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After 9/11, Lee Smith traveled to the Middle East to learn why his country was attacked by al-Qaeda. He published his findings in a sweeping narrative.

Interview: The Strong Horse

Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and a Middle East correspondent for The Weekly Standard. He is the author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.

Near East Report asked Smith to discuss a few of the many topics covered in his new book.

Near East Report: Why did you write this book?

Lee Smith: I wanted to find out why my hometown of New York City was attacked on 9/11 and 3,000 of my neighbors were killed. I traveled to the Middle East in search of answers. The Strong Horse is my account of what I found over the last nine years.

NER: What is the meaning of the title?

LS: The title comes from a quote by Osama Bin Laden. He said, "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse."

I was reading a very nice review of the book in The Jerusalem Post, and in the talkbacks, one of the readers wrote, "See, the Arabs detest weakness and only respect strength."

I laughed and thought, who doesn't? But this is not really the point of the book. What I meant to describe to an American audience was the centrality of violence in a political culture that has no mechanism for either sharing power or transmitting political authority from one governing body to another except through inheritance, coup or conquest.

NER: Since 9/11 and the start of the Iraq war, Americans have been following the Middle East more closely than ever before. What are your thoughts on how Americans view the region?

LS: I think most Americans have a pretty accurate understanding of the region just from what they see on TV. When they see little children dressed up as suicide bombers, they know that there's something deeply wrong in that particular Arab society.

In addition, I suspect most Americans know that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the region's central issue. The problems of American perception of the region pertain mostly to our prestige intelligentsia—our journalists and academics, etc. When they look at the Middle East, it is hard for them to fathom the depths of unreason driving the rhetoric and the politics, and therefore they assign rational causes.

People must be acting like this for a good reason, they say. If they hate America and hate Israel, we and the Israelis must have done something truly awful. What's odd is that for intellectuals, this is not a position particularly well informed by evidence.

NER: How should Americans understand jihadist groups like al-Qaeda? How do you answer the common question, "Why do they hate us?"

LS: Al-Qaeda and their various associates have plenty of grievances, from U.S. support of Israel to the end of the Ottoman caliphate after World War I. The question is whether we should take these grievances seriously. Al-Qaeda hates our policies, some people argue. Sure, but Sunni extremists also hate the beliefs and practices of Arab Shia—that is, they hate their "policies" about Islam. Among those who rationalize Arab violence against Americans and Israelis by faulting our "policies," is there anyone who thinks it is acceptable for Sunnis to slaughter Shia for their "policies?"

We are not hated because of what we do. Nor, contrary to what the Bush administration argued, are we hated because of who we are. Al-Qaeda hates us because of who we are not—Sunni Arabs.

NER: What motivates a Shia Arab group like Hizballah? Why does Hizballah fight Israel?

LS: I argue in my book that the main, perhaps existential, concern of Lebanon's Shia community is the regional Sunni majority that has surrounded it for 1,400 years. But let's be clear: Hizballah's hatred of Israel is genuine. The organization is not just anti-Zionist, but anti-Semitic to its core.

Hizballah's so-called territorial dispute with Israel is over a small bit of land on the Golan Heights known as the Shebaa Farms, which the United Nations says is Syrian, but Hizballah says is Lebanese. It is a claim that was invented right before the 2000 Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in order to justify Hizballah's refusal to disarm.

In other words, the Shebaa Farms issue is primarily about internal Lebanese politics, though this nonsense about "occupied" Lebanese land has certainly fueled the third-worldist imaginations of a large number of Western journalists and intellectuals who wish to justify the murderous actions of a terrorist group under the rubric of "national resistance."

There is nothing national about Hizballah's resistance, even though the group is made up of Lebanese Shia. Hizballah is an ideological organization founded by the Islamic Republic of Iran in the early 1980s in order to export the Khomeinist revolution. By waging war against Israel, Hizballah allows Iran and Syria, its other patron, to project power across the region without bringing conflict to their own borders.

NER: What do the non-Hizballah Lebanese think of Israel?

LS: There is a wide range of opinions. Last time I was in Beirut, I was out for the evening with friends, and I forgot that I had an Israeli 10-shekel note in my wallet, a curiosity that everyone around the table was eager to hold and scrutinize. They wanted to hear of my various visits to Israel, my friends there, the beaches, clubs, restaurants and food. The Lebanese are rightly proud of their cuisine and got a little upset when I praised Golan wine and beef.

There's curiosity and interest about Israel. A professor of political philosophy I know at the American University in Beirut is crushed that he has serious colleagues only a few hours away in Israel but can't exchange ideas with them.

And of course there's also enmity. One of the most demoralizing developments of late is that the part of the Christian community that is allied with Hizballah has started to adopt the Party of God's anti-Semitic language. Of course, the Catholic Church has a long record of anti-Semitism, but it is depressing to hear segments of what is ostensibly the country's most tolerant and Westernized community thinking and talking like this.

On the other hand, philo-Semitism springs up in unusual places. For instance, a few months ago there was a rally for a journalist accused of being a "Zionist agent." While most of the demonstrators vouched for the man's anti-Zionist bona fides, my friend Lokman Slim, a Shia who lives in a Hizballah neighborhood in Beirut, wore a big yellow star on his chest, as if to say, I won't allow you to use "Jew" as an insult. Brave moral gestures are few and far between in the Arab states, but courage like that is of an order of righteousness that most of us will never fathom, never mind equal.

NER: What have you learned about how Arabs view the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran?

