Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Path Out of the Desert by Kenneth M. Pollack

A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East
I may not understand the situation in the Middle East any better than I did before I read this book. In fact, I'm not sure any Westerner can really understand the cultural assumptions. However, I feel that I am much more comprehensively apprised of the historic causes and forces than I was before I started.

This was a difficult book to get through; not because it was uninteresting, but because it was so detailed. I'd read one of Pollack's earlier books about Iraq, written just before the 2003 invasion, and thought he was quite insightful, and he definitely knows his stuff when it comes to Middle East policy, having served as director of Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council twice, and seven years as a CIA Persian Gulf military analyst.

Some of the statistics about the Arab world may (or may not) shock you. The number of newspapers per thousand people in the Arab states is just 53, compared to 285 per thousand in the West. There are 1/5 the number of telephone lines, and around 1/6 the computers, with only 1.6% of the Arab population having Internet access. Only about 330 books are translated into Arabic each year, with a grand total of about 10,000 books (FEWER THAN IN MY PERSONAL LIBRARY!) having been translated into Arabic since 819 AD. Glad I don't live over there.

The public sector employees in the Arab world are even more of a drain on the economy than they are here in the U.S. In a country that's been in the news lately, Egypt had 350,000 civil servants in 1952, which grew to over 4 million by 1992, and to roughly 7 million by 2007. Public sector employment accounts for 20% of the Saudi labor force, 28% in Egypt, 25% in Algeria, 34% in Jordan, 40%-70% in Bahrain, Oman and the UAE. The Kuwaiti government employs over 90% of its national workforce.

Interesting tidbit, "state ownership of banks has been a serious inhibiting factor in investment and entrepreneurship...Banks often give loans based on political directives, cronyism and graft rather than economic viability..." Makes me think about the recent real estate crash and mortgage crisis here in the U.S. The only thing different is the extent of the cronyism, in my opinion. "In Arab countries...profits are derived from access to power rather than through economic efficiency and performance" Can you say Jeffrey Imelt, anyone?

Iranian media outlets are closely connected to key regime figures, says Pollack. Journalists who publish views the regime figures don't like are routinely beaten, threatened, imprisoned, or assassinated. Arab regimes like to direct their subjects anger towards external threats, such as the United States or Israel, though Arabic conspiracy theories vary as to whether the U.S. uses Israel as it's "cats-paw" in the area or Israel uses the U.S.

In the Arab world legal system, the average person usually needs a fixer to take care of the bribes necessary to grease the wheels of justice. They often pay to get a favorable result even when the law is on their side, but just as often when the law is not, are able to obtain a result in their favor if the proper palms are greased. Due to corruption and inefficiency, the cost of starting a business in the Muslim Middle East is higher than anywhere else in the world.

Huge numbers of people in the Middle East, if they don't have government sinecures, are unable to get enough money to take care of basic needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter. The Islamist groups in the area recognized the need, and both Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hisbullah in Lebanon established large and efficient social services which provide these things to the poor, gaining their sympathies.

One thing I hadn't really considered before was that the roots of political instability (leading to revolution) are always economic in nature. Pollack mentions the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland which principally aggravated not by religious differences, per se, but by the economic disparities between Catholics and Protestants. An economic study of civil wars showed that low educational levels, per capita income, and population growth rate were the primary factors in determining the likelihood of internal violence in a country.

"Academic studies have consistently found that employment may be the most important determinant of overall happiness..." Go, Puritan work ethic!

Pollack says that most of the countries of the Middle East are right now in a prerevolutionary state. Conditions are ripe for the overthrow of many of the regimes there. Presciently, this book was written in 2007, and as I'm reading it today, Egypt has ousted Mubarak, Libya has ousted Gadaffi, and the people are marching in the streets in several other Middle Eastern countries. The guy was right on.

Just a little correction of a popular belief. It has been said the the 9/11 hijackers were all well educated middle class men, but in fact only six of them were, the others were poor, rural and not well educated, according to Mr. Pollack.

This book had a flurry of post-it notes in it long before I finished, and it would be a very long post if I attempted to mention all of the bits I found interesting.

After great exposition, Pollack believes that it is in the best interests of the United States (and the rest of the West) to encourage the gradual political reform of the Middle East, for a number of reasons, including decreasing the danger from extremist Islamic terrorists, keeping the oil flowing so we don't cripple the world economy, and from the moral standpoint that it is not only the pragmatic thing to do, but the right thing to do. He encourages people not to get hung up on the fact that the Bush 43 administration proposed doing so - it's a good idea even if you don't like the source.

I've heard from friends, even good liberal friends, that the people in Arab countries aren't capable of handling democracy, or that they don't deserve it. Pollack mentions that at various times, scholars and experts maintained that the Germans and Japanese were incapable of democracy, or that the Catholic and Confucian worlds were incompatible with it. Why should the Muslim Middle East be denied the opportunity to rule themselves for a change? Pollack holds up Lebanon as at least a partial success in the region, until Syria's intervention messed things up.

His five-pronged strategy:
1. Washington should encourage economic liberalization to create greater economic opportunity.
2. The United states should provide assistance only to Islamist groups that meet the criteria (reject violence, accept pluralistic political systems, accept the rule of law, accept a secular public education system, accept alternate forms of law other than Sharia, accept religious freedom and gender equality) for moderation.
3. The United States should help build up and professionalize major institutions like the government bureaucracy and armed forces
4. The US should make clear that its friendship, economic relations, and aid are all contingent upon the political parties' abiding by the rules of the system (like the Democratic senators in Wisconsin right now?)
5. The US should see democratization as a process that should develop gradually.

He lists some concrete steps that could be taken by the West right away:
  • Set up an aid program to help the Middle Eastern countries build an effective social safety net to help marginalized and underprivileged groups. Are we successfully doing this here?
  • Establish more small and micro-loan programs
  • Make aid and other forms of assistance dependent on the condition that all of the people working in programs funded by that aid be local nationals. Any success in our southern border states in this area?
  • Bring pressure on governments that imprison human rights and democracy advocates
  • Establish programs to train Middle Eastern bureaucrats to manage comprehensive reform programs more effectively. Bureaucrats...reform?...effective? I'm sorry.
  • Extend loan guarantees, investment guarantees, tax incentives, and favorable credit directly to Middle Eastern enterprises or foreign firms willing to invest in the Middle East. How does this not end up going to cronies and relatives of the powerful?
I'd like to keep a copy of this book around just to browse the references for further reading material, but it's due at the library tonite. I'll have to see if I can find another book by this author soon. Recommend this highly for background reading on the Middle East, but it's suddenly looking quite dated, unfortunately.

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