Michel Lewis tries to understand the Icelandic man, and the destruction of an entire country at the hands of fishermen-turned-bankers. Paragraph that made me laugh and reminded me of the rhetoric of the ‘Asian Tiger’ era:

Icelanders—or at any rate Icelandic men—had their own explanations for why, when they leapt into global finance, they broke world records: the natural superiority of Icelanders. Because they were small and isolated it had taken 1,100 years for them—and the world—to understand and exploit their natural gifts, but now that the world was flat and money flowed freely, unfair disadvantages had vanished. Iceland’s president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, gave speeches abroad in which he explained why Icelanders were banking prodigies. “Our heritage and training, our culture and home market, have provided a valuable advantage,” he said, then went on to list nine of these advantages, ending with how unthreatening to others Icelanders are. (“Some people even see us as fascinating eccentrics who can do no harm.”) There were many, many expressions of this same sentiment, most of them in Icelandic. “There were research projects at the university to explain why the Icelandic business model was superior,” says Gylfi Zoega, chairman of the economics department. “It was all about our informal channels of communication and ability to make quick decisions and so forth.”

William Pfaff ponders on why the citizcns of the Republic looked away while the Bush Administration tampled all over their constitution and interternational law. A comment that stuck out:

Very few people among the American public seemed to care-except Fox television executives, who recognize a commercial opportunity when it hits them between the eyes.

Fox began a drama in which each program was devoted to the American president’s torturer doing whatever had to be done to thwart a new threat to the American republic. The hero would apply one of the tortures pronounced legally OK for Americans to use, until the terrorist, gasping or screaming, blurts out where the nuclear bomb has been planted.

This turned out to be one of the most popular programs on the air. It seems that President Bush himself watched. People in the torturing business joked that they got some good ideas from the program.

The New York Times Book Review, generally predictable and pointless, did however carry an interesting review of a very interesting writer and on a very interesting subject.  Rashid Khalidi, is a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, the director of its Middle East Institute and holds the ‘Edward Said’ chair of Arab studies at the University.  His new book is called Sowing Crisis: Cold War And American Dominance in the Middle East. For all the simpletons who may have asked ‘Why do they hate us!’ it may be time to actually read something and ask a more intelligent question.  An excerpt:

Immediately subsequent to the sudden disappearance of its Soviet rival, in 1990–91, the United States engaged in an extraordinarily confident assertion of its suddenly unrivaled power in the Middle East via its leadership of a grand coalition against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in the Gulf War of 1991, and in convening the 1991 Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid, which led to the 1993 Oslo Accords, signed on the White House lawn. Both were unprecedented initiatives in various ways. Although nominally a collective effort, the 1991 Gulf War was the first American land war in Asia since Vietnam. Meanwhile, Madrid witnessed the first multilateral peace conference in history bringing together all the parties to the conflict, Arab and Israeli, and all relevant international actors. Moreover, it constituted the first and only serious and sustained American (or international) effort in over half a century at a comprehensive resolution of the Palestine conflict.

In light of these apparently radical departures in American policy immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it would be useful to revise our understanding of the Cold War as simply a prolegomenon to the current era of unfettered American dominance over the region. Such a revision would help us answer a number of questions: Was the United States previously as constrained by the presence of its Soviet rival as sometimes seemed to be the case, and as these two novel departures immediately after the demise of the USSR seemed to indicate? Alternatively, was America in fact more dominant in the Middle East throughout the Cold War era than may have appeared at the time?