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Book World: 'A Path Out Of The Desert'
A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East

Kenneth M. Pollack
Author and Middle East Expert
Tuesday, July 29, 2008 3:00 PM

"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... 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."

Foreign policy expert Kenneth M. Pollack was online Tuesday, July 29 to discuss his new book, A Path Out Of The Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East, which was reviewed in Book World.

Pollack is the director of research for the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. During the Clinton Administration, he served as director for Gulf affairs at the National Security Council. He spent seven years as a military analyst for the CIA. He is also the author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq and The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America.

A transcript follows.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book Worldor in the weekday Style Section.

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Kenneth Pollack: Good afternoon. I'm Ken Pollack. I am the director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. I am also the author of a new book called "A Path out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East". I am looking forward to your questions and I see there are already quite a few waiting so let me get to them.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: If we, and most of the rest of the world, are able to reduce our demand for oil, is the Iraqi economy prepared to move into other sectors? What will happen to their economy should there be a significant drop in demand for oil?

Kenneth Pollack: Iraq will succeed or fail long before the United States significantly reduces its oil exports, so I think it useful to broaden the aperture of this question a bit, because it does get at a few issue facing the region.

There is no question in my mind that the United States must reduce its dependence on energy from oil and we need to be LEADING a global effort to help other countries do the same. Burning hydrocarbons is environmentally and economically foolish, and the dependence on unstable countries like those in the Middle East, with which my new book deals, is potentially disastrous. For that reason, there is absolutely no reason not to do so, and every reason to do so.

Nevertheless, you have raised an important question that gets at the long-term future of the Middle East. All of the economies of the region are dependent on oil to a greater or lesser extent, because even those without oil rely on remittances from their citizens working in the oil states, aid from the oil-producing states, and trade with them. As I describe in the book, all of the states of the region (except for the smallest and richest of the GCC states like Kuwait and the UAE) are experiencing serious economic problems of one kind or another and those economic problems are already causing severe social and political unrest. The oil revenues flowing in help mitigate that unhappiness, but if the developed world does begin to shift toward alternative energy sources, as I sincerely hope they will, this will remove that as a crutch for these Middle Eastern states. It raises grave fears about the long-term stability about the states of the region, which is one of the principal problems I argue in Path Out of the Desert that the U.S., our allies, and the states of the region need to fashion a long-term grand strategy to address. And the reason that we and our allies will still have to worry about it is that even 20 years from now, if we have halved our dependence on oil, we and every other nation in the world will still be dependent on oil. So major problems in the Middle East will still be a threat to our vital interests, and the threats may be worse if the economic, social, and poltical problems have not been addressed but the price of oil is plummeting because of conservation efforts in the developed world. Again, it is why we MUST think long-term about our approach to the Middle East and get away from our typical, short-term approaches.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: How has Iraqi oil production been affected by the war? How much of Iraqi oil profits have been able to be channeled into the reconstruction of Iraq?

Kenneth Pollack: The chaos the U.S. created in Iraq hurt Iraqi oil exports in three ways. First, the disastrous dismemberment of the Iraqi bureaucracy meant that for many months, no one was taking care of the Iraqi oil infrastructure which reduced production and exports. Second, the insurgents (principally Sunni groups like al-Qa'ida in Iraq) actively attacked Iraq's production and export infrastructure which further depressed oil production. Third, because of the misguided way that the Bush Administration handled the oversight of the Iraqi government initially, HUGE amounts of oil and money from oil was stolen by a vast range of people-from guys pulling up to refineries with tanker trucks and demanding that they be filled at gunpoint, to bureaucrats funnelling millions to Swiss bank accounts.

Today, thanks to a whole series of new initiatives by the U.S., led by our very able ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, in his team, and the greater security created by the "Surge" Iraqi oil production is now at about pre-war levels. Because the price of oil is so high, the Iraqis are now making a lot of money and paradoxically, many of the measures that we demanded they put in place to prevent theft and corruption in the oil sector is now hindering their ability to use that money to pay for reconstruction. This is being further hamstrung by political differences and the still-limited capacity of the Iraqi bureaucracy. As a result, there is something like $50 billion of Iraqi money sitting in New York just waiting for the Iraqis to spend it. That's why a lot of American Congressmen are demanding that we cut our own spending and force the Iraqis to pay not only for their own reconstruction expenses but for the costs of our troops and our programs as well. So the bottom line is that while the Iraqis are doing better on exporting oil and using it to pay for reconstruction, there is still a long way to go.

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Freising, Germany: In "The Persian Puzzle", you wrote that after 9/11, both the U.S. and Iran saw the Taliban as a threat and briefly cooperated at a low political level to oust it from Afghanistan.

Does a resurgent Taliban and their opium fueled insurgency in Afghanistan play any role in the current balance between Iran, Iraq and the U.S.?

Kenneth Pollack: You're right and I think it was a huge opportunity that the U.S. missed to potentially develop a different relationship with Iran. That said, the times have changed and the resurgence of the Taliban has not re-created the common threat that almost brought us together back in 2001.

Today, there is a different leadership in Tehran who is wary of the American presence in Afghanistan--more wary of us than of the Taliban whom they (rightly) recognize will have great difficulty reasserting their control over the country and so threatening them. There have been numerous reports that Iran is now supporting the Taliban, even supporting them to attack the U.S. I can't confirm the veracity of these reports, but it is clear to me that a number of important Iranian leaders do like to see the U.S. bogged down in Afghanistan (especially now that they see the situation in Iraq changing in our favor) and may very well be helping the Taliban as a way of further hurting the U.S.

