Friday, November 25, 2016

Fault Lines: The Layman's Don Liebich (Book Review #64 of 2016)

Fault Lines: The Layman's Guide to Understanding America's Role in the Ever-Changing Middle East

(I reviewed this book with others examining the Middle East and this review should be read in the context of the other books. A list of many of the books is at the bottom of this post.)

The description on the book from the cover by a former US Ambassador to Moldova tells you what kind of perspective you will get in this book:
"After a successful career in domestic business, Don Liebich turned his talents to foreign affairs, serving as an unpaid international consultant and developing deep expertise, especially in the problems of the Middle East. He has shared his knowledge and policy perspectives through publications, blogs, oral presentations, and the leadership of study tours."

Maybe I will be Don Liebich one day, traveling the globe and attending conferences, talking to business people and, occasionally, an important person; publishing on my blog and in minor publications while being unknown to the Very Important People who actually make and carry out policy. He's been on Twitter for years and has fewer than 90 followers; his blog looks like it gets about that much traffic. Like Liebich, I have spent time living/working/traveling abroad and keep up with the news in these countries. I've used several languages to do so, I don't see an indication of that from him. He writes from his perch in Idaho, having written a blog about his observations on ten trips to the Middle East from 2006-2014 doing "economic development, citizen diplomacy and human rights projects," which includes things like building Habitat houses in Jordan. Apparently, there really is something called the "Boise Committee on Foreign Relations." He's a chemical engineer and that shapes his mentality, as he writes on his blog: "If thinking that 'every problem has a solution' is a crime, then I plead guilty. The attitude that we are capable of solving our problems is one of the things that makes America great." What the world truly *loves* about America is that we're ready to condescend to "solve their problems." Hence, on his website he feels he can assign letter grades to Obama's foreign policy, country by country.

What Liebich's book lacks is a deeper understanding of the history of foreign policy and an understanding of political science-- governments are set up to operate differently in each country. Affecting policy at a local level by pulling whatever levers are available in Washington is difficult, frustrating, and held hostage by budget and random factors. There's a whole history of religion and ethnicity that matters; a businessman you meet in Beirut will have a widely different perspective than a villager in Northern Iraq, and the matter is entirely different if you actually live there 365 days a year. This book is a bit dated now that we know more about Obama's views on foreign policy from Jeffrey Goldberg's interviews published in 2016, particularly Obama's desire to pivot to Asia and get out of the Middle East. This book does not really acknowledge that pivot so much, but does seem to generally approve of the more non-interventionist policies as outlined in those interviews. Nonetheless, Liebich's 2016 letter grades found Obama quite lacking.

Liebich began his third career (Navy, Sysco Systems and business consulting, Middle East observer) in 2006 when he was on a trip during the height of the Iraq insurgency and felt that he wasn't getting a complete picture of the Middle East from the media. So, he started blogging his observations. He'd been involved in international consulting, he watched Russia crumbling in 1994. He's traveled the former USSR. He's an ally of Andrew Bacevich, a pretty strong critic of neocon interventionism. (Liebich is really just Bacevich lite. You'd get the same thing from a Bacevich book, just a lot more of it). Liebich begins his history with 1914, which is a big red flag. Liebich claims that the Armenian genocide, the Balfour Declaration, and rolling back of imperialist policy under the Wilson administration somehow moved us into the Middle East. He ignores that Wilson contradicted himself on his policies of self-determinism (I recommend the chapters of Gaddis' biography of George F. Kennan related to this). There's a lot of other bits of his timeline that are left out.

The author is not a huge fan of Israel. He gives a decided non-Israeli summary of 1967 and the Six Day War. He's seen the damage done to Israel's neighbors by war. He's a realist, though, and favors strategies such as conditional aid for peace; maintaining the status quo of aid-for-nothing has made matters worse.

