Best Books on the Middle East, 2010

The Atlantic asked me to name an outstanding book from 2010 in Middle East Studies. I chose John Calvert's Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism. In honor of that choice, I'm delighted to publish today Calvert's essay "The Afterlife of Sayyid Qutb" on the Middle East Channel, an essay which fills in one of the only real gaps in the book. Choosing only one book was difficult, but fortunately I have a blog of my own to offer a longer list of the best books published this year on the Middle East -- or at least the best books published this year which I actually had time to read, which means that it's far from exhaustive. Without further ado, the list:

John Calvert, Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism (Columbia University Press). The Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb has been one of the most influential Islamist thinkers of the century, a key figure in the evolution of radical Islamist movements such as al-Qaeda and a pivotal voice in the shift by some Islamists towards violence. In one of the first serious English-language biographies of Qutb, Calvert puts this often misunderstood figure into his historical context, situating Qutb within the turbulent intellectual and political flow of Egyptian and Arab history. He expertly shows the development of Qutb's thinking, from literary critic to Islamist, and powerfully details the impact of the repression and torture carried out by the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser on his turn towards the stark, radical doctrines which have shaped generations of Islamist radicals. Fascinating details emerge in this book, about what really happened during his famous visit to the United States, about his tenuous relationship with a Muslim Brotherhood organization, which he joined only late in his career, and about how he built a following among Islamists outside of Egypt. The Qutb which emerges from Calvert's even-handed history is far more complex and interesting than the caricature of him which dominates popular understanding. Anyone interested in the evolution of Islamism in the 20th century should read it. John Calvert in the Middle East Channel: "The Afterlife of Sayyid Qutb" (Dec. 15, 2010).

Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia. The best book written on the evolution of the jihadist trend inside of Saudi Arabia by a rising star in the field (and one of the patrons of the Jihadica blog). By exploiting a vast array of new documentary evidence and interviews inside of Saudi Arabia, Hegghammer paints a compelling portrait of the divisions within Saudi Islamism, locating al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula He explains why al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula launched its wave of attacks in 2003, and why the Saudi state was able to respond as effectively as it did. A must read for those interested in Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda, or Islamism. Thomas Hegghammer in the Middle East Channel: "The Case for Chasing al-Awlaki" (Nov. 24, 2010), "Lady Gaga vs. the Occupation" (March 31, 2010).

F. Gregory Gause III, The International Relations of the Persian Gulf. This long-awaited analytical overview of the dynamics of the Gulf region has immediately taken its place as one of the key texts for the field of the International Relations of the Middle East. Gause works as easily within the domestic politics of the Gulf States as he does at the level of regional jockeying for power and security. The book presents a definitive and persuasive account of the regime security imperatives behind the Iraqi decisions to invade Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, of the tripolar logic of the Iranian-Iraqi-Saudi competition for regional supremacy, of the formation of the GCC, and of the steadily shifting American role in the region. Greg Gause in the Middle East Channel: "The Iraq War: The Hole in the Middle Eastern Doughnut" (Nov. 30, 2010), "What Saudis Really Think About Iran" (May 6, 2010), "Strikeout: How Cook Fails to Bring the Neocons Back" (March 17, 2010).

Nir Rosen, Aftermath. The fearless journalist Nir Rosen grapples here with the course of the Iraq war and its effects upon the region as a whole. Ranging from Lebanon and Jordan to Afghanistan, Rosen digs deep into the experience of the war from the perspective of Iraqis and Arabs instead of from the U.S. military-centric perspective of most writing on the war. While his description of Iraq is vital and important, perhaps the most gripping sections of the book focus on the rise of a Salafi trend in Lebanon. The Iraq war will be shaping the region for many years to come. Nir Rosen in the Middle East Channel: "What America Left Behind in Iraq" (Sept. 7, 2010).

Joy Gordon, Invisible War. While most Americans have largely forgotten the long decade of U.S. led sanctions on Iraq, Gordon forces attention back to their long-lasting effects on the Iraqi state and society. She offers a deeply researched account of American and United Nations policies towards the sanctions which captures the contradictions between an overt focus on forcing Saddam Hussein to surrender his WMD programs and a deeper interest in maintaining containment ("keeping Saddam in a box") and pushing for regime change -- contradictions which remain deeply relevant to current debates about Iran. Gordon tracks the effects of the sanctions on Iraqis, which drove international outrage as the decade of the 1990s dragged on but which most of the world now seems eager to forget. Joy Gordon in the Middle East Channel: "Lessons We Should Have Learned From the Iraqi Sanctions" (July 8, 2010).

