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A Path Out of the Desert
A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East

by Ken Pollack
New York: Random House, 2008. 592 pp. $30

Reviewed by Michael Rubin

New York Sun
July 22, 2008

Operation: Next

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 socialized economies.

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.


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