Saturday, January 19, 2013

EXIT THE COLONEL by Ethan Chorin ✰✰✰✰

After my review of Tamim Ansary’s Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan (If you haven’t read it yet, you really, really must-it was my number two nonfiction book for 2012.), the publisher gave me the opportunity to review this work on Libya.  One would think that given the amount of media attention that Libya gets there would be a plethora of books on the subject, but as I began this book I realized that despite having read well in excess of a hundred books over the years on the Middle East and political Islam, a good history of Libya had slipped through the cracks of my reading list.
Ethan Chorin explained why.  Western journalists had always been rather thin on the ground in Libya during the Gaddafi regime, and therefore, modern histories of Libya are a very new literary phenomenon-literally since the fall of Gaddafi.  Chorin’s book, which came out in late October of 2012, and covers material he gathered as late as that summer, gives some of the most up-to-date information that readers can find in book form.

There are other books out there that will give you a more comprehensive history of Libya-that is not his intent.  Chorin does give some history-essentially what you need to know to understand how Gaddafi was able to maneuver himself into power from a cultural standpoint.  He does an excellent job explaining the duality of Libya as a country, the divisiveness that those of the eastern half and those of the western half have always felt towards one another, and the powerful effect that this has in her politics (not to mention her soccer matches-we are not talking friendly rivalries here!)

Obviously, politics plays a huge part in this book, and there is a massive cast of players; I would dearly love a roster at the front of the book listing them all.  That said, mine is a pre-publication manuscript, so it is possible that one was added at publication time.  A good deal of ink is spread detailing the role not only of Gaddafi, but also of his second eldest son, Saif al-Islam, who was believed by many to be the son whom Gaddafi most wanted to succeed him in power.  In addition, many power brokers on the Libyan, U.S., and European fronts are discussed.  If you don’t know about Gaddafi’s dealings with Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy, this book will be rather enlightening for you.  Mr. Chorin briefly explains the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which inspired the Libyan rebellion that finally brought down Gaddafi after forty-two years in power.  He then goes on to cover about seven months after the fall of Gaddafi in October of 2011, and so the book includes the first faltering steps of the Transitional National Council. 

One area in which this book really shines is tracing Libya’s economic journey, both before Gaddafi, through his regime, and after.  Ethan Chorin has excellent sources, both inside Libya and outside, and he shows how Libya affects and is affected by global trade.  It is interesting to note that in Libya, unlike in Afghanistan and many other countries where the United States and her allies are involved in trying to assist in establishing democratic governments and stabilizing economies in the wake of civil unrest, we are dealing with a country that is well able to pay her own way, as Libya is very rich in natural resources and has the know-how and infrastructure in place to exploit them.

My one major quibble with this book, and the factor which kept it from earning a fifth star has to do with a writing and not a research element, which bothers me to no end, because I feel like it could have been solved so simply.  This book makes the most ridiculous overuse of acronyms I have ever encountered.  To the point that it renders the book almost unreadable.  I quite literally had to begin a crib sheet that I kept in the cover of my e-reader, because I could not remember them all.  These are not the acronyms that we all know, such as WMD for weapons of mass destruction-some of these were obscure acronyms for organizations that the average reader of this book is not going to have in their working vocabulary.  And the acronym was not just used several times within close proximity of each other; several chapters later an acronym might pop up again-one time out of the blue.  Without my crib sheet I would have been lost.  Seriously?  Would it really have been that difficult to type out the words?  It drove me crazy, and it was so unnecessary because simply typing out the unfamiliar names would not have been overly repetitive, as the list of acronyms was MASSIVE.  It almost felt like the author put in all the acronyms during his research process, as a form of short-hand, and then in the editing process everyone neglected to go in and write them out for the reader.  Or failing that, at least give the reader a list at the beginning of the book with all the acronyms and their interpretations.  So, reader, just be aware from the beginning, unless you have a prodigious memory for acronyms, I highly recommend making a list as you go along.  I must say, this is the oddest reason I have ever withheld a star from such an excellently researched and written book!  

On a more positive note-you needn’t take my word on the merits of this work-Professor Dirk Vandewalle, unarguably the most highly respected scholar regarding Libya, and a professor of government at Dartmouth, says of Chorin’s work, “Chorin's book will undoubtedly remain the best analytical work on Libya and its revolution for a very long time.”  Coincidentally, there is a first rate article written by Professor Vandewalle and published in the November/December 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, entitled “After Qaddafi: The Surprising Success of the New Libya”; it makes the perfect epilog to Ethan Chorin’s book.  On the advice of both Professor Vandewalle (you cannot get better than his, really!), and my own feelings from my reading, I recommend this one to serious readers of nonfiction political history.

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