New Book Reviews

The following books all deal with the situation of the United States in the world of 2004.  They are neither historical background nor entertaining reading.  They are “hard-nosed” information about the challenges that our country faces.  Opinions differ on the current state of affairs.  However any informed citizen needs to work to be as informed as possible.  The following books are all recommended as helping to accomplish that goal.

Salam Pax - Salam Pax -This book is a blogger’s diary of the time before, during and immediately after the Iraq war.  The word Blogger is short for Web Logger.  This is a person who posts a continuing account of an event or situation on the World Wide Web.  In this case, the blogger is a resident of Baghdad.  His continuing log of events starts several months prior to the invasion of Iraq.  It details daily life in Baghdad. The result is to give a valuable insight into how an informed Iraqui views his country, its place in the world and the prospects for the future. 

A commentary on how the world has changed in the current century is presented when the author discusses the arrival of the B-52 bombers.  He has a friend in England who lives near the B-52 base.  When his friend hears the bombers taking off on their mission to Baghdad, he notifies Salam Pax in Baghdad on the Internet.  Salam Pax then starts a countdown until the arrival of the B-52’s.  He times going to the bar and having a drink to allow time to get home, take shelter and sit out the raid.  This is only a small view of the interconnectedness and communications possible in our world of today.  The book gives a great overview of this quality.

Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern - John Gray -A short, very dense book about the philosophical basis of Al Qaeda.  The author maintains that Al Qaeda is both Western and modern. It is a byproduct of globalization’s international capital flows and open borders.  Their utopian zeal to remake the world descends from the same Enlightenment creed that informed both the disastrous Soviet experiment and the neo-liberal dream of a global free market. 

Anyone who thinks of Al Qaeda as a group of escapees from the Middle Ages or some sort of religious misfits needs to read this book.  It shows the face of the enemy and the view is frightening. The insight is into a totally different culture and set of values.  We ignore these viewpoints at our peril. The author is a Professor of European thought at the London School of Economics.

The Bookseller of Kabul - Asne Seierstad - The authoress of this book is a Norwegian journalist who has covered many assignments in war-torn regions.  She was invited to move into the house of a bookseller in Kabul. She lived with this family for several months. The bookseller himself has 2 wives, 5 children and several other relatives who live in a 4 room house in Kabul.  The authoress moves in with this group and shares their joys and trials.  The result is to present a view of life in an Islamic community where the influence of the Taliban is never very far away.  Military operations and presence are a very small part of this book.  It is more of a social interest story of life in a very different culture.

The most outstanding conflict in the book is between Muslim hard liners and modernity.  As a bookseller, the main character must maintain a progressive, thoughtful and wide ranging outlook.  As a Muslim under very close scrutiny, he must be very discrete in his actions.  The book presents a balanced view of the difficulties of living a progressive and productive life under these conditions.  The problems of women and feminism in this culture also are well presented.

The Bubble of American Supremacy - Gorge Soros - This is a very disturbing book about the current foreign policy of the United States.  The author compares the current phenomenon of American supremacy to a stock market bubble similar to the one that collapsed at the beginning of this century.  He feels that current Bush doctrine of pre-emptive military action is a potentially catastrophic policy grounded in the belief that international relations are relations of power, not law.  Soros argues that for the Bush administration legality and legitimacy are mere decorations and that military power is the true currency of all international relations.

Soros’ personal philanthropic commitments amount to roughly $500 million per year.  He directs these funds to promote open society around the globe. His argument in the book is that the supremacy attitude of the Bush administration puts all of our military might and reputation behind a single throw of the dice.  He alternately proposes that by building long term alliances and fostering cooperative actions with other nations, we can greatly increase the effectiveness of our efforts and enhance the long term influence of our country.  A somewhat dissonant point of view, but one that fits disturbingly well with the influential Globalization and Its Discontents by Joseph Stiglitz.

All of these books are available at Barnes and Noble or Books and Company.

