In A Path out of the Desert, Kenneth Pollack posits as his central thesis that the Muslim Middle East is in a “pre-revolutionary” state, on the verge of civil strife unless the United States begins serious long-term efforts to instigate reform. Pollack served on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration and is now the director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of many articles and books on the Middle East, but whether this record makes his policy statements and prescriptions worthy of being heeded is another matter; his works are always controversial and often wrong. His The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, was used by many, including Bush administration officials, to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, despite his later admission that he, along with “every other intelligence community with the capability to collect information independently against Iraq,” was mistaken. He never really accepts responsibility for his part in promoting the war without surrounding himself with others who made the same mistake. But “others” did not write 500-page books speculating wrongly about how easy it would be to eliminate Saddam and restore calm to Iraq. Pollack also attempts to help the reader by declaring, “I am a liberal internationalist (what sometimes gets called a liberal interventionist)” (p. xxiii). Most of his critics would put him squarely in the neoconservative camp.
Given Pollack’s dismal track record on the Middle East, he can hardly expect the people of the region to flock to his call for reform. His antipathy for Arabs and Muslims is clear. He begins his book by expressing “frustration” with the condition of the Middle East and claims that all Americans are afflicted by the same disgruntled state of mind: “Personally, I would love to be able to tell other Americans that we can just forget about the Middle East; that it’s just not important” (p. xvi). What he fails to realize is that the people of the Middle East have a very low opinion of what we in America think of them and are unlikely to change their ways to calm the nerves of Pollack and his colleagues.
Pollack rehashes existing research on the need for reform of the abysmal social, political, economic and educational institutions in the Muslim Middle East that can be found in the 2003 Arab Human Development Report, published by the United Nations and in hundreds of articles and books easily found on the Internet. He warns that urgent reform is necessary before serious instability erupts and engulfs the entire world, with consequences that could have broad and lasting effects on the global economy. He cites indicators that point to pending calamities in other regions when mass migration to urban centers, high unemployment and a youth demographic bulge combine with inferior education, visionless leadership and poor economic performance. Pollack’s conclusion is that the Middle East is headed for an explosion and that “America’s interests demand a focus on quelling the ongoing civil conflicts and preventing new ones. The time for ignoring the underlying problems of the Muslim Middle East is long past” (p. 167). This worry about things going badly for the United States centers on two important interests: “Typically, Americans describe our interests in the Middle East as being ‘oil and Israel’” (p. 24). Thus, while “we should not neglect the importance of our friendships with the Arab states, we must also look past them to our nation's strategic interests. In that light, the principal strategic rationale for our alignment with the Arab states is really an extension of our strategic interest in Middle Eastern oil” (p. 51). Additional strategic interests include limiting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, combating terrorism, and stopping any hostile outside power from dominating the region — this would certainly include Iran and its threat to Israel.
For Pollack, the core focus in protecting U.S. national interests in the Middle East must be a multi-billion-dollar investment over decades to transform the whole region so that it will be led by democratic governments friendly to the United States.
Pollack predicts dire consequences if we do not start the reform process, but he says nothing about the consequences of initiating a process of reform that dismantles societies in the Middle East that are centuries old. For example, what is the likely outcome of opening the system in Egypt when Christian Copts and the Islamists clash? Who would have predicted that the Christian population of Palestine would diminish to less than 5 percent as a result of the violent clashes between Israelis and Muslim Palestinians? He assumes only good things will happen if we follow his advice, just as he did when advocating the invasion of Iraq. We were told that it would be inexpensive and less violent than predicted by those who opposed it. Without understanding what fissures might erupt in these traditional societies, we can only predict that more harm than good is possible if we take Pollack’s advice and that he has learned nothing from being wrong about Iraq.
