It's time for the official, Aardvark-certified list of the Best Books on the Middle East for 2011! (See last year's winners here.) Next year's list will undoubtedly be dominated by books addressing this year's uprisings which have transformed the Arab world, but not many significant books on the topic were published in 2011. That'll hopefully change on March 27, when my own book The Arab Uprising comes out -- don't worry, it won't be eligible for the 2012 awards of course! -- and, all joking aside, when a number of great journalists and scholars weigh in with books in the pipeline. In the meantime, you can always go back to Revolution in the Arab World, the eBook based on Foreign Policy articles, which I think remains an outstanding guide to the first few months.
First, the ground rules. The awards are limited to English-language books that were published in calendar year 2011 and which dealt primarily with the contemporary broader Middle East. I read more than 65 books published this year which fit that description, from academic and trade presses alike. The award is entirely subjective, based on what I found impressive or interesting. There's no committee, no publishers sent me free copies or offered up lucrative swag, and I couldn't read everything -- especially if books were published too late in the year or if publishers insisted on releasing them only as $90 hardcovers. If your book didn't make the list, however, then you know what do do (hint: you really can't go wrong by blaming Blake Hounshell).
And with that...the 2011 Aardvark Awards for the Best Books on the Middle East:
The last few months of U.S. political life have been defaced by rampaging anti-Muslim rhetoric, from the manufactured controversy over the Park51 mosque in New York to the Florida Quran-burning threats to hysterical warnings about 'creeping sharia' and stealth jihad in the halls of Congress. The victory of the truly absurd ban on applying sharia in Oklahoma may be only the first of the legislative fruits of this ugly trend. The volume and aggressiveness of this anti-Islamic trend has had some real costs both at home and abroad, most likely drowning out the earnest efforts of the Obama administration to rebuild relations with the Muslims of the world. Hopefully that noise will fade now that Election Day has come and gone.
But in the meantime, there's some quiet good news. The "Ground Zero Mosque" didn't get Carl Paladino anywhere near the New York Governor's Mansion. As political junkies will recall, the leader of a major Tea Party group explicitly called for Keith Ellison (D-MN) to be defeated because he "is the only Muslim member of congress. He supports the Counsel for American Islamic Relations, HAMAS and has helped congress send millions of tax dollars to terrorists in Gaza [insert 'sic' as you like]." All the better then to realize that both Muslim members of Congress -- Ellison and Andre Carson (D-IN) -- cruised to re-election yesterday and that nobody seems to have even much noticed.
The very fact that their wins have thus far been a non-issue is one of the more encouraging things I've come across today. I can only hope that Muslims around the world notice their victories, and place more weight on their effective participation in U.S. democracy than they do on the Oklahoma referendum or on the loud, angry voices of the anti-Islamic fringe. The administration's public diplomacy team might want to get on that.
Dan Drezner's going to bed early tonight because he doesn't think the outcome of Congressional elections matters much for foreign policy. But at least on Middle East issues, that's crazy. If the GOP takes Congress, it might overwhelmingly approve an Iran sanctions bill which ties the hands of President Barack Obama's administration and undermines its efforts to construct an effective negotiation strategy. Or it might irresponsibly fail to confirm ambassadors to Syria and Turkey, two key players in the region, for no good reason. I could even see it slashing funding for the civilian mission in Iraq, forcing the administration to scramble to deliver on its promise of a long-term civilian and political commitment. Oh wait…
Seriously -- and with apologies to some of the good eggs in Congress who have played a constructive role the last few years, such as Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Dick Lugar (R-IN) at the SFRC -- there are real reasons to worry about the effects of a GOP-controlled Congress for Middle East policy, even beyond the… odd… views of some of the likely new members and committee chairs. Foreign leaders and publics may take the outcome of the election as a signal about what to expect from Obama in the next two years and craft their strategies accordingly. A GOP victory might embolden Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to continue stonewalling Obama and to stoke partisan opposition to his policies, for instance. Iran may conclude that it's pointless to do a deal with Obama if they think he can't deliver on his end. But those perception effects will matter mostly at the margins, I'd say, since the political struggles have been going on for such a long time that the election is already factored into their calculus.
That doesn't mean that a changeover would be irrelevant. I'm not looking forward to clownshow hearings with lunatics denouncing creeping sharia and whipping up anti-Islamic hysteria, which could undermine Obama's public diplomacy and counterterrorism strategies and do some real long term damage. I'm gritting my teeth in anticipation of the next Congress becoming a platform for Iran war hawks, hyping the issue even further in anticipation of the 2012 elections… look for another round of sanctions and some kind of Iranian Liberation Act on the horizon, regardless of how things are actually going for U.S. diplomatic efforts. A GOP-controlled Congress may not go for the big $60 billion arms sale to the Saudis, what with that whole "sharia" thing. Endless harassing subpoenas and investigations and the inevitable impeachment attempt may be a wee bit distracting. But overall I think the effects are more likely to be domestic than on foreign policy or the Middle East.
And who knows -- maybe the polls are wrong. I don't think I know anyone who actually answers a home phone showing an unknown number on Caller ID, but I also know that I'm not the least bit normal, and far be it from me to question the geniuses over in the polling bureaus. Guess we'll find out tonight. And what would be the effect of a surprising Democratic performance and relative Republican failure after all this buildup? Beats me. But unlike Drezner, I don't think I'll be going to bed early tonight.
David Broder has raised some eyebrows with his bizarre Washington Post column arguing "with strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, [Obama] can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve." It should only be surprising to those who haven't been paying attention, though. Leaving aside the truly odd ideas about the economy, Broder is actually offering a warmed over, mainstream version of the argument coined in August by former Bush Middle East adviser Elliott Abrams that "the Obama who had struck Iran and destroyed its nuclear program would be a far stronger candidate, and perhaps an unbeatable one." Since then, each time the argument pops up I've tagged it on Twitter with "this idea was stupid enough when Elliott Abrams wrote it in August."
Broder's column is an interesting study in how really dumb ideas bounce around Washington D.C. Fortunately, it's not an idea that seems to have any support at all in the Obama White House. Unlike Abrams (who it's fair to assume does not wish Obama well in November 2012) and Broder (who... well, it's anyone's guess), the Obama team can see perfectly clearly that the American people have no appetite for a third major war in the Middle East and that launching a war with massive strategic consequences for short-term political gain would be epically irresponsible. They find this argument ridiculous. Even if they were primarily interested in their electoral fortunes in designing Iran policy, they would quickly see that such an Abrams-approved stratagem would wipe out their support on the left and gain absolutely zero votes on the right.
Now, I'm very worried that Obama's Iran strategy will lock the U.S. into ever more hawkish rhetoric which ties their hands and paves the way to future military confrontations. I think that serious people disagree about the likely effectiveness of sanctions or of diplomacy, and that all are struggling to find meaningful off-ramps in the glide towards ever more stringent and militarized regional containment. I worry about a lot on Iran policy. But this isn't one of the things that I worry about. I don't think that anyone in the Obama White House takes remotely seriously the epically bad Abrams-Broder advice to pursue military showdown with Iran for political advantage. This may offer an intriguing window into how Abrams thought about foreign policy in the Bush White House, and a depressing case study in the circulation of ideas in Washington, but it tells us nothing at all about how the Obama administration is thinking about Iran.
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.