- Abbott ("Shorty") Williams

Winter Reading, Vol. 1

Ladies and Gentlemen: Here's the first half-day's pickings from NewsGroup participants as to what to read this winter.  Fifteen of you responded with 40-plus suggestions!  I tried to create a uniform format, but gave up after the first couple of pages.  Bon appetite.  

- Ken Jensen

From Mari Banks: The Revolt of the Masses by Jose Ortega y Gasset.  Written in 1930, its very apropos for us and this age of anxiety.  

Also from Mari Banks: Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville; The Rights of Man/The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine; Meditations by Marcus Aurelius; Ethics by Benedictus de Spinoza

From Collum Clark: A truly outstanding book with an unusual perspective on the War of the American Revolution is Piers Mackesy's War for America. Mackesy tells the story from the perspective of Britain's grand strategy, with special emphasis on the political and organizational challenges posed on the home front by Britain's effort to wage a global war in at least five theaters. Written at the time of the Vietnam War, it has a good deal of resonance for U.S. foreign policy today.

From Ronald Cole: Mountains Beyond Mountains: Healing the World: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer by Tracy Kidder. This book affects international foreign policy since it describes the fundamental shift that has taken place in addressing infectious disease in the developing world. It is a remarkable book, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Also from Cole:  A Future Perfect : The Challenge and Promise of Globalization by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.  This book provides a detailed and involved argument for globalization. It discusses the counter arguments, and the realities of dealing with international bodies such as the IMF. It is extremely well written by two authors of the Economist magazine.

From Rachel Ehrenfeld: Rachel Ehrenfeld, Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop It.

From Amb. Donald Gregg: C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters; C.P. Snow, Science and Government

From Mel Graves: James Michener, The Source

From Bill McGeehan: The Clash of Civilizations & The Remaking Of World Order by Samuel Huntington.  8-10 years old but still pertinent.  The term "The Clash of Civilizations" has become something of a buzz word and this puts a lot of meat on that bone.

From Joe Manguno: Okay, Ken, here's one you're not likely to get from anyone else: The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco. A superbly crafted novelization of the international race to find the prime meridian in the 17th Century, with all the implications for world trade and shipping, intertwined with much larger questions about life, God and man's purpose.

From Richard Millett: Wesley Clark's Waging Modern War.  (Better than his second book-and a study of the problems of dealing with modern tyrants)


Joe Nye, The Paradox of American Power  (for the present and future)


Dana Priest, The Mission  (Note especially the sections on Kosovo after intervention and the awful moral ambiguities


Richard Haass, Intervention  (Should have been required reading on Pennsylvania Avenue)


Russell Weigley, The American Way of War  (A history of American strategy with real implications for the present as well as the past)


Leslely Byrd SImpson, Many Mexicos  (Old but still fascinating  The best one volume history of any country I have ever read-and my students all loved it)


Tina Rosenberg, Children of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America (uneven, but disturbing and at times insightful)


 And now two more off the wall ideas.


Keith Devlin, Goodbye Descartes.  A book on the end of logic and on much more.


Richard Neustandt and Ernest May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers  (The title says it all.)  

From William Norris: Franklin and Winston by John Meacham, Random House, 2003 - An interesting, often poignant, historical review of the two allied leaders in the era leadiing up to and during World War II.


Also from Norris: The Paradox of American Power by Joseph S. Nye, Oxford University Press, 2002 - Counterpoint to hard power, neo-conservatives and unilateralism


Also from Norris: The Ideas that Conquered the World by Michael Mandelbaum, Public Affairs (Perscus Book Groups), 2002 - How did we get here and the interplays of peace, democracy and free markets in the new world of today

From R. Prince: Old books worth looking at in light of current events:

Howard's The Partition of Turkey. for those of you familiar with Fromkin's work (Peace To End All Peace), this is of the same genre. mostly diplomatic history of the period before and after WWI. Found it a pearl.

