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


THE ARAB-ISRAELI conflict constitutes another big and sticky issue whose solutions are not to be found in any single regionwide grand strategy. Here, Muasher's book provides an especially valuable perspective. The first Jordanian ambassador to Israel, later Jordan's ambassador to the United States and foreign minister, Muasher was directly involved in more than a decade's worth of diplomacy aimed at resolving the conflict, such as playing a leading role in getting the now-moribund "roadmap" on the road. Much of his book is a memoir of that diplomacy. Beyond requisite devotion to the two Jordanian kings he has served, Muasher is consistently fair-minded. Israeli leaders receive a large share of the responsibility for the setbacks and frustrations he describes, but many others on the Arab and U.S. sides have their shares as well. He expresses admiration for much of what he sees in Israel, including the work ethic of its citizens and the accountability, transparency and creativity of society there-aspects of the state that hold lessons for the Arab world. Pollack says that the United States should listen to the people of the Middle East, both the leaders and the led. Muasher's voice is unquestionably among the most reasonable and insightful ones on the subject.

One of Muasher's principal messages is that the Arab-Israeli conflict still matters-a lot. Policies toward the conflict will define much of the new U.S. administration's place-for good or ill-in Middle Eastern history. Over the last few years the conflict has competed with the Iraq War for attention, as well as to be the major source of malign perceptions of the United States. Muasher cites instances when U.S. preoccupation with the war helped to set back hopes for progress on the peace process. But the Arab-Israeli conflict, he writes, "was and remains a principal cause of frustration in the region." A related message is that there is, per his book's title, an "Arab center" that is willing and able to come to terms with Israel. He particularly emphasizes the Arab League's peace initiative of 2002 as evidence of the center's existence, and as a missed opportunity to make progress toward a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement.

Yet another of Muasher's central points is that active U.S. involvement is essential for any progress toward peace. The story he tells of the last several years is largely the disappointing one of a U.S. administration eschewing such involvement, led by a president who once told King Abdullah "I am sick of the Palestinian-Israeli issue."

Pollack's outlook toward resolution of the conflict is both less hopeful than Muasher's about the potential for progress and evidently less worried about the consequences of failing to make any. Most of what he says on the subject is in an early chapter in which he identifies Israel as an "interest" of the United States, right after oil. It is worth recalling Lord Palmerston's dictum (which Pollack himself cites) about having no permanent allies, only permanent interests. To apply this saying to the U.S.-Israeli relationship is not to raise issues of impermanence; no serious observer of the U.S.-Israeli alliance envisions any alternative to its indefinite continuation. Rather, it is to point out that allies are not themselves interests. An ally is a means of pursuing interests, bearing in mind that one's own interests never coincide completely with those of even one's closest ally (let alone with the views of particular parties within the ally, or its friends).

In his opening pages, Pollack rightly observes that the United States has too often fallen into the trap of "goal displacement," in which its true interests are superceded by something else that seems consistent with them but really isn't. But he appears to fall into the same trap in his treatment of Israel. He cites Israel's democratic character as a reason the United States continues to support it, for example. Certainly shared democratic values are an important foundation for the alliance, but most of the difficult U.S. policy decisions involving the Arab-Israeli conflict are not matters of defending Israeli democracy. They involve considerations such as how to respond to expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, which has nothing do with democracy in Israel and in which the United States has no positive stake. The only effect that Israeli activities in the territories have on the matter is the (largely negative) one on the prospects for Palestinian democracy. And as Muasher reminds us, any occupation is inherently undemocratic.

Pollack acknowledges some of this, including how difficult U.S. and Israeli policies have made it for Palestinian leader Abu Mazen even to begin to build a more stable, let alone democratic, polity. But missing from Pollack's largely sober and sensible observations about the conflict are pointed policy recommendations for the United States insofar as they relate to Israel. It would be "useful," he writes, for the Israelis to stop expanding settlements and unnecessarily harassing Palestinians in the territories. That's true, but such observations merely echo the countless-and feckless-statements by U.S. officials that such behavior by Israel is "not helpful," and offer no hope that the unhelpful behavior will cease.

Among the reasons progress toward Arab-Israeli peace is so important is that it affects Pollack's principal concern: the prospects for reform in the Arab world. Pollack touches briefly on this connection but it is Muasher, based on his unique experience, who develops the point fully. Following Muasher's stint as foreign minister, King Abdullah appointed him deputy prime minister charged with constructing a program of reform in Jordan. The challenges he confronted in that job, including resistance from what he terms the "old guard" in the Hashemite kingdom, exhibited many of the patterns Pollack identifies for the entire region. From his successive roles as diplomat and reformer, Muasher concludes that lack of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement has been a major impediment to reform. Continuing conflict with Israel has been the chief excuse invoked by old guards throughout the Arab world resisting reform. The issue has been exploited by Islamists, whose strength scares liberals as well as old guards away from democratization because of fear that the Islamists will take power. And the credibility of the United States in encouraging reform is low in large part because its credibility on Arab-Israeli peace is low. Some of Muasher's sharpest criticism of the United States is that it fails to recognize these connections.

Muasher does not overplay the point, and he is just as critical of the other sources of resistance to reform within the Arab world. He faults the Arab center, with which he identifies, for not devoting as much attention and effort to internal change as to the peace process. His final lament is that the Arab center, though more of a force than many outside the region perceive, is in danger of losing both its moderation and its dynamism. The West and especially the United States-with which the center is associated in the eyes of many other Arabs-can do much to keep that from happening.


THE NEW overseers of U.S. policy toward the Middle East would do well to read and ponder all three of these books. Pollack provides a framework for dealing with the region as a whole and a convincing case for why that framework should be used. Roy describes some of the loose and dangerous pieces that do not fit entirely inside the framework. And Muasher explains why failure to fix some parts of the whole rickety structure that is the Middle East makes it difficult-if not impossible-to fix the other parts.

A grand strategy that would effectively advance U.S. interests in the Middle East during the next several years would begin, but by no means end, with Pollack's stress on the need for reform. It would include as a second principle the need to use all dimensions of U.S. power and influence to move clearly and rapidly toward resolution of the conflicts between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Third, it would move quickly rather than slowly toward liquidation of the misadventure in Iraq. This is not because such a recommendation flows from recognition of the original invasion as a mistake-it doesn't. Rather, it is because the hoped-for benefits of continuing to prosecute the war and the feared consequences of withdrawal are both highly uncertain, while the material and political costs of staying are assured. Fourth, the United States needs to discard fanciful divisions of the Middle East into good guys and bad guys, and to discard the self-handicapping refusal even to talk to the bad. Unleashing U.S. diplomacy and engaging Hamas, Syria, Iran and others we have good reasons to dislike concedes nothing but holds out the hope of making at least some progress in resolving issues that involve them.


Paul R. Pillar is a visiting professor and the director of graduate studies of the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He formerly was the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia.

Essay Types: Book Review