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

Part of that package is a frank recognition of costs and trade-offs. Pollack acknowledges that some of the encouragement he has in mind, such as aid-related incentives, would be expensive. He also recognizes that encouragement of reform sometimes appears to collide with other U.S. objectives in the Middle East. The more influence the United States expends in pressing a regime to reform, the less it has left to press the regime on something else, such as tactical cooperation on counterterrorism. Pollack puts such a trade-off in perspective, however, by properly characterizing it less as reform versus counterterrorism than as the short term versus the long term. The political and economic structure of Middle Eastern countries will, over the long term, be the principal determinant of the amount of extremism and terrorism that emanates from the region.


WHEN IT comes to developing Middle East strategy, the Iraq War is probably the biggest complication of all. It continues to divert a huge amount of resources and policy attention, and it remains a damaging representation of the United States in the eyes of many people in the region. At home, discussion of Middle East policy is clouded by the emotional and political baggage still surrounding positions on the war, especially apparent in the inverse relationship between support for the original decision to invade and subsequent criticism of the execution of the war as the cause of later problems.

Pollack, who devoted an earlier book to arguing in favor of invading Iraq, exhibits some of this pattern. Sharp criticisms of the Bush administration's execution of its war policy pepper his current book. His own history of support for the war decision (based largely on presumed Iraqi unconventional weapons) appears to underlie some of the few unconvincing lines in A Path Out of the Desert. He contends, for example, that democracy was only a "minor consideration" in the decision to invade, and cites as evidence the Bush administration's failure to plan adequately for the post-invasion political reconstruction of Iraq. But once the administration decided to remove the Iraq regime, such planning was essential and the inadequacy of it inexcusable; the failure to plan tells us nothing about any possible motives for the war, including democratization.

Moreover, there is too much prewar neoconservative doctrine on democratization and Iraq to dismiss the goal of shaking up the politics of the Middle East as being of minor import. And there are too many other reasons to believe the perceived unconventional-weapons programs was more a selling point than a prime mover of policy. The chief reason is that a presumed weapons program in a problem-country simply does not equate, logically or empirically, with a case to launch a war-as is suggested by Pollack's own very sensible recommendations, in a later chapter of his book, for dealing with Iran's nuclear program through measures short of war. An attack on Iran, as he points out, would lead to Iranian retaliation and rally Iranians behind the hard-liners in Tehran while doing little to set back Iran's nuclear program.

But determining what to do about the Iraq quagmire now is more important than explicating past decisions. Pollack's chapter on the subject begins with the accurate observation that every option looks bad. Though he still wants to try to turn a mess into something that could be billed as a success, rather than cutting losses from an expedition that never should have been undertaken, he can't be accused of overselling this preference. He emphasizes the risks of leaving more than the risks, and the certain continued costs, of staying. He repeatedly mentions Congo as exemplifying the kind of boundless civil war he fears. Yet, it would have been less of a distraction from the impressive case he makes in the rest of his book to have recognized the invasion of Iraq as the strategic blunder that it was and to move on from there. What he has to say about reform is too important, and too well argued, to get dragged down by old baggage about the war decision.


POLITICAL, ECONOMIC and social reform isn't solely about grand designs on infrastructure and systems of governance. It is also about nationalism, ethnic and religious identity, and the ability of Islamist groups to embrace democracy. And so even though Olivier Roy's The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East is not in disagreement with Pollack's arguments about reform, it is a concise reminder of the extent and, even more importantly, the complexity of the region's problems. Roy shows that the solutions to these conundrums do not flow directly from grand strategy-Pollack's or anyone else's. That's because the problems that bedevil the West in the region today are not ones defined as lines of conflict between the Middle East and the West. The lines that matter are within the Middle East itself. They are indeed chaotic identities-complex, overlapping and contradictory. This central theme is what is implied by the word "chaos" in Roy's title.

The most important form of identity, says Roy, is nationalism. "No reform will succeed," he writes, "if it is not part of a national, even nationalist vision." This is why he sees not only Iraq breaking up, but also that the war-generated upheaval has sharpened the sectarian identities of Shia and Sunni throughout the region. America's own actions have intensified some of the other conflict-ridden lines of identity in the Middle East as well.

