Life at the Speed of Books

I’m spending most of this month and last looking over the Hudson River, from Jersey City to New York. It’s a good vantage point to be an observer of global interactions and politics. It is from here that I read wrote most of the books I have reviewed so far for Zócalo Public Square.

Three of those books have been about American foreign policy in the Middle East. To be sure, the three were very different in style and content, but in so many ways they all underscore the simple need for context.  It is a desperate need in these days of information overload and soundbite news. While the foreign policy histories and opinions in the books that I reviewed are essential for thinking about monumental existential issues like national security, the act of consistently reading books is a reminder to take more time to think about, well, everything. Sometimes it’s best that life move at the speed of books.

Here are some excerpts and links in case you’re interested.

On Vali Nasr’s Forces of Fortune:

Americans’ view of Iran has certainly evolved since President George Bush declared the rogue nation a part of his “Axis of Evil.” Mild-mannered American travel guide Rick Steves explored “the most surprising and fascinating land he’s ever visited” for an hour-long PBS special in the summer. “Daily Show” correspondent Jason Jones spent a week there before the elections, satirizing the media’s narrow portrayal of the country. And if a backpacker and a comedian are not enough, Americans got a more direct view of the aspirations of Iranian people on Twitter and Facebook, as the middle class led the charge against what they saw as a fraudulent election.

If the discourse on Iran has changed, so too should the focus of America’s foreign policy. Vali Nasr outlines the ways in which we have misunderstood the rise of Islam in the Middle East and advocates for a paradigm shift in Forces of Fortune.

On Stephen P. Cohen’s Beyond America’s Grasp:

It is essential, as the saying goes, to “know thine enemy.” Citizen diplomat and social psychologist Stephen P. Cohen has a different message: Know thine history.

From the prologue, Cohen’s book is jam-packed with facts. He covers the 100 years of diplomatic history between the United States and countries of the Middle East, detailing exhaustively the political events that affected American relations with Middle Eastern nations. Beginning with President Woodrow Wilson’s anti-imperialist stance in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Beyond America’s Grasp chronicles the let-downs and mistakes that have created relationships of distrust.

And lastly, on Lloyd C. Gardner’s Three Kings:

President Barack Obama’s months of deliberation on Afghanistan — which culminated in an announcement earlier this month of a troop surge — has been a fascinating process for the many pundits and critics who poke holes in his strategy. To be a fly on the wall in Oval Office conversations about national security and military strategy in the Middle East….

But very few could sneak into that party.

The curious might find some satisfaction in Lloyd C. Gardner’s Three Kings, a history of closed door meetings and great debate that surrounded presidents’ — albeit not this President’s — policies in the Middle East.


  1. “Sometimes it’s best that life move at the speed of books”.
    -Angilee Shah

    I agree.
    I fear that our young folks have no concept of what that means. Whilst teaching young people to be results driven is a good thing, we have moved away from creating thinkers-particularly in Colleges and Universities. I may yet proffer a solution, but few people want to think, nevermind listen.

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