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A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East
A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East
by Kenneth M. Pollack
Edition: Hardcover
153 used & new from $0.01

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Book, January 11, 2009
Since everyone else has posted their favorite review of Pollack's terrific book, here is LTG Dubik's from Army Magazine. Dubik was commander of MNSTC-I in Iraq when we finally turned the Iraqi Army around and built one that could fight.

Throwing Out a Challenge: A New Strategy for the Middle East

By Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik
U.S. Army retired

A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East. Kenneth M. Pollack. Random House. 543 pages; tables; index; $30.

If you're looking for a one-volume answer to the questions--"What is going on in the Middle East?", "Why should we care?" and "What should we do about it?"--then this is your book. Simply put, Kenneth Pollack's A Path Out of the Desert is a must-read for any serious strategist, military practitioner, student of the Middle East or informed citizen. Pollack starts with a clear description of America's vital interests in the Middle East, then presents a set of well-documented, cogent arguments demonstrating that those interests are threatened by the anger and frustration of the people in the region--anger and frustration caused by an interlocking set of crippling societal problems. Finally, Pollack recommends a grand strategy for the United States and its allies in which they "encourage and enable the countries of the Middle East to pursue a gradual process of political, economic and social reform--one that grows from within, rather than being imposed from without; one that reflects the values, traditions, history and aspirations of the people of the region themselves, not a Western guess at them; one that recognizes that reform and stability are not mutually exclusive but mutually reinforcing--and ultimately mutually essential."

A Path is grandly written and argued, as is Pollack's vision for U.S. policy. His personal history--Persian Gulf military analyst at the CIA, director for Persian Gulf affairs in the Clinton National Security Council and now a director of research at the Brookings Institution--has come to bear in the pages of A Path. The dots connecting the twin threats facing countries in the Middle East--instability and terrorism--to American vital interests are clear in Pollack's mind: "Global economic dependence on oil has risen to the point where the United States and its trading partners simply cannot tolerate the kind of instability for which the Middle East has become famous. A major calamity there could bring down the entire international economic order." Oil, Pollack goes on to remind us, is the lifeblood of modern civilization. China, Japan, Northeast Asia, Europe, the Americas--all have interests in the production, distribution and pricing of oil. Pollack deals with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be.

Clear, sober and complete might best describe the framework for this book: clear in describing U.S. vital interests in the Middle East and the threats to those interests; sober in acknowledging the difficulties in mitigating those threats as well as the commitment necessary to be successful; and complete in presenting a multi-decade, multifaceted grand strategy for the United States. Terrorism and instability are both symptoms of an underlying disease. "To be blunt," Pollack writes, "the countries of the Muslim Middle East are broken. Their political, economic and even social systems are stagnant. The people of the region feel that their culture is under assault. ... They feel powerless, angry, frustrated and frightened, and their leaders feed them a steady diet of lies, exaggeration and blame shifting. ... It is these powerful forces that have fed the rise of Islamic opposition groups and, at the extreme, vicious terrorists groups lashing out at a remarkable range of perceived enemies."

Curing the disease over the long term (acknowledged as a decades-long task requiring international cooperation with indigenous reformers) while treating its near-term symptoms (continued counterterrorist operations) is the tall order of Pollack's grand strategy.

Chapter 5, entitled "A Sea of Socio-economic Problems," and Chapters 7, 8 and 9, respectively entitled "Political Islam," "The Threat from Instability and Internal Strife" and "The Threat of Terrorism," all provide readers of A Path with a network of arguments and associated documentation leading to two major conclusions. First, the most immediate and direct threat is one of terrorist attack. September 11, 2001, and the series of attacks on America and Americans that led up to 9/11 "should not require any additional proof that this is a real threat that needs to be dealt with." Second, the most dangerous threat that the United States faces is "instability in the form of civil unrest, coups, insurgencies, civil wars and possibly even revolutions," all produced by the economic, political and social problems of the Muslim Middle East. This longer-term threat "has reduced oil exports ... affecting the price of oil and causing recessions in the United States, and it has also contributed meaningfully to the threat of proliferation."

