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.

A Path Out of the Desert

In recent years, former CIA analyst and Clinton-administration National Security Council staffer Kenneth Pollack has found himself so close to Bush administration Middle East policies—like regime change in Iraq and Gen. David Petraeus' surge strategy —that it's hardly surprising he'd now like to put some distance between himself and an unpopular White House. Thus, in A Path out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East, Pollack adopts a countermeasure perfected over the last several years by Arab liberals concerned that any association with Bush is likely to lose them respect, if not their freedom or their lives: trash the White House pre-emptively and then restate the general principles of its Middle East policy.

Pollack's grand strategy—"an overarching conception of what it is that we seek to achieve, how we intend to do it and how to employ the full panoply of foreign policy tools"—is reform, just as it is for the Bush administration. And yet unlike the White House, Pollack clearly spells out his ideas about the Middle East and Washington's role there in securing U.S. interests. He identifies America's chief vital interest in the region without embarrassment: Persian Gulf energy resources. Until the United States develops an adequate substitute for oil, we are stuck in the Middle East protecting the free flow of affordable fossil fuel that not only fills American SUVs but also ensures the stability of global markets. Pollack makes a good case that were it not for our presence in the Gulf, we would not be such a valuable target on the jihadist hit list, and were we to leave tomorrow, the threat to the United States from Arab terror outfits would largely subside.


Since we are not leaving, we need to repair the region with a broad program of economic and political reform, different from the Bush administration's quick-fix obsession with elections that merely lent democratic legitimacy to Islamist groups in the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt. Pollack argues that a process of real liberal reform will take decades, if not longer.

Here he is surely right. The problem, however, is that the U.S. policymaking body whose institutional memory and resources equip it to deal with long-term solutions is not interested in change, whether it be fast or slow. The State Department prizes stability, which is partly attributable to the temperament of people who are likely to seek employment in Washington bureaucracies. But State's caution and fear of unintended consequences also issue from an accurate reckoning of its own priorities and capabilities.

Consider Egypt. For more than two decades, Washington has provided Cairo with $2 billion annually, a deal that binds the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, guarantees our carefree passage through the Suez Canal, and buys a certain amount of cooperation on military and security issues. President Hosni Mubarak's regime is not the easiest friend we have in the world, but for a bureaucracy with a lot on its hands already, our bargain with Egypt gives us one less thing to worry about. Should we pressure Cairo to make reforms? Sure, and we do. However, as Pollack notes, our capacity is limited. Even if there were 50 people at Foggy Bottom tasked specifically to the Egypt desk—instead of the two there are—we are still up against a regime whose sole strategic goal is to ensure its own survival at any cost. Multiply that by 22, the number of Arab League member states, and it is clear that we just can't afford the luxury of employing thousands to push a stone up a hill only to see it roll most of the way back down again.

In Pollack's view, it is the regimes themselves that are largely responsible for the state of the region. "The principal problem of the Middle East," he writes, "is the failure of the contemporary state system." Again, this is a diagnosis widely shared on both sides of the aisle in Washington. Immediately after 9/11, the charges against Arab regimes were direct: Through violence, repression, and incitement in the media, mosques, and educational system, Arab rulers had turned their people into a fanatical anti-American and anti-Semitic horde. In time, the rhetoric mellowed some, but still, the chief goal of the current administration's democratization program was to make Arab countries responsible for the welfare and actions of their citizens within and beyond their borders—i.e., to stop dispatching jihadists to kill and die in foreign lands. Indeed, trying to make Arab regimes act like real states is the only good reason U.S. policymakers continue to keep a Palestinian-Israeli peace process on life support. We want a Palestinian state because our bureaucracy deals effectively with states and less well with armed NGOs.

But here's another way to look at it: The Palestinian Authority is neither a nascent state nor a failed state project. Rather, it is a clan system of frequently competing interests that no Palestinian leader in his right mind would try to turn into a state, regardless of how much financial incentive the international community makes available. The problem is not that the Arab state system is breaking down, but rather that it never existed. And the proof is unfolding before us in, among other places, Hamas' Islamic Republic of Gaza, the autonomous Hezbollah regions of Hezbollah Lebanon, and perhaps even someday soon in Iraq, as the Arabs redraw the borders of the region to their own taste with little concern for the international state system.