Kenneth Pollack:

"A Path Out of the Desert" (2008)

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
The book is two books. One book describes the problems of the Arab countries of the Middle East. The second book describes Pollack's own "grand strategy" to solve all ills of the Middle East.

Pollack is right to think that countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt are on the brink of revolutions. He points out that those revolutions are more likely to benefit the Islamists than the pro-democracy liberals. The latter are are few, weak and often viewed as traitors not heroes in their countries. This, to me, is the fundamental contradiction of Western foreign policy: giving them something that they are not asking for.

Along the way he makes strange claims, like when he suggests that the USA's alliance with Israel has won over the Arab regimes ("America's support for Israel over the years has even been a critical element in winning and securing Arab allies.") And when he suggests that the Palestinian conflict is no longer strategic for the USA.

His "grand strategy" amounts to little more than what the West has been doing to the "uncivilized" rest of the world for five centuries: find a way to force on them Western ideas and values through a long process of democratic reforms more or less guided by the USA. The specifics are vague and sometimes contradictory. In any case he never explains why those regimes should cooperate to destroy their own rule.

All in all, Pollack comes through as somebody who has never traveled in the Middle East (among ordinary Arabs) and has written the book while sitting in an armchair in a USA city staring at the map on the wall of distant countries.

He does mention overpopulation (the most visible problem if you travel there) but fails to point out the culprit. He does mention the problems with an educational system that does not produce inventors, scientists and so forth, but fails to point out the culprit. He mentions the fact that the Arab world is still run by dictators in a world that has become more and more democratic, but fails to point out the culprit. He mentions the lack of opportunity for young people, but fails to point out the culprit. I guess it is taboo to mention the role that Islam plays in hindering modern education and the spread of democracy, and in creating vast masses of frustrated young people.

He mentions the devastating effect that Western policies have had in keeping dictators in power but fails to show how those Western policies have helped the rise of Islam precisely by pitting Western-supported dictators against Islamic organizations, the latter being less corrupt and more efficient than the former. Islamists would win free elections everywhere, like they have done in Algeria and Palestine. The alternatives, ranging from Arab socialism to USA-style democracy, have so far failed to provide ordinary people with a better life.

The situation is even worse than he describes. Islamic countries are being left behind in the global economy of the 21st century. The only interest that the world has in the Middle East is oil. There are no major ideas, inventions, theories, culture coming out of the Islamic world. For all practical purposes, the only function of the Islamic world is to provide oil to the rest of the world (and huge masses of cheap labor). Pollack has not realized that the Islamic masses are very much aware of this fact. But the Islamists have actually capitalized on the very problem that they have created: the majority of the Islamic world blames the rest of the world for all their ills. The Islamic masses feel surrounded by enemies (USA, Europe, Russia, China, India).

Pollack neglects how Islam is the enemy of the progress, the same way that Catholicism was the enemy of progress in southern Europe.

Pollack has clearly never spoken with ordinary Arabs, otherwise he would have noticed that, from Morocco to Syria, the one topic that they care for is the plight of the Palestinians. Palestine is the main scapegoat in that part of the world. This scapegoat is what unites dictators and Islamists. The dictators created the scapegoat to justify their own failures. The Islamists use Israel both as the enemy that can unite the masses and as evidence that the dictators are doublecrossers (indirectly working to help Israel survive).

It is hard to see how a man who knows so little about the psychology of the average Arab can suggest a "grand strategy" for the Arab world.

Pollack is also ambivalent on the role that should be played by foreign powers. Should the USA invade or not invade? He implies that the USA should intervene to guarantee the existing borders (the dogma of the century). That view is shared by many, but then how is democratic progress supposed to take place? Since the fall of the Ottoman empire there has been virtually no progress at all in human rights in the Middle East between foreign interventions.

Pollack's "grand strategy" is basically a more peaceful version of the Bush doctrine, with no significant new ideas.

For signs of hope, Pollack should have looked at recent peace negotiations carried out very successfully by Islamic countries on behalf of other Islamic countries: Qatar mediated in Lebanon, Turkey mediated between Syria and Israel, Egypt is mediating between Israel and Palestine not to mention between Palestinian factions themselves. These countries have been more effective than the USA ever was in brokering talks.

As far as the West goes, the most pressing priority is to regain credibility among the Islamic masses, something that will not be possible as long as Islam prescribes that the infidels are always wrong and Muslims are always right.

Pollack is ignorant of the mood in the streets, probably because he has never taken a bus or a train in Egypt or Syria (see How did we fail so badly? A report from a trip to the Middle East).

Books like this show how little the USA understands of the cultural psychology of the Islamic world, and explain why the USA keeps making so many blunders.