Sunday, July 15, 2012

Thomas Friedman: Tribal Politics, Roots of Conflict

Review by Bill Doughty
The most shocking thing about Thomas Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem”  -- a book on the Navy Professional Reading Program list -- is that there is no discussion of oil, energy or a flattened earth.
His 1989 book, written more than a decade before 9/11, focuses instead on the history, religion and politics at the heart of the Middle East conflict.
Friedman provides a clear history of “invented” nations, countries of landless bedouins, heroic zealots and refugees of tribal conflicts and wars put in place by Great Britain, France and Italy for the remains of the Ottoman Empire.
Punctuated with terror, tragedy and bizarre taxi rides, Friedman gives typical first-person insights as he witnesses a kidnapping, experiences the bombing of his apartment building and sees the aftermath of massacres in Lebanon and Syria.
His chapter “Hama Rules” resonates 23 years after it was published, untangling the roots of hate, distrust and conflict.  Friedman describes Stalinist cruelty in Syria and violence involving the Muslim Brotherhood and the Assad government.
To understand the conflict in the Middle East, he writes, people must understand the three Hama Rules:  tribal politics, authoritarianism and the modern nation state.
In tribal politics there is no democracy, no free-thinking, no mediation, no compromise.  Revenge equals justice.  A refusal by fundamentalists and extremists to compromise brings continuing conflict.
“So much of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been the history of the wrong men in the wrong place,” writes Friedman.
Beirut Barracks bombing, visible from miles away. USMC photo.
One of the toughest parts of the book to read is the description of the suicide bombing of the Marine Corps’ four-story Beirut Battalion Landing Team headquarters on Oct. 23, 1983 in what became known as the Beirut Barracks bombing.  Friedman was ten miles away and was shaken awake by the explosion.  He conducted interviews with Marines who lost 241 of their comrades, examining the causes and effects of the attack, one of countless suicide attacks by extremists.
Friedman warned us of 9/11 in 1989 through the words of an ambassador to Lebanon:
“In the wake of the Marine bombing, the Italian ambassador to Lebanon, Franco Lucioli Ottieri remarked to me, ‘You know how they say people are always fighting the last war? Well, you Americans have been preparing yourselves for the confrontation on the Eastern front ... But you are deplorably unprepared for the war in the Third World.  You are like a big elephant.  If you are up against another elephant, you are fine.  But if you are fighting a snake, you have real problems.  Your whole mentality and puritanical nature hold you back.  Lebanon was full of snakes.’”
He writes of American can-do optimism in the face of tribal politics from Beirut to Jerusalem, Syria to Iran -- and, by extension, Iraq to Afghanistan, describing an arrogance of power.  
Friedman’s book was published the same year that Osama bin Laden and his new al Qaeda party claimed victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan and turned his attention to other secular non-muslim enemies, including the United States.  A year later Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, threatening Saudi Arabia.
Never one to lay out the problem without offering a solution, Friedman recommends the region shake off complacency and tribal politics and accept the realities of a changed world.
"The stunning success of the developing countries such as Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Thailand has demonstrated to Israelis and Arabs the benefits of getting their economic houses in order.  Some of these benefits are very new ... Those countries that provide attractive investment climates are rewarded; those that don’t are left as roadkill on the global investment highway.  The role of governments around the world today is increasingly to dress up their countries with better airports, better legal and financial systems, better-trained workers, better roads and bridges, in order to attract private global capital ... It is markets, not governments, that must now provide the financial payoffs for peace.”
In 1989 Friedman explained the origins of Middle East conflict and warned of a need to move from the past to the future, understanding global interconnectivity and the need for cooperation.
Today, in his most recent books, Thomas Friedman warns us -- and tries to shock us -- about the realities of a future without fossil fuels, often unwilling to embrace the inevitability of change, a world he describes as “hot, flat and crowded.”  
This is the fourth Friedman book reviewed on Navy Reads.
A memorial at Camp LeJeune, NC, to Marines killed in Beirut. Photo by LCpl. Adam Johnston 

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