Shelf Life


I have a piece in the current issue of The Nation, reviewing two recent Middle East books by American think-tank analysts: Andrew Tabler’s In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria and Steven A. Cook’s The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. I was critical of Tabler’s book. While billing itself as part memoir, it neglects much discussion of the author’s own shifting views and politics about Syria. As a journalist in Damascus who founded the English-language magazine Syria Today, Tabler technically worked as a consultant under first lady Asma al-Assad; now he advocates what American sanctions “can teach Assad” from a job at a think-tank that was founded to be Israel’s lobbyist in the foreign policy circles of DC. He used to advocate the benefits of engagement; now he talks about America’s ability to change regime behavior and domestic affairs in Damascus simply through sanctions and tough talk — a foreign policy view shaped by conservative think-tanks and Congressmen in the capital who have little experience and knowledge of Syrian, let alone broader regional history and politics.

The two books make for an interesting pair for how the authors see America’s role in a changing Middle East. Tabler writes of his time in Syria, and the current crackdown and threat of civil war there, from his perch at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a conservative think-tank whose Middle East analysis hinges on how things in the region affect Israel, particularly Israel’s security, and the American-dictated status-quo. Cook, meanwhile, ends his book on a surprising, refreshing note, that “The United States should greatly lower its expectations of what is possible in the post-Mubarak era and come to terms with the end of the strategic relationship.” While US pressure on the ruling Scaf is needed — especially in light of rising military crackdowns in the street, and the recent raid of NGOs in Cairo — Cook says that to “salvage its position in Egypt,” the Obama administration should say the right things about “democracy, tolerance, pluralism, accountability, and nonviolence—and then take a hands-off approach as Egyptians build a new political system on their own terms.” Cheers to that.

The piece is behind the subscriber wall, so here is the beginning. To read the PDF as it appeared in print, click here.

In 2003 Andrew Tabler met Asma al-Assad, the young, glamorous wife of Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. A black Honda whisked him away from his apartment in Damascus to the hills above the city, and then to a secret location guarded by sweeping low branches, an iron gate and men cradling machine guns. He remembers the visit as being surprisingly casual. Nobody bothered to check his ID before he entered Asma’s office. When he left, he almost called Syria’s first lady, a former hedge-fund analyst and investment banker in London, by her first name. Then one remembers what he says her secretary had told him: “We know where you live, Mr. Tabler.”

From 2001 to 2008 Tabler was the only Western journalist permanently based in Damascus, partly because of the rarest of things: a multiple-entry press visa. In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria (Lawrence Hill; $16.95) is his account of that time, but it neglects to answer some obvious questions. Why was Tabler granted such access? And what of his career change, from observer and consultant in Damascus—he worked for Asma as media adviser for a quasi NGO that she patronized and through which he founded Syria’s first English-language magazine, Syria Today—to his present post at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank founded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee? The narrative is a maze of opaque remarks, like this one about a colleague from Damascus: “While Leila didn’t like the Washington Institute’s position on Syria and was critical of my work, she understood that I was leaving Syria behind.”

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