Antonius' The Arab Awakening. Again, although written in 1938, and a book that has been the focus of much criticism by contemporary scholars (Dawisha comes to mind), for its time it is a fine carefully argued interesting book. worth reading if only to see what current Middle Eastern scholars are criticizing.

Zora Neale Hurston's Go Gator and Muddy The Water. retrieved writings of the Black novelist and anthropologist whose revival is due in large measure to Alice Walker who rediscovered her and paid to have a tomb stone placed on her unmarked grave. These are her anthropological writings about Florida that were done for the Federal Writers Project during the 1930s. Expunged from the record at the time, and Pamela Bordelon, it is a wonderful study of cultural history, about as good as it gets. Hurston was trained by Boas.

From Richard Slaughter: I recommend any one of three works by the Nobel laureate economic historian Douglass C. North.  I cite these in increasing order of theoretical sophistication, to be selected in light of the reader's background in political and economic history.

I offer these because of a deeply held belief that the ability of a society to function politically and economically is heavily impacted, if not determined, by its institutional structure (and history). Ergo, within can be found strategies through which to address many of the state-building issues of the day (through which one avoids violence associated with disaffected populations, failed states, etc.).

Caveat:  Successful economic and political development requires a secular state.  North does not have an answer to the problem presented by theocracy, wherein the state is an instrument of religious control and, in Bernard Lewis' terms, social dissatisfaction can be expressed only by creating a new sect.

The books are:

The Rise of the Western World.  Cambridge Univ. Press 1973.

Structure and Change in Economic History.  W.W. Northon 1981.

Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance.  Cambridge Univ. Press 1994.

From Richard Siegel: I am enjoying the D`Emilio biography of Bayard Rustin, a great inside look at the pacifist and civil rights movements. My students greatly like both Charles Kupchan , The End of the American Era, and Samantha Power on A Problem From Hell.  The latter is a very readable overview on the response of the international community to genocide and the former is a fairly balanced take on the way to view the past, present and future of U.S. foreign policy. I also liked Aryeh Neier`s autobiographic look at the origins of the human rights organizations, Taking Liberties.

From Bob Taichert: 20/21 Vision: Lessons of the 20th Century for the 21st by Bill Emmott, Editor in Chief of the Economist.  I found it terrific, informative and prescient.

Also from Bob Taichert: Edith Grossman's new translation of Don Quixote.

From Bob Wehrle: If you want to know why we are hated so much in the Middle East, read All the Shah's Men  by Stephen Kinzer, a new 2003 book.  It is about our government's involvement in the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadgh in Iran in 1953 and the reinstallation of our puppet, Reza Pahlavi, as the Shah.   Our Middle East policies have been a disaster ever since the Dulles brothers got involved.  If this book intrigues you, then read The Game of Nations by Miles Copeland, a 1969 out-of-print book, that follows up on the shenanigans of some of the same CIA operatives such as Kermit Roosevelt

Program Change for the meeting of December 9th

Due to a medical situation, the speaker scheduled for December 9, 2003 is unable to speak to our group.  However, we have arranged for another excellent speaker, Robert R. Reilly, Director of the Voice of America, whose topic will be "Lessons from Baghdad."  We hope to see you at the Summit Club on December 9th.  If you have not made your reservations, please do so immediately by calling Regina Ash at 254-1445, or by email at"

- Frank M. Young, III, Chairman

You can also make reservations by going to the programs section of the site, finding the upcoming program you would like make reservations for, and clicking on the *MAKE RESERVATION(S)* link under the Meeting Number.

Book Reviews from member Shorty Williams

In the past few months, there has been a spate of books on terrorism, Iraq, the Middle East, Afghanistan and other related issues. The following list is a brief outline of some of the ones that I have found most interesting. All of these books were purchased at Barnes and Noble at the Summit or Books and Co. at Brookwood.  

