What Is the Arab World’s Problem?

Kenneth Pollack’s grand strategy for the Middle East.

In recent years, former CIA analyst and Clinton-administration National Security Council staffer Kenneth Pollack has found himself so close to Bush administration Middle East policies—like regime change in Iraq and Gen. David Petraeus’ surge strategy —that it’s hardly surprising he’d now like to put some distance between himself and an unpopular White House. Thus, in A Path out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East, Pollack adopts a countermeasure perfected over the last several years by Arab liberals concerned that any association with Bush is likely to lose them respect, if not their freedom or their lives: trash the White House pre-emptively and then restate the general principles of its Middle East policy.

Pollack’s grand strategy—”an overarching conception of what it is that we seek to achieve, how we intend to do it and how to employ the full panoply of foreign policy tools”—is reform, just as it is for the Bush administration. And yet unlike the White House, Pollack clearly spells out his ideas about the Middle East and Washington’s role there in securing U.S. interests. He identifies America’s chief vital interest in the region without embarrassment: Persian Gulf energy resources. Until the United States develops an adequate substitute for oil, we are stuck in the Middle East protecting the free flow of affordable fossil fuel that not only fills American SUVs but also ensures the stability of global markets. Pollack makes a good case that were it not for our presence in the Gulf, we would not be such a valuable target on the jihadist hit list, and were we to leave tomorrow, the threat to the United States from Arab terror outfits would largely subside.

Since we are not leaving, we need to repair the region with a broad program of economic and political reform, different from the Bush administration’s quick-fix obsession with elections that merely lent democratic legitimacy to Islamist groups in the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt. Pollack argues that a process of real liberal reform will take decades, if not longer.

Here he is surely right. The problem, however, is that the U.S. policymaking body whose institutional memory and resources equip it to deal with long-term solutions is not interested in change, whether it be fast or slow. The State Department prizes stability, which is partly attributable to the temperament of people who are likely to seek employment in Washington bureaucracies. But State’s caution and fear of unintended consequences also issue from an accurate reckoning of its own priorities and capabilities.

Consider Egypt. For more than two decades, Washington has provided Cairo with $2 billion annually, a deal that binds the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, guarantees our carefree passage through the Suez Canal, and buys a certain amount of cooperation on military and security issues. President Hosni Mubarak’s regime is not the easiest friend we have in the world, but for a bureaucracy with a lot on its hands already, our bargain with Egypt gives us one less thing to worry about. Should we pressure Cairo to make reforms? Sure, and we do. However, as Pollack notes, our capacity is limited. Even if there were 50 people at Foggy Bottom tasked specifically to the Egypt desk—instead of the two there are—we are still up against a regime whose sole strategic goal is to ensure its own survival at any cost. Multiply that by 22, the number of Arab League member states, and it is clear that we just can’t afford the luxury of employing thousands to push a stone up a hill only to see it roll most of the way back down again.

In Pollack’s view, it is the regimes themselves that are largely responsible for the state of the region. “The principal problem of the Middle East,” he writes, “is the failure of the contemporary state system.” Again, this is a diagnosis widely shared on both sides of the aisle in Washington. Immediately after 9/11, the charges against Arab regimes were direct: Through violence, repression, and incitement in the media, mosques, and educational system, Arab rulers had turned their people into a fanatical anti-American and anti-Semitic horde. In time, the rhetoric mellowed some, but still, the chief goal of the current administration’s democratization program was to make Arab countries responsible for the welfare and actions of their citizens within and beyond their borders—i.e., to stop dispatching jihadists to kill and die in foreign lands. Indeed, trying to make Arab regimes act like real states is the only good reason U.S. policymakers continue to keep a Palestinian-Israeli peace process on life support. We want a Palestinian state because our bureaucracy deals effectively with states and less well with armed NGOs.

But here’s another way to look at it: The Palestinian Authority is neither a nascent state nor a failed state project. Rather, it is a clan system of frequently competing interests that no Palestinian leader in his right mind would try to turn into a state, regardless of how much financial incentive the international community makes available. The problem is not that the Arab state system is breaking down, but rather that it never existed. And the proof is unfolding before us in, among other places, Hamas’ Islamic Republic of Gaza, the autonomous Hezbollah regions of Hezbollah Lebanon, and perhaps even someday soon in Iraq, as the Arabs redraw the borders of the region to their own taste with little concern for the international state system.

