U-turn in the Sand
An American strategist argues against quick fixes in the Middle East.

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."

Pollack views reform in the Arab states as a long, hard slog that will be measured in decades rather than election cycles. The United States needs to nudge the process along steadily with, among other things, dollops of financial aid. "Think of the hundreds of billions of dollars that the United States is now sinking into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," he writes. "Doesn't it make sense to put a fraction of that, perhaps as much as $5 billion to $10 billion per year, into foreign aid programs for the Muslim Middle East . . . and hopefully head off future wars?"

A former CIA analyst and National Security Council staffer, Pollack frames key issues as an analyst offering options for a policymaker. He refrains from making any bold, short-term policy prescriptions because he does not think the region can be transformed in one stroke.

The United States needs to pursue a middle path stressing persistence, moderation and gradual change, Pollack asserts. He proposes a "Hippocratic oath test" for U.S. policies to ensure that they "do no harm to the core goals and methods of the grand strategy," by which he means an enduring commitment to remain fully engaged in the Middle East to help ease crises or, better yet, prevent them.

U.S. leaders should broker dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians even when peace is distant, he says. Washington should look for signs of rapprochement with Iran; the military option is too risky. America and China share an interest in dependable oil exports, and this offers the possibility of cooperation instead of rivalry in the Mideast.

Pollack's conclusion is sobering: With great (and patient) effort, the United States can hope to influence, but not fix, the unstable Middle East. If that sounds less than satisfying, he warns, the alternatives are worse.

Now he tells us. ยท

Greg Myre, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, covered the Middle East for the New York Times and the Associated Press and is writing a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company