As a veteran, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Rohde should have been well-placed to write a panoramic account of a region in turmoil. He helped break the story of the massacres at Srebrenica during the Bosnian war, and his book “Endgame” presented a riveting, authoritative account of its horrors. About four years ago, he was kidnapped by the Taliban during a reporting trip to Afghanistan and held for seven months before escaping. “A Rope and a Prayer,” his book-length account of that ordeal co-authored with his wife, Kristen Mulvihill, revealed him again as a master of the sharply reported essay from war zones.
That experience haunts his new book. After his escape, Rohde explains, he promised his family that he would put a limit on trips to potentially dangerous arenas. It seems churlish to criticize him for this praiseworthy commitment. Yet his absence from the scene in key countries clearly takes a toll. Rohde’s instincts are to report, to offer eyewitness accounts of people in turbulent conditions. But for too much of this book, he’s not there. Instead he hires several journalists to report for him, including the excellent Lauren Bohn and Elmira Bayrasli, and gives them full credit for their work. But while these journalists bring energy and keen eyes for detail, they cannot substitute for Rohde’s well-trained reporter’s voice.
What results is an odd pastiche of disjointed vignettes, often observed from a distance, which struggle to add up to a coherent picture of the region. Short chapters jump from country to country: One moment we are condemning contractors in Iraq, then we have a few pages on Turkish soap operas, and then we’re off to Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. The journey would seem to follow that of America’s wars and then the Arab Spring, but the book offers nothing from pivotal Gulf states such as Bahrain, Kuwait and Yemen, the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the non-Gulf monarchies of Jordan and Morocco.
Inevitably, some of the arguments have a stale air about them. The sections on contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to have been intended for one book, the chapters on the Arab transitions for another. A well-crafted chapter on Afghanistan diplomacy, adapted from material he contributed to a volume on Richard Holbrooke, has a very different tone from the rest of the book. (His channeling of Holbrooke’s frustration with the White House over Afghan policy echoes the more deeply argued revelations in Vali Nasr’s new book, “The Dispensable Nation.”) His well-crafted reporting on the pathologies of USAID, contractors and the broader U.S. mission in Afghanistan and Iraq will already be familiar, particularly to readers of journalism and books by The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Rohde’s discussion of Islamist movements in Egypt, in particular, fails to keep pace with the rapid developments of the past year.
His overarching theme is that “the most potent long-term weapon against jihadists is moderate Arabs and South Asians, not American soldiers.” He suggests that Washington “quietly, consistently and effectively strengthen those groups” that are “our true allies in the region.” As a guide to battling al-Qaeda, this is almost certainly correct and reflects a change in American thinking about the struggle against al-Qaeda that has taken root since the middle of the last decade. It is not a significant departure from current practice, though. The Obama administration’s willingness to work with the Muslim Brotherhood’s elected president of Egypt demonstrates how far we have come since the feverish days following 2001 when American commentators lumped together all Islamists into a single, undifferentiated, existential menace.
If most now agree on the importance of backing the region’s moderates, no such consensus exists on who they might be. The Muslim Brotherhood and similar organizations present the crucial test case for efforts to define the moderates with whom we should align. Rohde views such movements as “not ideal,” but “our true enemies — and theirs — are violent Salafist militants.” In Tunisia, he writes, the United States “needs to engage more with Tunisia’s Islamists, not less.” As a strategy for marginalizing the genuine extremists in al-Qaeda and its affiliated movements, this makes good sense. And his arguments rang true before the Arab Spring, when real liberals had to support peaceful Islamists against the practices of repressive regimes.
A good case can be made for Islamist inclusion, since banning major political movements from participating in politics is inherently anti-democratic. But is it equally appropriate today, when such Islamists uneasily rule Egypt and Tunisia and much of the region has become badly polarized over their intentions and behavior? Do the same rules apply for identifying which moderates to support? Tougher choices must be confronted when Islamists win, and can use their power to promote an Islamist agenda and frighten their liberal opponents.
This conceptual challenge cuts to the heart of Rhode’s policy advice. Are the moderates to be supported found in the now-dominant Islamist trends, or among the smaller but more ideologically liberal, entrepreneurial and cosmopolitan new generation? In today’s deeply polarized environment, few Egyptian liberals view the Brotherhood as moderate. President Mohamed Morsi has proved disastrous in power, failing to govern effectively or to build an inclusive process. His decision to force through a divisive constitution last November poisoned an already bitterly divided public. Many Egyptian and Tunisian liberals who once fiercely defended the Brotherhood against regime repression no longer view its members as democrats, as moderates or as legitimate participants in the political sphere. They would naturally prefer that the United States support their own struggles against their Islamist rivals.
So, again, which moderates is America to support? Should Washington back the democratic process in countries such as Egypt even when the deck seems stacked in favor of Islamists with a seemingly illiberal agenda? Who is the moderate when Islamists call for elections and some liberal icons urge a military coup and electoral boycott while denouncing the United States? Are young, cosmopolitan, English-speaking secularists moderate when they battle police, boycott elections and decry America? What about U.S. alliances with the region’s repressive, conservative monarchies — are these deeply religious autocracies to be counted among the moderates at a time when they are escalating crackdowns on free speech and political dissent? There are no easy answers to these complex, tortured questions, but Rohde largely avoids them.
What about the other major part of his case, moving “beyond war”? Rohde urges “a more economic and less military-oriented effort [that] will achieve more than the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan did.” Amen. But he may have already had second thoughts. Over the past year, he has savaged the Obama administration’s strategy as a failure in Syria and has demanded that it do more to arm rebels against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and seize a “strategic opportunity to weaken Iran and Hezbollah.” The temptations of military action in support of liberal values are not so easily cast aside, it seems, even in a book that explicitly sets out to get the United States “beyond war” in the Middle East.
is an associate professor of political science and director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, and editor of the Middle East Channel for ForeignPolicy.com.