Posted by on March 16, 2016

I have just finished reading an article entitled “Fight or Flight: America’s Choice in the Middle East” in Foreign Affairs (behind the subscription blocker here).  It is written by Kenneth Pollack from the Brookings Institution.[1]  It makes a strong case that the US must now decide whether to double down on the Middle East or leave the region.  Pollack comes to the wrong conclusion, but in a delightfully Freudian way, he does a good job of presenting the arguments against his own recommendation.

The article begins by cataloguing the disaster that is the Middle East, with civil wars across the region.  Pollack argues that the US has responded to this with half-way measures, trying to treat the symptoms rather than the causes.  Here is a typical passage:

As for the civil wars, the administration has focused on addressing only their symptoms – trying to contain the spillover – by attacking the Islamic State, or ISIS; accepting some refugees; and working to prevent terrorist attacks back home.

But these measures will never be sufficient: “If fact, it is effectively impossible to eradicate the symptoms of civil wars without treating the underlying maladies.”  The author then presents the alternatives of either stepping up or stepping out.

Pollack is bullish on the ability of stepping up to work.  In his words:

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, moreover, it is possible for a third party to settle a civil war long before it might end on its own.  Scholars of civil wars have found that in about 20 percent of the cases since 1945, and roughly 40 percent of the cases since 1995, an external actor was able to engineer just such an outcome.  Doing so is not easy, of course, but it need not be as ruinously expensive as the United States’ painful experience in Iraq.

I cannot verify this statement, and certainly “scholarship” in such a squishy field is something that should not be accepted at face value.  I could also, just off the top of my head, add a few more names to the list of painful experiences, such as Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Somalia – and even that paragon of allegedly successful intervention, Bosnia.  But maybe it is easiest just to review what Pollack thinks is necessary for a successful intervention.

Pollack lays out a multi-prong strategy for a successful “stepping up” strategy, the modest goals of which include the following:

  • “The first priority should be to shut down the current civil wars.  In every case, that will require first changing the battlefield dynamics to convince all the warring factions that military victory is impossible.”
  • “…the United States and its allies will also have to build new indigenous militaries able to first defeat the terrorists, militias, and extremists and then serve as the foundation for a new state.”
  • “In all four civil wars[2], the United States and its allies will also have to undertake major political efforts aimed at forging equitable power-sharing arrangements.”

These layups should then be followed by these further efforts:

  • “After ending the current civil wars, the next priority of a stepped-up U.S. strategy in the Middle East will be to shore up the states in the greatest danger of sliding into future civil wars: Eqypt, Jordan, Tunisia, and Turkey….The four at-risk countries are all badly in need of economic assistance and infrastructure development.  But above all, they need political reform to avoid state failure.  Consequently, the United States and its allies should offer a range of trade benefits, financial incentives, and economic aid in return for gradual but concrete steps toward political reform.”
  • “The final piece of the puzzle is to press for reform more broadly across the Middle East – economic, social, and political.”

Presumably, after this, the United States and its allies could rest on the seventh day.

Pollack never mentions that all of these things have been tried and found wanting in the recent past.   A bit like Keynesian economic policies, he must believe that they have failed for want of “moooaaarrr.”  And he doesn’t explicitly mention that, even if these goals could be accomplished, they would not be a one-time affair.  This playpen requires constant adult supervision.  In his words:

The Middle East has not been without a great-power overseer of one kind or another since the Ottoman conquests of the sixteenth century….Good or bad, the states of the region have grown accustomed to interacting with one another with a dominating third party in the room, figuratively and often literally.

But as repugnant and implausible as all of this might be, we must at least consider the possibility that the alternative of “stepping back” is even worse.  So, what does Pollack think are the consequences of this strategy, which would “require Washington to make a ruthless (sic) assessment of what is the least the United States can do to secure its vital interests in the Middle East?”  Interests which, according to Pollack, come down to “in large part…Israel, terrorism and oil.”

Leaving aside the question of whether Israel is really a vital interest of the US[3] – in support of which the article only offers that “poll after poll has found, a majority of Americans continue to see the safety of Israel as important to them and the United States” – Pollack correctly points out that the Israelis are more than capable of taking care of themselves: “Israeli forces can defeat any conventional foe and deter any deterrable unconventional  threat.”  This is doubly true now that Israel has formed a de facto alliance with Saudi Arabia against the Shiite Crescent.  And it is triply true now that most of its neighboring enemies are either in disarray (Syria and Lebanon) or on its side (Jordan and Egypt).  And it is quadruptly – if that’s a word – true now that the Soviet Union is no longer backing any Arab attacks on Israel.

But what about terrorism?  Here Pollack is dead on target when he points out that intervention, as this blog has often noted, is the cause and not the cure for terrorism in the West.  Here is the paragraph from his article:

Perhaps the greatest advantage of a reduced U.S. presence in the Middle East is that it should mitigate the threat from terrorism.  Terrorists from the region attack Americans largely because they feel aggrieved by U.S. policies, just as they attack France and the United Kingdom because those countries are staunch U.S. allies (and former colonial powers) and have started to attack Russia because it has intervened in Syria.  The less the United States is involved in the Middle East, the less its people are likely to be attacked by terrorists from the region.  It is no accident that Switzerland does not suffer from Middle Eastern terrorism.

Out of the mouths of babes.

