Martin Sieff's "Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East" is a superb compendium that should be required reading for anyone reporting on what diplomats prefer to call the Near East. Whether Middle or Near, it's where political correctness can kill. And no one knows this better than Sieff, a brilliant journalist with an encyclopedic knowledge and understanding of world history. Puncturing myths is one of his strong suits.
Truth in advertising compels me to say I hired "Marty" when I was the editor of the Washington Times in the 1980s and then again when I was the chief executive officer of United Press International in the late 1990s. He is a nonpareil among the best and brightest I have known in six decades of journalism.
Among the gems in Sieff's "Politically Incorrect Guide":
-- The intelligence agencies of the U.S. government and the State and Energy departments correctly predicted the problems the United States would face in Iraq after conquering it, but the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Feith team wouldn't listen to any of them.
-- Contrary to most reporting on Saudi Arabia, the kingdom has proven far more successful than any other country in crushing al-Qaida domestically over the past five years. At least five operational heads of the al-Qaida underground in a row have been killed and the terrorist organization repeatedly decapitated.
-- The Saudis have copied Israel's successful border fence as the model for their new frontier defenses against infiltrators from Iraq and Yemen.
-- King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud led the real "Desert Revolt" -- the one that worked -- whereas Lawrence of Arabia was a self-created myth who had little impact on the Middle East.
-- Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, hates the Saudi royal family as the biggest obstacle to his dream of a new, nuclear-armed, oil-controlling, super caliphate that would dominate the world. He chose Saudi nationals to carry out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks precisely because he wanted to break the bonds of trust between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Thanks to "neo-cons" and what Lenin once called "useful idiots," he almost succeeded.
-- Iraq was a democracy under British guidance for 26 years from 1932 to 1958, but the democratic system only led to genocide against Assyrian Christians, the repeated rape and pillage of the ancient Jewish community and the use of British air power to kill women and children in Arab villages.
-- The dream of a world without oil is ridiculous because even if oil is no longer needed for power stations and automobiles, it remains essential for plastics to make furniture and dozens of other widely used items -- otherwise we'd have to cut down billions more trees -- as well as to fuel the Haber-Bosch process for making nitrate fertilizer for crops, without which one-third of the human race would starve.
-- Democracy is not America's friend but America's enemy in the Middle East. Wherever the Bush administration has pushed for elections -- Egypt, Kuwait, Gaza, Jordan and Iraq -- anti-American Islamist forces have invariably benefited.
Sieff the contrarian explains why an Israeli-Palestinian peace is not only impossible, but undesirable; why democracy is not America's friend in the Middle East; why Iran can't be reformed -- but the Saudis can; Islamic fundamentalism isn't ancient -- which is why it's do dangerous. And, says Sieff, no one understands radical Islam better than Prince Turki, a son of the late King Faisal, who was assassinated by a deranged nephew in 1975. Turki ran the Saudi intelligence service for a quarter of a century before going to be the Saudi ambassador in the United Kingdom and then the United States. He now runs the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.
Extreme Islamist terrorists are inspired by perverted non-Islamic cult psychology, Sieff quotes Turki, rather than a classic terrorist organization like the Irish Republican Army or the Basque separatist group ETA.
"Far from being any kind of logical extension of traditional Islam, the kind of nihilistic violence and revolution advocated by Osama bin Laden and others is akin to the revolutionary utopianism of Bolshevism and the Russian and Chinese revolutions," Turki said in London several years ago. And the kind of people attracted by this message, as was the case with Marxism, are not the actual poor and suffering, who are overwhelmingly preoccupied with making ends meet and securing better lives for themselves and their families, but the displaced, rootless intellectuals, the "superfluous men" described by the great 19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky as being the driving forces of the revolutionary movement.
Turki was among the first to understand that al-Qaida's recruits are more likely to be drawn from middle-class university backgrounds than from mean slums. As Sieff points out, Turki's early assessment revealed the Saudi government correctly understood the complex and critical nature of the problem. For the war against the Islamists to be won, they must first be isolated from the mainstream of the Islamic world.