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Eugene Rogan Speaking On His Book: The Arabs: A History

January 18, 2014

RoganBelow are links that together encompass a talk of about an hour divided in six ten minute segments – Rogan speaks of his book, The Arabs, A History – which I consider one of the better histories of the Arab World. Yet to be frank, I was somewhat disappointed with his remarks in the video presented below – especially the flippant manner in which he describes Iran (in Part Two I believe). Books like this are important yet frustrating; important because the material is covered honestly and in a readable fashion; frustrating because the book covers so much territory, making it difficult to absorb.

The information the book is well presented as well as the political basis for much of what has transpired; this already makes to book very useful as there is little of that in English (that is decent in my mind). It is all written clearly, succinctly. There is much excellent use of Arab sources, both old and contemporary, which already separates this book out from so many others and puts it well above the crowd.

The problem is that for a novice – for which the book is meant – it is probably too much information, information overload. Still how else can one learn about the complex history of the Middle East (or anywhere else) unless one dives into the subject? And this book is as good as any to start the process. And if the reader forgets most of it, still, it can be later used as a source of reference.

Let me give you one brief example of how this works for me.

I was especially interested in the discussions leading to the Camp David Accords of 1979 (rather late in the book). I was among the few that publicly criticized the accords at the time – a rather unpopular position to take. Rogan’s analysis is no different from what I argued 35 years ago. Rogan’s discussion of Camp David hits on the basics, and does so well enough, accurately enough. But what struck me was his discussion of the lead up to that event – the fiscal crisis in Egypt that pushed Sadat at the time to attack Libya in an attempt to confiscate that country’s oil to pay Egypt’s bills. I had forgotten that little episode…a kind of prelude to Saddam Hussein attacking Kuwait in 1990 for the same reason.

There are so many little pearls like this in Rogan. He is a very thorough, careful researcher and has made a great deal of sense out of many aspects of Middle Eastern history that for Americans in any case, are quite confusing. A much clearer outline of events with tidbits of analysis comes through, most of it quite invaluable.  I would say that the history up through the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon is solid as is the tortured story of Israeli-Palestinian unsuccessful peacemaking and negotiations. The lead up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and the impact of that invasion on Iraq, the Middle East and U.S. policy is a bit thin as is the analysis of the deeper causes of the U.S. War on Terrorism.

Rogan is trying to be `balanced’ in his approach and to a large measure he succeeds; add to this that the man obviously has a deep understanding of Middle East history which is unusual and refreshing. All this makes the book a most valuable read. But as I came to the end of the book (today, Saturday, January 25, 2014) I was still left with a kind of uneasy feeling that something important was left out of the narrative. Certainly part of it is a result of his attempt to put together so much history in a little less that 500 pages.

Robert Fisk’s attempt to do likewise, The Great War For Civilization (and actually deal with a narrower historic framework) lasts a whopping 1000+ pages. In the modern period, Fisk and Rogan cover much the same material.  Fisk’s take is more analytical; Rogan’s more descriptive. But my main concern/criticism of Rogan is elsewhere: although he makes comments from time to time concerning the U.S. role, he really fails to describe or explain very much the huge U.S. military build up in the region, its political impact.

Rogan hardly speaks of U.S.-Israeli strategic relations, the unending overwhelming supply of U.S. weapons, weapons technology to Israel, and hardly explores the strategic alliance between the two countries nor the aggravating consequence of this particular political marriage. He doesn’t seem to want to get into that subject very much. This leaves a hole in the narrative and ultimately the reader’s understanding of the region. In this respect, while he gives the official pretexts for U.S. military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan or Israeli military strikes against its neighbors he seems to avoid the deeper logic involved in this behavior.

I’m not trying to be picky here – addressing these subjects is key to understanding the underlying tensions in the region. Still, a book worth reading, valuable history, will serve as a useful reference in years to come.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

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