LS: The Arab masses seem mostly partial to the Islamic Republic and especially its charismatic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since the Sunni Arab states either have peace treaties with Israel or have retired from the battlefield, only Iran and its allies still carry the banner of resistance, and this tends to excite the masses.

Arab regimes, however, have a very different view. First, they are angry that the Iranians have tried to drive a wedge between them and their populations. Furthermore, they disdain Iran for religious reasons (Iran is a Shia state) as well as racial ones (Iran is Persian, not Arab).

But the main reason Arab regimes worry about Iran is strategic. They fear that a nuclear Iran will set the region's tempo—politically, economically and culturally. An Iranian nuclear weapon will be proof that resistance works. The Arab regimes fear that they may well get swept up in a revolutionary tsunami, just as Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated in the wake of Iran's 1979 revolution.

Arab regimes do not like to voice their concerns about Iran publicly, for fear that it will make them look weak. However, lately they have become more outspoken about the Iranian nuclear threat. Just recently, in a joint news conference with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said that it is too late for sanctions against Iran and that something more urgent needs to be done.

Clinton's staffers later confided to reporters that they had no idea what Saud meant. These staffers are either extremely subtle diplomats or thoroughly dense. Saud's comments were as close as the Saudis will ever come to spelling it out for Washington: Stop the Iranians by any means necessary, and do it now.

NER: Do you think that Saudi Arabia will ever have open relations with Israel? It sounds like their interests overlap in some places.

LS: Maybe they'll have open relations someday in the future, but I wouldn't hold my breath. What matters right now is that Jerusalem and Riyadh are on the same side on the Iran issue; reportedly, there are various meetings between officials from both sides. Typically this is how bilateral relations are built between Middle Eastern states—through security arrangements brokered by intelligence agencies. This kind of relationship is much more enduring than treaties signed on paper since it addresses the issue that matters to everyone in the region: security.

NER: If the Arab states and Israel have common interests in the Middle East, why does most of the Arab world refuse to accept the Jewish state as a neighbor in the region?

LS: The source of Arab hostility to Israel is the same as Arab hostility to Kurds, Arab hostility to Persians, Sunni hostility to Shia, etc. You see the same issues being played out around the region, so Arab hostility to Israel is hardly unique. To be sure, parts of the Koran and other Muslim religious texts are plainly anti-Semitic (as are parts of the New Testament, I might add). And the Arabs are especially sensitive to the "humiliations" they have suffered, having lost several wars to a small Jewish state—wars that the Arabs started.

Nonetheless, I think it's a mistake to take the hostility too personally, as if the Arabs only have problems with the Jews. It's tough for all the minorities in the region. Indeed, it might be instructive to see it from another perspective: Israel has peace treaties with two Sunni states, Egypt and Jordan. In a history going back more than 1,400 years, no other regional minorities—not the Shia, Christians, Druze, Alawi, etc—have ever had an accord with the Sunnis. The Jews managed it because Israel is the realization of one regional minority's dream of self-determination. This is the Middle East's great minority success story. It is awesome. Mazal tov.

Therefore, what matters in the region is not if your neighbors welcome you, but if you are willing to fight for your rightful place. Or, as a Lebanese Christian friend of mine put it when he was confronted with one American's anti-Zionism, "If he's hostile toward the idea of a Jewish state in the Middle East, it means he can't understand us either. The Jews were here before the Christians, who were here before the Muslims."

In other words, all that matters is that the Jews know they belong in the Middle East, just like everyone else.

NER: How should the United States define its interests and priorities in the Middle East?

LS: Our chief interest is the same as it has been for 65 years now—to ensure the free flow of affordable oil. This is a vital interest that is second only to homeland security, which is to say that our other key priority is nuclear nonproliferation. This includes, most urgently, the Iranian nuclear program. I know that many people are hoping the Israelis will deal with the program, but I think it is a serious error for the regional strong horse—the United States—to shirk its responsibility. If the task is left to Jerusalem, our prestige in the region will suffer. The good news for Israelis is that after the Sunni Arab states dry their crocodile tears and finish expressing their pretend pan-Islamic solidarity with Tehran, Jerusalem's prestige will be on the rise.

NER: Given the importance of oil—and the fact that Israel has none of it—does this mean that America's strong relationship with Israel must come at the expense of strong relations with the region's oil exporters? Is it a zero-sum game?

LS: I'm scarcely the first one to point out that our relationship with Israel does not come at the expense of our alliances with Arab states. Indeed, we have a working relationship with almost every member of the Arab League.

But the zero-sum issue isn't really about Arab states, it's about Arab terror. Remember that the argument drawn from the so-called realist school—pushed by the authors of The Israel Lobby, among others—is that U.S. support for Israel draws a big fat target in the middle of our foreheads. Ergo, if we want to decrease levels of anti-American terrorism, we should accordingly adjust our support for Israel.

What an absurd model for U.S. strategy! Henceforth, whenever adversaries threaten our citizens and interests, we will tailor our policies to suit the demands of those who wish to kill us. Does that sound like a good idea? Forget policy for a second. What kind of man forsakes his friends because their mutual enemies threaten him with violence if he refuses? Like the Arabs, I detest weakness.

NER: Anyone reading your book will soon learn that the problems in the Middle East have no easy solution. How, then, should U.S. policymakers approach the region?

LS: Indeed, there are no easy solutions, but there is a very simple principle that I lay out in my book. To maintain our position in the Middle East, Washington must 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. BACK TO TOP