A review of A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East, by Kenneth M. Pollack;
The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East , by Olivier Roy;
Beyond Terror and Martyrdom: The Future of the Middle East, by Gilles Kepel


None of George W. Bush's alleged treacheries more riles leftists than that, on the international stage, he was one of them. For his dreamy Wilsonian trouble, he was savaged mercilessly, the Left having ceased to see the wisdom in democracy evangelism, military adventures, and edgy security tactics once the Clinton Administration closed shop. 

Bush's exodus was marked by historically low approval ratings, his party ejected from power after successive electoral routs. Yet, as the heat of campaign cant gave way to the cold reality of governing, President Barack Obama retained his predecessor's defense secretary while filling other top posts with Iraq invasion supporters and democratization devotees. "Progressives" are painting new lipstick on the enlightened interventionism they've spent the last several years deriding as a pig. And so the rush is on to reclaim Woodrow Wilson from the Bush legacy. The problem, it turns out, was not the ambitious project to remake the Muslim Middle East. It's just that the noble effort was horribly implemented by incompetent, moralistic dullards who never really believed in it and who, in their arrogant disregard for the rule of law, came to mirror the terrorists they were fighting. 

That is the collective story of three new books addressing post-Bush Middle East policy. Of these, the most comprehensive is Brookings Institution scholar Kenneth Pollack's A Path Out of the Desert—an ironic title given the author's plea that Americans take up permanent residency in the desert…and bring along their wallets. 

For years, Pollack was a Persian Gulf analyst at the CIA and the Clinton-era National Security Council. His oeuvre includesThe Threatening Storm (2002), which meticulously laid out the case for regime change and democracy promotion in Iraq. The ensuing misadventure has not changed his mind. But as a thoughtful, self-described "liberal internationalist," he appreciates the deep economic, political, and social dysfunction of the Middle East. He admits his new "grand strategy," called "enabling reform," will be the work of decades. His great regret is that Bush's missteps have sapped the national will required for so daunting a commitment. 

He is right to worry. For all the considerable energy he expends cataloguing small distinctions, Pollack's enabling reform is not all that different from Bush's democratization gambit. Like Bush, Pollack strains to absolve Islam from any relation to terrorism—though he admits the threat has an Islamic "flavor," inasmuch as it is driven primarily by Salafi "Islamists" who "create a superficial impression" of a connection to Islam. He recommends that terrorism and the sometimes related (and sometimes not) Islamism be addressed by better governance in authoritarian states. So, the thinking goes, security in America hinges on democratic reform in the Middle East. Because the unpopularity of Bush initiatives predicated on just these assumptions is so palpable, Pollack is at pains to distance his "reform." Alternately, he denies the "myth" that democracy promotion played "a dominant role in Bush policy," and then disparages the former president's "forward strategy of freedom" as though it were central to the whole mess. 

Bush, who campaigned against Clintonian nation-building in 2000, is described as having reluctantly hijacked the strategy under duress. Democratization, Pollack recounts, was really the brain-child of Clinton "neoliberals." Though it inspired a few well-meaning Bush "moderates," the administration's real insiders—the "radical Right"—were not brought around until weapons of mass destruction failed to materialize in Iraq and they found themselves in need of a justification for the mounting casualties. At sea with a good idea they didn't really grasp, Bush operatives blew it—failing to live up to the second inaugural's "magnificent" rhetoric of reform, rushing elections prematurely to the advantage of terrorist groups like Hamas (in the Palestinian territories) and Hezbollah (in Lebanon), and so forth. 

One would never know it was Pollack's old boss who midwifed the first Palestinian elections, turning Clinton White House fixture Yasser Arafat into a "democrat" just in time for the second intifada. Pollack is right that democracy promotion assumed greater urgency when the principal rationale for invading Iraq cratered. But as those of us who never bought the strategy can attest (and as Norman Podhoretz, a strong proponent, has documented in the pages of Commentary), democratization was an arrow in the post-9/11 quiver from the start: a core component, albeit not the top goal, of the plans in both Afghanistan and (over a year later) Iraq.