There were also some very intriguing books that I haven't yet had the chance to read. Timur Kuran's The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East promises to be controversial. Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia, by Toby Jones, has just been published by one of our sharpest analysts of the Gulf. In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi'ism and the Making of Modern Lebanon, by Max Weiss, is based on a dissertation which a committee I headed named the Malcolm Kerr Award for Best Dissertation a few years ago. And I'm sure there are others -- put them in the comments section so I know what to read over Christmas break!

Also, in case anyone cares, I think that this year has roundly disconfirmed Nas's hypothesis that "Hip Hop is Dead." My personal list of the top albums of the year: Kanye West's brilliant My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which delivers on the promise of GOOD Fridays even if it didn't include the Power remix with Jay-Z and even though Nicki Minaj's atrocious verse ran "Monster" into a ditch; Eminem's Recovery, which would have been #1 with a bullet almost any other year; Big Boi's ridiculously fun Sir Lucious Left Foot / The Son of Chico Dusty; and B.o.B's The Adventures of Bobby Ray. Reflection Eternal rounds out the top 5, thanks to disappointing showings by T.I. and Lil Wayne (please don't mention the abysmal offerings by Minaj or Drake). But ahead of that I would place at least three mixtapes: J.Cole's Friday Night Lights; Wale's More About Nothing; and Jay Electronica's Victory. Not a bad year in music.

Marc Lynch

Looking ahead in Iraq

The great debates about Iraq policy which consumed much of the past decade have largely faded from the public arena. The Obama administration has withdrawn more than 100,000 troops from Iraq, while the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by the Bush administration in 2008 commits the U.S. to withdrawing the balance of its troops by the end of next year. Iraqi politics muddle along, while the security situation remains roughly stable with periodic spikes of spectacular violence but no signs of a resurgent civil war. But while the U.S. political debate about Iraq has faded, the importance of Iraq to American interests has not. It's therefore rather extraordinary that Congress has moved to cut $500 million from funding for the U.S. civilian mission in Iraq, leaving a shortfall of more than $1 billion.

Yesterday a wide array of Iraq policy analysts of wildly different perspectives converged on an appeal for the United States to remain committed to Iraq politically in order to deliver on a long-term strategic relationship beyond the military mission. I authored an op-ed with John Nagl, my colleague at the Center for a New American Security, arguing for a continued political engagement. Meanwhile, Brookings released a report entitled Unfinished Business, co-authored by Ken Pollack, Raad AlKadiri, Scott Carpenter, Fred Kagan and Sean Kane. There's a striking degree of analytical and policy convergence among people who used to be at sharp odds over Iraq. Nagl and I are colleagues at the Center for a New American Security but we sharply disagreed back in 2007-08 about the appropriate strategy for Iraq, as did many of the people involved in yesterday's Brookings Report. Nagl and I had not read the Brookings report at the time when we wrote the Christian Science Monitor op-ed. That we all converge on a roughly similar position today is significant - a "harmonic convergence" which the authors of the Brookings report nicely recount: "members of our group who had once been ready to do great violence to one another over their differences found themselves in violent agreement over what needed to be done." The conclusion of my piece with Nagl nicely captures this, I hope:

Today, those who backed the 2007 "surge" should be keen to see its gains consolidated, while those who called for withdrawal should be keen to make sure that as it happens, disaster does not follow. And while Iraq certainly needs to step up its political game, the United States must also muster the bipartisan political strength and will to help build a stable Iraq that can be a partner to the United States in a vital -- and deeply troubled -- part of the world. Those who gave their lives for this fight deserve nothing less.

Reading Unfinished Business reinforces my perception from a wide range of Iraq-focused private meetings over the last year that there has been a general convergence of views among people who used to sharply disagree back during the hottest days of the Iraq debates. Back then, I and some others, such as Brian Katulis, advocated a firm commitment to the withdrawal of military forces, skepticism about the impact of the "surge" upon Iraqi political reconciliation, and a focus on Iraqi politics as the decisive arena. Many of the Brookings authors advocated a much longer U.S. military mission, a conditions-based drawdown rather than a deadline, and a focus on U.S. counterinsurgency practices and American will as the decisive arena. While I expect that we will be fighting battles over how to interpret the events of 2006-08 for many years to come, those intense analytical and policy debates now appear to be largely resolved in favor of a significant degree of consensus on the need for the United States to remain politically engaged even as the military mission comes to a close.

