The Strong Horse

Lee Smith, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (New York: Doubleday, 2010). $26.00, 240 pages.

“When people see a strong horse and a weak horse,” Osama bin Laden once said, “by nature, they will like the strong horse.” Bin Laden’s statement provides the title, thesis, and motivation for the policy recommendations in Lee Smith’s new book, which examines—in the words of the subtitle—“power, politics, and the clash of Arab civilizations.” Smith is a Middle East correspondent for The Weekly Standard.

The thesis of The Strong Horse is that “violence is central to the politics, society, and culture of the Arabic-speaking Middle East”—a centrality that predates the rise of Islam, which has failed to attenuate it. Smith draws on the insights of Ibn Khaldun, the 14th-century Muslim historian, for articulation of what he calls “the strong horse principle,” namely, that “history is a matter of one tribe, nation, or civilization dominating the others by force until it, too, is overthrown by force.” Against those who argue that the Middle East is violent because of intermeddling by the Great Powers or because of the provocations of the Jewish state, Smith points to a long line of violent conflicts between Islamic traditions and between and among Arab nations that have no obvious connections to either the West or Israel.

The policy recommendation motivated by this thesis is that if America desires the democratization of the region, it must play the strong horse. “[T]he Americans, as long as they have the will to stay, should understand that he who punishes enemies and rewards friends, forbids evil and enjoins good, is entitled to rule, and no other. There is no alternative, not yet anyway, to the strong horse.”

The Strong Horse makes its case, in parts, by means of travelogue, personal interview, historical narrative, religious commentary, and sociological observation. Smith is a journalist, and The Strong Horse is a masterpiece of reportage.

My guess, however, is that The Strong Horse will fail to satisfy a number of readers for a variety of reasons. For example, readers who are inclined to view the Middle Easterners as victims of Western colonialism will not be delighted to see the Arabs treated as moral agents whose actions are shaped by their own deepest convictions, rather than deformed by the predatory actions of the “Great Powers.” Readers who hope for diplomatic solutions to problems in the Middle East will not be happy to see how important a strong American military presence is to the accomplishment of that objective. And pro-democracy readers will not appreciate Smith’s statement that “while all men may be entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of justice, they do not all seek it, for some, as the resistance proudly proclaims, love death more than life.” In other words, there’s something for everyone to dislike in Smith’s book.

Whether that dislike arises from certainty that Smith is wrong or the anxiety that he is right, only you the reader can decide.


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2 thoughts on “The Strong Horse

  1. This is one of the most thoughtful reviews the book has gotten – thanks so much for it!

    Yrs, Lee

    1. You’re welcome, Lee! It’s an excellent book that deserves wide readership. Perhaps for your next book, you could examine the Israel-Palestine conflict. Specifically, how has the strong-horse principle shaped that conflict? And how would opinions of the conflict change if we saw the Palestinians as moral agents who determine their course of action based on their own beliefs rather than seeing them as victims of colonial oppression. Similarly, why does Israel, which is such a Western country in other respects, rely so heavily on covert and overt action?

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