Readers will experience the same rigor in Part Four: "The Core of a Grand Strategy for the Middle East," in which Pollack acknowledges "the simple but inescapable fact that there are no quick fixes to the problem of instability." Pollack explains, "The only approach known to mankind to eradicate, and not merely suppress, the kind of problems experienced by the Muslim Middle East is to embrace a long-term process of reform--toward more pluralist forms of government, toward the rule of law, toward a dynamic education system, toward a market-driven economy and toward a more `modern' pattern of social interaction."

Simply beginning such a path--or committing to it--may, in Pollack's view, start to alleviate many of the pressures that produce both instability and terrorism. "Humans," he reminds us, "have a remarkable capacity for hope." Pollack is not a blurry-eyed idealist, however. He confirms his understanding that "explaining how to turn theory into practical reality, how to overcome all of the potential problems, how to settle a spate of conundrums, how to encourage the people of the region to follow this course and enable them to do so--not to mention actually executing it over the course of the next several decades--is the hard part." Throughout the detailed description of the grand strategy that he proposes, Pollack again and again underscores the difficulties that execution will pose.

At the end of this excellent volume, I found myself ruminating on precisely this point of difficulty in execution. I have just finished 14 months in command of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, the command responsible for reforming Iraq's security sector as well as training and fielding its military and police forces. I had overseen the growth of Iraq's security forces by more than 125,000; led the efforts to improve the ministries of defense and interior, helping get them to the point of capability and confidence they have reached today; and supervised the attempts at structuring modern acquisition systems from antiquated methods--theirs and ours--resulting in almost $3 billion of Iraqi money being invested in procurement. As compelling as I found Pollack's vision, and as important as I believe adopting the grand strategy he presents is to our nation (and the world, for that matter), I found myself returning to execution. In the hopes of helping to sharpen the thinking about "how to do what we need to do," I offer several questions.

First, how can we attract the right people to this project, military and civilian? Senior people, military and civilian, with considerable experience and broad managerial skill sets will be necessary to operationalize the vision presented in A Path. Senior people like this are hard to attract and keep. In the military, for example, there are already insufficient numbers of senior officers and sergeants with the necessary work experience. Even in the retired ranks, a smaller force produces fewer retirees. Civilians who are experienced in banking, agriculture, labor and economic development will be in higher demand and even harder to hire. Making Pollack's vision operational will take some detailed thinking in the human resource department.

Second, how can we create, then sustain, the bipartisan consensus and consistent funding that such a grand strategy will require? Given the decades-
long time horizon that Pollack correctly identifies as necessary to see his grand strategy through, bipartisan support in Congress will be a sine qua non. The vision presented in A Path will span both Democratic and Republican administrations and congressional majorities. It will span good economic times and bad. Such a grand strategy, therefore, will require an equally grand political consensus.

Third, how can we add more emphasis on reduction of oil dependency as an element of this grand strategy? "Oil," Pollack acknowledges, "is the lifeblood of the international economic order and probably will be for some decades to come, try as we might (and should) to end that dependence." Initiating serious discussion among the major oil-dependent states that leads to a workable accord of some sort, it seems to me, will itself be helpful in motivating producing nations toward the kinds of change A Path suggests. Such discussions, and the actions that would follow, would not be sufficient by themselves, but are a necessary component of the set of actions Pollack outlines.

These are only three of many more questions that derive from serious consideration of the well-argued, cohesive set of ideas that constitute the grand strategy of A Path. Pollack has thrown out a challenge--now it ought to be taken up in a series of conferences, workshops, briefings and discussions among those who believe his vision is correct, as well as those who think it is deficient.

A Path Out of the Desert is that good.

LT. GEN. JAMES M. DUBIK, USA Ret., is a former commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq and a senior fellow of AUSA's Institute of Land Warfare.

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