America and the Middle East
How they got in, how to get out
Jul 24th 2008
From The Economist print edition
Foresight and hindsight in the world’s bad places
HOW did America get into its current mess in the Middle East? And how can it get out again? Kenneth Pollack’s book is all about the second question but he starts by making a confession relevant to the first. He was a champion of the invasion of Iraq. In 2002, in an influential book entitled “The Threatening Storm”,he argued the strategic and moral case for removing Saddam Hussein. Mr Pollack admits now that the intervention a year later was a fiasco, and that after such a disaster the inclination of most Americans is to turn away from the region completely and focus on problems at home. But that is not his view. His latest book is a powerful argument for continued, and perhaps even greater, American involvement in the Middle East.
As befits a former CIA analyst and member of the National Security Council, Mr Pollack builds his case on a hard-headed examination of America’s interests in the region. Of these, the most important is oil. If a big percentage of it were suddenly to be removed from the market, the shock of higher prices could on some estimates spark a global recession akin to the Great Depression. American policy, he concludes, should therefore be designed principally to prevent “catastrophic oil disruptions”. This means guarding against possibilities such as a revolution in Saudi Arabia or a massive terrorist attack on the oil-supply network.
You might expect a book that starts this way to dwell mainly on how America can maintain military forces in the region. Mr Pollack, however, wants nothing less than “an integrated grand strategy” to secure American interests for the long run. Such a strategy, he admits, may take “many decades”, just as it took nearly half a century for America to help Europe and East Asia repair themselves after the second world war. For this grand strategy to work, he says, America will first have to harmonise its separate policies towards Iraq, Iran and Israel. It must also transform the region’s politics and economics. That is to say-let no one accuse the chastened Mr Pollack of imperial hubris-America must help along the efforts of the locals, since outsiders “cannot possibly know how to change the society of another people”.
But do the people of the Middle East want what America wants for them? Given the growth of political Islam, and the fact that Mr Pollack deems many Arab countries to be on the point of revolution, perhaps not. Nonetheless, a policy of continuing to prop up repressive regimes is like “playing Russian roulette” with foreign policy, as America discovered when the shah’s fall turned Iran from staunch friend to implacable foe. Far better, he says, to encourage the region’s governments to address popular grievances by embracing political freedom and social equality.
This will not be easy, not least because of the hated Bush administration’s insincere or at least incompetent pursuit of this very policy. But Arabs tell pollsters that they want both democracy and Islam, and Mr Pollack reckons these two are compatible. Quoting an Egyptian activist who says that what her countrymen need is a job and a voice, he thinks America must find its path out of the desert by helping all Arabs get both.
A simple summary of Mr Pollack’s main ideas does scant justice to this thoughtful and informative book. None of its prescriptions is especially novel. The patient promotion of reform, careful containment of the spillover from Iraq, a policy of carrots and sticks (but no military pre-emption) for Iran, building the sinews of a Palestinian state: to all except isolationists and the few surviving neocons, this has become a fairly conventional prospectus for America’s post-Iraq policy in the Middle East. But Mr Pollack binds the strands together deftly and imparts a good deal of learning and wisdom along the way.
Sir Lawrence Freedman is less interested in how America should proceed after Iraq and more in working out how it tied itself in such knots in the first place. As an historian, he is more tolerant than Mr Pollack of George Bush, noting that after September 11th this president faced a challenge more complex in some ways than the one Franklin Roosevelt had to deal with after Pearl Harbour in 1941. Whereas Roosevelt knew who the enemy was and what America would have to do, Mr Bush had to choose and name an enemy in a new sort of war without obvious rules, aims or front-lines. He did so, moreover, in a region where no power had exercised a consistently sure touch, and where America had long been torn between an underlying dissatisfaction with the state of affairs and the traditional instinct of a great power to protect the status quo from aggressive states or radical movements.
It is instructive to read these books together. Sir Lawrence’s aim is not to lay out a policy. He has no grand unifying theory of the Middle East. His aim is only to render the “most credible” account possible of momentous events such as the fall of the shah, the three wars in the Persian Gulf, invasion and jihad in Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter’s half-success at peacemaking at Camp David in 1978 and Bill Clinton’s failure there two decades later. All these and more formed the treacherous backdrop of American interests and alliances against which Mr Bush had to formulate his response to the attacks on the twin towers. Sir Lawrence’s subtle narrative is a marvel of concision, even over more than 500 pages. By the end it cannot but make the reader wonder how realistic it is to advocate, as Mr Pollack does, an “integrated grand strategy” capable of being sustained for decades in such a violent and unpredictable part of the world.
To that Mr Pollack has a simple answer, in the form of a question. What is the alternative? Thanks to its energy needs, America is locked into the region for the foreseeable future, even though the future is so hard to foresee in the unhappy Middle East. Since there are no quick fixes, it had better reconcile itself to the long slog. And although unexpected events will continue to knock it off course, it is more likely to succeed if it can cling to at least some general sense of where it is trying to go.
A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East
By Kenneth M. Pollack
Random House; 539 pages; $30
A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East
By Lawrence Freedman
PublicAffairs; 624 pages; $29.95. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; £20