Kenneth Pollack's grand strategy for the Middle East.

Kenneth Pollack's grand strategy for the Middle East.

Kenneth Pollack's grand strategy for the Middle East.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
July 28 2008 6:55 AM

What Is the Arab World's Problem?

Kenneth Pollack's grand strategy for the Middle East.

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So, let's step back for a second: Given that Arab states do not act like real states, why try to democratize them and push for a reform agenda like Pollack's that aims to promote freedom of speech and "protections for minorities so that the state or the majority cannot oppress unpopular groups"? Because the Arabs want democracy, writes Pollack—albeit without some of the elements that the West tends to associate with the social values of Western democracies, "like gender roles, abortion, homosexuality," and other issues like "sex on television and anti-religious speech and behavior." Well, which is it: Arab reform or respect for Arab cultural norms? It is one thing to say that Arab democracy will embody the traditions and morals of Arab society. But a polity that continues to limit freedom of expression and persecute Middle Eastern minorities like, say, homosexuals, is a very poor version of "representative government," and it is not clear why Americans have any stake in funding and fighting for it.

A Path out of the Desert reflects not only the confusion of Washington officials but also the idées fixes of a great many Americans. For instance, Pollack seems to be channeling the junior senator from Illinois when he writes, "The fear and frustration that so many Arabs feel comes from the cultural clash between the forces of modernity and their own traditions. … Historically, this clash has often prompted people to retreat into religiosity."


Muslims in the Muslim Middle East are religious because they believe in God, the perfection of his final revelation in the Quran, and his prophet Muhammad. And Islamism, which Pollack is at pains to distinguish from Islam, is a vital force in the region precisely because it represents the progressive and rational current of Islam that sought to reconcile a society marked by fatalism and backwardness with "the forces of modernity" embodied by the West.

That trend, starting with 19th-century Muslim reformers Jamal al-din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdu, gave rise to the Islamist movement, from the Muslim Brotherhood all the way down to the most notoriously violent organizations in the region like Hamas and al-Qaida. For Pollack, as for many U.S. policymakers, a key question is whether Islamists should be allowed to participate in the democratic process and, if so, which ones should qualify. However, the Islamists, both moderate and extreme, are already a part of Middle Eastern political culture, whether we like it or not. The problem is with our intellectual framework: By focusing on how to jump-start the "democratic process," we have failed to recognize what the region really looks like.

Besides Lebanon and now Iraq, there is no mechanism for power-sharing or transmitting authority from one ruler to the next, except through inheritance or coup d'état. Arab politics is a fight to become what Osama Bin Laden called the "strong horse," which means if you want power, you have to take it. Islamist violence is not attributable to a lack of economic opportunities, as Pollack contends, or to any other "root cause." The Islamists are simply playing by regional rules, where terror and repression are two sides of the same bloody coin—insurgents and oppositionists wage terror campaigns to win power, and the regimes use torture and collective punishment in order to repress their domestic competition.

That is to say, Middle Eastern regimes are not the source of the region's problems. As the decapitation of Saddam Hussein's regime showed, the psychopaths, princes, and presidents for life who rule Arab states are merely the hothouse flowers of a poisonous political culture. "The States are as the men are," Plato writes in The Republic. "They grow out of human characters." The failure to respect this basic and ancient political principle marks by far the greatest intellectual error of neocon Middle East policy and thus of the entire liberal intelligentsia from which it arises. As we saw with Hezbollah's orgiastic celebrations for released child-murderer Samir Kuntar, the problem with the Arab world is Arab societies themselves.

The Iraq war should have cured us of any illusions about the Middle East, but the administration's incoherence let us put many of the region's problems on Bush's tab. American opinion will be easier on the next president and harder on the Middle East itself as we come to distinguish between our problems, mistakes, and limitations and those of the Arabs. The paradox is that one of our sharpest limitations is that we believe democracy is a universal cure-all, good for all people at all times, when that is almost certainly not the case. However, as Pollack argues, democratic reform seems to be the only thing that will save the Middle East from consuming itself in violence, for the region can get worse than it is now, much worse.