Foreign Policy Blogs

From Beirut to Jerusalem Turns 25



Photo credit: New York Times

The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s landmark book From Beirut to Jerusalem turns 25 this year. It remains a compelling overview of Middle East history for those who are not specialists in the region. Reading it today, Friedman’s description of a region where identities are primarily tribal is informed more deeply by two ensuing events in particular: the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq (which the author initially supported) and the ongoing civil conflict in Syria. The events antedate the chronology with which Friedman opens the book, but he writes as though saving space for them.

Friedman describes a fascination with Israel and the Middle East that grew in him at an early age. That is unusual enough in a country as insular as the U.S. He then describes himself freely as an “insufferable” young student of the region. Armed with facts, he projected intimate understanding of the region until working there began to teach him how little he actually knew. Friedman shares this not only as a narrative of a path to greater self-awareness; he also lays out an explanation of how the rules of Middle East politics are difficult to decipher, both to the U.S. and among the nations of the region.

In a chapter titled “Hama Rules”, Friedman describes the 1982 siege of that major Syrian city by the government of then-President Hafez Assad. Over thirty years later, Hama has once again been an epicenter of civil struggle fought by and against the government of his son, President Bashar Assad. Friedman’s observations of Hama in 1982 – where the government killed an estimated 10-25,000 Syrian civilians – illuminate the current struggle. Hama, a city in the Syrian hinterland, has a strong Sunni identity, in contrast to a government in Damascus dominated by more secular and minority Alawites. Chillingly, Friedman argues that the elder Assad razed Hama ruthlessly in 1982 because “he wanted the Syrian people to see Hama raw.” Assad wanted to impress his hold on power to the Syrian periphery, and he willingly sacrificed Syrians to do it because he viewed them primarily as members of an alien “tribe.” Hama has been at the center of the recent rebellion, with militia forces maintaining hold of parts of the city for lengthier periods than they did in 1982. Bashar Assad has shown willingness to stick with the game longer, but the “Hama Rules” playbook Friedman describes hasn’t changed.

“But tribalism and authoritarianism together still cannot fully explain Hama or Middle East politics today,” Friedman writes (again, in 1989.) “There is a third tradition at work, a tradition imposed from abroad in the early twentieth century by the last group of imperial invaders of the region, the British, French and Italians: the modern nation state.” This connects the book to the 2003 Iraq war and Friedman’s initial support for it. The absence of the U.S. from the list of “imperial invaders” who introduced the modern nation-state to the region is notable. Friedman writes of the need for citizens of the region to “check their tribal memories at the door” of national governments. Support for the U.S. invasion from Friedman and others seemed based in a desire to close the distance to this goal, as well as recognition that because Western nations had drawn the borders of the region they maintained a direct connection to its future welfare, if not the ultimate responsibility for it.

Friedman writes of the U.S. Marine presence in Lebanon in the early 1980s, culminating in the Marine barracks bombing in October 1983, in language that could be applied to Iraq two decades later: “The Marines wanted to help the Lebanese rebuild their country, but the Lebanese had other fish to fry, other scores to settle, which came first.” This statement captures Friedman’s view of an appropriate U.S. attitude toward the Middle East. It must be realistic about what it can achieve through its own initiative. It must be aware of the limitations to governance where the region’s “tribal” affiliations are far stronger than national ones. It must, however, continue the work helping the region develop the national systems of government that will best ensure their long-term stability. If the troubles Friedman described 25 years ago are distressingly familiar to those today, so are their solutions.



Michael Crowley

Mike Crowley received his MA with distinction from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in American Foreign Policy and European Studies in 2003 and his MFA in Classical Acting from The Shakespeare Theatre Company/George Washington University in 2016. He has worked at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Akin Gump, and The Pew Charitable Trusts. He's an actor working in Washington, DC and a volunteer at the National Gallery of Art, and he looks for ways to work both into his blog occasionally.