Reading to Enlighten Middle East Watchers

TWO types of books dominate studies on the Middle East. There are journalistic, travel and pop historical accounts that stress drama, anecdote, and the obvious tensions and contradictions of the region, but which hardly explain their sources or dynamics. And there are the scholarly accounts, sometimes rich with data and insights, but often without the grace and vision to be accessible to the general reader. Three scholarly books that transcend these limitations are:

International Politics and the Middle East, by Carl Brown (Princeton University Press, 1984), is a perceptive overview from the 18th century onward. Brown contends that any would-be ``unifier'' (conquerer) will spur the creation of a coalition to block his actions.

A History of the Arab Peoples, by Albert Hourani (Harvard University Press, 1991), is a much-needed grand synthesis of a millennium of Arab history by a widely acclaimed and dispassionate master historian. It is authoritative, calm, and beautifully composed.

The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movement of Iraq, by Hanna Batatu (Princeton University Press, 1978), is a study of Iraq's old landed and commercial classes and of its communists, Ba'thist, and Free Officers. The revolutionary movement was a remarkable attempt to anatomize Iraqi society from the 1920s to about 1968. No equivalent exists for any other Middle Eastern country. Saddam Hussein appears only in the final pages, but the society that molded him is clearly - and dispassio nately - depicted. The book is an indispensable foundation for any thoughts regarding the creation of a new Iraqi political order.

The previous great Middle Eastern crisis was at Suez in 1956. Those events will doubtless hang over the peacemaking process. Two background studies are:

Suez, 1956: The Crisis and Its Consequences, William Roger Lewis and Roger Owen, editors (Oxford University Press, 1989), is a judicious study by expert academics of all the factors and the key actors.

The Suez-Sinai Crisis, 1956: A Retrospective, edited by Selwyn Troen (Columbia University Press, 1989), is primarily an Israeli account, with much previously secret material. The book tacitly deals with the Arab accusation that Israel conspired with Anglo-French colonialism to try to destroy Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, the hope for the future.

How to somehow tame Iraq, defang it, and place it in a peaceful Middle East is a pressing issue. See Republic of Fear: The Inside Story of Saddam's Iraq, by Samir al-Khalil (Pantheon, 1990), the indispensable follow-up to Batatu's work, to which Khalil often refers. Khalil represents that growing educated, middle-class Arab sector, which, though sharply critical of Western diplomatic maneuvering, is chagrined by the failure of the Arabs to produce true democratic forces.

The question of what the United States can - and cannot - accomplish in the Middle East, in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian question, in particular, is addressed in The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict: Making America's Middle East Policy, from Truman to Reagan, by Steven Spiegel (University of Chicago Press, 1985), a careful overview of diplomatic policy and the factors influencing it.

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