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The Middle East: What to Do?

Sari Nusseibeh is a Palestinian philosopher and currently president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. His ancestors accompanied the soldier and second caliph (“successor to the prophet”) Omar when he captured Jerusalem in AD 638. From that time to the present the Nusseibehs have been an institution in the Holy City. In his haunting memoir, Once Upon a Country, Nusseibeh writes of the British rulers of Palestine following World War I: “They also did something that would be repeated innumerable times in the future: they sent in clueless ‘experts’ to find a solution.”1

This harsh characterization of many people who have devoted their professional lives to the problem of Palestine and Israel reflects the exasperation and the sense of tragic loss of a highly intelligent and civilized Palestinian whose family had been leaders in the life of Jerusalem for some thirteen hundred years, and the feeling that the outside world has betrayed them.2 In the Middle East, exceptionally long historical memory—of past glories as well as humiliations—produces emotions not easily understood by people from other, less ancient, more forgetful societies.

Certainly the so-called “Middle East problem” has attracted larger swarms of experts and has probably given rise to more thousands of pages of expertise than any other international problem. And after eighty years or more the problem has only become more complicated, and seemingly as far from resolution as ever. A peaceful solution has proved to be beyond the capacity both of the protagonists themselves and of the outsiders, “experts,” and others who have tried to help them.

The dustcover of Kenneth Pollack’s latest book describes him as a “leading Middle East policy analyst.” He served on the National Security Council staff in the last years of the Clinton administration, spent seven years at the CIA analyzing military policy in the Persian Gulf, and is currently director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. In his 2002 book, The Threatening Storm, Pollack made a strong, although qualified, case for the invasion of Iraq. His argument was based to a large extent on the Bush administration’s fabricated “intelligence” on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear capacity, the main pretext for the invasion. Not surprisingly, like many others who were deceived, Pollack has reacted strongly. In his new book he loses no opportunity to lambast Bush and his administration. Phrases like “the colossal screw-ups of the Bush administration” and “a geostrategic mess that will take years to untangle” recur with an almost obsessive regularity throughout.

1.

In A Path Out of the Desert, Pollack makes a long and discursive case for what his subtitle calls “A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East.” He reverses the usual priorities so that the best-known parts of the problem, the Israeli–Palestinian struggle, Iraq, and Iran are only discussed, and briefly at that, in his final pages. His main argument is that political, economic, and social reforms in Muslim Middle Eastern countries are, in the end, the only serious means of resolving problems like terrorism and protecting the basic interests of the United States in the region. The “grand strategy” of the title refers to the overall policy that the United States must devise if it is to mastermind and lead this vast reform effort. The phrase “grand strategy” recurs almost as frequently as the attacks on George W. Bush and, like them, it becomes quite oppressive.

Pollack defines the two fundamental interests of the United States in the Middle East as securing the production and delivery of oil (the “Achilles’ heel of the Western World”) and the security of Israel, in that order. The objective of a “grand strategy,” he writes, is a “gradual, indigenously driven, but internationally assisted transformation throughout the Middle East.”

The United States consumes one quarter of the world’s oil and imports 65 percent of the oil it consumes. The Persian Gulf countries produce 23 percent of the world’s oil, about half of which comes from Saudi Arabia. Virtually all of the world’s excess production capacity—i.e., extra oil that can be made available immediately—is located in the Gulf region, most of it in Saudi Arabia. Saudi oil production is irreplaceable in the global economy. There is, Pollack writes, no more sensitive economic target on earth than the Saudi oil-processing center at Abqaiq, where, in February 2006, terrorists had to be physically prevented from crashing two car bombs into the installation. The first priority of US policy must be to prevent any instability that might lead to a catastrophic disruption of the flow of oil from the Middle East.

I was surprised to find Pollack writing that the 1917 Balfour Declaration provided that “Britain would look favorably on the creation of a Jewish state(my italics) in Palestine. The deliberately fuzzy phrase was, of course, “a national home for the Jewish people.” Pollack writes that the US relationship with Israel is rooted in its belief in the right of self-determination, democracy, and moral values, and has little or nothing to do with domestic pressures. He maintains that by its unwavering support for Israel since 1967 “the US government has been able to exercise considerable pressure on Israel to restrain its military actions.” This support and restraint has also been, he believes, a “critical element in winning and securing Arab allies” for the United States. That the US, despite its own rhetoric, has not been able to restrain the expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank is a crucial fact that Pollack does not mention; it is a major obstacle to peace as well as a source of anger among US allies, not to mention the Palestinians and the Arab states of the Middle East.

