In a slim collection of essays written between 2002 and 2005, Seattle's English intellectual, Jonathan Raban, effectively expresses some...

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In a slim collection of essays written between 2002 and 2005, Seattle’s English intellectual, Jonathan Raban, effectively expresses some of the fear, frustration and distance with which we here in the Pacific Northwest have regarded the war on terror.

Topics in “My Holy War: Dispatches from the Home Front” (New York Review Books, 150 pp., $22) include the author’s lifelong skepticism toward religious belief that mutates into fanaticism, mistakes in Western policy toward the Middle East that date back at least to Lawrence of Arabia and World War I, the 2004 political campaign and our jaundiced view from Seattle — which to Raban means the liberal, Queen Anne Hill Seattle where he lives.

The chapters are reprints of essays written for the New York Review of Books, Britain’s The Guardian and The Seattle Times’ Pacific Northwest magazine. The collection makes for useful history by effectively capturing the tumultuous mood of the past few years, but as a result it is also somewhat dated and eclectic. The adulatory piece on Howard Dean in particular reminds us of the brief half-life of politicians. Articles on Raban’s road trip with his daughter, or lax regulation on the high seas, strain to fit under the book’s title.

Raban, an Englishman who has made a brilliant career of writing about the United States, is always smart and stylish in print. “My Holy War” is quite readable. But compared with “Passage to Juneau” or “Waxwings,” this is Raban Lite. The author is well-read but no authority on the Middle East; it is difficult to come up with a truly new argument for such an exhaustively discussed topic; and Raban’s liberalism makes the essays too predictable.

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His history seems to excuse Saddam’s attacks on fellow Iraqis as the natural fallout from rival sects forced to live together by European map-drawers, not the genocide of a monomaniacal dictator. Raban ignores the frustrating 12 years of low-level conflict with Saddam that helped set the stage for war. He is silent on the improvements and freedoms U.S. intervention seems to have brought to Afghanistan. He complains about the creepy new Homeland Security regime but gives the administration no credit for the absence of terrorist attacks here since Sept. 11.

As a result, Seattle Democrats will find themselves nodding in approval at every page, Eastside conservatives will consider Raban on another planet and moderates may feel the same frustration they had with the Kerry campaign.

Yes, if the United States knew then what we do now, we may never have invaded Iraq. But what next?

Author appearance


Jonathan Raban will speak about “My Holy War” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. Tickets are $5; priority seating for Town Hall members (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

President Bush’s attempt to reconstitute Iraq as a constitutional democracy may be bloody, tedious and perhaps even futile, but at least it’s a plan as opposed to a quick retreat that ignites civil war, sucks in Iran and Syria, and makes an unholy mess even worse than today’s.

“My Holy War” is always thought-provoking, but it lacks a persuasive alternative strategy for military disengagement from Iraq and cultural engagement with Muslim civilization. That’s the essay from someone, anyone, I want to read.