; If you've picked up a newspaper, turned on a television, listened to a radio or, hell, if you've drawn a breath in the last few weeks, you've probably struggled to keep up with the news reports flowing from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Israel. Who's attacking whom? Why do they hate each other so much? Why can't America fix these problems? How has America already managed to mess things up so badly under the guise of "helping" that nobody trusts us to "help" anymore? And can somebody, anybody, please tell us how to get some peace around here?;;
In response to these feelings of bewilderment and helplessness, we went in search of recommendations for books by people much, much smarter than ourselves, people who can help us answer some of these imponderable questions. For help with recommendations, we turned to experts for their opinions and insights. So pick up one or two of these volumes for some poolside reading and you can make your kids feel sorry they ever asked, "Why is everybody fighting?";
;The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11
;by Ron Suskind
;;(hardcover, Simon & Schuster, $27)
;;What makes Bush and Cheney think they have the right to attack whomever they want whenever they want? Because of the 1 percent doctrine, of course. The book's title comes from Dick Cheney's post-Sept. 11 decision that even a 1 percent chance that weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of terrorists should merit the same reaction as a 100 percent chance. Suskind argues that by setting such a low standard for evidence of a threat, the White House essentially gave itself free rein to attack at will, without feeling obliged to present solid evidence of a threat. He does so in prose described by New York Times reviewer Bryan Burrough as "breezy, anecdotal, altogether accessible" and "aimed at readers who spend more time at the Waffle House than at the White House."
;;Cheryl Rofer, a scientist retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory (where she worked on international projects), recommends the newly released One Percent Doctrine on the blog to which she frequently contributes, WhirledView (www.whirledview.typepad.com).;
;Rofer praises the book for providing rare insight into the decision-making process of a very secretive administration. "Historically, the way administrations have decided on what they're going to see as a threat is through capability," Rofer says. "The question has been, ‘Can these people do something to us?' The doctrine changes the question to, ‘Are they thinking about doing something?,' and that's a pretty big difference.";
;You might remember Suskind as the Pulitzer Prize–winning former senior national affairs writer for the Wall Street Journal who wrote The Price of Loyalty, the explosive exposé of the Bush White House based on revelations by former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill. (Most notably, O'Neill claimed that the removal of Saddam Hussein had been one of Bush and Cheney's goals long before Sept. 11.) The One Percent Doctrine is believed to be based on a similar (if unadvertised) co-operative relationship with former CIA director George Tenet.;;
;Reading Lolita in Tehran: ;A Memoir in Books
;by Azar Nafisi
;(paperback, Random House, $14.95)
;What is life like for women in Iran? What must they be thinking? "If you want to learn something about the way ordinary Iranians think," Cheryl Rofer says, get this book. Our current obsession with Iran makes this book, originally published in 2003, attractive once again. Reading Lolita in Tehran provides a glimpse of Iranians' daily lives from the perspective of a woman who was born in Iran but educated in America before returning to teach at the University of Tehran in 1979.
;;After being forced out of her job because she refused to suddenly wear the veil, this English professor invites a select group of former students to gather at her house to read and discuss forbidden Western literature. Although it has been praised for combining personal memoir with literary criticism and social history, it is the social history aspect that seems most appealing right now. Amid shocking and enlightening interpretations of The Great Gatsby and, of course, Lolita, the book traces Nafisi's disillusionment with the political climate as Islamic fundamentalists dramatically alter the lives of women in Iran.;;
;The Assassins' Gate: ;America in Iraq
;by George Packer
;(paperback, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $15)
;How did we bungle Iraq so badly? The "assassins' gate" is a nickname American troops gave to a sandstone arch, known by locals as the palace gate, because it spanned the road to Saddam's Republican Palace. It's a catchy title, but only incidental to the central story here, which is a richly detailed exploration of exactly how we bungled it so badly.
;;A liberal who admits he favored getting rid of Saddam Hussein, but quickly came to realize the war was a mistake, Packer visited Iraq four times on assignment for The New Yorker. His interviews with American soldiers and Iraqi civilians put a personal face on the agony and frustration of the situation. "He's writing as a journalist, not as an academic," says Patricia Kushlis, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who contributes to the WhirledView blog, "and he was able to go out and talk to people on the streets, so you get a real flavor of what's going on."