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Quibbles about the depth of bush's conviction aside, Pollack's main complaint is that the policy was pursued incompetently and "on the cheap." This, too, rings hollow after years of relentless Democratic caterwauling about Iraq's exorbitant costs: over $700 billion in direct expenditures (recently estimated by another former Clinton adviser, Joseph Stiglitz, to top $3 trillion in real costs). Obama spent the 2008 campaign wailing that this spending should have gone to education, health care, New Orleans, and countless other higher priorities. Even if the author is right that Bush was ham-handed, and some profligacy is thus chalked off to erratic implementation, one shudders at what Pollack must think funding levels ought to be.

And make no mistake, Pollack is talking about an enormous financial commitment. His strategy would invest government's full run of resources—including the armed forces if necessary—in the hope of very gradual transformation in the Mideast. The plan would provide financial aid to create diverse markets and entrepreneurship, and it envisions a dramatic overhaul of the region's woeful education systems. It calls for increased foreign aid to places like Egypt, where our $2 billion annual ante has not been upped in 20 years. (Even as he recommends more funding for Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship, Pollack suggests withholding a slice to create human-rights pressure—but such sticks, as the Bush Administration learned, turn brittle the second we need the Egyptians to do something, which is often.)

Pollack forthrightly asks, "Is all of this really necessary?" His argument presumes that the Muslim Middle East is amenable to real democratization and that such reform there would translate into security here. On these points he is unconvincing. He is adamant that "Islamists," the "political Islam" they purvey, and the terrorists with whom many of them make common cause must be distinguished from "Islam," the belief system of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. Fair enough. But he ignores reality in portraying Islam as an exclusively positive force, fully compatible with democracy.

Along the way, he indulges multiple misconceptions. Contrasting America's government with Japan's (among others), he deduces that because democracy comes in many forms its fundamentals must be endlessly malleable. He then lists those fundamentals—"speech and assembly, representative government, transparency, accountability, rule of law, checks and balances within government, and limits on governmental power…." Noticeably absent are freedom of conscience and legal equality between sexes and between sects. As our own national experience shows, these principles are a sine qua non of real democracy, and they run decidedly against the grain of Islamic culture. On this Pollack is silent, or he falls back on the familiar cop-out that because most Muslims are moderate, Islam must also be. He clings to the fallacy that because millions of Muslims live in democracies, Islam must be democracy-friendly—even though it has no democratic tradition, Muslims are minorities in most democracies he mentions, and where they are the majority (in Indonesia and Turkey) freedom is currently under assault. 

This cheery view leads the author to the still more tenuous claim that Islamists are largely benign and should be drawn into the electoral process despite what he admits is the danger that, once in power, they might well undermine the political reforms that got them there. Pollack certainly does his credibility no favor by his astounding reliance on condemnations of the 9/11 attacks by such Islamic authorities as Muslim Brotherhood mouthpiece Sheikh Yussef al-Qaradawi ("one of the most well-known religious scholars in the Arab world"). Pollack airbrushes from his portrait Qaradawi's fatwas approving the murder of Americans in Iraq and suicide bombings in Israel, as well as his role as chief agitator in the notorious global rioting over Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed.

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In The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East, renowned French scholar Olivier Roy provides a more detached critique of the Bush policy. A short volume, it is long on hyperbole—e.g., that Iraq is a hopeless, neoconservative—driven catastrophe that has left American counterterrorism in tatters. The argument seems more ill-considered with the passage of time: quite apart from the fact that many highly knowledgeable, non-neocon experts (like Kenneth Pollack) supported removing Saddam Hussein, Iraq has receded from controversy precisely because al-Qaeda has been thoroughly routed there and Baghdad's fledgling government is ambling, fitfully, toward stability (though obviously one can debate whether the final product will justify the cost).

Roy diagnoses what he regards as the fatal flaws of neoconservatism: it is "universalist, Wilsonian and anti-culturalist." He infers that neocons perforce reject Samuel Huntington's clash-of-civilizations theory. Though they surely do, his premises are counterfactual as applied to Iraq and Afghanistan. So sensitive to Iraqi culture was the State Department's democracy-promotion effort that the new Iraqi constitutions were permitted to establish Islam as the state religion and enshrine sharia as a principal source of law—and were adopted only after the ardently sought approbation of religious authorities (such as Ayatollah Ali Sistani). The author has a point, though, when he argues that such cultural solicitude remains at a competitive disadvantage against Islamists and "neofundamentalists" (Roy's term, comprising the Taliban and Somalia's Islamic Courts Union). These groups are rooted in the local culture, address tribal conflicts by appealing to sharia, have a better reputation for fighting corruption than do more secular factions, and appeal to the locals' virulent anti-Americanism (which Roy, correctly, sees as a major neocon blind spot).

