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…

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