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A Path Out of the Desert

A Path Out of the Desert

In recent days, many commentators of both left and right have noticed Senator Barack Obama’s efforts to adopt as many of President George W Bush’s policies as he can in the hope of winning the presidential election in November. Some commentators have even dubbed the Democrat party’s presumptive presidential nominee as Barack Hussein Bush.

Kenneth M Pollack’s timely book shows that Obama is not alone in adopting, or swallowing, key aspects of Bush’s domestic and foreign policies. A good many in the Democratic leadership elite perhaps even a majority, realize that Bush-bashing of the kind that motivates MoveOn and similar groups cannot form a serious basis for a future administration’s policies.

Pollack, a former CIA analyst and official in the Clinton administration, describes himself as an internationalist neo-liberal, a term coined to put him at the opposite point of the political spectrum from neo-conservatives.

He devotes a good part of his book to thrashing the Bush administration record in the Middle East but ends up adopting the Bush Doctrine that links US national security to democratization in the Middle East. What Pollack is angry about is Bush’s supposed failure to implement a doctrine that bears his name, not the doctrine itself.

Pollack writes:” We cannot as a nation discard this approach just because the Bush administration championed it rhetorically. Despite the fact that George W Bush said it was the best thing to do, it is actually the best thing to do.”

Pollack also endorses Bush’s position on Iraq. To pre-empt criticism from fellow-Democrats, Pollack is careful to condemn the war in Iraq, and use clichés- fiasco, quagmire, catastrophe, mess etc- to describe the situation there. He has to do so if only because , four years ago, he was one of the most ardent advocates of pre-emptive war against Saddam Hussein. (His book: The Threatening Storm: The Case of Invading Iraq became a best-seller). He now says he still believes that the US should have liberated Iraq but only after doing lots of other things including totally defeating terrorism, modernizing the region’s economy, solving the Palestinian problem and eradicating poverty. In other words: not in his lifetime!

Although the book was written before the full effects of the “surge” led by general David Petraeus had persuaded most Democrats that the war was not lost, as their Senate Majority leader Harry Reid had claimed over a year ago, Pollack rejects cut-and-run as an option. He acknowledges that with the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the expulsion of the Syrians from Lebanon, and the subduing of Colonel Kaddhafi in Libya, a new system has began to emerge in the region.

He writes: ” We cannot walk away from the system we built because it has helped so many others; it is also that we cannot walk away from it lest it collapses and in doing so threaten our economic development and even physical security.”

More poignantly, Pollack even admits that the much maligned Bush may well have done better in protecting the US against terrorism than its predecessor. He writes: ” We are already doing better than we did before 9/11, and for this the Bush administration deserves credit.” He adds:” Although they have tried mightily, the terrorists have not been able to conduct another attack on Americans in the United States.” One reason for this that Pollack does not mention is that Bush decided to go after the terrorism fighting them in their own land rather than waiting for them to come to the United States and turn it into a battleground.

It is obvious that Pollack wrote the book in the hope that Senator Hilary Clinton would win the Democratic presidential nomination and possibly become the next President of the United States. Much of Pollack’s analysis reflects Clinton’s views that were always closer to Bush’s than to Obama’s before the Illinois senator’s apparent conversion to the Bush Doctrine.

To his credit, Pollack admits that there is no guarantee that a putative Democrat administration would make no mistakes in dealing with the complex problems of a dangerous but vitally important region. He writes:” Because we know so kittle about he Middle East, we are inevitably going to try things that don’t work.” The important thing to remember is that doing nothing is no option. Thus, Bush’s proactive policy is vindicated, despite Pollack’s implicit claim that a Democrat president would have implemented it more effectively.

Throughout the book, Pollack whets our appetite by promising to expose the core of his proposed grand strategy. However, this never happens. Apart from repeating the premises and conclusions of the Bush Doctrine, often more effectively than members of he Bush administration have done over the past seven years, Pollack offers few concrete measures of his own. One such suggestion is ” an increase of $5 to $10 billion dollars in annual aid for Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Sudan and Bahrain.” We are not told which of the problems the US faces will be solved by such a move. Some of Pollack’s other suggestions belong to the apple-pie and motherhood category. He advocates free markets, good governance and, of course, pluralism and free elections, although he is not as bewitched by the latter as the Bushites are supposed to be. Beyond these, he suggests programs to teach English and computer skills to young Arabs and provide micro-credit facilities and loan guarantees for small businesses. He also proposes food distribution among hungry Arabs, and the creation of medical care centers and dental cabinets. The implication is that people speaking English and surfing the net, and enjoying good health and sturdy teeth would be less inclined to try to kill Americans.

Pollack makes a number of bizarre suggestions that cannot be properly critiqued because they are never fully developed. One such is his suggestion to create a “security framework” in the Persian Gulf without the US but including Iran. The idea is not new. It was proposed by Iran at the Muscat Conference in 1976 when the Shah was still in power. The Arab states rejected it because they did not wish to be left alone with a much larger and potentially more powerful neighbor that could dominate them. Today, it even less likely that the Arabs will accept such a “framework” and accept leadership from an Iran ruled by mullahs seeking hegemony.

Sometimes, Pollack is dreaming with his eyes open: ” If we could somehow make the underlying economic, social and political problems of the Muslim middle East vanish, imagine the impact it would have on the threat we face from Salafi terrorism. ” Yes, imagine!

Pollack believes that the region’s number one problem, ” the mother of all woes”, is economic. One might take issue with that. Assuming the primacy of economics is a Marxian affliction. In fact, the “mother of all woes” in the region, including its economic problems, stem from lack of political freedom and the rule of law. No amount of US aid would solve economic problems created by corrupt regimes that deny their people a say in their own affairs. Nor would prosperity alone guarantee that no one would dream of conquering the world through terror in the name of a perverted version of religion.

In a sop to old liberals, our neo-liberal author asserts that ” Terrorism is nothing but a symptom of the region’s problems.”

Again, one could argue the opposite that many of the region’s problems are symptoms of terrorisms. Despotic states use terror against their citizens and are , in turn, targeted by dissidents using terror against them. Religious authorities issue fatwas sanctioning the use of terror against the ” infidel”, women, ethnic and religious minorities, and ” lapsed Muslims.”

The author mocks those who argue that Islam is incompatible with religion and rightly points to the fact that some Muslim countries, notably Malaysia, Bangladesh and Turkey have built democratic systems. However, this does not prove the compatibility of Islam with democracy. What it proves is the compatibility of democracy with Islam. In other words, Islam could have a place in a democracy. However, democracy cannot have a place in an Islamic state.

Although one has no way of guessing what influence this book might have on the shapers of foreign policy in the Democratic Party, one thing is certain: Pollack invites his fellow Democrats to think beyond partisan considerations. And that is potentially good news. The United Sates cannot develop and implement a credible strategy, and or not, in the Middle East as long as it is perceived to be a house divided and thus unable to deploy its full power and influence in any particular direction. Whoever forms the next administration must try to promote a bipartisan approach to dealing with the challenge of Islamist fascism in a region of immense economic, political and geo-strategic importance to the US and its allies.

Pollack’s essay is a valuable contribution to efforts for such a bipartisan approach.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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