;;Published last fall, it was named one of the best books of 2005 by The New York Times, The Washington Post Book World, the Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, The New York Times Book Review, USA Today, Time and New York magazine.;;
;The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West
;by Gilles Kepel
;;(paperback, Belknap Press, $15.95)
;;Why can't we beat al-Qaida? Why does it continue to torment us? In The War for Muslim Minds, Kepel argues that al-Qaida would never have been strong enough to survive had it not been for Bush's War on Terror, his decision to invade Iraq and his mishandling of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. These actions brought renewed appeal to what Kepel believes was a waning movement. In order to defeat al-Qaida, Kepel explains, we must understand how we have unintentionally helped it, then take nonviolent steps to reduce its influence among Muslims, allowing it to die a natural death.;
;Kepel is a professor — he teaches at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris — with a European view that is fresh and useful.;;
;On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend
;by Timothy P. Weber
;(paperback, Baker Academic, $19.99)
;"Who are these evangelicals?", you may find yourself wondering as the ticker on the bottom of your screen shows that 71 percent of Americans believe in the literal existence of Satan.
;;"Polling data suggests somewhere around 40 to 46 percent of Americans are evangelicals," says Randall Balmer, author of Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America. Approximately one-third of those evangelicals believe the end times are nigh and they're looking at Israel for proof. How and why those end-timers came to love Israel is the subject of this book, written by the president of the Memphis Theological Seminary.;
;"They are strange bedfellows, to say the least," Balmer says of evangelicals and Israel, "but the combination of evangelical apocalyptics with the Israel lobby in Washington makes for a very powerful coalition. The pro-Israel lobby wants support from any corner, and for evangelicals, their conviction is that anyone who honors Israel will enjoy God's blessing and anyone who turns his back on Israel will incur God's wrath.";
;"Honoring Israel" means that evangelicals contribute upwards of $25 million per year to the pro-Israeli lobby through their megachurches. What do they get in return? Balmer has an uneasy answer. "I don't want to overstate this," he cautions, "but there is a sense on the part of many evangelicals that the events in the Middle East are marching inexorably towards some sort of apocalyptic conclusion, and ostensibly, at least, they don't object to that.";;
;Terror in the Name of God: ;Why Religious Militants Kill
;by Jessica Stern
;(paperback, Harper Perennial, $15.95)
;What could possibly motivate someone to strap a bomb to his body, board a bus and blow himself to bits? If you're trying desperately to get into the mind of a suicide bomber, Abbas Akhil, the director of Public Affairs for the Islamic Center of New Mexico, highly recommends renting the film Paradise Now. This Academy Award–nominated drama (it is not a documentary) tells the story of two young Palestinian men who are chosen to become suicide bombers and follows their path up to the moment of their deaths. "It shows the disenfranchisement that leads somebody to do this," Akhil says. "It's not the mindless brainwashing that we think it is."
;;Terror in the Name of God, which Akhil also recommends, explores the same subject, but in a more comprehensive way. Author Jessica Stern is a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, former terrorism Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former member of the National Security Council. She spent four years researching the roots of terrorism for this book, traveling to refugee camps in Lebanon, religious schools in Pakistan and prisons in Jordan and Florida. Along the way, she interviewed 31 flavors of religious terrorists, including Muslim militants in Palestine, their counterparts in Israel and Christian fundamentalists who advocate murdering abortion doctors.;
;Her thesis is that terrorism is a form of psychological warfare in which the leaders of extremist movements exploit the faith, anger and oppression of vulnerable, disenfranchised youth. Does she have any suggestions on how to stop these people? Yes. Easy answers? No.;;
;by Joe Sacco
;(paperback, Fantagraphics Books, $24.95)
;;A graphic novel that was originally published as a series of comics, Palestine is a first-person account of Sacco's travels in Israel and the occupied territories in the early 1990s. It may seem juvenile to turn to a cartoon for understanding of the Palestinian experience, but Sacco is no idle doodler. Armed with a degree in journalism from the University of Oregon, he is a talented investigator and writer who happens to be able to draw. Palestine won an American Book Award in 1996 and in 2001 Sacco was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.
;;It is often said that Palestine recalls Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus, which told the story of his father's experiences as a Jew during the Holocaust. It was Spiegelman who, as the comics editor at Details magazine, assigned Sacco to cover the Bosnian War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. If he can convey the drama and complexity of Bosnia to the readers of Details, then certainly you'll take away some insight from Palestine.
