A Path Out of the
The Middle East will continue
to dominate American security concerns regardless of who next occupies the Oval
Office. Record oil prices, terrorism, Israel's security, Iraqi stability, and
Iran's nuclear ambitions will top the new president's foreign policy agenda,
whatever his ideological outlook. With "A Path Out of the Desert"
(Random House, 592 pages, $30), Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst and
Clinton-era National Security Council staffer, has penned a thoughtful
rejoinder to those who, frustrated by President Bush's failures, might throw up
their hands in frustration and walk away from the region.
Mr. Pollack is a good writer
and his narrative is clear. He begins by outlining America's interests in the
Middle East, dedicating separate chapters to oil, Israel, America's Arab
allies, and nonproliferation. His acknowledgment of Israel's safety and
security as a fundamental American interest is refreshing, given statements
made by his colleagues at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, where Mr.
Pollack is director of research, and given an increasingly large bloc within
the Democratic Party that now argues the opposite. He does not include
terrorism, political Islam, and instability in countries such as Iraq as American
interests per se, but rather as threats that emanate from other problems, a
semantic construction that allows Mr. Pollack to argue that American policy
should better address the root causes of the Middle East's troubles.
These he outlines in chapters
examining socioeconomic problems and the crisis in Middle East politics. Mr.
Pollack's omission of the treatment of women as a major social issue may
surprise half the region's population, but his emphasis on the Middle East's
"crippling educational method" is long overdue, as anyone who has
ever sat through a university class in Egypt, Iraq, or Iran can attest. To his
credit, Mr. Pollack condemns the tendency to mix education and politics —
unfortunately an import now plaguing Middle Eastern studies in America — but
the issue is worth more than the two pages he gives it here. A discussion of
press incitement to violence, unfortunately missing in Mr. Pollack's analysis
of the region, would also have been worthwhile. Arab broadcasting of hatred and
agitation to murder has undermined peace efforts under both Presidents Clinton
and Bush, yet too many diplomats happily ignore it.
In his policy proposals, Mr.
Pollack bends similarly to the political winds; the position he stakes out in
"A Path Out of the Desert" reflects a tendency to allow the mistakes
of the Bush administration to crowd out the experience of his predecessors.
This is especially apparent in his discussion of the root causes of terror and
instability: He underplays the importance of Islamist ideology as a cause, in
favor of an overemphasis on political and economic factors.
Mr. Pollack argues that
political Islam "is not necessarily a threat to the United States,"
though he acknowledges that "neither is it unrelated to the threats we
face from the Muslim Middle East." Later, he declares that "Islam is
not the reason for the rise of Islamist movements, nor is it the cause of the
terrorist threat that the United States faces." True, many Muslims may not
accept the radical scriptural interpretations offered by fundamentalists, but
it is wrong to argue that religious motivation, no matter how twisted the
exegesis, isn't a chief motivating concern of Islamists.
In his effort to understand
Islamism, Mr. Pollack has drawn on the work of a Sarah Lawrence College
professor, Fawaz Gerges, whose work, if not quite apologetic for political
Islam, is nevertheless superficial. Economic, political, and social grievance
is only half the Islamist story: After all, most suicide bombers are not poor
and dispossessed, but middle-class and educated. Perhaps Mr. Pollack is correct
that suicide terrorists are not sociopaths, but what did mold them
psychologically? Anger and despair are not explanation enough: Sub-Saharan
Africa does not breed global suicide bombers like the Arab world. Nor do
radical interpretations rise from grass roots; often Saudi funding for radical
mosques plays an essential role.
Mr. Pollack is also too
trusting of adversaries. He believes the former Iranian president, Mohammad
Khatami, was sincere in his Dialogue of Civilizations, but the 2007 National
Intelligence Estimate exposed the program as a cover for an accelerating covert
nuclear weapons program.
With 20/20 hindsight, Mr.
Pollack takes issue not with the Bush policy of pre-emption, but rather with
the assessment of threats that brought about the war in Iraq. Nor does he
oppose transformative diplomacy, just the incompetent way in which it was
undertaken. He parts ways with liberals who ironically insist that democracy
cannot take root in the Middle East's infertile ground. Former fellow travelers
will be disappointed in his argument that economic liberalization — including,
presumably, foreign direct investment — must come to the Arab world's
When he looks forward, Mr. Pollack's
prescription — legal and educational reforms — should provoke little argument,
and he is correct that the next administration must repackage its approach
because of the stigma left behind by the Bush administration's whiplash
reversals and poor policy implementation.
In an effort to rehabilitate
the reputation of democracy promotion, Mr. Pollack traces its history to
Clinton hands such as Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, and Dennis Ross,
and "reasonable and moderate" Bush administration officials such as
Richard Haass. This is hogwash. Bush administration implementation was both
sloppy and spastic, but little in the historical record suggests the Clinton
administration grasped transformative diplomacy as anything more than window
dressing for their belief that autocracy equals stability.
Ultimately, there is very
little new in the "grand strategy" Mr. Pollack suggests should
replace the failed policies of the past. Indeed, while he describes himself as
a liberal internationalist, "A Path out of the Desert" is little more
than a neoconservative manifesto uncorrupted by the bluntness of Richard Perle
or the arrogance of Douglas Feith.
His strategy consists,
essentially, of implementing the George W. Bush doctrine as it was articulated
during his first term: actively aiding reform in the region on the principle
that short-term stability and long-term security are very different things.
Mr. Pollack might have
contributed more had he also addressed how to reform the bloated and
ineffective State Department and international organization bureaucracy, which
impeded the implementation the first time around. Foggy Bottom is inept at
international development, and the World Bank spends far more on its own
administration than it does on micro-loans. Some proposals beg more realism.
Creating regional security architecture sounds great in principle, but
expecting Arab dictators to abandon their antipathy of Israel in order to solve
regional problems is tilting at windmills. It is hard to judge, from this vantage,
the merits of the Bush doctrine, since it was never implemented properly or
competently, but as a vision of change in the Middle East it remains a
compelling project. If Mr. Pollack's grand strategy gives the Bush doctrine a
second wind, both the Middle East and long-term American national security will
be better for it.
Mr. Rubin is a resident
scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Editor of the Middle East Quarterly.
Please report any
broken links to
Copyright © 1988-2012 irfi.org. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer