Author: Stephen Zunes

Type: Non-ficion, single subject

Full title: Tinderbox: Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism

Published: 2002

I read it: May 2014


When I was first bowled over by The God Delusion, I was in the habit of supporting a central thesis of that book, which is that religion, and virtually religion alone, was the cause of certain international disasters such as 9/11. A friend wanted to challenge that view, so in a book exchange I received Tinderbox, and I gave her Richard Dawkins’ non-political, evolution-focused The Ancestor’s Tale. Years ago, she completed that behemoth while I let her loan collect dust. And it has haunted my shelves ever since.

Now, thanks to some conscious determination during work lunch breaks, I am proud to say I held up my end of the book exchange. I have completed Stephen Zunes’ work on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

So was my friend right? Were some atheist authors overstating religion’s singular influence on terrorist activity? On the whole, yes. While I had peripherally known that the United States had, shall we say, shady histories with the destinies of various countries, I really didn’t know the specifics. When 9/11 occurred, I was in the category of millions of Americans that had no idea what “we” had been stirring up for decades in the Middle East, and why something like this tragedy could occur. People more politically educated could rightly argue (before or after) that it was bound to occur, at least in some fashion.

As Zunes explains, the United States has always chosen and dismissed its friends–that is, the leadership of other countries–in a way that would seem, over the long term, to be the behavior of a severely malfunctioning individual. Promises made, then broken. Dictatorships in South America directly trained and funded by the CIA. Giving vocal support for human rights concerns but propping up regimes that lead directly to human rights abuses. Arrogant disregard for international protocol to seek diplomatic conflict resolution in foreign areas. Policies that blatantly bolster arms manufacture and sales, as well as the control of oil flow.

The tinderbox of the title is the collection of controversies and war-torn villages that the United States had caused, directly or indirectly, over the previous decades. A heat occurs when common citizens see outside military forces as imperialistic instead of necessary and helpful, and a conservative angle on an ancient religion can be the catalyst that leads to strife. So while I do still think religion played (plays) a large role in terrorist violence, the U.S. has done itself no favors in preventing such acts due to its direct role in giving reasons for entire cultures to resent Western action. The policies the U.S. carries out often directly contradict the stated goals of keeping citizens at home, as well as those in other countries, safe from harm.

While it is difficult to read such a ragged laundry list of your country’s ineptitude and downright disregard of civility, know that Stephen Zunes writes with an impressively clear and balanced voice. He sticks painstakingly to the facts to make his case, and the restraint shown in avoiding biased or inflammatory rhetoric is admirable. This is not just a book about bashing conservative politics in the U.S. (there are plenty of pages critiquing the Clinton administration, for example). It’s an indictment of many presidential eras, as well as a rational suggestion about which aspects need to change. Since this book was published in late 2002, a follow-up for the current decade is probably in order, especially since we have seen the demise of both Hussein and bin Laden, which could be a Pyrrhic victory given the massive casualties (of soldiers, yes, but mostly foreign civilians) tallied in the pursuit of those individuals.

I was finishing high school when 9/11 occurred. Despite increased media attention in the following years, I still didn’t really know what was going on; politics has always taken some effort for me. So, I’m glad I finally went back and caught up on the background of this crazy ongoing drama that has enveloped and will continue to envelop several generations. It’s so complex and disheartening, and it’s a reality of our modern world. I know some people are patriots, and it is natural to want to support the United States in its supposed defense and progress. But I am not a patriot, and I don’t know when that time will come. Books like these illustrate why.


One thought on “Tinderbox

  1. A point six years in the making that I could never really articulate because the facts are too numerous for this girl’s brain. I’m really glad you bit the bullet. Now go read about the long and varied history on nonhuman life forms – I promise it’s a good antidote for your spirit.

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