New York Times book review -- Sunday, 24 August 2008
A PATH OUT OF THE DESERT
A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East
By Kenneth M. Pollack
(Reviewed by Max Rodenbeck, Middle East correspondent for The Economist)
Back in 2002, I ran into one of the Brookings Institution's top Middle East hands at the inaugural session of the United States-Islamic World Forum, a now annual event that Brookings sponsors jointly with the government of Qatar. "How's it going?" I asked, expecting to hear about clashing misperceptions across the cultural divide. "Good," came the gruff reply. "They're beginning to realize that they are the problem."
Reading this big, ambitious book by Kenneth M. Pollack, who is the head of research at Brookings's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, it is hard not to wish that what he refers to as Washington's "policy community" would more often realize that they are the problem. It would have been nice, for instance, had Pollack himself thought harder before arguing, in scholarly papers and his widely read 2002 book, "The Threatening Storm," that America had "no choice" but to invade Iraq. That ostensibly sober appraisal, coming from a former C.I.A. analyst, Clinton official and self-described liberal, arguably added more gravitas to the shrill cries for war than any other voice.
Pollack has long since confessed to having been wrong about Iraq. "A Path Out of the Desert" includes other mea culpas. "There has been far too little asking the people of the region themselves what they thought and what they wanted," he ruminates at one point, though the book offers slim evidence of his having pursued this advice. While the administration that Pollack served gets some light wrist-Å]slapping, it is the following eight years of Bush policy that he calls "breathtakingly arrogant, ignorant and reckless."
Many of Pollack's other judgments are as sound as is this criticism of the Bush administration. Since most of the post-cold-war world has stabilized, democratized and prospered, it is probably correct to suggest, as he does, that America should commit itself to helping the messy Middle East come up to par.
His proposal of a Grand Strategy to achieve this, which is to say a generation-long effort of a scale and intensity similar to America's engagement with Europe after World War II, is challenging but not irrational, given the world's growing dependency on Middle Eastern oil. And Pollack is right to say that violence and tyranny are not hard-wired into Islam, and to conclude that the threat of Islamist terror has been overblown. He is also right that internal unrest in Middle Eastern states is quite likely to be a strategic threat, and that this danger will not pass until they manage to produce better schools, more opportunities for youth, wider social justice and more inclusive, accountable government. He is correct, too, in describing the region's current regimes as singularly awful, and even in admitting that George Bush showed unwonted acuity when he called for draining the swamps of extremism by promoting reform.
The argument weakens when Pollack tries to prescribe just what America can do to cure the Middle East. Much of his suggested treatment consists of vague outlines and policy homilies. Out of nearly 500 pages, very few describe concrete measures for how to achieve such things as spreading democracy or upgrading education in the face of governments that mistrust reform and peoples that mistrust America. Among other things, he proposes to increase military aid to friendly regimes. This, he says, can create a kind of golden leash that makes governments more compliant to American wishes.
But surely, one can't help gasping, the last thing more guns will bring is political reform. And surely, those Arabs are not so dumb that they don't read this stuff. Elsewhere, he suggests tying aid to Egypt to the lifting of the country's notorious emergency law. Perhaps he is unaware that Congress has already tried conditioning aid on reform, or that the Egyptians, who have grown skilled at circumventing tiresome Western admonishments, have already amended their constitution to incorporate "emergency" strictures under ordinary law. One is left with the impression that should a Democratic administration hire Pollack to try his Grand Strategy, he might soon be reduced to throwing "spaghetti against the wall" to "see if it sticks," as he quotes a rueful Bush official describing that team's effort to reform the Middle East.
Beyond the reform promotion agenda, which is the book's main thrust, Pollack is surprisingly reticent about the most pressing current issues, namely how to get out of Iraq and what to do about Iran (though in recent op-ed essays he has made it clear that he worries about pulling out of Iraq too quickly). In fact, he simply sketches well-known policy options without passing judgment. And, sadly, this thick book's thinness in ideas is not its only flaw.
Pollack raises loud alarms, for instance, over the Middle East's high rates of population growth, urbanization and joblessness. Actually, these are decades-old trends. He fails to note that population growth rates have plunged in recent years. Some scholars even assert that this phase of "demographic transition," in which there is a relatively high ratio of working-age people to young or old dependents, should accelerate the region's economic growth just as it did America's in the late 19th century, and East Asia's more recently.
