The New Arab Wars: Reviews (updated)

June 16, 2016

Three major reviews of The New Arab Wars published in one week:

New York Times (Ian Fisher, June 12, 2016):

In barely 250 pages of text it covers the Arab Spring’s full, terrible descent into renewed dictatorship and wars that few could envision. Saudi Arabia shelling Yemen?

In Lynch’s telling, the Middle East is a region where local forces dominate, interbreed and fester. Egypt’s struggle with democracy, Islam and military rule plays out in one corner, while the main event has become the increasingly open antagonism between Saudi Arabia and Iran, each backing allies around the region to deeper division. And Lynch recounts the important new front of social media, in all its complicated power to democratize and polarize, to render human beings numb at the repeated sight of the worst atrocities possible.

Lynch is not an optimist. He sees no end soon, predicting even stronger strains of Islamic extremism as nations, sects, tribes, terror groups and generations all jostle. The lesson, he thinks, is clear if unlikely to be absorbed: The rest of the world, and especially whoever replaces Obama, should stay out. “America can be more or less directly involved,” he writes, “but it will ultimately prove unable to decide the outcome of the fundamental struggles by Arabs over their future.”

The New York Review of Books (Malise Ruthven, June 23, 2016):

In his cool but meticulous account of the Arab disasters.. Lynch puts his main emphasis on the linkages between the uprisings, demonstrating how both the Arab insurgencies and the reactions of the regimes have been shaped by shifting global and regional power dynamics along with “transnational flows of money, information, people, and guns”

War on the Rocks (Derek Chollet, June 9, 2016)

The story of how this happened has already produced a pile of books, but I can think of few better than Marc Lynch’s The New Arab Wars. Sober, insightful, self-critical, and at times searing, this book is one of the clearest accounts yet of the tangled mess of today’s Middle East. Lynch, a well-respected political scientist at George Washington University, was one of the scholars we would reach out to for insight on what was happening in the Arab world when I served in the Obama administration. With this book, he has given us not another scholarly tome, but an indispensable autopsy of the Arab Spring. It is also the best-informed and sharpest pushback to the Washington wisdom on the Middle East — what Obama has famously called the “playbook” — I have read.

One of the great strengths of Lynch’s book is how it weaves together the regional and international context in which these local uprisings unfolded. The Arab Spring was a truly transnational phenomenon, in that what happened in individual countries was shaped by outside forces, although not exclusively of course. Lynch describes four overlapping conflicts: first, the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran; second, the struggle for leadership in the Sunni Arab world between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey; third, the fight for dominance within Islamist politics, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Al Qaeda and ISIL; and fourth, the broader regional struggle between autocracies and mobilized societies. The mix of these forces helps explain the arc of the regional meltdown. Lynch concludes, “The Arab uprisings began in transnational diffusion, ended in transnational repression, and birthed transnational wars.”

NEW! Foreign Affairs, August 11, 2016, John Waterbury.

Lynch, a prolific and keen observer of the Arab world, has written the leading title in what amounts to a second wave of analyses of the Arab revolts of 2010–11, focusing on what went wrong. In his view, the cautious policies of the Obama administration were not to blame. Rather, the problem was Washington’s traditional allies in the region: Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. In particular, Lynch casts Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as mice that roared, arming proxies in conflicts that have reduced Libya, Syria, and Yemen to figurative and actual rubble.


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