The Tao of the Arab Center

The Tao of the Arab Center

Mini Teaser: The Bush administration may have gotten a lot wrong, but there is still hope for America’s policy in the Middle East. Three books shed some light on how the United States can get over Iraq.

by Author(s): Paul R. Pillar

Marwan Muasher, The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 336 pp., $30.00.

Kenneth M. Pollack, A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East (New York: Random House, 2008), 592 pp., $30.00.

Olivier Roy, The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East, trans. Ros Schwartz (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 160 pp., $24.95.


THE TIME is especially ripe for comprehensive rethinking of policy toward the Middle East. The advent of a new U.S. presidency is one obvious reason. Another is the miring of the outgoing administration in the sands of Iraq. The war became a preoccupation that has defined the Bush administration's involvement in the Middle East and devoured attention, resources and bargaining chips that could have been applied to other U.S. interests, in the region and elsewhere. Wherever decisions in Washington and events in Iraq henceforth steer the still-unfinished war, too many other challenges in the Middle East need attention for Iraq to be as much of a preoccupation during the next four years as it has been over the past six.

On top of Iraq, the Bush administration has rattled its sabers and fired its confrontational rhetoric at Syria, and especially Iran, with almost nothing to show for it in terms of changed regime behavior. A tardy and tepid attempt to reactivate negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians is unlikely to result in anything more than a statement of intent to keep negotiating. Even the successes-including increased counterterrorist efforts by Arab states and an agreement with Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi formalizing his turn away from previous misbehavior-are fragile and reversible. Taken together, these glaring and unresolved problems prime the market for new thinking about Middle East policy. The bidding is open for proposals to define U.S. policy in the post-Iraq War era.

The books under review-by an American policy analyst who worked on Middle Eastern issues in the Clinton administration, a leading French scholar specializing in the politics of the Muslim world and a distinguished Jordanian diplomat-all help to clarify the Bush administration's mistakes in dealing with the region and set forth new policy agendas. In charting a new course, the United States faces several challenges, above and beyond merely correctly identifying what was done wrong in the recent past.

One challenge is to avoid discarding any babies along with the dirty bath water left behind by the Bush administration-not all of the initiatives and objectives set out over the past eight years are wrong merely because they are associated with a broader policy that has failed. That said, advocates of policies that continue these themes will have to work hard to persuade both disillusioned Americans and skeptical Middle Easterners that the ultimate objectives remain valid.

The American audience, consumed by an almost inevitable Iraq War syndrome, presents a second challenge. Though probably less severe than popular reactions to the Vietnam War, the memory of Iraq will still put limits on the public's tolerance for major overseas commitments, especially commitments in the Middle East. It is one thing for a foreign-policy elite to recognize the importance of continued involvement in the region; it is quite another for the broader public to do so. Any proposed policies that entail spending a lot of money will be especially tough sells, all the more so as long as an anemic U.S. economy and the cost of financial bailouts remain concerns.

And third, we cannot escape the simple fact that the Middle East is a very complicated place, as are the policy issues associated with it. Even though this seems rather obvious, a chief reason for the Bush administration's failures in the region has been the tendency to oversimplify. One key error was basing strategy on a division of the region into moderates and extremists (meaning guys Washington likes and guys it doesn't) that bears no resemblance to the mental political maps of Middle Easterners.

So proponents of any new strategy need to overcome public disillusionment and the desire for retrenchment-not to mention crafting a strategy that is straightforward enough to be palatable to the American people without being so anodyne as to ignore either present complexities or the complications that are bound to develop.

In the course of grappling with these challenges, three main themes are clearly emerging: U.S. Middle East policy is held back by an inability to move past the Iraq War; there is a need to reform infrastructure and government in the region despite past policy failures; and a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is key to long-term prospects for peace.


KENNETH POLLACK steps boldly up to the plate with proposals for U.S. policy toward the Middle East in A Path Out of the Desert. He bills his offering as a "grand strategy" and conveys three main messages. First, the Middle East is important to U.S. interests ranging from oil, which Pollack unabashedly puts at the top of that list, to nonproliferation of nuclear and other unconventional weapons. He adds a sobering perspective to the copious rhetoric in the United States about reducing dependence on Middle Eastern oil producers by decreasing consumption of oil from the region. Pollack points out that lowering oil imports somewhat would still leave the United States highly vulnerable to Middle East supply disruptions. Even if the United States could achieve the unachievable goal of filling all its energy needs domestically, the impact of higher oil prices on trading partners would damage the U.S. economy.

Second, the United States must be involved in the Middle East for the long haul. A major shortcoming of past American involvement in the region has been a sort of national attention-deficit disorder, manifested in episodic policies and lack of follow-through. The United States needs to exercise patience and be prepared for a sustained commitment as it endeavors to help turn the Middle East into a more stable and less threatening place-a process that will take many years.

Third, U.S. strategy toward the Middle East should center on reform-specifically, assisting regimes and liberal-minded elites within the region to restructure stagnant economies, establish more effective educational systems, strengthen the rule of law and revamp political systems in the direction of greater democracy. This is the principal theme from the Bush years that is worth salvaging, but it needs to be applied with greater perseverance; the Bush administration's record on reform in the region, Pollack correctly argues, has largely been one of raising and then dashing hopes.

In stressing reform, Pollack is expressing-albeit more emphatically and thoroughly than many others-a consensus that emerged among American foreign-policy intellectuals after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The consensus called for rethinking the implied bargain the United States had struck earlier with several authoritarian regimes of the Muslim Middle East. Under that bargain, the United States received assured access to petroleum and an entrée that included favors such as port-call rights and more friendship than was given to the Soviets. The regimes in return got arms, an implied security guarantee and the United States turning a blind eye to their backward and oppressive domestic politics. That turned out to be a bad bargain for the United States. September 11 showed how unreformed political and economic systems in the Middle East, previously deemed irrelevant to U.S. security interests, could affect U.S. security after all-they bred the sort of extremists who conducted the terrorist attacks.

But this is not only about stemming extremism. Another part of Pollack's argument is that there is a danger of revolutionary upheaval that could lead to the creation of new regimes hostile to the United States. Yet another is his contention that unreformed structures simply cannot endure and that change of some sort-favorable or unfavorable, violent or velvet-is inevitable. Unrest already rooted in these deeply ailing societies is shaking existing structures so badly that continued repression will be unable to hold them together.

These arguments are persuasive. Pollack's case draws on a broad corpus of scholarship and would be worth reading as an approachable tutorial on the social, economic and political predicament of the Arab world-even if one did not agree with his conclusions. His description of the dimensions and consequences of closed economies and polities in the region is excellent. So is his treatment of terrorism, which helps to debunk some common misconceptions-such as the notion that economics is irrelevant to the recruitment and motivation of terrorists. The issue is not poverty but instead the more complex story of a dearth of opportunities and frustrated aspirations, both of which are prevalent in the sclerotic, statist economies of the Middle East.

Pollack's recommended principles for encouraging reform are moderate and mainstream. The United States should encourage both top-down and bottom-up reform from within, rather than being seen to impose it from the outside. It should do so on political, economic and social tracks simultaneously. It should seek multilateral involvement. It should be flexible and patient, and it should avoid the Bush administration's mistake of promising too much. Pollack's prescriptions do not break any more new ground than his diagnoses; their value comes mainly from putting them into a cogent and cohesive package.

Essay Types: Book Review