Middle East 101 

Journalist tells it like it is

Since 9/11, fear of terrorism has become a palpable part of the American landscape. Politicians campaign around it. Writers discuss it.

More recently, disdain for the Iraq war has settled in as well. Many Americans want to bring our troops home, now. A $500 billion war widely regarded as a disaster prompts the question: Why has it failed?

Some say we didn't understand Iraq and the Middle East well enough to make the right decisions from the beginning. Whatever the reason, many of us discussing the war and the threat of terrorism still don't really know more than the headlines we hear on CNN or scan in the newspaper. Regarding a region that's dictating much of our foreign policy and fears, that's surprisingly little. Fortunately, we can augment that knowledge.

Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East by Robin Wright is a comprehensive and gripping primer on the peoples and governments that compose this region. A journalist covering the Middle East since the '70s, Wright addresses Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Morocco and, of course, Iraq, with a depth conducive to real understanding. Wright delves into the history and present forces of each, and emerges with the optimistic belief that extremism is no longer the most dynamic force, and these places and peoples are slowly progressing toward a more peaceful and democratic future.

The book is clear and educational, offering insight to both Middle East neophytes and those already well-informed. By writing on each separate region at length, Wright allows the reader to fall deep into an area's story. Each chapter is saved from becoming a mess of names and dates and dry history by the strong narrative woven throughout, sparking a page-turning frenzy to rival suspense fiction.

Wright begins with the Palestinians, who embraced democratic elections in 2006. The Palestinians illustrate one of the major foreign policy difficulties posed by the Middle East: The West wants to bring democracy to the region but is often unwilling to accept the results.

In the 2006 elections, the Palestinians overwhelmingly elected Hamas, a militant Islamic party that advocates force to achieve its agenda. Wright gives a flawed human face to the group, reporting on both its suicide attacks against Israel and the important social-welfare services it provides to the public. It's not a group most Westerners would bring to power, but it won Palestinian support. Democracy took seed, although it brought extremists with it.

Wright looks at each region with a similar eye to budding democracy or political dissent. She interviews key players, from Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, to Akbar Ganji, an Iranian writer and one of his country's most popular democratic activists. The chapters are full of accounts of injustice, but the mood of slow momentum toward better things persists.

Then Wright ends with a chapter on Iraq. Here, there were elections, too; violence and chaos ensued. And thus, American democracy has left an example no one else is eager to replicate. Wright says early in the book, "Violence is increasingly unacceptable to the majority, according to opinion polls and petitions." Yet in her final chapter, she writes of Iraq that "more than half of those surveyed in a nationwide poll in 2007 said it was 'acceptable' to attack American troops, triple the number in 2004." And growing anti-American sentiment has brought more recruits into the fold of the extremists. Wright claims that our treatment of Iraq has turned so many against us that we've stunted the growth of democracy in the entire region. It's a potent argument.

It's so compelling that Wright's initial optimistic view of Middle East progression is shaken. The stories of small and large successes are inspiring, but how much momentum has been lost?

Dreams and Shadows illuminates a land where nothing is certain. But knowing more about the people gives us a greater chance for peace and respect. Dreams and Shadows offers this knowledge in troves, in an amazingly readable book, whether its optimism is founded or not.

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