Pollack argues convincingly that for the United States the basic problem in the Muslim Middle East is not terrorism; rather, terrorism is a symptom of the inherent instability caused by the failure of the stagnant Muslim state system. A population explosion—from 78.6 million in 1950 to an estimated 375 million in 2010—has not been accompanied by any parallel growth in GDP. Real wages and labor productivity remain much the same as in 1970, while overpopulation and unemployment breed widespread disaffection and hardship. In 2007 unemployment rates in the Middle East were the highest in the world. In the absence of urban planning and public spending on housing, shantytowns and slums now surround most cities. Some 35 percent of the population of Cairo lives in slums.

Globalization has only served to highlight the “dysfunctions and inefficiencies” of Arab states and their inability to compete in a globalized economy. Pollack’s examples are devastating. South Korea and Taiwan “export more goods in two days than Egypt does in an entire year.” The manufactured exports of Israel (population six million) exceed the entire non-oil exports of the Arab world combined (population 325 million). Low productivity rates and all-powerful and dilatory bureaucracies discourage foreign investment in anything but oil. Oil wealth itself, Pollack observes, tends to distort regional economies and political systems and eliminates the impact of market forces. Oil-rich governments tend not to shut down unprofitable businesses but to subsidize them.

Government patronage produces a “massively inefficient public sector” and, in countries where many people do not work at all, their governments import low-paid foreign workers. The gap between rich and poor is wide and growing. In Saudi Arabia, Pollack writes, between 20 and 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, a major factor in recruiting young men for al-Qaeda. People hate and resent a government that seems to keep all the oil money for itself.

Pollack is particularly critical of educational systems that “are not producing large numbers of people able to create and employ knowledge to enable Arab states to compete in the global marketplace.” Because a large portion of educational costs are paid by governments, ministries of education have a stifling control over such matters as selection of courses and textbooks, and standards of teacher training. The 2003 Arab Human Development Report, produced by twenty-two prominent Arab authors for the United Nations Development Program, commented on the traditional style of child rearing as

the authoritarian mode accompanied by the overprotective. This reduces children’s independence, self-confidence and social efficiency, and fosters passive attitudes and hesitant decision-making skills. Most of all, it affects how the child thinks by suppressing questioning, exploration, and initiative.

The principle that “knowledge is revealed, not created,” and the prevalence of rote learning and the memorization of indisputable texts, discourage innovation and initiative. Pollack notes that between 1980 and 2000, Israel, with a population less than one tenth the size of Egypt’s, registered one hundred times as many patents as Egypt. While higher education heightens the aspirations and expectations of students, there are dangerously high unemployment or underemployment rates among the educated classes throughout the Muslim Arab world.

Pollack pictures Muslim countries of the Middle East as besieged by “modernity,” which to them means mass culture, virtually instant information and communications, global trade and economy, and, above all, new values, new behavior, and new modes of thinking and acting. Muslim countries see emerging global cultural homogeneity as a threat to Arab culture, language, and identity. (Who can say they are altogether wrong in this reaction?) Although the Gulf Emirates have embraced globalization with enthusiasm, elsewhere there is a tendency to withdraw into isolation and a cocoon of “Arab self-containment,” according to the Arab Human Development Report, that “hobbles cooperation with international partners in the humanities and social sciences.” The Arab Muslim world has eighteen computers per thousand people; the global average is 78.3.

Pollack claims that the Arab Muslim world is the “last bastion of authoritarianism left on earth.” If only this generalization were true. Each in their own way, China, Russia, and Zimbabwe are authoritarian states, to name only three of many. Pollack has in mind Middle Eastern nations that have failed to develop successful market economies and have “huge, sclerotic bureaucracies,” patronage, graft, and an overblown public sector. Such societies are ruled by a determination to maintain the status quo and to avoid anything that might disrupt the patronage network. As the Arab Human Development Report sees it, “Healthy competition still eludes Arab economies where entrenched monopolies dominate several sectors.” There is an obsession with security and with snuffing out potential opposition. Government supervision compromises higher education and stifles the spirit of inquiry and creativity.

The press is, for the most part, subservient, and TV and radio are largely state-controlled. It is significant that Iraq now has “the freest press in the Arab world.” An important new element, however, are the satellite television stations, Abu Dhabi TV, al-Arabiya based in Dubai, and al-Jazeera based in Qatar. Pollack, without serious explanation, describes the last as “infamous.” These relative newcomers provide news, comment, and information of a completely new order. They are, Pollack writes, transforming Arab media. By measuring governments by democratic standards, they may well be doing more to educate Arabs about democracy than anyone else.

  1. 1

    Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, p. 32; reviewed in these pages by Amos Elon, April 26, 2007.

  2. 2

    Among their many important responsibilities, the Nusseibehs were hereditary guardians of the key of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

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