Sunday, January 25, 2009

Uphill task for the Obama administration

At a time when a new administration is taking power, it is widely hoped that Barack Obama will be able to undo some of the damage that eight years of George W. Bush's presidency wreaked on the Middle East. Enlightened observers have termed the region one of the most pressing problems facing the Obama administration, among others, namely the economy and climate change.

Patrick Tyler, who has covered the region for the Washington Post and the New York Times, summarizes 50 years of America's involvement with the Middle East in this new, absorbing read. It starts in October 1956 — with Dwight D. Eisenhower's relationship with Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser and the anti-Communist agenda that drove the former to underestimate the power that Nasser wielded in the region.

From here, to the hits and misses of every subsequent administration, Tyler draws out a detailed, journalistic discourse of the strategies that came to occupy the heart of America's foreign policy interests. Tyler is a writer of anecdotes, and gently melds the larger historical narrative with the play of power that drove personal ambition. He is particularly scathing in his criticism of Henry Kissinger's role during the 1973 Yom Kippur conflict. Tyler paints a picture of a wily man exploiting his position with the Israelis to isolate President Richard M. Nixon, who was being battered back home by Watergate.

If Kissinger was the ace foreign policy hawk on the American side, there was also Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the quiet arsenal in the House of Saud's weaponry. Bandar hovers above the book as a birdlike presence, dealing with one administration after the other, alert to the possibility of breakthroughs. Bill Clinton famously, and hilariously, averted a major blunder in etiquette by getting Bandar to stop Yasser Arafat from planting a peck on Clinton's cheeks during the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

Tyler reserves the title "A World of Trouble" for Bush Jr.'s years in the White House. The botched path leading up to the war in Iraq is revealed in cringe-inducing detail. The trumped-up weapons of mass destruction dossier, the war itself and the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse vanquished any goodwill left in the region for post-9/11 America.

Iran continues to blight the Middle East party, and its nuclear ambitions are threatening to spiral out of control, Tyler asserts. He further argues that if America wants stability and peace in the region, it will have to address the aspirations of the millions of people still battling tyranny, most notably, in the kingdom where America has consistently propped up despots — Saudi Arabia.

Granted, George Bush's "freedom agenda" backfired when democracy propelled distinctly Islamist parties to center stage in country after country (read Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq). But only a long-term commitment to fostering democracy, separate from America's oil interests and militarism, will bring about real change on the ground. More importantly, Tyler writes, America will have to engage with regimes in the region and move away from Bush's "Axis of evil" rhetoric.

Tyler's book is a crucial reminder of the uphill task that lies in store for Obama.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Story of success that isn't

I can’t remember reading a more underwhelming book recently. Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, sets out to prove that success is not the outcome of one’s talent or intelligence, but circumstance and luck. Well, one can debate the existence of that rara avis—the self-made man, but surely, to write a book that explicitly discounts its possibility is outlandish, to say the least.

Gladwell begins by citing the example of Canadian hockey champs, most of who, he discovers, are born in January, February and March. And how does he account for this? The Canadian system of hockey recruitment has a cutoff date of January 1, as a result of which little kids born in the first few months have a natural advantage over those born in autumn. This gets compounded as the kids grow and are exposed to the best coaching. This is the first of many Gladwellian anecdotes that the writer will wish his gullible reader to endorse.

Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Sun Microsystems’ Bill Joy both achieved software superstardom because, in Gladwell’s view, they happened to be born to affluent parents at a time when computers were just about taking over the American academic landscape. Well yes, but Gates and Joy’s fate was shared by hundreds of thousands of other white Americans. Surely the duo must have had something in them to break free of the clutter of mediocrity.

There’s more. Gladwell credits the success of the Beatles to 10,000 hours of intensive training in their younger days. (Irritatingly, he calls it his generic 10,000-hour rule.) I doubt that Kavya Vishwanathan, the Harvard student whose How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life was plagiarized from several sources, could become a half-decent writer if she struggled with the pen for 10,000 long hours. She just does not have what it takes to be a writer, and no amount of hard work is going to change her tendency to lift.

The second part of Outliers explores how cultural affiliations propel or hinder success. The examples Gladwell cites are so vague they can only be compared to the tendency of economists/business journalists to pontificate in the dark. He attributes the superior mathematical skills of Asians to, hold your breath, rice cultivation. Apparently (please bear with Gladwell—I did), growing rice entails such a complex array of mental permutations that mathematical ability has entered into the genome of the Asian races. Phew! If only Gladwell had met the hundreds of Indians I know who dread the ‘M’ word.

After poring over this book three times over in an attempt to glean any saving graces in Gladwell’s thesis, I came to the sad conclusion—none. He is too drawn to the big picture and too involved in coining fancy theories to devote attention to the individual behind the story. Consider his analysis of Korea’s frequent plane crashes in the 1990s. Gladwell credits this to a culture of deference. Co-pilots, rather than chide their seniors, preferred having the planes crash, in Gladwell’s view. He even quotes cockpit conversations to bolster his claim. Another dragging piece of absurd theorizing that extrapolates the individuals’ traits to their cultures.

For someone in my line, doomed to spending a third of his life with wretched look-how-smart-I-am types, Gladwell’s writing is frequently smug, often mocking, and always grating. Other reviews of Outliers have wrongly drawn attention to the “uplifting” example of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Programme), a chain of publicly-funded schools in the US, which have generated heartening results with Afro-American and Hispanic children from single-parent households. While the example is inspiring, its inclusion in Outliers defies logic. This is hardly the case of luck outshining talent; rather a well-devised strategy to attack illiteracy and deprivation in a target population.

Gladwell’s The Tipping Point was a similar exercise in grand theorizing—using popular science to explain such meaningless events as the soaring popularity of Hush Puppies shoes in the mid-1990s. In spite of global events this year, the love of devising smart-alecky models to ascertain the future continues unabated among the left-liberal set. Gladwell is, famously, its worst manifestation.

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This review appeared in Business Standard.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

A family drama that's ultimately empty

The Northern Clemency was shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, but lost out to Aravind Adiga's White Tiger. Author Philip Hensher has been a judge in the past, so the defeat must have been especially disheartening, and Hensher has made no secret of this fact. But on strict merit, his defeat was well-deserved.

The Northern Clemency is the story of two families, the Glovers and the Sellerses. It is 1974, and the Sellers family has moved into the house opposite the Glovers' in Sheffield, England. The novel will track the families' relationships with one another, and those between their individual members. With the '70s as backdrop in the beginning, Hensher has space to gradually chart the rise of Margaret Thatcher.

But really, it's about the families. Katherine Glover has decided to start work at a florist's, and her husband, Malcolm, suspects she is having an affair with the shop's proprietor. On the day the Sellerses are moving in, Malcolm has left the family briefly, so there is considerable tension in the Glover household.

Tim, the youngest Glover kid, keeps a pet snake, unknown to his family. Alice Sellers spots the boy in the opposite window while she is shifting furniture. She informs Katherine, naturally, when the latter comes to visit, resulting in a dramatic scene in which the poor snake is killed by Tim's mother.

This act of cruelty is one of many set pieces Hensher builds that will resonate later. Tim is of considerable importance to this novel. He will become a radical who hankers after writing furious letters to the Guardian. In many ways, he is the protagonist, which is a pity, since the other kids, Glover and Sellers, are no less interesting.

And that is the problem with The Northern Clemency. Striving to locate the tiny joys and cruelties of family life, Hensher seems unable to see the wood for the trees. There are well-written scenes in a novel that fails to convey anything substantial.

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This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.