The New Terrorism (Walter Laquer, Oxford University Press). This is the bible of terrorism. Its 1999 publication date in no way should put you off. This one volume helps to make sense of terrorists from James Earl Ray to Eric Rudolph to Timothy McVey to Osama Bin Laden. I finished this book this Summer and was easily able to fit in all of these situations and find an explanation of the increasing “terrorist“resistance in Iraq. This is scary reading about how the terrorist thinks, what he wants, what he may do and what motivates him to do it. As the former Director of the CIA said, “If you read only one book on terrorism, this should be it.”  

Of Paradise and Power (Robert Kagan, Knopf) A short book by an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The book gives an overview of the new relationship of Europe and America. After years of mutual resentment and tension, there is a sudden recognition that the real interests of America and its allies are diverging sharply and that the transatlantic relationship itself has changed, possibly irreversibly. Europe sees the Unites States as high-handed, unilateralist, and unnecessarily belligerent; the United States sees Europe as spent, unserious and weak. The anger and mistrust on both sides are hardening into incomprehension. This book helps us to at least define the problem.  

Weapons of Mass Deception (Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Jeremy Tarcher, Penguin). A light hearted approach to a deadly serious subject. This is a book about how the “spin-masters” doctor the news and try to polish it into politically viable bits. This book by the authors of Trust Us, We’re Experts is a detailed expose of the aggressive public relations campaign that was used to sell the American public on the war with Iraq. This book is reminiscent of Bill press’s Spin This and Al Franken’s Lies and the Liars That Tell Them. All of these are books help us to learn how to filter the news, get behind the spin and find the truth.  

Sleeping With The Devil (Robert Baer) A frightening revelation of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Written by a former CIA operative, it names names, gives facts, dates, places and insight into a highly questionable relationship with the oil giant. Particularly interesting are the revelations about the Bush family, some of the cabinet members and other high ranking officials with the Carlisle Group. This one is definitely not recommended for the fearful and squeamish.  

Full Spectrum Dominance (Rahul Mahajan, Seven Stories Press) A short book about the exercise of American military power in Iraq. Written by an anti-war activist, it outlines the futility of high tech weaponry and sophisticated organization against determined locals fighting for their survival and freedom from dominance. This is a “real politic” appraisal of Iraq and big military budgets.  

Three more that I am reading now and seem to warrant recommendations are:

Al-Jazeera (Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar,m Westview). A description of how the network operates, the programs it broadcasts, its effectiveness on Arab viewers, the reactions of the West and the Arab states, and the implications for the future of news broadcasting in the Middle East  

Inside Al Qaeda (Rohan Gunaratna, Berkeley) The definitive view of the world-wide terror network. Dan Rather calls the author “the foremost English-speaking expert on the terror network”. The book discusses organization, controls, objectives, methods and personnel of Al Qaeda.  

Salam Pax (Salam Pax, Grove Press) Salam Pax is a pseudonym of an Iraqi blogger. The author is a very well educated Iraqi who conducts an ongoing eMail conversation (Blogging) with a friend in Jordan. The effect of the book is to give an inside view of what life inside Iraq has been like for the past year. The author has recently been identified and now writes a column for the “Guardian” newspaper.

- Abbott ("Shorty") Williams

Celebrating Our 60th Year

60th year pic

The spectacular globalization of our world’s economy during the past decade has been driven, at least in part, by advances made in digital communications. We are living in a digital age. As digital communication technologies have advanced, the world has become smaller. Today from our offices and homes we instantaneously communicate with people and organizations around the world. 

As one of the first organizations of the American Committees on Foreign Relations to have our own website, the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations is joining the digital age. I hope you will peruse this site and learn how to use it effectively. We hope to expand this website, make it better and use it as an ongoing tool for communication, education and discussion.

We will welcome all input, comments, suggestions and criticisms as we move forward with the project. Please understand that this beginning effort is a “work-in-progress.” We will refine, improve and strengthen our website as we go forward.

Welcome aboard. Again, we will appreciate all of your comments.