For that reason, I don't think that the resurrection of the Taliban furnishes a new opportunity for improved relations between the U.S. and Iran. To me, it reinforces the potential utility of a better relationship between Iran and the U.S. (becuase we could then expect Iran to tone down or eliminate any such support), and the importance of helping Afghanistan deal with its own internal problems to eliminate areas where mischief-makers like the current Iranian leadership can take advantage of U.S. vulnerabilities.

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Abu Dhabi (UAE): Mr. Pollack, in your opinion, what should US policy towards moderate Arab Gulf countries be in order to keep its interest in the region?

Kenneth Pollack: My new book addresses virtually all of the current crises of the region, but one of its main purposes is to point out that many of the worst problems of the region exist as much in the countries closest to the United States and seemingly doing well as they do in those in turmoil or opposed to the United States.

Because of the role that the United States plays in protecting all of the Gulf states from external threats (a role simply heightened by Iran's pursuit of a nuclear enrichment capability) I suspect that the United States will be an important player in Gulf politics for a long time. However, the role that the U.S. needs to play to a much greater extent than in the past is to help ALL of the Muslim Middle Eastern states, including the rich Gulf states begin a long-term process of reforming their economic, political and social systems to deal with the underlying problems that generate the endemic instability and terrorism of the region, and that create the greatest threats to us and to them.

Even in your own country of the UAE, fabulously rich and entrepreneurial as it is, there are problems. The vast majority of the UAE's work force (90 percent) is foreigners, and the vast majority of those foreigners are badly paid and badly treated south and southeast Asians. These people are being devastated by the inflation in the Gulf created by the massive influx of oil revenues. As a result, you are now seeing labor unrest, even riots in many of the Gulf states. And the massive factories that GCC leaders plan to build are also expected to employ huge numbers of imported laborers. This is not a stable long-term situation. It could be as volatile as the massive unemployment in places like Egypt and Jordan.

So the theme of my book is that the U.S. is going to have work with the people of the region (both the governments and the people themselves) as well as with our allies in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, to help the states of the region devise workable, long-term solutions to these problems. That is absolutely crucial both to the states of the region, including rich Gulf states like the UAE, and to the rest of the world.

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washingtonpost.com: Thanks for your patience, we have been slowed down by some technical problems.

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10th and Penn, NW: In your earlier book, you made, I thought, a compelling case for intervention in Iraq. As you apparently now acknowledge, this was a miscalculation (one many of us made).

What have you learned from your experience over the past few years?

Kenneth Pollack: Sorry about the unexpected interruption. I had just written a VERY lengthy response to this question and the Post tells me that it is lost.

I'm afraid that I just don't have the heart to re-write the whole thing so what I will say is that I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the mistakes that I (and others) made when trying to assess the threat from Saddam before the war and I have published them in numerous places (The New York Times, Slate, the New Republic, etc.)

For those interested, in December 2004 I wrote a long essay for the Atlantic Monthly called "Spies, Lies and Weapons: What Went Wrong" that laid out my thinking on my own mistakes, the mistakes of the intelligence community, and the further distortions and exaggerations of the Bush Administration (which for those who actually read my book the Threatening Storm know went way beyond what I thought reasonable), as well as the lessons I drew for the future. Then, in my book The Persian Puzzle (Random House, 2004) I talked about how to apply those lessons to the Iranian case. Not surprisingly, while I am very concerned about Iran's pursuit of a nuclear enrichment capability, in part by applying those lessons, I do not believe that the threat is as compelling as the threat that I believed existed from Saddam's (fictitious) WMD programs.

Again, my apologies, but I just don't have the heart to rewrite that long answer for you.

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Bayport, New York: Do you feel that Israel should abandon its settlements in the West Bank? If it does not, should the U.S. put pressure on Israel?

Kenneth Pollack: I believe that the interests of the United States, of the people of Israel, and the Palestinian people are all best served by a durable peace between Israel and a Palestinian state. It is not possible to imagine such a durable peace unless the vast majority of the West Bank is returned to that future state of Palestine, and I do not believe that it will be viable to maintain Israeli settlements in territory ruled by the state of Palestine (although miracles do happen in that part of the world). Consequently, believe that many Israeli settlers will ultimately be faced with the choice of living under Palestinian rule or moving back to Israel proper. That said, from my time as part of President Clinton's Middle East team, it is clear that Israelis and Palestinians both recognize that the 1967 border will have to be adjusted to deal with the facts on the ground, and that a major element of that will be that many of the most heavily populated Israeli settlements closest to that border will remain on the Israeli side of a new border (probably with the Palestinians being compensated with territory elsewhere).

So, as usual with the Middle East, the answer is a bit complicated. Some settlements will probably remain and be incorporated into Israel. Others probably won't. But while I believe that the United States should do everything we can to coax, cajole, encourage, and help the parties "take risks for peace" I do not believe that we should be the ones telling them which remain and which go. That is a matter for the parties to decide.

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Kenneth Pollack: Well, I am sorry again for that technical glitch that ate into our time--and lost the longest answer I had wanted to post--but I appreciate your questions and hope you found my answers useful.

I hope that you take a read of my new book, A Path Out of the Desert. I think you will find it interesting and thought-provoking if nothing else.

- Ken Pollack

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