x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Reform school

Does the future of the Middle East depend on a new American 'grand strategy'? A

Head above the parapet: a Marine takes shelter under a map mural inside an Iraqi school.
Head above the parapet: a Marine takes shelter under a map mural inside an Iraqi school.

A Path Out Of The Desert: A Grand Strategy For America In The Middle East

Kenneth M Pollack

Random House Dh215

When Mao Zedong took control of China in 1949, Washington's conservatives and anti-Communists demanded to know "Who lost China?" Fingers were pointed at some of America's leading foreign service officers, and these so-called "China Hands" were accused of "losing" the country because they were "soft" on Communism. In 1992, former president Richard Nixon, who was among the loudest voices braying at the "China Hands" in the McCarthy era, blasted the American foreign policy establishment over its strategy toward Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. "The question 'Who lost Russia,'" Nixon wrote, "will be an infinitely more devastating issue" than "Who lost China". America didn't just lose China and Russia: the neoconservative writer Michael Ledeen, in a 1980 book, asked "Who lost Iran?" (Jimmy Carter and "soft" foreign service officers, apparently). In 1960, the question was "Who lost Cuba?" (Again, state department "softies", among others.)

What unites these spurious accusations is the presupposition that since America has overwhelming power to influence the course and destiny of nations, even in non-military ways, it can be said to "lose" countries it never possessed to begin with. This conceit obviously depends on a measure of arrogance and parochialism, but it is a notion that persists among the American foreign policy establishment, though with greater humility than in decades past.

It's a humility borne of reality correcting hubris. When Washington chose to ignore the protestations of allies and depose Saddam Hussein with overwhelming military force, it worked - at least the part about overthrowing the government. There's the hubris. But America has not created the Iraq of its dreams: a democratic, pro-American, anti-Iran, oil-producing "city on a hill" serving as a lodestar for the aspirations of the region. The reality check from Iraq is this: even when America exerts the full force of its incomparable muscle, expends trillions in treasure and priceless lives, it cannot always achieve what it wants.

It turns out that Washington cannot dictate the outcomes of nations with ease and, though influential, American diplomats cannot "lose" or "win" countries in the sense of changing their direction dramatically by non-military means. The past three decades have seen the rise of what I call the "stubbornly stable" Middle East state - quite contrary to conventional wisdom about the fragility of the region's governments. We've heard it many times before: the House of Saud will fall, the Islamic Republic of Iran is on its last legs, Egypt is tottering, Syria is a house of cards. But while these countries may be failing to live up to their potential, their rulers have proven adept at one thing: staying in power. Hosni Mubarak and Bashar Assad may be out of touch with the realities of ordinary Egyptians and Syrians, but they are certainly not out of touch with threats to their authority.

The region's exaggerated reputation for instability owes its existence to the conflagrations consuming Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, and Iraq. But those very real crises do not handicap the wider region. In the midst of the 2006 Lebanon war, more than ten million Saudis bought stock in the latest hot IPO, Dubai signed new billion-dollar orders for aeroplanes, and Egypt continued to break foreign investment records. The GCC countries in particular have proved adept at shrugging off crisis in other parts of the region, even in neighbouring Iraq. The Gulf states have never been more powerful and influential globally as they are today. Meanwhile, their most important customers - Asian countries - for their most important commodity - oil - continue to grow. Resolution of the headline Middle East conflicts would certainly help ensure the security and prosperity of the region as a whole, but Egypt's future - and those of the UAE, Morocco or Saudi Arabia - depends more on the decisions and actions of its government and citizens than it does on the latest firefight in Ramallah or Ramadi.

In fact, the major crisis facing the broader Middle East today is a socio-economic one. The Middle East/North Africa region is the youngest in the world, with an average median age of twenty one. In some places, like Saudi Arabia and Yemen, more than half the population is under the age of fifteen. The World Bank estimates that the region needs to create 100 million jobs by the year 2020 to simply keep up with the demographics. Given current trends, it's unlikely to reach that goal. The result? Large swathes of unemployed and underemployed young men who will be attracted to extremism, crime, drug abuse and other ills - and a likely widening of what Queen Rania of Jordan once called "the hope gap."

Ordinary Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians, Yemenis, Moroccans, Iranians and Jordanians have a hard time finding hope today, twisting in the winds of poor governance and cycles of economic indignity, torn between the false binary of failing political elites who underachieve and utopian Islamists who overpromise. In an environment of flailing economies and stagnation, polls - and anecdotal evidence - suggest that jobs, the price of meat and bread, and economic security tend to trump concerns about elections, press freedoms, and independent judiciaries. But this does not mean that people in the region do not seek democracy. Most polls indicate they do. It just means that their top priorities are socio-economic - priorities they share with reforming governments, who have finally realised the latent threat posed by large numbers of unemployed young people and the latent promise embodied in regulatory regimes that promote entrepreneurialism, foreign investment, and market economies.

