Review of "The Second World" by P. Khanna

I bought this book on the basis of a NY Times book review and I was sorely disappointed. When I am faced with a book dealing with the world, I like to start reading the parts that deal with countries and regions with which I am familiar so I can calibrate the author's credibility. In this case I started with the chapter on Turkey (my family came from that country) and I found a melange of opinions and half-truths as well as some outrageous statements. On page 43 we read that "Turkey remains the best model of how islam and modernity can not only coexist but thrive." That is not the impression I get by reading Turkish writers such as Orhan Pamuk or from conversations with Turks I know. The author manages to insult Bulgaria by describing it as a country with "a population shrinking towards five million, ... more in need of a strong mayor than a president". Bulgaria has actually a population of over 7.5 million people (this number as well as others in this review are from Wikipedia) and is not worse off than other countries that emerged from communist regimes after 1990. The author manages also to mangle medieval history. He states in a footnote that the Turkic Seljuk armies defeated the Byzantines in 1071 (so far true) and then he states that the Seljuk armies marched toward Constantinople and Byzantium's only reprieve came from Timur. Well, Timur defeated the Ottoman Turkic state in 1401 so Byzantium must have survived for other reasons in the intervening 330 years!

You may say that I am nitpicking but when I read, for example, the chapters on Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan it is much harder for me to check the veracity of the author's account, so I trying to establish the author's credibility in the areas of the world I know reasonably well. "Ancient" history is particularly useful because its treatises are less subject to political biases than those of modern history.

I went on to read about Egypt and there, on p. 201, I found the following statement: "There isn't a single Arab city free of American or Israeli occupation that is dangerous when compared with a comparable city in the Western Hemisphere." Leaving aside the loaded term "Israeli occupation", there at least two other issues here: One is that Arab cities can be quite unsafe from what I have heard from travelers. It all depends on what part of the city you go. And what does "compared with a comparable city" mean? Comparable in what way?

Probably I should have stopped there but I went on to read about Iran. The endnote at the start of the chapter (p. 227) caught my attention. "It was Cyrus the Great who liberated Persians from Babylonian rule, even resettling the Israelites to Palestine in the sixth century B.C., seeking to create a buffer between itself and Egypt." To start with, the Persians were never under the Babylonians, Cyrus united the various Persian kingdoms and the Medes around 550 BCE and conquered Babylon in 539 BCE. Cyrus was killed in 539 BCE and his son Cambyses conquered Egypt. Ezra did not lead the Israelites back to Israel until the middle of the fifth century, after Egypt had become part of the Persian Empire. And of course Israel remained a Persian territory and did not become a state with an army until the Maccabean revolt, about 300 years later.

The jacket of the book states that last year the author was a "senior geopolitical advisor to the U.S. Special Operations Command". Maybe the use of advisers like him explains the blunders of U.S. policy in the Middle East.