;;All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of ;Middle East Terror
;by Stephen Kinzer
;(paperback, John Wiley & Sons, $14.95)
;Written by a former New York Times reporter, All the Shah's Men tells a story that starts in 1953, when Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized Iran's oil industry (which had been controlled by the British) and the United States responded by sending the CIA to remove Mossadegh and replace him with Mohammad Reza Shah (better known as simply "the shah"). In this detailed account, the coup is put into the larger context of how the American penchant for regime change tends to come back and bite us in the ass.;
;Kinzer describes how the coup not only changed the leader of a country, but changed the course of events in the Middle East. He asserts that by installing a corrupt and cruel leader in Iran, the United States charted the course for the Islamic Revolution of 1979; that revolution in turn gave inspiration to fundamentalists throughout the Middle East, leading directly to the flowering of groups like the Taliban.;
;As Jeff Stein wrote in the Washington Post when the book was first published, "For anyone with more than a passing interest in how the United States got into such a pickle in the Middle East, All the Shah's Men is as good as Grisham.";;
;The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
;by Sam Harris
;(paperback, W.W. Norton & Company, $13.95);
;What if we all just agreed that religion is doing us more harm than good and decided to give up Jesus for Lent? Sam Harris would probably say that sounds like a great idea. His book created much controversy when it was first published a few years ago, and Harris continues to attract rapt attention by vigorously promoting his theory that religion is the greatest danger of our time. That's right; not terrorism, but religion.;
;If you expect the author to focus his criticism on religious extremists, you'd be wrong; in fact, he assigns particular blame to religious moderates, whose tolerance, he believes, perpetuates a cycle of violence. "By failing to live by the letter of the texts while tolerating the irrationality of those who do," he writes, "religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.";
;If you tire quickly of the arguments for atheism, you'll probably chafe at many of his chapters, but it is worth contemplating Harris' idea that religion's focus on the paradise of the afterlife has the effect of making lives here and now seem much less valuable — especially to those who might, say, become suicide bombers.;
;Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor and author of The Case for Israel (see below), wrote that, "Harris' tour de force demonstrates how faith — blind, deaf, dumb and unreasoned — threatens our very existence.";;
;Lebanon: A House Divided
;by Sandra Mackey
;(paperback, W.W. Norton & Company, $15.95)
;Lebanon? Israel? What has gotten into these people? If your frustration with trying to understand why this skirmish has gotten so ugly has you wishing you could reach into the back seat and give both countries a smack upside the head, then consider reading this book. Republished this summer with a new introduction, this is probably the most up-to-date source for a deep understanding of Lebanon; that is, until the flood of books being proposed right now hits the market.;
;Mackey is a journalist and expert on the Middle East who has written several other books about the region and is one of the TV networks' go-to guys for deciphering the complexities of conflict there. You might recognize her name from the first Gulf War, when she was a commentator for CNN.;
;Lebanon: A House Divided will help answer many of the questions that are nagging viewers of the nightly news. Why do the Lebanese tolerate Hezbollah? Why is Iran supporting them financially? How did getting rid of Saddam help Iran? And what does Syria want from Lebanon? The author explains why and how divisions between Lebanon's religious and cultural groups prevent them from embracing a common identity or maintaining a strong centralized government.;;
;The Case for Israel
;by Alan Dershowitz
;(paperback, John Wiley & Sons, $12.95)
;Why is Israel the center of such conflict? Rabbi Berel Levertov, the director of Chabad Jewish Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was in Israel last month, on the day fighting began with Lebanon. He returned home to news reports he believes are unfairly skewed toward the suffering of the Lebanese. In the court of public opinion, the view that Israel was overreacting seems to be gaining popularity. To remind people why Israel exists, why it must exist, Levertov recommends The Case for Israel.;
;You're probably already familiar with Dershowitz. As one of the country's most famous lawyers, he's no stranger to a TV camera. But this Harvard Law Professor is also known for making excellent — and generally fair — arguments.;
;Here he makes the case for Israel as if he were her lawyer; no, if he were her lawyer, he'd be less likely to acknowledge, as he does, the mistakes she's made.;
;A version of this story appeared originally in the Santa Fe Reporter.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.