Directionless in the Dunes

By Viorst, Milton | Moment, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

Directionless in the Dunes


Viorst, Milton, Moment


A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East

By Kenneth M. Pollack

Random House

2008, $30.00, pp. 539

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Gamal Abdul Nasser, who came to power in 1952, was the first Egyptian to lead his country in nearly 1,000 years. Whether our State Department liked him or not, for the Arab world he was the symbol of independence from foreign rule that its citizens had won after World War II.

In a meeting soon afterward with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, according to Nasser's good friend and biographer Mohammed Heikal, Nasser argued that what the Arab states needed now was an era of convalescence in which they could begin the hard work of building institutions of self-government. Dulles, however, insisted they sign on as allies of the West in the intensifying Cold War, which to him was a struggle between good and evil. Nasser replied that while Russia had never conquered Arab lands, Western powers had dominated them for a very long time. When he proposed to organize a bloc of neutral countries, according to Heikal, Dulles said the U.S. could not accept neutrality.

So, for the remainder of the Cold War, neither side made an effort at reconciliation. Nasser found friends in Moscow who were sympathetic to his needs, while the U.S. meddled ceaselessly in the affairs of the Arab states, cultivating enemies.

In his latest book, Kenneth Pollack, who calls himself a "liberal internationalist," urges more meddling. A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East, offers a series of well-intentioned and generally conventional internal reforms for which the United States should press to promote democratization: economic aid to the poor, a program of microloans, respect for human rights and training in good government. Neocons would take no exception to such proposals, though by adding coercion and regime change to the mix, they have ignited a catastrophic conflict in Iraq that has imposed huge costs on American lives and resources. Is Pollack a neocon, or maybe a crypto-neocon? A former member of Bill Clinton's National Security Council, in 2002 he wrote The Threatening Storm, subtitled "The Case for Invading Iraq." Now he blames President George W. Bush's entourage for messing up a good idea, and advocates regime change only in Iran. "I believe strongly," Pollack writes blandly, "in the importance of U.S. involvement in the world and that the involvement should be conditioned by American values." It is a formulation to which few neocons--to say nothing of Bush--would object.

Early in this lengthy book, Pollack states that America has no real interests in the Arab states, save oil. But a few hundred pages later on, he acknowledges that radical Islamic terrorism is rooted in the chronic social and economic instability of broken Arab states. The anger Arabs feel for their own rulers, he says, nurtures terrorist movements, postulating that U.S.-led reforms would go far toward drying them up. …

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