck
If there is such a thing as a pinnacle in the landscape of international journalism, Robin Wright surely stands atop it. The Washington Post's chief diplomatic correspondent has braved thirty-five years of wars, crises, and famines, not to mention bureaucratic sniping in Washington, to illuminate the world's darker interstices. She has scored many scoops, captured a stack of awards, authored a half-dozen books, and accumulated a star-studded Rolodex that must be the envy of every hack within the Beltway.
When a journalist of this caliber descends on some dusty capital, she is sure to have her path eased by the most capable local dragomen, and by the eagerness of media-savvy people to communicate with the Superpower. And when she sets her sights on a topic as weighty as the future of the Middle East, that most tiresomely troubling corner of the globe, it should be time for armchair analysts to take cover and policymakers to listen.
Wright's latest book, Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, elaborated out of a year-long series of articles for the Post that looked into prospects for political reform in the region, delivers plenty of what one would expect from so experienced an observer. Roaming through Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine, she recounts her impressions with wisdom, clarity, and a sharp critical eye. Her favored access to top officials, as well as to the dissidents opposing them, is put to good use. Wright lets her varied interlocutors speak in their own words, but also sets the scene helpfully.
We discover for instance that Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic but reclu-sive leader of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia party-cum-militia, proves to be a thoughtful and voluble host. He annoys aides by prolonging an interview with Wright late into the night. And he surprises her with the sometimes disturbing turns of his logic, as when he fulsomely denounces the September 11 attacks on New York, but hints that the Pentagon may have been a legitimate target-just the sort of unappetizing yet intriguing view that American audiences are seldom exposed to.
Wright can be an engaging guide. It is amusing to be reminded that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat drove a two-tone pink Thunderbird convertible in the days when he was a successful engineer in Kuwait, before the career change to gritty guerrilla politics. We are told of an exquisitely crass exchange of gifts during his visit to Libya's ruler, Muammar Qaddafi. The erratic Bedouin strongman received from the Palestinian an antique camel saddle, and he gave in return a set of Samsonite luggage to Arafat, the peripatetic refugee.
Those who think of Iran as a grim place will be heartened to hear that people joke there about their fanatical but endearingly disheveled president parting his hair and ordering male lice to the left, female lice to the right. His predecessor, the dapper, charming, but ineffectual Mohammad Khatami, was referred to as the "Armani mullah." Moroccans, we are told, relish calling their youthful king, Mohammed VI, "Sa Majetski," in reference to his fondness for waterbikes.
Wright's anecdotes can be poignant as well as funny. Riad al-Turk, a survivor of decades in Syrian political prisons, relates how he kept his sanity while in solitary confinement by picking seeds out of his soup and using them to draw elaborate pictures on the floor of his tiny cell. Wright observes that Iran's dour Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has to let his guards cut his food for him. His right arm was damaged in 1981 by a bomb disguised as a tape recorder, making him what acolytes describe as a Living Martyr.
Yet this book is not another rambling rehash of an intrepid reporter's notes. Wright deftly weaves in much useful historical background, thus adding the sort of perspective that is all too often missing from daily press coverage. The fact, as she points out, that the region's population has grown fully sevenfold within three generations, for instance, is surely crucial to understanding the underlying stresses its societies face. In closer focus, Wright's concise account of the creation of Iran's peculiar constitution three decades ago, with its uncomfortable pairing of theocratic and democratic institutions, explains the Islamic Republic's current malaise more effectively than would any blow-by-blow account of its politics. Her summary accounts of the genesis of Hezbollah and of how the split between the Palestinians' secular Fatah and Islamist Hamas parties has evolved are concise and informative.
Wright also escapes the format of a correspondent's travelogue by composing the book around a central leitmotif, echoing the dichotomy announced by her title of an elemental struggle between youthful dreams of freedom and enlightenment, and the shadows cast by power and tradition. Wright's conjecture is that the region's long-entrenched autocratic regimes face a groundswell of pressure for change that they are increasingly ill-equipped to fend off.
