Could Lee Smith Have Been More Wrong?

Jim asks a good question: Who was more instrumental in the Arab uprisings, George W. Bush or his nemesis Al Jazeera? Andrew Sullivan had a funny take on “Bush’s vindication”: 80% right, 100% wrong.

But I want to look at Lee Smith, just because he gave me a good laugh yesterday.

For years, the Weekly Standard correspondent and Hudson Institute fellow has been saying that Arabs respect only strength. Well, someone forgot to tell this to the Arabs. If Hosni Mubarak had been reading Smith, he must be wondering why he feels so much like Rodney Dangerfield right now.

Let’s look at some of Smith’s writing. Here’s a piece from just last month:

Western cyber-optimists argue that information technology like satellite television and the Internet will so inundate the Arabic-speaking Middle East with images and information that it will entirely reconfigure Arab societies. But this has it exactly wrong: Culture is more powerful than technology, and how a society uses any given technology is determined by its culture.

Now, who has it exactly wrong? Within a month of Smith’s screed, peaceful protesters used Facebook to organize what became the massive Egyptian protests that overthrew the “strong horse.” Once the Internet went down, they watched Al Jazeera and other satellite channels to figure out what was going on, who was saying what, and where to go next. The events of the past month represent an almost exact negative image of Smith’s sociological caricature.

I use the words “strong horse” above because this is how Smith refers to leaders that can move the Arab heart — not Facebook groups anonymously led by shrimpy Google execs. It’s even in the name of Smith’s book, “The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations,” which came out last year.

I haven’t read the book, but I have read an approbative review by Daniel Pipes in the National Review that appeared early last year:

[Smith] presents Pan-Arab nationalism as an effort to transform the mini-horses of the national states into a single super-horse and Islamism as an effort to make Muslims powerful again. Israel serves as “a proxy strong horse” for both the United States and the Saudi-Egyptian bloc in the latter’s Cold War rivalry with Iran’s bloc. In a strong-horse environment, militias appeal more than do elections.

Could this possibly be more wrong? Is the Islamist “single super-horse” theory the reason that the Muslim Brotherhood promptly rejected a call of solidarity from Tehran? The absurdity of Pipes’s last statement alone makes my head spin. Wait, wait. It gets better:

What Smith calls the strong-horse principle contains two banal elements: Seize power and then maintain it. This principle predominates because Arab public life has “no mechanism for peaceful transitions of authority or power sharing, and therefore [it] sees political con?ict as a ?ght to the death between strong horses.” Violence, Smith observes is “central to the politics, society, and culture of the Arabic-speaking Middle East.”

That’s not all:

Smith’s simple and near-universal principle provides a tool to comprehend the Arabs’ cult of death, honor killings, terrorist attacks, despotism, warfare, and much else. He acknowledges that the strong-horse principle may strike Westerners as ineffably crude, but he correctly insists on its being a cold reality that outsiders must recognize, take into account, and respond to.

Now that Pipes and Smith have been proven wrong by events, will they go back and “recognize, take into account, and respond to” the undeniable new reality that doesn’t fit into their worldview? Probably not, because they’re ideologues, and that’s what ideologues, by definition, do. Reality is subservient to what they want to think about the world.

Now, go back and read Daniel Pipes’s review of Lee Smith’s book– and you tell me who is obsessed with Israel and the “strong horse.” Is it the Arabs who continue to flood the streets and demand freedom from their rulers? Or is it these neoconservatives?

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. Who’s wrong, Smith or Loeb? Clearly not Smith.

    This reviewer is advertising his cluelessness if all he can conclude from the strong horse argument is that Egyptians should support Mubarak because he’s “strong.” I guess Smith better publish a dumbed-down version of the book for the simpletons in the blogosphere.

    Who is this guy Gharib anyway? Alternet? Inter Press Service? Buffalo Beast? Those are nothing but hard-left propaganda blogs with a few conspiracy theories and the usual America-blaming rubbish thrown in. These aren’t credentials. More like a list of mistakes made by another spoiled kid who never grew up.

    But I’m grateful for the Pipes link in the article. Nice to see a review by a real expert. The clown who wrote this article should be thankful to even stand in his shadow. The endorsement by an expert of Pipes’ status adds far more cedibility than is detracted by some shallow hippie.

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