He disagreed with Obama's Afghan troop surge since it simply delayed the inevitable. (Who should we blame for that "inevitable")? He critiques the intervention in Libya pretty harshly. He argues that intervention in Syria would make it worse. He doubts reports that Assad used any chemical weapons. I'd recommend a host of books and articles on Syria from people who have lived there over Liebich's thoughts on it (see list below). Hebollah vowed to hit Israel if the US intervenes, he writes, so we need to be aware of collateral damage. I'll note that in 2016, Liebich has given Obama an F on Syria, even though Obama also didn't seem to take reports of Assad's chemical attacks that seriously and did not intervene such that Hezbollah felt the need to hit Israel yet. I agree with those that point out that Syria and Iraq must be dealt with simultaenously. While Liebich concedes that Obama inherited a "a mess," he seems to not appreciate the full timeline of ISIS' development from 2006 onward.

The US has a dilemma in in Egypt. Supporting free elections brings to power the Muslim Brotherhood, which showed itself not to be as committed to democracy and human rights as one would hope. Saudi Arabia has too much influence on Washington policymakers. Nuclear weapons don't concern the West so much but economic power certainly does. The author doubts that Obama would be able to finish a negotiated settlement with Iran, we see how that turned out. We now have over 600 bases on foreign soil, that's a problem.

The one area where Liebich seems to give Obama credit for success is Sudan. I'll just leave that one right there.

"While it is clear that Obama inherited a mess in the Middle East from the Bush administration and has succeeded in reducing America’s direct involvement in conflicts, the situation in the region is, in many ways, more unstable and chaotic than it was in 2009" (on his blog in July 2016).

I doubt this book will be assigned reading in any foreign policy departments anytime soon. The world isn't looking for someone to solve each problem case-by-case like this is a case management exercise or chemical spill to clean up, especially when they are all so intertwined. But keep writing, Don. The new Trump Administration seems keen to listen to non-establishment, non-academics such as yourself. 2.5 stars.

Books I have reviewed in 2016 related to US policy and the history of the Middle East that you may enjoy if you enjoyed Liebich's work:
A History of Islam, The Middle East, and Arab nations:
A Very Short Introduction to the Koran - Michael Cook  (4.5)
A Very Short Introduction to Islam - Malise Ruthven (3 stars)
In the The Shadow of the Sword - Tom Holland (4 stars)
In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire - Robert G. Hoyland (4 stars)
Great World Religions: Islam (The Great Courses)- John Esposito (1.5 stars)
Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes - Tamim Ansary (4.5 stars)
Brief History of the Middle East - Peter Mansfield (3.5 stars)
History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (4.5 stars)
The United States and the Middle East 1914-2001 (Great Courses) by Salim Yuqub (3.5 stars)
Islam Unveiled - Robert Spencer (1.5 stars)
Lawrence in Arabia - Scott Anderson (5 stars)

Al Qaeda and ISIS-related books reviewed:
The Siege of Mecca - Yaroslav Trofimov (5 stars)
The Bin Ladens - Steve Coll  (4 stars)
Growing Up Bin Laden - Najwa and Omar Bin Laden (4.5 stars)
Guantanamo Diary - Mohamedou Ould Slahi (4.5 stars)
The Black Banners - Ali Soufan (5 stars)
Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS - Joby Warrick (4.5 stars)
Jihad Academy: The Rise of the Islamic State - Nicholas Henin (4.5 stars)
ISIS: The State of Terror - Jessica Stern and JM Berger (4 stars)
ISIS Exposed  - Erick Stakelbeck (2.5 stars)
The Rise of ISIS - Jay Sekulow and David French (1 star)
The Jihadis Return - Patrick Cockburn (review forthcoming)

Books by American non-academics related to foreign policy and travels in Middle East and Central Asia:
Between Two Worlds - Roxana Saberi (2.5 stars)
Children of Jihad - Jared Cohen (4 stars)
The Taliban Shuffle - Kim Barker (4 stars)
A Rope and a Prayer - David Rohde and Kristin Mulvihill (3.5 stars)
Left of Boom - Douglas Laux (3.5 stars)
Fault Lines: A Layman's Guide  - Don Liebich (2.5 stars)

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