Pollack, like a majority of observers, is on the right track in calling for improvements in the daily lives of the people in the Middle East. It should not take 441 pages, however, to state the obvious. He avoids analyzing how we could actually damage reform movements, for instance, by intervening and botching the effort. He attempts to present a panoramic vision of U.S. interests in the Middle East but bogs down in details unrelated to the national-security issues affecting Americans. He could have easily cut a third of the text and made his case more powerfully by sticking to U.S. national interests instead of attempting to pile up more and more evidence that the Middle East is really, really bad. In his quest to develop a Grand Strategy for the region, however, he attempts to take on the issues of oil, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Palestine, the Arab world, political Islam, Iran, Iraq and terrorism by tying each issue to U.S. national interests and prescribing how to deal with them. The complexity is beyond his reach.
Pollack’s informal style is at times careless, and there are many instances of logorrhea. In addition, he occasionally follows odd tangents that do not support his core thesis. He quotes an obscure source, Abdul Hadi Palazzi, an Italian convert to Islam and cofounder of the Islam-Israel Fellowship, who asserts that the thirteenth-century sage Ibn Taymiyyah “flatly stated ‘there is no Muslim holy place in Jerusalem’” (p. 210). The use of this questionable authority in a book intended to generate enthusiasm for reforming the Muslim Middle East is ludicrous, particularly from an author attempting to enlist Islamic support for the reform effort.
Pollack has the temerity to make the following claim: “The only approach known to mankind to eradicate, and not merely suppress, the kind of problems experienced by the Muslim Middle East is to embrace a long-term process of reform — toward a dynamic educational system, toward a market-driven economy, and toward a more ‘modern’ pattern of social interaction” (p. 219). It is not obvious that his ideas are the only solution “known to mankind,” especially with the U.S. experiment in Iraq having met with such very limited success. Therein lies much of the problem with this book: too often a patronizing tone dominates where reason and sound analysis should apply.
Pollack is better at outlining the data that explain the problems in the area, such as how Washington should deal with Israel and America’s Arab allies. Regarding Israel, I can state categorically, along with all mainstream foreign-policy experts in the field, that the international community led by the United States stands firmly behind its security. Israel is a very powerful state with nuclear capabilities and an economy of global reach, particularly in technology, pharmaceuticals and weapons. It does not depend on authors like Pollack to survive, nor does it need to be depicted as a pathetic little nation living on charity or, as Pollack claims, the “moral debt” from the Holocaust. Israelis have every right to feel insecure, but the United States is unequivocal in its support for a thriving, healthy, independent and secure Israel. Yet Pollack contributes to the fear-mongering by ignoring the one thing the United States can do to enhance stability in the region: help Israel and the Palestinians reach a peace agreement that results in the creation of a Palestinian state and normalizes relations between Israel and the rest of its Arab neighbors.
Pollack writes that America’s Arab allies have only one positive attribute: “The simple fact is that we have few strategic interests in the Arab world beyond oil” (p. 57), although he goes to great lengths to warn us about the Islamists and what they can do to harm U.S. national interests. But any undergraduate can tell you that a population of 300-400 million people is also a potential market. The West Bank alone is a $2-3 billion annual market for Israel. With or without oil, large populations are valuable to a capitalist country. And why does Pollack ignore the fact that Mecca and Medina are important to over a billion Muslims throughout the world, when it is clear that they pay close attention to Israel’s treatment of their fellow Muslims?
The term “Grand Strategy” appears many times throughout the book, but little attention is given to just how to get the whole Muslim Middle East to begin a 20-30-year reform project aimed at destroying all the existing regimes — whose cooperation we need and whose interests will not be served by such a project. The benefits of reform in the Middle East must accrue to those most affected by it, and U.S. national interests may not be on their list of priorities. This does not come up in Pollack’s writing. Arab societies are not homogeneous; they may speak the same language, but they vary dramatically by tribe, ethnicity, religion and sect. Taking the region apart and putting it back together, even if it were feasible, might produce consequences that would undermine any outsider’s Grand Strategy.