Douglas Little. Us versus Them: The United States, Radical Islam, and the Rise of the Green Threat. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. 328 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-2680-2.
Reviewed by Jonathan Zartman (Air University, Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (May, 2020)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
The simple themes of this book will probably make it popular at the undergraduate level. The core argument, expressed concisely at the end of the book, bemoans the fact that as social creatures, natural insecurity drives people to depend on their society. Each society naturally not only defines its ideal values, but also justifies excluding others. This violates the liberal vision of an open, inclusive, multicultural society living securely. This book takes the principle of “us versus them,” which operates in all societies, as a lens by which to summarize American relations with the Muslim world. The casual reader could take this approach as holding Americans responsible for antagonistic relations—as a moral flaw, rather than the universal operation of politics. Little’s application of the philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr exemplifies this: “In a world viewed through the prism of us versus them, and ruled by the iron law of mutual demonization, American Islamophobia and Muslim anti-Americanism can easily become deadly reciprocal self-fulfilling prophecies” (p. 241). From this perspective, Little argues that popular antagonism to Muslims prevented Obama from leading diplomatic efforts toward peace.
This book does offer the virtue of illustrating the perils of Islamophobia. However, because Little focuses on American actions and attitudes, he fails to consider that aversion to outsiders is inherent to all societies, and not specifically an American failing. The book offers a significant number of supporting citations to government memoranda, memoires, official statements, and even cables published by WikiLeaks. However, on some of the more significant charges, such as the claim that the CIA secretly channeled arms and dollars to the Fatah representative in Gaza to remove Hamas, he gives no citation.
His criticism of the Bush administration’s policies in Afghanistan and Iraq offers eloquent language, but not so much coherence. Similarly, President Bush promoted the “Global War on Terrorism” with passion, but the strategy suffered from oversimplification. Authoritarian regimes exploited that language to justify increased domestic repression. For example, Little cites Islam Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan, justifying his resistance to American democracy promotion with mild words (p. 170), while failing to note the way Karimov exploited the American counterterrorism narrative to justify the slaughter of civilians in Andijan. He notes that “Bush and his Vulcan advisors had entered office locked into an us-versus-them view of the world” (p. 147). This excessive generalization, seeing complex diplomatic challenges as simple dichotomies, collapses the distinctions among a diverse array of antagonists into manifestations of a single malignant force. However, the casual reader may misinterpret the way Little combines a broad variety of groups, ideologies, and countries into a single “green menace” as a true picture of security conditions, when in reality understanding the present situation requires recognizing the differences among various groups.
The book offers a variety of interesting anecdotes along the way, such as describing how Iranian help to the Saudi Hezbollah in bombing the Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia derailed the reconciliation efforts of the Clinton administration and Iranian President Khatami. A sensitive reader will see a subtext in this book. Little describes how Arab violence drove Israeli politics to the right; in a reciprocal fashion, military action in Muslim countries drives people toward supporting radicalism.
This book offers six chapters in rough chronological order, beginning with the Cold War (chapter 1) through the four administrations of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama (chapters 2 through 5). The introduction attributes American policy failures in dealing with Muslim countries to an exclusive American political culture, and racial anxieties. This led Americans to exaggerate the Soviet threat during the Cold War, and then to Islamophobia after the 9/11 attacks. The careful reader who knows Middle East history will find ample sources of irritation, such as the claim that Britain and France “dismantled the Ottoman Empire in 1920, dissolved the caliphate, and carved out so-called mandates for themselves” (p. 9). This ignores the great role of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, and the decree of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey that abolished the caliphate in March 1924.
As an exposition on the perils of overly simplistic approaches to dealing with diverse societies and security threats, this book will be enjoyed by many readers. Many will also appreciate the fluid readability of the text and its broad, liberal perspective on the last forty years of American relations with Muslim countries. Its clear attribution of Islamophobia to a combination of human psychology, national insecurity, and political strategy also offers value.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Jonathan Zartman. Review of Little, Douglas, Us versus Them: The United States, Radical Islam, and the Rise of the Green Threat.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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