Paul Pillar

Camping Out in the Middle East

The dramatic, fluid events in the Middle East over the past two months have been great stuff for pundits and armchair strategists. These are the sorts of times that tickle an irresistible urge to offer new grand strategies. Those who missed out on the last great wave of grand strategizing—at the end of the Cold War, when battalions of George Kennan wannabes vied to define the nature of the post-Cold War era—have a new chance to offer the next Big Idea to guide U.S. foreign policy, albeit one that this time focuses on a single region. In days ahead I will indulge in some of that strategizing myself, but first some of the limitations of that indulgence need to be pointed out.

Sweeping characterizations, even for a single region, of a challenge and a policy principle to meet it are almost always oversimplifications. The very simplicity that underlies the appeal of a strategy that is easily labeled and easily remembered also means it does not fully convey the complexities and pitfalls that confront policymakers. To meet the challenge of the current turbulence in the Middle East we are advised, for example, to think of the region as bifurcated into two different “camps,” one comprising states that are on a path of political and economic reform and the other comprising states that aren't. This sounds a lot like earlier bifurcations, especially ones that got an official imprimatur during the George W. Bush administration. There was the “you're either with us or with the terrorists” formulation, which grossly oversimplified the issues and ramifications involved in counterterrorism. Then, even more similar to the latest bifurcation idea, was the portrayal of the Middle East as a division between “moderates” and “extremists,” which attempted to overlay on the region a map that bore little resemblance to the mental or political maps of Middle Easterners themselves.

One problem with such bifurcations is that even with a single dimension such as openness to political reform, reality is not a division into two camps but instead a gradation. Any line between the camps is arbitrary, no less so even if one identifies some states as straddling the line.

A more fundamental problem is that groupings or alignments—which is what the “camp” concept suggests—are not just functions of any one dimension, be it openness to internal reform or anything else. So again we are trying to navigate the region with a map that does not correspond to the politically significant perceptions of people within the region. Either policymakers discard the map as they discover how inaccurate it is, or they are encouraged to attempt Procrustean policies that don't work because of the map's incompleteness.

Divisions into preconceived camps also tend to be overly static. Even if ostensibly our goal is to move more states into the pro-reform camp, the very fact of dividing and labeling and assigning regimes to camps can make movement harder. This is because the division shapes our own attitudes, rhetoric, and policies in a way that makes us less sensitive to the possibilities of change in those we consider incorrigible, which it turn makes the incorrigibles all the less likely to change.

This last problem is related to another, which is that whenever we make a division between one camp with a positive connotation and another that is viewed negatively, we naturally want to put certain states into the bad guys' camp and certain others with the good guys—regardless of what is actually happening on the dimension that is supposedly the basis for making the division. There is a strong impetus to put Iraq, for example, in the good camp, because the regime there is the progeny of our own enormously costly efforts there. But if moving toward democracy is the prime standard for the bifurcation, does that really make sense? The Maliki government lately seems instead to be moving more in the direction of greater authoritarianism. With almost eight years now having passed since Saddam Hussein was overthrown, it is getting a little late to keep using his regime as a standard of comparison.

Finally, Middle Easterners are entitled to ask: who gave the United States the job of bifurcating their region, like a chief camp counselor telling some campers to go to one set of tents and others to go to another set? To the extent that U.S. policy comes to reflect such a bipolar outlook, it provides additional basis for people and governments in the region to disdain the American habit of viewing the world in simplistic black-and-white terms.

Sometimes it is best just to decamp.