OUR FIRST READER REQUEST
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In light of the botched Israeli raid on the Gaza aid flotilla and the continuing rule of Gaza by Hamas, it might seem as though the situation in the Middle East is as hopeless as ever. It’s actually worse, says Gardner: if the world—especially the Arab nations and the major Western powers—doesn’t address several major problems now, a new dark age could last for generations.
What’s the Big Deal?
Sure, there have been more than a few “big picture” books published about the West’s interactions with the Muslim world recently, some serious, some less so. Gardner’s book is worth the attention, though, from its author’s deep knowledge of the region and its key actors (the book draws on interviews with Yitzhak Rabin, Rafik Hariri, and senior Saudi leaders, among others) to the stark and sobering conclusions he draws about everything from the war in Iraq to the short-term prospects for the House of Saud.
One-Breath Author Bio
Now an associate editor and chief editorial writer for the Financial Times, Gardner is an experienced reporter who edited the paper’s Middle East coverage for several years.
The Book, in His Words
“[W]e really do not have that much time; what we are starting to live through is not some periodic up-and-down in relations between the West and East. Unless policy changes, we can expect at least one generation of conflict, more probably several, between the western and Muslim worlds. A neo-medieval pall will descend upon Arab and Muslim countries—and the shared values of Islam and the West will wither” (page 18).
Don’t Miss These Bits
1. First, the Arab world. Gardner distills the problems with each of the regimes—from the fundamentalist Saudi monarchy to the stultifying Egyptian dictatorship—into three themes: autocracy; power that is maintained by the military and, in particular, the intelligence services, or Mukhabarat; and an overall lack of legitimacy (pages 3–4). That’s why, he says, focusing on poverty as the root of problems is misguided: “Above all, however, the argument is flawed and misleading because the high-octane fuel firing Islamist fury is a volatile compound of humiliation and political despair” (page 28). To put it a little differently: it’s not the economy, stupid.
2. Then there’s Israel. His arguments aren’t new, but they’re forcefully made: the lack of a tenable solution by now is “an astonishing abdication of western as well as Arab-Israeli responsibility” that is “all the more perplexing since there is no mystery as to what the outlines of such a settlement would have to be” (page 151). To wit, a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital.
3. If nothing else, don’t miss Gardner’s searing conclusion. The West has a choice, he says, between despots and democrats; between sticking with safe allies who oppress their peoples, and risking volatile but free regimes with Islamist urges. Heretofore, we’ve chosen the former. “If these are the choices, then do not howl in incredulous outrage when forces incubated by them—however alien and evil—fly airliners into your buildings, bomb your resorts and hotels, your train systems and embassies, your churches and your synagogues. Above all, do not when this happens keep insisting that ‘they hate us for our freedoms’ or that ‘the world has changed.’ It has not, precisely because you have chosen not to change it” (page 204). His stark call won’t be easy to heed.
Swipe This Critique
As an exposition of the current state of the Middle East and Western policy, Last Chance is excellent—erudite and elegant, lucidly written and logically argued. Its major flaw, however, is that the strong component parts don’t quite add up to the whole that Gardner promises. Since (as the author ably shows) Western policies for at least the last half century have been disastrous, it’s not really clear why today is the “last chance” in the title. This would be a rather minor oversight were it not the title of the book, because Gardner makes the compelling case that our policies need to change, regardless of deadlines.
Prose: Short, sweet, clear.
Aesthetics: The wonderful chapter titles almost make up for the clip-art dust-jacket design. Almost.
Jargon: The book tackles highly technical concepts (e.g., Islamic jurisprudence) with remarkable clarity for the lay reader.