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.


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.

An important aspect of government control of the press is the tendency to deflect blame for the conditions that cause widespread unhappiness—oppression, lack of jobs, and overall misery—onto outside powers, especially Israel and the United States. This feeds into popular conspiracy theories and provides a useful pretext for clobbering the opposition. It is also a welcome excuse, in the words of the Arab Human Development Report, for “deferring political and economic reforms in the name of national solidarity against a formidably-armed external aggressor.”

Finally, Pollack describes a “stultifying legal system”—contradictory, inaccessible, opaque, underfunded, and full of patronage appointments—in which there is little public confidence. This not only makes people feel angry and powerless but is also bad for business and foreign investment.

I have tried to give some idea of Pollack’s picture of the Augean Stables he hopes can eventually be cleaned up by the “grand strategy” he proposes. In describing the Middle East as “a whole that is worse than the sum of its parts,” he ends this part of his book with an evocation of poverty, stagnation, and lack of opportunity that fill the poor and the middle class alike with rage and frustration—a system in which, at present, there is no political redress and little hope of change. The educated but unemployed middle-class young man must go home to live with his parents and postpone any idea of marriage, while the poor scrabble for survival in squalid shantytowns. Pollack suggests that Arab populations are angrier with the United States for supporting their authoritarian governments than for supporting Israel. This is hardly the impression given by militant Islamist organizations, to whom the plight of the Palestinians is a historic wrong that must be righted.


Since World War II, Pan-Arabism, Arab socialism, and Arab nationalism have successively failed to make a serious dent on this litany of misery and deprivation. As Pollack puts it, they failed to produce a “better world.” Nor has “modernity” done much for the Arab poor. Now it is the turn of the Islamists, whose provision of basic social services and relative lack of corruption have already won them electoral victories and brought contempt on governments and on other political parties. As Pollack points out, Islamists pose a revolutionary challenge to the state, and in Iran they have actually become the state in a revolution that is the inspiration of Muslims who hope for radical change.

Pollack writes that an Islamic revolution in Saudi Arabia or Egypt would be a major disaster for the United States. He believes a “pre-revolutionary” situation exists in most Muslim Middle Eastern countries. That is the reason for his basic premise that “the time for ignoring the underlying problems of the Muslim Middle East is long past.” He does not add that the possibility of a peaceful, nonrevolutionary change of course may also already be past.

However wise the administration in Washington, how much can the United States itself realistically do to bring reform to the governments that have created the Middle East’s “large pool of deeply angry, frustrated, and fearful people,” a pool that may at any time overflow in Islamic revolutions in vital parts of the region? Pollack admits that there are no quick fixes and that only a long, dedicated, and difficult process of reform might work. Among the elements of such a program would be: guaranteeing individual rights and basic freedoms; protection of minorities; government by the will of the people expressed in fair elections; the rule of law, including checks on governmental power; efficient and apolitical bureaucracies; educational reform; modern information technology; and the employment of a country’s wealth for the common good.

This formula for twenty-first-century Western democracy, Pollack acknowledges, cannot be imposed in short order on states that have no experience of democracy. The evolution of the necessary civil and legal institutions and principles will take years at best. In particular the protection of the rights of the opposition is a principle vital for avoiding a single election that will return the country to its predemocratic authoritarian state—“one person, one vote, one time,” to quote a familiar formula.

By Arab standards, Pollack is proposing a radical if not utopian program, and it is difficult to imagine what might motivate the governments concerned to cooperate in realizing it. Pollack recognizes this and other obstacles and has no persuasive solution for them; but the alternative, he writes, is

to simply keep doing what we have been doing in the assumption that the Arab regimes will be able to keep repressing and manipulating their people in perpetuity…the approach that gave us revolution in Iran; civil wars in Algeria, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq (even before the US invasion), and Yemen; insurgencies in Egypt and Libya; coups in too many countries to list; as well as rebellions, riots, and Salafi [i.e., Islamic extremist] terrorist campaigns in nearly every Muslim state in the region.

On the other hand, “all of the Middle Eastern States, and particularly the most important (like Egypt and Saudi Arabia), are fiercely nationalistic and bristle when the United States tries to bend them to its will.” There can be little doubt that most of the people of the Muslim Middle East would prefer some form of democracy and resent current US support of authoritarian and oppressive regimes. The question for the United States is how to respond to this longing without either alienating these governments or setting off the revolution that it dreads.