In this regard he observes that the Bush administration had things backward and was destined to fail when it insisted that Palestinians introduce democracy and reform as a prerequisite to-rather than as part and parcel of-being granted their own state.

All three authors wrestle with this broad problem of what posture to take toward Islamist parties and movements, and the juggling of reform and democracy. They all accurately portray political Islam as an outlook that embraces groups with a wide variety of objectives and methods.

Marwan Muasher, a Jordanian diplomat and politician, offers a threefold division of political Islam in The Arab Center: terrorists with a global agenda such as al-Qaeda; militant movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which use violence as a means to achieve what they regard as national liberation; and peaceful movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan or Islamists in Morocco. Roy, whose scholarly involvement in the subject is long and deep, presents a typology ranging from transnational terrorists to nonviolent "cultural" Muslims who just want to advance Islamic community identity. Roy criticizes U.S. policy for failing to appreciate the differences among such categories, and argues that democracy will never come to the Arab world unless it includes integrating Islamists who accept democratic methods. Muasher-an Arab Christian-agrees with Roy on this point, citing the Bush administration's unfortunate tendency to equate violence in the West Bank with terrorism à la al-Qaeda.

Pollack recognizes the diversity but displays more general wariness of anyone bearing the Islamist label. He mulls over the old "one man, one vote, one time" worry that an Islamist party that gains power through peaceful and democratic means might later turn to autocratic methods, even making comparisons with the Nazis coming to power in Germany. He is willing to accept Islamist parties that meet his definition of "moderate," but only if, as in Turkey, a strong and independent military is on hand to step in if the Islamists start going too far. Pollack recommends increasing U.S. assistance to the militaries in Arab states-despite Israeli nervousness about any such aid-in the name of "professionalizing" them. But his main interest in doing so seems to be to solve what he calls the "Islamist dilemma" of how to democratize while keeping undesirable Islamists out of power by wielding the implied threat of a pro-U.S. military conducting the very unprofessional act of a coup.

Other Islamist parties and movements are ruled out for any role in a reformed Middle East because they do not meet Pollack's definition of moderation, which includes as the number-one criterion the rejection of violence. His criteria are common and reasonable, but they do not take into account some of the realities of a still-unreformed Middle East characterized by autocracy and occupation. One is that groups may employ violence not out of any fondness for violence itself but as a recourse when they do not see peaceful opportunities for pursuing their objectives. Another is that groups evolve and the methods they use change as such opportunities come and go and self-determination is withheld or granted. After all, dealing normally with leaders who once led terrorist groups and employed violence against civilians is not new policy for the United States-it did so in Northern Ireland with Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and in Israel with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

The problem is not just with the criteria for who deserves to be called moderate, but with trying to shape policies on specific difficult problems in terms of any general criteria. Grand strategy does have a role; as Yogi Berra said, if you don't know where you're going, you might end up someplace else. But the most difficult problems, in the Middle East and elsewhere, are difficult precisely because they do not fit neatly into anyone's grand strategy, however thoroughly the strategy is thought out. Talk of criteria for ruling in or ruling out Islamist groups as legitimate interlocutors becomes a kind of code for preferred ways of handling a specific policy problem, such as what posture to take toward Hamas, the victor in a free Palestinian election in 2006. Rather than talking in code, it is better to address the specific issue directly. This means, in the case of Hamas, considering what policy toward the group would be most likely to reduce the shedding of Israeli and Palestinian blood, would be most likely to yield a legitimate and effective Palestinian interlocutor, would improve chances for a peaceful settlement with staying power, and would show U.S. pro-democracy policies to be genuine and consistent. These questions should be considered not against abstract criteria for what defines an Islamic moderate but instead with an eye toward Hamas's specific characteristics, including its strength, its role as a conduit for Palestinian nationalist sentiment, its real (not just rhetorical) objectives and how amenable it is to compromise.

Essay Types: Book Review