To her credit, Wright does not shy from admitting that her thesis of inevitable reform has grown increasingly unsustainable. The Arab spring, she says frankly, did not endure. A little more exploration of why this was so would have been appropriate, perhaps. But Wright is surely correct in ascribing some part of the blame to America's inept and counterproductive Iraq policy. As numerous interlocutors in the region tell her, not only did the debacle promote extremism and further isolate pro-Western liberals, it alerted people to the terrible risks of toppling tyrants. The Iraq adventure, in Wright's view, may have been the biggest American policy failure of all time. It could yet prove to mark the end of an imperial America's influence in the region, much as France and Britain's catastrophic invasion of Egypt in 1956 demolished the colonial powers' standing and dangerously boosted the fortunes of Egypt's reckless leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. That is surely a sound judgment.
Sadly, though, Wright's urge to make lapidary pronouncements can produce some remarkably hollow punditry. "For the foreseeable future, the Middle East will be engulfed in a contest between the familiar and the feared," she declares, as if this were not a description of the human condition in general. "Islam's priests will wield enormous political influence during the Middle East's turbulent transitions," we are informed, as if political Islam had not been on the march for the past three decades. Her hardly surprising pronouncement on the coming conundrum that will face the Middle East is "that free and fair elections may not initially produce a respectable democracy."
Wright is also less reliable on issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mercifully, she does not go into its details, explaining that she did not wish to encumber the book with material that has been heavily documented elsewhere. Besides, as she notes, the strength of Israel's democracy clearly does not fit the rest of the region's mold. Yet the problem of Israel and the Palestinians, so poisonous to the region as a whole, cannot be so easily extracted from the general ointment.
By Wright's account, Israel itself appears to have little agency in fomenting wider troubles. The fault seems to lie almost entirely with the Arabs. It was Syria's president, Hafez al-Assad, we are told, who wrecked peace negotiations in 2000 by holding out for all the occupied Golan Heights. Yasser Arafat was simply "the obstacle to a final peace." The American-sponsored roadmap, meant to lead to a final settlement, stalled "when Arafat did not end the violence against Israel."
Arafat and Assad may have made grim dinner companions, but these are contentious statements. Could it be that Israel's insistence on keeping the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which had once been Syria's, prompted the Syrian dictator's reluctance? Did the ceaseless expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories, and the brutality with which Israel responded to the second intifada, including the physical destruction of Palestinian police stations, have anything to do with Arafat's trepidation, let alone his ability to control violence? We are told that the intifada erupted after Arafat balked at peace terms offered by Israel, but not that Ariel Sharon, later Israel's prime minister, helped to spark the conflagration by marching into the courtyard of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, accompanied by two thousand armed police, or that a day later, Israeli police snipers shot dead thirteen of their own Arab fellow citizens.
There are also some lazy expressions here. Arabs seem forever to be "fleeing." The parents of the Shikaki brothers "fled" their village in pre-1948 Palestine. (The divergent career paths of the two men mirror Palestinian politics: one, a leader of the radical Islamic Jihad group, was killed by an Israeli hit squad; the other is a liberal, soft-spoken pollster.) The Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who survived an Israeli attempt at poisoning, himself "fled" Palestine in 1967, and again "fled" Kuwait in 1991, when Saddam Hussein invaded. Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chief, also "fled" from Lebanon's civil war. Surely, refugees sometimes escape, or get thrown out, or are propelled to move by something other than a tendency to scuttling flight.
A certain hastiness can be detected, too, in the occasional clumsy wording. One wonders how the "dirt-poor poverty" suffered by Morocco differs from other kinds of poverty. "Opening up politics," she warns elsewhere, "endangers deepening the problems it is meant to solve," a statement that might be interpreted as dangerously Rumsfeldian. And one can only regret that Wright was not more firm with her editors, who have sadly insisted on modifying the sources of chapter-opening quotes with ugly little identifiers. In the age of Google, is it is really necessary to cite "French philosopher Blaise Pascal" or "American artist Andy Warhol"?
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.