Pollack admits that “we need to acknowledge that we have only a rough idea of how the Middle East can transform itself,” with whatever help and advice it is prepared to accept from outside. Secular Arab liberals are politically weaker than Islamist parties. They tend to be out of touch with the people, do not build social services, and lack the social mechanism of the mosque. That is why Hamas got 56 percent of the seats in the Palestinian parliament in 2006 in a democratic election of which Washington was the strongest backer. We hear less from Washington about the glories of democratization since it became clear, in Gaza, Lebanon, and Iraq, that Islamists tend at present to be the greatest beneficiaries of democratic elections. Pollack agrees that the United States cannot exclude Islamists from office or refuse to recognize them, although here he neglects to mention either Hamas or Hezbollah, two Islamist groups that have had electoral success. He speculates on the possibility of “moderate” Islamist regimes.

After the experience in Iraq, it is surprising that Pollack suggests that the United States should announce, as part of a grand strategy, a “doctrine of intervention against conventional aggression in the Middle East.” Quite apart from the question of whether the United States at present has either the world position or the military capacity to launch such an intervention, according to the UN Charter interventions against aggression are, in the first instance, the responsibility of the UN Security Council. The council’s refusal to authorize an intervention in Iraq in 2003, greeted at the time with rage and contumely in Washington, now looks more and more like the better part of wisdom. So also was the advice of Hans Blix (not mentioned by Pollack) to continue the inspections in Iraq authorized by the Security Council. In another place Pollack advises, “Beware the military option.” Perhaps a less risky way of dealing with aggression could be formalized in the regional security apparatus that he also suggests.

Reform, Pollack writes, must be indigenous, “fashioned by homegrown reformists,” gradual (no hurried elections), flexible, bottom-up, multilateral, and patient. It should, however, be accompanied by an aggressive anti-terrorist campaign and a determined effort to resolve the critical situations in Iraq and Iran and the Israeli– Palestinian problem. These considerations cause Pollack to redefine his “grand strategy” as a “core approach coupled with a penumbra of related policies,” none of which should damage the core approach.

After excoriating George W. Bush for creating a “geostrategic mess” which has left the United States with only poor options in Iraq, Pollack concludes that the best, and not very original, course would be to set up a group of all Iraq’s neighbors to provide advice and assistance, and to give a larger role to the United Nations in leading the political and reconstruction effort.

Pollack feels that in Iraq the Bush administration has created a situation so favorable to Iran that Tehran has not considered it necessary to make serious trouble there. It presumably can continue to exert influence while waiting for the US presence to diminish. As for nuclear weapons, Pollack writes that Iran may be looking for the “capability to make nuclear weapons, if not the weapons themselves,” a policy not unlike that of Japan. In fact, he argues, the greatest danger from Iran may currently be the temptation to “ramp up” activities that disturb the status quo in the Middle East. In such circumstances the US should try to change Iranian behavior—not the regime—and watch for possibilities of rapprochement, for example, by providing aid to improve the moribund Iranian economy. Pollack’s sound general advice also applies to other problems—talk directly; avoid inhibiting preconditions and procedures; “focus on the product and not get worked up about the process”; and beware the military option.

Because there is no longer a risk that superpowers will compete to escalate the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Pollack asserts that it is no longer the most important issue in the Middle East as far as the United States is concerned. This seems to me an obtuse analysis of a long-standing and tragic situation quite unlike other problems in the Middle East. The question is how far the United States can still usefully act as the principal mediator. Certainly it is true that “Americans should see the creation of a viable Palestinian state as a blessing” in many different ways. The broad outlines of a viable peace deal, Pollack writes, have been clear since the late 1990s.

The word “viable” should not be spoken so lightly. Developments in the occupied Palestinian territories since the 1990s raise major doubts about the viability of a future Palestinian state. More and more well-informed observers believe that the real obstacle to a peace deal may now be that a workable Palestinian state is no longer possible. Henry Siegman, for example, has written that the

problem is that for all the sins attributable to the Palestinians—and they are legion, including inept and corrupt leadership, failed institution-building and the murderous violence of rejectionist groups—there is no prospect for a viable, sovereign Palestinian state, primarily because Israel’s various governments, from 1967 until today, have never had the intention of allowing such a state to come into being….No government serious about a two-state solution to the conflict would have pursued, without letup, the theft and fragmentation of Palestinian lands, which even a child understands makes Palestinian statehood impossible.3

Creating facts on the ground has been a successful Israeli tactic since the earliest days of the Israeli state, and nowhere has it been so energetically followed as in the West Bank. The relentless development of new settlements and the enlargement of existing ones; closed military areas, Israeli-declared nature reserves, the separation barrier, or wall, with its encroachment or division of Palestinian land; the Israeli-only road network for the settlements; the numerous IDF barriers and roadblocks—all this has already fragmented the West Bank and put some 40 percent of it off limits to Palestinians.

