Two more book reviews. The first is for Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong? I found the book to be very disappointing. Given Lewis’s great stature, and the title of the book, I expected much more insight than Lewis provides. The book would be better titled “How the Ottoman Empire reacted to Western Influences.” Almost all of the book concerns the 18th and 19th centuries, and it’s mostly history—the assembling and telling of facts and events. And many of these events are, to my mind at least, relatively trivial, and Lewis didn’t do a good job tying these small details into any larger picture or pattern.
The concluding 10 pages is about the only analysis in the book, and even that is merely a regurgitation of various conventional explanations and answers to the title question, without much input or insight from Lewis himself. Compounding the problems with the content, I didn’t find Lewis to be a very good writer. There are many anecdotal pieces that, in the hands of better writers, would spice up the narration and give it interest. But that didn’t happen here. Instead, the text was dry and dull, and I actually found it a struggle to get all the way through the book, which was a very short 150 pages.
The second book is a much better treatment of a similar subject—the history of Japan from its opening to the West up until the end of the postwar occupation. This book is the slim volume Inventing Japan by Ian Buruma, and detailed the various ways in which Japan dealt with its own transition from a feudalistic society to a modern one following Admiral Perry’s arrival. It is told as a narrative history, and despite its short length does a good job introducing the main trends in Japanese political thought and action during this tumultuous period. He shows how the interactions of the various factions ended up producing the maladjusted society and government that led Japan to invade China and attack the US, committing numerous atrocities along the way. Ultimately, this book might tell you more about the problems we face in the modern Middle East than Bernard Lewis’s work.
Since it’s now the political season, I will make one promise to all my loyal readers, and that is that this will be a California recall election-free zone. I will not discuss anything about it, since I fail to see why it matters to anyone who doesn’t live in California. Governors are irrelevant nationally, and frankly in most cases there’s pretty limited differences between what a Republican can do at the state level and what a Democrat can do. When you can’t run a deficit and actually have to deal with issues on the ground, pragmatism seems to win out over ideology, more often than not.
One thing which seems to have been overshadowed in the accusations about Bush’s misleading the country into war, faulty intelligence, culpability, and the like, is the rather important fact that the sanctions on Iraq do seem to have worked in preventing him from building a WMD arsenal after the Gulf War. Now, obviously it might turn out that he had active programs and was simply able to hide them or dispose of them before the invasion, but I think that is increasingly unlikely.
So, in future negotiations with countries like North Korea, setting up some sort of sanctions and verification scheme might, if it’s implemented properly, actually be effective. Of course, it didn’t work in North Korea, since the inspectors were too limited, and they simply “built it where they ain’t.” But, it’s something to keep in mind in future situations, which will certainly come up at an increasing rate.
While the most popular analogies are to Japan and Germany, post WWII, recently reading a history of Iraq reminded me not of these two countries, but of a third. Specifically, Yugoslavia. Both Iraq and Yugoslavia have been crossroads nations, lying on remarkably consistent civilizational and ethnic frontiers, although the empires bordering them changed over time. Yugoslavia was the fault line between the eastern and western Roman empires, the break between the Ottoman empire and the West, the break between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Meanwhile, Iraq is on the break between the Arabs and the Persians and the Kurds, is split between Sunni and Shiite, was battled over by Romans and Parthians, Was the boundary of the Ottoman empire, and so on.
In each case, being a boundary, crossroads state created great divides in the society, and then the ebb and flow of empires around them exacerbated these problems. One group in Yugoslavia would collaborate with the Ottomans, another with the Austrians, one helped the Nazis while another was adopted by the communists. The broader power games were all played out inside the country, refracted through the lens of the local ethnic and religious conflicts. Similar, though less familiar events occurred in Iraq, although it seems that in modern times at least, the Sunnis have managed to keep themselves perched atop the pile.
In each case the simmering hatreds between the factions were either kept subdued or else exploited by strongman leaders. Well, we’ve toppled Tito and are on the ground in Sarajevo. What now?
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