So, let’s step back for a second: Given that Arab states do not act like real states, why try to democratize them and push for a reform agenda like Pollack’s that aims to promote freedom of speech and “protections for minorities so that the state or the majority cannot oppress unpopular groups”? Because the Arabs want democracy, writes Pollack—albeit without some of the elements that the West tends to associate with the social values of Western democracies, “like gender roles, abortion, homosexuality,” and other issues like “sex on television and anti-religious speech and behavior.” Well, which is it: Arab reform or respect for Arab cultural norms? It is one thing to say that Arab democracy will embody the traditions and morals of Arab society. But a polity that continues to limit freedom of expression and persecute Middle Eastern minorities like, say, homosexuals, is a very poor version of “representative government,” and it is not clear why Americans have any stake in funding and fighting for it.

A Path out of the Desert reflects not only the confusion of Washington officials but also the idées fixes of a great many Americans. For instance, Pollack seems to be channeling the junior senator from Illinois when he writes, “The fear and frustration that so many Arabs feel comes from the cultural clash between the forces of modernity and their own traditions. … Historically, this clash has often prompted people to retreat into religiosity.”

Muslims in the Muslim Middle East are religious because they believe in God, the perfection of his final revelation in the Quran, and his prophet Muhammad. And Islamism, which Pollack is at pains to distinguish from Islam, is a vital force in the region precisely because it represents the progressive and rational current of Islam that sought to reconcile a society marked by fatalism and backwardness with “the forces of modernity” embodied by the West.

That trend, starting with 19th-century Muslim reformers Jamal al-din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdu, gave rise to the Islamist movement, from the Muslim Brotherhood all the way down to the most notoriously violent organizations in the region like Hamas and al-Qaida. For Pollack, as for many U.S. policymakers, a key question is whether Islamists should be allowed to participate in the democratic process and, if so, which ones should qualify. However, the Islamists, both moderate and extreme, are already a part of Middle Eastern political culture, whether we like it or not. The problem is with our intellectual framework: By focusing on how to jump-start the “democratic process,” we have failed to recognize what the region really looks like.

Besides Lebanon and now Iraq, there is no mechanism for power-sharing or transmitting authority from one ruler to the next, except through inheritance or coup d’état. Arab politics is a fight to become what Osama Bin Laden called the “strong horse,” which means if you want power, you have to take it. Islamist violence is not attributable to a lack of economic opportunities, as Pollack contends, or to any other “root cause.” The Islamists are simply playing by regional rules, where terror and repression are two sides of the same bloody coin—insurgents and oppositionists wage terror campaigns to win power, and the regimes use torture and collective punishment in order to repress their domestic competition.

That is to say, Middle Eastern regimes are not the source of the region’s problems. As the decapitation of Saddam Hussein’s regime showed, the psychopaths, princes, and presidents for life who rule Arab states are merely the hothouse flowers of a poisonous political culture. “The States are as the men are,” Plato writes in The Republic. “They grow out of human characters.” The failure to respect this basic and ancient political principle marks by far the greatest intellectual error of neocon Middle East policy and thus of the entire liberal intelligentsia from which it arises. As we saw with Hezbollah’s orgiastic celebrations for released child-murderer Samir Kuntar, the problem with the Arab world is Arab societies themselves.

The Iraq war should have cured us of any illusions about the Middle East, but the administration’s incoherence let us put many of the region’s problems on Bush’s tab. American opinion will be easier on the next president and harder on the Middle East itself as we come to distinguish between our problems, mistakes, and limitations and those of the Arabs. The paradox is that one of our sharpest limitations is that we believe democracy is a universal cure-all, good for all people at all times, when that is almost certainly not the case. However, as Pollack argues, democratic reform seems to be the only thing that will save the Middle East from consuming itself in violence, for the region can get worse than it is now, much worse.