A GRAND STRATEGY FOR AMERICA IN THE MIDDLE EAST:
A REVIEW OF POLLACK'S BOOK
By Dr. Michael Rubin
Dr. 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 Dr. 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 Dr. 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. Dr. 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, Dr. 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 Dr. 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 Bill Clinton and George Bush, yet too many diplomats happily ignore it.
In his policy proposals, Dr. 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.
Dr. 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, Dr. 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 Dr. 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.
Dr. 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, Dr. 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 constitutional 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, Dr. 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 constitutional democracy promotion, Dr. 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" Dr. 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 J. 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 shortterm stability and longterm security are very different things.
Dr. Pollack might have contributed more had he also addressed how to reform the bloated and ineffective U.S. State Department bureaucracy and its counterparts in the United Nations and other international organization, bureaucracies which impeded implementation of the Bush Doctrine 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 of Dr. Pollack's 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 Dr. Pollack's grand strategy gives the Bush Doctrine a second wind, both the Middle East and longterm American national security will be better for it.
Middle East -- Arabs, Arab States,
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The Middle East & the Problem of Iraq
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The Problem of Rogue States:
Iraq as a Case History
National Strategy for Victory in Iraq
The Middle East & the Problem of Iran
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Dr. Michael Rubin, a Ph.D. in History (Yale University) and a specialist in Middle Eastern politics, Islamic culture and Islamist ideology, is Editor of the Middle East Quarterly, a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Dr Rubin is author of Into the Shadows: Radical Vigilantes in Khatami's Iran (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001) and is co-author, with Dr. Patrick Clawson, of Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Dr. Rubin served as political advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad (2003-2004); staff advisor on Iran and Iraq in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (2002-2004); visiting lecturer in the Departments of History and International Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2001-2002); visiting lecturer at the Universities of Sulaymani, Salahuddin, and Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan (2000-2001); Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1999-2000); and visiting lecturer in the Department of History at Yale University (1999-2000). He has been a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Leonard Davis Institute at Hebrew University, and the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.
The foregoing article by Dr. Rubin was originally published in the New York Sun, July 22, 2008, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (Article URL: http://www.meforum.org/article/1935)
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