So, we are left with oil and specifically with Saudi Arabia, which remains the 500-pound gorilla in this field.  Pollack correctly points out that, even after the fracking revolution has made America independent in oil, the US (and, probably even more so, the rest of the world) still has an interest in keeping the Saudi taps open, which supply 10% of the globe’s daily consumption.  The world oil market is a giant lake.  Cut off the flow anywhere and every place will be affected through higher prices.

But then Pollack makes the following argument:

[Saudi Arabia’s] principal threats are internal….How can the United States protect Saudi Arabia from itself?…[The United States] would have little leverage if it swore off the only thing that the Saudis truly want: greater U.S. involvement to end the civil wars and prevent Iran from exploiting them.  In these circumstances, the United States would have virtually no ability to save Saudi Arabia from itself if its rulers were to insist on following a ruinous path.  Yet in the context of greater U.S. disengagement, that is the most likely course the Saudis would take.

How about that for an argument?  We have to undertake a massive effort to quell civil wars in the Middle East because otherwise we will lose our leverage over the self-destructive behavior of the House of Saud.

This is assailable on so many levels that it is hard to know where to begin.  Why, for example, is self-destruction “the most likely course the Saudis” will take?  Pollack gives no answer.

Far from American influence saving the Saudi elite from its worst instincts, isn’t it possible that our support actually comforts the kleptocrats on their highway to hell?  For that matter, why are the Saudis still so self-destructive after all the leverage that we have presumably been able to exercise since we jumped into bed with them at the end of World War II?  Have we not been using the leverage or are the Saudis just impervious to it?  If so, then why should any of this change now?

Likewise, if the Saudi government falls, then it is obvious that whatever replaces it will be perfectly happy to sell us the oil.  We have just been spending a lot of time and money fighting off attempts by our enemies in Iran and ISIS to shove their filthy petroleum down our throats.  Do we think that any successor Saudi government, friend or foe, would have any different motivations?  There would be disruptions, but the oil would ultimately flow.

On the basis of this argument, Pollack concludes that “the most prudent course is for Americans to steel themselves against the costs and step up to stabilize the region.”  This is a breathtaking non sequitur.  If we have to choose between double or quits – and I do think that he is right in posing the question in these stark terms – then even Pollack’s own cost-benefit analysis points in the direction of the latter.

Although I think that Pollack is dead wrong in his recommended course of action, he does deserve credit for ending his article with one more blinding glimpse of the obvious:

That said, what the United States should certainly not do is refuse to choose between stepping up and stepping back and instead waffle somewhere in the middle, committing enough resources to enlarge its burden without increasing the likelihood that its moves will make anything better….The tragedy is that given the U.S. political system’s tendency to avoid decisive moves, the next administration will almost inevitably opt to muddle through.  Given the extent of the chaos in the Middle East today, refusing to choose would likely prove to be the worst choice of all.

It goes without saying that all of the leading candidates[4] from both parties are heading in exactly this direction.


I make a simple argument about the Middle East.  There is another part of the world that is equally toxic.  It is most of Africa, which suffers from the same problems of corruption; tribal and religious divisions; underdeveloped institutions; miss-drawn national boundaries; numerous, unemployed and alienated youth; and general backwardness.  But when was the last time we spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives trying to clean up this region?

The answer to this question is, of course, “never.”  For the simple reason that, although it would be great if Africa reformed itself, we fundamentally don’t have to care.  Most of Africa has nothing that we truly need and therefore we can neglect it with impunity.

We need to “Africanize” the Middle East and as quickly as possible.  As I have pointed out before, this is one of the strongest, but not the only, arguments for a carbon tax in order to accelerate our independence from oil.  Although my libertarian friends won’t like to hear this, if we have to raise $1 dollar in taxes from some source, then without a doubt one of the smartest ways to do this is with a carbon tax.[5]

Roger Barris

Weybridge, United Kingdom


[1] I don’t know the political leanings of Pollack, whether he is a “neoconservative” interventionist from the Right or a “responsibility to protect” interventionist from the Left.  Little matter which one.

[2] In Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.

[3] Don’t get me wrong.  As I have mentioned before (in the section “Bibi and Iran” here), I certainly think that the Israelis are more sinned against than sinning.  I am talking vital interests here.  Not sympathy.

[4] Some of my libertarian friends think that Trump is the exception.  They haven’t been paying attention.  In the last debate in Miami, Trump was asked point blank if he would follow the military’s advice to put 20,000-30,000 troops on the ground to defeat ISIS.  For once, Trump gave a straight answer to a question: “We have to knock ‘em out, knock ‘em out fast, and then come home and rebuild our country.”  Of course, this is sheer idiocy.  The whole problem with these Middle Eastern conflicts it that they are easy to win militarily – remember, we did this with both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s forces – but victory is pointless without winning the peace.  And this requires, as I have pointed out before, the type of nation building that has never been a success.  So Trump’s plan for a quick victory followed by a rapid withdrawal is just a recipe for having to do the same thing a year later.  Pointless.  Totally pointless.

[5] Just to be crystal clear: I am not suggesting increasing the tax burden, but I am strongly suggesting re-allocating it.

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2 Comments on "Double or Quits"

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Roger, I got it!!
Why don’t YOU run for president?
Course I know the answer: few lucid thinkers ever get voted in, it’s only the sleaze bags that stand a chance.