But back in Washington the old dichotomy still prevails: on one side, a resolve to confront rogue states and aggressively promote democracy; on the other, a conviction that America should tend to its own interests, ensure energy security, and turn a blind eye to the internal politics of other states. The first school engineered the Iraq war, and in its wake, the realist approach of the other side is now in vogue.

Kenneth Pollack, an expert on the region and former CIA analyst, seems to offer a middle ground between the neoconservatives and the realists, though he sides firmly with those who wish to "engage the region" proactively. His new book, A Path Out of the Desert, proposes a "grand strategy" for America in the region, a programme of "gradual, indigenously driven, but internationally assisted transformation throughout the Muslim Middle East." He calls for assistance to states to transform stagnant economies, educational systems and flawed legal regimes, alongside a cautious encouragement of political reform that pushes for more pluralistic politics while taking steps to cushion some of the shock of economic liberalisation.

Arguments about "grand strategy" invariably share some of the presumptuousness of the "Who lost China?" debate; they assume an American capacity to alter reality. But does America need a "grand strategy" for the Middle East? Why not proceed from a few basic principles, protect vital national interests, and let states determine their own course? Furthermore, as the residents of the region might justifiably protest, why does America even have a right to a strategy to direct the internal affairs of other nations?

Today many Americans, chastened by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, want nothing to do with the Middle East, beyond securing crude and halting terrorism. Indeed, with gas prices soaring, American politicians are tripping over themselves to denounce "dependence on Middle Eastern oil," despite the fact that three of the country's four biggest suppliers are Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela. But Pollack, a self-described liberal internationalist - and an influential advocate for the Iraq war - believes in America's power to act as a force for positive change as well as the importance of grand strategies; as he notes, the failure of the current administration to co-ordinate its actions across the region has led to "mutually contradictory" policies. (He has since recanted his Iraq stance, blaming flawed pre-war intelligence.)

Fortunately, he has done his homework, distilling large amounts of data and expert opinion into an argument that retains a touch of humility (or at least as much as can be hoped from any grand strategy.) He reminds us over and over again that "speed kills" - and that the rush to elections in Palestine and Iraq was a mistake. He counsels patience, reminding readers that it took half a century to transform Europe and has taken even longer in East Asia. Pollack's grand strategy is tempered by his patience and gradualism; his plan, which he calls "enabling reform," is not burdened by the soaring rhetoric that has characterised the efforts of the Bush administration.

Pollack's political vision is not far from Bush's rhetoric, to be sure, and he observes correctly that just because Bush says something doesn't make it wrong. But Pollack sharply criticises the way those policies have been implemented, and argues that America needs "a gradual process of political, economic, and social reform - one that grows from within, rather than being imposed from without; one that reflects the values, traditions, history, and aspirations of the people themselves, not a Western guess at them; one that recognises that reform and stability are not mutually exclusive but mutually reinforcing - and ultimately mutually essential."

What Pollack has produced is a series of pragmatic measures for Washington to pursue: bolstering regional prosperity (his chapter on "the sea of socioeconomic problems" is especially acute); confronting the threat of terrorism without conflating it with political Islam; continuing work toward resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons; and acknowledging the importance of oil-rich Gulf states and the fact that America will be dependent on foreign oil for many years to come.

The apparent and plentiful failures of the Bush administration - from pre-war plans to postwar incompetence - has brought less level-headed voices to the fore in Washington, demanding disengagement from the Middle East while trumpeting exaggerated claims of dependence on the region's oil. Pollack offers a cool-headed alternative, with both humility about the limitations of American power and a perceptive sense of the serious social and economic issues facing the region. He urges Americans to play a role in the effort of local actors to "transform their societies" and combat "anger and frustration, injustice and oppression, ignorance and violence."

This is a tall order - and many parts of the Middle East are not nearly as angry and frustrated as Pollack contends. More to the point, some of that anger is directed at Washington for what is justifiably seen as a one-sided approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among other policies; where such rage exists, it is not merely irrational. America's next president certainly needs a strategy for the Middle East, and Pollack's book contains some important ideas. But American power continues to have its limits; in the end, the Middle East will be transformed when leaders display the courage and vision to maximise the potential of their people through education, greater female participation in the workforce, sound economic policies that promote free enterprise and entrepreneurialism, and sincere efforts to create pluralist polities, accountable governments, and meritocratic systems. These ideas are neither new nor profound, but they have worked, in one way or another, to foster success in dozens of other countries. They are not "American" ideas, but international ones. And while a thoughtful and comprehensive American strategy for the Middle East will be a welcome change, a sincere indigenous reform process aimed at maximizing opportunities for citizens - not just serving elites - can succeed with or without the United States.

Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and the author of The Soul of Iran.