Politics and Change
Politics and Change in the Middle East is primarily a standard text for undergraduate introductory courses on the Middle East. It could also well serve the needs of any general reader interested to get past today’s headlines to a deeper understanding of the Middle Eastern societies producing those headlines. A long-time best seller, now in its tenth edition, Politics and Change employs a thematic approach to the region in an attempt to be both generally understandable to non-specialists and generally non-objectionable to often partisan specialists. For over a generation this standard text has largely met this dual challenge and the latest edition remains a generally good overall introduction to the peoples and politics of an important and often misunderstood region.
The three authors are long-time colleagues at Knox College, a private liberal arts institution in Galesburg, Illinois, about 200 miles southwest of Chicago. Roy Andersen is a professor of economics; Robert F. Seibert is a professor of Political Science and chair of Knox’s International Studies program; and Jon Wagner is a professor of anthropology. Together they have dedicated a substantial part of their professional lives to producing and updating this text, presenting the politics of the Middle East by integrating the perspectives of their respective disciplines, and incorporating a generous helping contemporary material, largely gleaned from the media and other public sources.
This is not on-scene reporting, however; and, as a summation, produced far from the region, the text occasionally will snag the sensibilities of an experienced area expert with what seem to be overly sweeping generalities or inexplicable omissions– such as the failure to note the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, vividly recalled by this reviewer (although the subsequent bombing of the Marine barracks at Beirut airport was noted). Overall, Politics and Change does provide a wealth of material and gives its readers substantial background to begin to make informed judgments. It is still an introductory textbook, however, complete with a few “key terms” to memorize at the end of each chapter. Sometimes, inexplicably, key words are left undefined, such as “thalweg” (the disputed deep-water boundary in the Shatt Al-Arab) or not defined at first appearance, such as “Ashkenazi” (a Jewish Israeli of European descent). At times the narrative comes across a bit more jargon-heavy and caveat-laden than the concise analysis promised on the cover, for example:
At the time the first edition of Politics and Change in the Middle East was published (1982), its authors reportedly felt that there were no satisfactory introductory texts taking a holistic approach to the region. The book they produced was their attempt to explain the political dynamics of the Middle East using a multi-disciplinary, thematic approach instead of a more traditional country-by-country approach. This was a wise choice, and it is probably the single most important reason the book has won over so many general readers over the years – it does make the disparate pieces of the Middle East story more comprehensible. Its major themes, then and in the newest edition, include political and economic development, international relations, religion, colonialism and post-colonialism; and the latest political changes. The tenth edition, available now but officially copyrighted 2012, adds a post 2001 chapter, and includes a review of the U.S. military intervention in Iraq and a discussion of recent trends in the region toward democratization, but nothing about the January 2011 self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor Muhammad Bouazizi, the subsequent revolutions in his own country and in Egypt, or the later demonstrations and riots as far away as Bahrain and Yemen. Perhaps inevitably, the added chapter seems more tentative, and its analysis less confident, than the earlier chapters.
This reviewer noted with interest acknowledgements given by the authors to the National Council on U.S.-Arab relations and others for sponsoring travel to the region earlier in their careers that enabled them to observe events first-hand in various Middle East countries. That first-hand exposure to the region is what USIS/Public Diplomacy officers in the field and in Washington work so hard to offer scholars and others through various exchange programs, and that exposure surely contributed to the authors’ initial motivation to tackle this project and to stay with it over the years. The great distance separating them from the area under discussion, however, must have been a daunting challenge over time, especially for keeping up with more recent events, so much so that the lack of a co-author/contributor actually from or living in the region (and/or working on the region from a major world capital) seems hard to justify. While the overall narrative is an impressive synthesis, chock-full of classroom-testable facts, little errors and oversights do crop up needlessly throughout the text, e.g. “a U.S. Embassy” (vice Consulate General) attacked in Calcutta; North Yemen “actually, largely to the east of South Yemen” (vice west); and Israeli shipping going “to the port of Aqaba” (vice Eilat). Even some domestic U.S. citations are a bit off, e.g. “the U.S. military chief of staff” (vice, presumably, the chairman of the joint chiefs).