Monday, August 20, 2007

Blogging Fisk - 1st. Impressions

Title: The Great War for Civilization
Subtitle: The Conquest of the Middle East

A reader had recommended this. So I finally got to it. Thanks, Niall!

This is a thick book. 1,000 pages long. I just started this. I read his Preface and most of Chapter 1. I also flipped through it, reading passages at random. So this is my first impression of it. It is not good.

This is a book that has strong points and weak ones. First, the strengths.

The author has lived most of his professional life in the Middle East. He has an eye for detail. Early on, he writes of his trip to Jalamabad, one of the biggest towns in east Afghanistan. He checks into the Spinghar Hotel, settles in his room when he gets this visitor.

Then a rustle, a kind of faint, rasping sound, comes from the silent air conditioner. I sit up and, five feet from my face, I see the dragon’s head of a giant lizard looking at me from the cooled bars of the machine. When I raise my hand, the head disappears for a moment. Then it is back, a miniature armoured brontosaurus face that is followed now by a long, rubbery torso, grey-green in the dim afternoon sunlight and a big sucking feet that grip the plastic air-conditioning vents. Like an old silent film, it moves in jerks. One moment, I see its head. Then at shutter’s speed, half its length of heavily-breathing rubberiness is out of the machine. A moment later, the whole half foot of creature is suspended on the curtain above my bed, swaying on the material, alien and disturbing, looking back at me over its fortress-like shoulder. What is it doing here? I ask myself. Then it scuttles out of sight into the drapery.

Fisk has a fine eye for detail. He puts you right in the hotel room with him and makes you feel the situation right alongside him. This quote is typical. I expect that after reading this book, I shall have a better feel for life in the Middle East because of it.

Fisk seems to have seen simply everything and everybody there. In the paragraph quoted above, he is in Jalabad waiting to see Osama bin Laden himself.

When he does meet him, he details the effort to see him, as well as the meeting itself with the same storytelling craftsmanship as the quote. One has a real sense of being there with him, witnessing the talk with the dreaded villain.

That’s where we get to the bad part.

Fisk does not seem to have the grasp of the higher levels of the story of the Middle East. His analysis of grand strategy and geopolitics is spotty and one-sided. He’s like a lieutenant trying to be a general. He sees the trees just fine. He describes each one beautifully. It’s just the forest he can’t see.

Start with the title: “The Conquest of the Middle East”. This is just a first impression, but I gather he thinks the USA wants to conquer it. Huh? Come again??

Then there’s that Preface. He starts with his father and World War I, and the Battle of the Somme. Skipping ahead, he ends the book with that too. He labels the war “pointless” and infers that the Middle East conflicts are the same. Again, huh?

First, if Germany had won either of the World Wars, the world would have been very different and MUCH worse! How can any educated person look at the nature of the regimes of the Kaiser or of the Nazis and not know this?

So we go to his analysis of Middle East conflicts. Yes, there are flaws with Israel and the United States. But and here’s the big BUT . . . can’t he see the differences between us and mad dictators like Saddam Hussein? I shall read further to find out. It’s just the first impression is not good.

There’s problems with military analysis. For example, in his first interview with Osama bid Laden, Osama states that he did not see any evidence of the USA helping the Arab cause in the Afgan war with the Soviets. (He had fought in that war and was reminiscing as well as analyzing it for Fisk.) He bragged about bulldozing roads to his strongpoints.

The obvious question would regard the role of airpower. Most analysts of that war had regarded the neutralizing of Soviet airpower as the decisive factor in the Arab victory of that war. That was due to the introduction of the American Stinger anti-air missile. Surely, this would have been worth at least one question by any reasonable reporter.

And that’s the problem so far. Here Fisk had, through great hardship and courage on his part, obtained great opportunities to interview key figures but because of his lack of analytical skills, he blows it. (To be fair to him, he operates in a professional mileau where it has become too common to judge success by scoring the interview rather than by scoring the story.)

As I said above, this is only a first impression. I shall continue reading. Maybe things might get better.

Disclaimer: This gives you a picture of the book and an idea of what it costs. The fact that I will be compensated if you click on the link and buy the book turns this post into a semi-advertisement. I only will link to for books I actually liked.


Blue Dog said...

Nice review. If I see the book, I may pick it up just for his first-hand impressions on the Middle East.