The Arab world is not ours to “reform” by mattsteinglass
July 29, 2008, 11:51 am
Filed under: Iraq, United States, War

I have a lot more respect for Lee Smith’s take on the problems with Kenneth Pollack’s “reform” agenda for the Middle East (in his new book A Path out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East) than Matthew Yglesias does. Here’s Smith’s gloss of Pollack’s argument:

He identifies America’s chief vital interest in the region without embarrassment: Persian Gulf energy resources. Until the United States develops an adequate substitute for oil, we are stuck in the Middle East protecting the free flow of affordable fossil fuel that not only fills American SUVs but also ensures the stability of global markets. Pollack makes a good case that were it not for our presence in the Gulf, we would not be such a valuable target on the jihadist hit list, and were we to leave tomorrow, the threat to the United States from Arab terror outfits would largely subside.

Since we are not leaving, we need to repair the region with a broad program of economic and political reform, different from the Bush administration’s quick-fix obsession with elections that merely lent democratic legitimacy to Islamist groups in the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt. Pollack argues that a process of real liberal reform will take decades, if not longer.

Yglesias thinks the problem with this is that we can’t accomplish reform in the Arab world if people think we’re only doing it for easier access to their oil. “Reform is hard. Promoting reform is harder. Promoting reform in the name of cheap oil and military domination is almost certainly impossible.”

I think Yglesias gets this wrong: the problem is that we can’t accomplish reform in the Arab world. The United States cannot reform the governing institutions of Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Syria. The world is not put together that way. Only Saudis, Egyptians and Syrians can reform their governing institutions. The US can stand for a certain kind of governance, and aid and encourage forces within other societies that want to move towards that kind of governance. But it has no control over whether those forces succeed or not. And that’s why “reform in the Arab world” cannot form a plank of an American “grand strategy”. We can control whether or not we stand for democratic reform. We can’t control whether or not it happens. You don’t build a strategy that rests on the success of things you have no control over — see Iraq.

Lee Smith’s phrasing of this point verges on anti-Arab prejudice, but at its root it does something that Yglesias fails to: it takes Arab societies seriously. Smith thinks there are reasons why Arab states are almost universally dictatorships shot through with armed non-state actors, and that these have to do with the clan structure of Arab societies. The notion that the US can march into such societies and turn them into little Americas is absurd, and it doesn’t much matter whether America phrases its motives in terms of access to oil or in terms of spreading freedom. I agree. To me, it sounds like what’s wrong with Ken Pollack’s book isn’t that he hasn’t done a cost-benefit analysis of reforming the Middle East or that he thinks we can reform the Middle East in order to stabilize oil supplies. The problem is that he thinks we can reform the Middle East. Other countries are not ours to “reform”. We need to get through our heads the difference between standing for democracy and encouraging and defending democracy, and rolling into other countries trying to create democracy by fiat. We don’t get to treat the world as if it were clay in our hands, and I sometimes feel that Yglesias and some in the resurgent liberal-internationalist crowd still have a too-expansive base assumption of what “we can do,” if “we” means the US.


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