Like Pollack, Roy has a nuanced view of Islamists. Islamism, he pronounces, is merely the "political ideologisation of Islam…which has nothing to do with terrorism." Thus he construes Islamist Hamas and Hezbollah, despite their mass-murder tactics, as regional, political movements—as distinguished from the "pure" terrorism of al-Qaeda, which by his lights is essentially anarchist: targeting the "system" but bereft of "concrete objectives." 

But Roy's analysis is blind to al-Qaeda's jihadist doctrine, which has very concrete objectives (viz., to end American hegemony and establish a regional, expanding, and ultimately global caliphate), and the charters and rhetoric of Hamas and Hezbollah, who self-identify with global jihadism and whose designs transcend Lebanon and "Palestine." Only by downplaying their resort to terror can he rationalize negotiating with Hamas and Hezbollah (we need their help against al-Qaeda, he says), and chastise Americans for childishly "moralizing" counterterrorism, allegedly at the expense of strategic thinking.

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Finally, Beyond Terror and Martyrdom is a time-warped contrivance of the French Arabist Gilles Kepel. His overarching concept is that Bush's quest for "universal democracy" was a "transformative fiction" mirroring al-Qaeda's dream of a "universal Islamist state." The two sides have even pursued their respective utopias through violent force, all the while betraying their core principles—al-Qaeda traducing the true Islam, Bush shredding American values.

Here the reader finds the angry Left's Bush mythology in full, beginning with the "original sin" of Guantanamo Bay, the legal black-hole where innocents are consigned without due process. In actuality, obsessed with keeping life-saving intelligence under wraps, the Bush Administration failed, to its great disadvantage, to highlight Gitmo's positive security contribution. In the void, human-rights activists dictated the narrative and the public was left in the dark about the jihadist training and connections of the detained combatants (until the diligent work of journalists Thomas Joscelyn and Benjamin Wittes brought the information to light). Yet in Kepel's fevered imagination, Gitmo was deliberately designed for a very public role: "to symbolize the defeat of terrorists worldwide." Kepel doesn't let the facts interfere with a good story.

Like Roy's readers, Kepel's will be left clueless about the turnaround in Iraq over the last two years. Stuck in 2006, the author is still pining about Bush's rejection of the ballyhooed Iraq Study Group report, which proposed negotiations with Iran and pressure on Israel as keys to success—and was rendered instantly irrelevant by the successful "surge" in combat forces. (The name David Petraeus does not appear in Kepel's opus.) 

More edifying is the author's commentary on the European scene. He offers an interesting analysis of the controversy over Pope Benedict's 2006 speech at Regensburg. In urging the galvanizing role of reason in faith, the pontiff cited a 14th-century Byzantine emperor's castigation of Mohammed, the warrior prophet, for having spread Islam by the sword. Kepel uses the incident to sketch, with cautious optimism, a current in moderate Islamic thought: 38 ulema who undertook to rebut the Holy Father in a congenial reply that assumed shared principles and was expressed logically. 

Kepel is effective, moreover, in deconstructing multiculturalism and the social "pillarization" to which it leads. He contends that France has been successful in assimilating Europe's largest immigrant Muslim population, while Britain, Spain, and the Netherlands have lagged behind in integrating their Muslims, who are therefore prone to support terrorism. To carry this argument, Kepel must go to great lengths to interpret rioting by Muslims in the French banlieues as an exclusively economic, rather than even partially religio-cultural, phenomenon. 

He has convinced himself, at any rate, that Islam will go Europe, not the other way around. For Kepel, the combination of human capital drawn from across the Mediterranean and European expertise is driving "an ever changing process of fascination and rejection, where friendship and enmity mingle in the register of intimacy." His prediction is that this emerging economic dynamo will be the "alternative to the failed narratives of jihad and the war on terror." It's a happy ending, but is it true?