Pollack commits errors that, despite his years in the corridors of power and some 70 pages of footnotes, betray a lack of genuine intimacy with his subject. It is not true, as he asserts, that education in the Persian Gulf emirates is largely private. Nor is it true, any longer, that virtually the only foreign investment in Arab countries goes toward pumping more oil: real estate, tourism, banking, telecoms and even heavy industry now lure investors, too.
It is an outdated generalization to state that "Arab bureaucracies . . . create interminable delays with customs regulations, inspections and other red tape." Try telling that to Dubai Ports World, a company that runs 45 container terminals in 29 countries, or to the operators of the giant, state-of-the-art transshipment hubs in Egypt and Morocco that are set to dominate Mediterranean trade. It is even more misleading to assert that "the Arab regimes have implicitly or explicitly backed a range of terrorist groups." Pray, which Arab governments does he mean, and which groups is he talking about?
Pollack also shows a shaky grasp of history. We know that the Ottoman Empire declined and fell, but to have endured for five centuries, and for half those as the biggest state in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, does not make the Ottomans "unsuccessful." Elsewhere he tells us sagely that "over time, the stagnation of the Arab economies has created considerable poverty," as if there were no poor Arabs before, and as if one of the most startling modern examples of mass impoverishment was not the Clinton-era sanctions on Iraq, which destroyed its middle class and set the stage for postwar chaos.
America gets off rather lightly in genÅ]eral, in Pollack's account, compared with the sad Arabs whom we must help to be like us. We are told, for instance, that the United States only grudgingly became involved in the grisly Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s when it nobly undertook to reflag oil tankers in order to protect the flow of oil. No mention here of Donald Rumsfeld's back-slapping with Saddam Hussein or the supply of satellite intelligence to him or the exchange of American weapons to Iran for hostages — all of which helped prolong the slaughter.
Pollack seems oddly unaware of history's motivating forces. To assert that "what triggers revolutions, civil wars and other internal unrest is psychological factors, particularly feelings of extreme despair," is plain silly. The Boston Tea Party could not have been prevented by Prozac. Similarly, he ascribes feelings to broad categories of Middle Easterners, devoid of any context or explanation. They are "angry populations" who suffer "inchoate frustration" and "a pathological hatred of the status quo." We repeatedly hear of "Arab rage at Israel" and "Arab venom for Israel." Nowhere is there a hint that such attitudes might bear some relation to the plight of the Palestinians, the agony of military defeat or the humiliation of life under Israeli occupation.
In fact, the book's most salient distortions stem from Pollack's protectiveness toward Israel. He makes some absurdly cockeyed assertions, like, "America's support for Israel over the years has even been a critical element in winning and securing Arab allies." He offers misleading false alternatives, declaring, for instance, that there is "absolutely no reason to believe that ending American support for Israel would somehow eliminate" the risk of Islamist zealots taking power and cutting oil exports. How about making aid to Israel, and not just to Arabs, conditional, or aiming at mitigating, rather than eliminating, such risks? Pollack makes a peculiarly acrobatic effort to prove that hostility to Israel is not a prime motivating factor behind militant jihadism, repeating this assertion no fewer than four times in two paragraphs. Has he not bothered to listen to Osama bin Laden's addresses to the American people, where he said that what converted him from dreamer to murderous activist was Israeli bombs falling on Beirut in 1982?
Even more disingenuously, Pollack repeats the myth that Al Qaeda has never attacked Israel. One might argue that its bombings of synagogues in Djerba and Istanbul, and against Jewish targets in Casablanca, in which dozens of people died, were anti-Semitic rather than anti-Israeli. But the November 2002 attacks in Kenya were aimed specifically at Israeli tourists. Thirteen people, among them three Israelis, died in a resort hotel, and had the missiles fired simultaneously at an Israeli charter plane with 261 passengers aboard not missed, this would have been Al Qaeda's goriest "success" since the twin towers. This may seem like nit-picking, particularly since Pollack is, after all, on the side of those who believe it is in America's own interest to make peace between Israelis and Arabs, or at least to pretend to try.
What is troubling about Pollack's view, which is fairly representative of his fellow liberal interventionists, who are likely to be in power soon, is its lack of clarity. Can't we just admit that American support for Israel is strategically burdensome and is driven by the passion of several domestic constituencies rather than cold cost-benefit geopolitics? Can't we see that the temptation to intervene in places like the Middle East arises as much because "they" are weak as because "we" are just and noble? No matter what good will America's "policy community" proclaims toward the Middle East, this mix of blinkered indulgence of Israel and disdain for the rest of the region, as well as a predilection for Wilsonian dreams over achievable goals, suggests we will remain in the wilderness for some time to come.
Max Rodenbeck is the Middle East correspondent for The Economist.