Book Review

Deciphering differences, charting a future in the Middle East

Author Robin Wright is critical of US involvement in the war in Iraq, but fails to include arguments from those who support it. Author Robin Wright is critical of US involvement in the war in Iraq, but fails to include arguments from those who support it. (maya alleruzzo/associated press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Claude R. Marx
February 28, 2008

Dreams and Shadows:
The Future of the Middle East

By Robin Wright
Penguin Press, 464 pp., $26.95

The war in Iraq is the latest in a series of events that show the knowledge gap that exists when it comes to the Middle East. Unfortunately, many of the books available on the subject are polemics that generate more heat than light. Those who want a balanced look at that region's political climate have often been forced to turn to dry reference textbooks with minimal literary flare.

That's no longer the case, thanks to Washington Post foreign affairs correspondent Robin Wright. Her latest book, "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East," is a thought-provoking and eminently readable look at the current and future generation of leaders in that important, politically troubled region.

Its focus is on the Muslim nations and the divide between modernity and tradition as well as the tug of war between religious and secular forces. Each of the seven sections (Palestine, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, and Syria) is self-contained so people can hone in on the region one country at a time. Israel rarely makes an appearance, except as a subject of criticism by Arab political leaders and a justification for the violent actions of extremist groups. Her neglect of Israel is an unfortunate omission, given the current fights there about the country's future direction.

Despite the tumult in the region, her tone is generally (though not wildly) optimistic. Still, Wright douses cold water on the idea that democratization will be anything but incredibly hard.

"Unity in opposition to tyranny almost never translates to unity once in power. In a region rife with vulnerable minorities and shifting demographics, opening up politics endangers deepening the problems it is meant to solve," she writes.

Later on, she points out that it took Western countries many decades to develop democratic societies, and she urges patience at the sometimes glacial pace of improving conditions in the Middle East.

Wright's skills at old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting are very much in evidence as she mostly lets her sources speak for themselves. Her own voice appears most often when providing historical and geographical context as a backdrop for understanding current events.

The book's weakest section is its discussion of the war in Iraq. Wright is extremely critical of the war and the way the United States has handled the aftermath. She says that no other foreign policy decision "had been more disastrous to core American values, interests, goals, and status around the world." While that's a debatable point (the Vietnam War could also be described the same way), she backs it up in a somewhat one-sided manner. Wright doesn't include arguments from those who supported the United States' action, which would have strengthened the discussion.

Elsewhere, her approach is generally more balanced. To demonstrate the paradox that is Morocco, she shares extensive excerpts of her interviews with an opposition leader and a human rights activist, as well as quotes from interviews that others did with King Mohammed VI. She points out while, on the one hand, the king has expressed admiration for democracies elsewhere and created a commission to uncover Morocco's past human rights abuses, on the other hand, he has increased restrictions on free expression.

"But even under a younger and more open-minded king, Morocco remains an absolute monarchy run by the oldest dynasty in the Arab world," she writes. "The king can legislate new laws without parliament. And he can dismiss at will."

This kind of reporting-based analysis makes "Dreams and Shadows" a valuable addition to the bookshelf of those who want to get their arms around the political and religious conflicts that roil the Middle East.

Claude R. Marx is a journalist and author of a chapter on media and politics in the recent book "The Sixth-Year Itch," edited by Larry Sabato.

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