U-turn in the Sand

Reviewed by Greg Myre
Sunday, July 27, 2008


A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East

By Kenneth M. Pollack

Random House. 539 pp. $30

Kenneth M. Pollack, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, has written an authoritative new book that spells out the full range of threats the United States faces in the region and offers prudent advice on how to defuse them. The problem is, it's hard to square this work with the influential book he wrote in 2002 called The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.

Pollack is persuasive in his new book, but it helps to have a touch of amnesia. Those with a working memory may recall that six years ago, Pollack said there was too much hand-wringing about the potential pitfalls of invading Iraq. "Those who argue that the United States would inevitably become the target of unhappy Iraqis generally also assume that the Iraqi population would be hostile to U.S. forces from the outset," he wrote. "However, the best evidence we have suggests that the Iraqi people would be pleased to be liberated."

He also predicted Iraq would pay for its own reconstruction with oil. "It is unimaginable," he declared in The Threatening Storm, "that the United States would have to contribute hundreds of billions of dollars and highly unlikely that we would have to contribute even tens of billions of dollars."

In his new book, Pollack acknowledges his miscalculations and excoriates the Bush administration for bungling Iraq's reconstruction. Still, the irony is tough to ignore: A Path Out of the Desert comes from the same author who advocated charging into the sands of Mesopotamia.

"The fiasco of regime change in Iraq should make Washington very reticent about trying to overthrow another Middle Eastern autocracy," a more circumspect Pollack now writes. "Consequently, the regimes will remain, and they will remain the most powerful forces in their societies for many years to come."

Pollack's new book immediately brought to mind "Now They Tell Us," a highly amusing routine on comedian Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show." It typically features a prominent Washington figure presenting an ominous warning about Iraq, which is immediately followed by archival footage of the same person offering an upbeat assessment several years ago.

Sure enough, Pollack actually appeared on "The Daily Show" on July 16 to promote this book. At the end of the interview, Stewart gently ribbed him, asking Pollack if he wished he had added "I'm just kidding" to the title of his earlier work.

Once the reader gets past the U-turn on Iraq, there is much to recommend A Path Out of the Desert. Pollack provides a grand tour of the Middle East and dissects its pathologies, including booming numbers of jobless youth. In one startling example, he notes that in several Arab countries, college graduates have unemployment rates well above the national average. In Morocco, the most extreme case, the overall unemployment rate is 7.7 percent; for those with higher education it is 26.8 percent. "Many of the worst failings of the Arab educational systems," he writes, "are manifested in how poorly they prepare both the average person and the members of the elite to compete in the globalized economy."

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