Unfinished Business argues that "it is not the case that maintaining an American military presence on Iraq is so compelling that it should override all other considerations," and that "ultimately the U.S. must condition the continuation of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship on the willingness of the Iraqi political leadership to guide their country" in the directions we think are necessary. Therefore, "the U.S. must be willing to walk away from Iraq altogether if the government of Iraq is unwilling to agree to such a SOFA." I'm old enough to remember when timelines and threats to withdraw would only lead to disaster. Now, I think there's a broader recognition of the hobbling effects of an open-ended commitment. I suspect there's some disagreement as to whether a new Iraqi government is likely to request a renegotiation of the SOFA to let small numbers of U.S. troops remain past December 2011 -- Maliki's people say in public that they won't, but we'll see -- but if that happens, it simply has a different meaning now and shouldn't be nearly as controversial.

Unfinished Business argues that the United States must ruthlessly prioritize among competing interests, and that "priorities must be driven by American interests in Iraq moving forward." The report does a good job of laying out the risks of an Iraqi relapse into civil war or emergence into a new hostile regional power down the road -- it's arguably a bit too pessimistic on both counts, but those are reasonable arguments and genuine concerns that any serious analyst needs to consider. Overall, the thrust of their ruthless prioritization is that, to quote a September 2008 piece I wrote with Brian Katulis, "the United States will have to distinguish between those outcomes that are truly catastrophic and those that are simply suboptimal given the limits on U.S. leverage over Iraqi actors." The report reflects a sober but not hyperbolic catalog of the challenges and what might be done to meet them without stopping the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Unfinished Business acknowledges that "Iraq's domestic politics have become the center of gravity of the American effort toward Iraq" and that the focus must be less on the military now and more on pushing those politics in the right direction. That's exactly right. Again, from September 2008, "the primary drivers of Iraqi politics are Iraqis, and a stable political order must rest on the alignment of their interests and not the exercise of U.S. willpower or tinkering." And in recognition of the dynamics in Iraqi politics, the Brookings authors warn that "the U.S. must be constantly on guard not to enflame Iraqi nationalism by acting in an overbearing fashion." I couldn't agree more. It's therefore all the more important to listen carefully to Iraqi views and pay close attention to the swirling dynamics of Iraqi public opinion than has in the past generally been the case in Washington's writing and thinking about Iraq.

I'm impressed with the Unfinished Business report, and find that it reflects many of the conversations I've had with its authors and with various U.S. and Iraqi players over the last year. I've changed my mind about some things over the last year too. In particular, I've moderated my views on how involved the United States should be in Iraqi politics. I used to argue that for all of my admiration for Amb. Ryan Crocker and many people on his team, their intense involvement in shaping and forcing Iraqi political maneuvering was ultimately counter-productive. But things have changed. Now that the firm commitment to withdrawal established, it's appropriate and healthy to be actively and intensely engaged in Iraqi politics -- more so than back when such a commitment did not exist and when the habits of perpetual occupation needed to be broken. The increased U.S. political role over the last few months was the right thing to do, in that time and place, and active diplomacy should be the norm going forward.

I think that the conclusion of my essay with Nagl nicely captures the argument:

America's contribution to dealing with these continuing problems will be primarily political and diplomatic, not military. A commitment to drawing down military forces should not mean political disengagement. Iraq is as important to the interests of Iran, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia and other regional players as it is to those of the US. Undoubtedly, those countries will continue to be deeply involved in Iraq whether or not Americans stay on the field.

Now is the wrong time to disengage from Iraq. The US-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement negotiated in 2008 by the Bush administration provides a comprehensive blueprint for a broad, long-term partnership that can keep us in the game -- but only if both sides energize the agreement and the United States brings a real commitment to continued engagement, backed by real resources, to the table.

Today, those who backed the 2007 "surge" should be keen to see its gains consolidated, while those who called for withdrawal should be keen to make sure that as it happens, disaster does not follow. And while Iraq certainly needs to step up its political game, the US must also muster the bipartisan political strength and will to help build a stable Iraq that can be a partner to the US in a vital -- and deeply troubled -- part of the world. Those who gave their lives for this fight deserve nothing less.

I hope that people thinking about these matters -- especially in Congress -- take heed.

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