Such is the situation in the territory that is supposed to become the “viable” Palestinian state. Nowhere does Pollack give an adequate account of these conditions and the Israeli policies that created them over the last forty years. Instead, he writes that to achieve a settlement Israelis “might have to dismantle some of their five hundred checkpoints”; and that a useful but “very painful” action would be to halt building other settlements or expanding existing ones. Just exactly how those settlements got there, and why it would be so painful to stop building them, we are not told.


Otherwise, Pollack provides useful information; and he performs a service in arguing the dangers of uncritical US support of myopic Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes in the face of increasing popular discontent. The “grand strategy” aspect of his book is less convincing. In present circumstances there is little evidence that a “grand strategy” for reform proposed by the United States would be accepted by the governments of the Muslim Middle East, whose cooperation is essential for its success. There are already many programs, national, international, and nongovernmental, that attempt to address some of the aspects of such reform. Rechristening them as a “grand strategy” designed by the United States is unlikely to make them more effective and might even create greater resistance to them.

In a closing chapter entitled “Enter the Dragon,” Pollack considers the arrival of China, the world’s second-largest oil consumer, as an important player in the Middle East. While China apparently does not care how Middle Eastern governments rule or treat their citizens, it does, Pollack points out, share the interest of the United States in ensuring a plentiful and uninterrupted flow of Middle Eastern oil. Pollack hopes that China may come to understand that chronic Middle Eastern instability is the greatest threat to oil exports, and therefore support, and even become a partner in, the move for reform—an optimistic view of a country that still puts its own advocates of multiparty democracy and human rights in prison.

The initiative of some countries in the Middle East itself to broker practical arrangements to preserve peace is one positive recent element in the region, although Pollack doesn’t mention it. In the past year Qatar has negotiated a Lebanese internal political agreement; under the auspices of Turkey, Israel and Syria have announced the resumption of indirect peace talks; and Egypt has brokered a cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.4 This is an encouraging trend that might develop into a very positive part of the peace process.

The proposed “grand strategy” inevitably involves a number of contradictions. Not least of these is how the US can promote a program for radical economic, social, and political change in the same authoritarian regimes on which it depends from day to day for securing and continuing the production and export of oil. Or how critical short-term US interests in the Middle East can be served by democratization, which, initially at least, is likely to put into power governments far less amenable to US interests than the present authoritarian ones.

From the time of the Balfour Declaration (1917) and the Treaty of Versailles (1919), great powers have manipulated the Middle East predominantly in their own national interest. This continues to be largely true in the UN Security Council. This practice has not always been to the advantage of the peoples of the Middle East, and they know it.

No power, great or small, that has had a part in the tragedies of the Middle East since 1917, when the Ottoman Empire ceased to be the dominant power in the region, has had as its primary goal the creation of a workable relationship between Arabs and Jews (later Israelis) in Palestine. Perhaps this was never a possibility anyway, but outside national interests have certainly not assisted progress. Pollack is very frank in stating the overriding importance of US national interests in the region. Would disinterested negotiators do better? It is worth recalling that Count Folke Bernadotte and Ralph Bunche, as impartial UN mediators in Palestine in 1948–1949, proposed a plan for a two-state solution that was rejected out of hand by the Arab states; and Bunche negotiated armistice agreements that kept the peace for some years. But they failed to put in place a lasting solution.

Could Pollack’s grand strategy for reform in the Muslim Middle East be embraced by the world’s governments as something that the peoples of that region desperately desire? This strategy, it must be said, springs from the vital national interests of a superpower at present regarded internationally with a degree of suspicion and dislike that Pollack hardly acknowledges. Progress may depend on whether the US can regain international respect as a power whose interests are perceived as coinciding with the promotion of freedom, justice, and prosperity for other nations, including those of the Middle East.

—October 7, 2008

  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.

  3. 3

    Tough Love for Israel,” The Nation, May 5, 2008. Henry Siegman is director of the US/Middle East Project in New York, research professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and former executive director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America.

  4. 4

    See Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, “Peace Fills a Vacuum,” The New York Times, June 3, 2008.