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Kai Ryssdal: Iraqi officials said today they’ve reached an agreement with the United States to reduce the U.S. troop presence there. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said it’s not quite a done deal yet. But any agreement would be a big step toward rebuilding the American presence in the Middle East. In his new book on that topic, called “A Path Out of The Desert,” analyst Ken Pollack says the first step for the United States is to admit it has a problem.
Ken Pollack: When it comes down to it for the United States, it’s all about the oil. It’s a hard thing to say, but you need to think of oil in this way: Oil underpins our economy and the economy of the entire developed world. It is important to us because the loss of major supplies of oil would cripple our economy, but also because it would devastate the economies of our trade partners. And in the interdependent globalized world, we can’t afford for that to happen either.
Ryssdal: Once you get past the fact that we are there for the oil, there are other problems in that region that the United States will have to deal with to get a path out. There are demographic issues and political issues and socio-economic issues. How do you unify all that in a theory that gets the United States out of the Middle East.
Pollack: The Middle East has problems abounding. And, you know, the good news is that that is something that we and other countries, other regions of the world have found ways to address. Think about Europe before the Second World War. It was the worst region on earth. The heart of genocide, of the world wars, of the worst slaughters, the worst religious wars, starvations, you name it. And through a process over about 50, 60 years, the United States helped Europeans to basically completely reforge their own societies. Now, I don’t want to suggest that what happened in Europe is exactly what’s going to happen in the Middle East. Not the case at all, ’cause it’s going to be up to the Middle East to decide, the people of the Middle East to decide what kind of a path they want to take. But we’ve never worked with them to try to find a way to make it possible for them to reform in a way that they find palatable. Nor have we really committed ourselves to this kind of an effort the way that we did in Europe, in East Asia and more recently in South America.
Ryssdal: It has to be said that you wrote a very well-received and very popular book a five or six years ago that charted, literally this is the title, “The case for Invading Iraq,” that charted the way in. How do you now present yourself as somebody charting the way out?
Pollack: Well, of course, the first problem is that while the book was very well-received, it seemed to be very little read, including by the Bush administration. My argument was that you needed to make sure that you had taken care of al-Qaida first. Don’t take your eye off Afghanistan before you shift to Iraq and a whole host of other points. In addition, I spent a lot of time in that book, a whole, the entire last chapter talking about what would be necessary to rebuild Iraq. I said that this was going be by far the most important and the hardest part; that we shouldn’t do it unless we’re ready to actually make the full effort to do the reconstruction. And, of course, the administration did none of that.
Ryssdal: You call the book, “A Path Out of the Desert.” And, I’m wondering whether the United States ever wants to get out of the Middle East. I mean, we need to be there for so many reasons.
Pollack: Sure. But there’s be there and then there’s be there. Again, go back to Europe when the Truman administration first committed the United States toward making the same kind of effort, a similar kind of effort in Europe after World War II. And, of course, a lot of people said it couldn’t be done and we said we didn’t want to stay there and the public would never support it — all of which, of course, was proven to be untrue. But the simple fact of the matter was that, over the course of time by doing what we did, we did make it possible to disengage from Europe.
When you think about the Middle East, what our engagement is liable to be like at this point in time if we actually do help the region and develop states and economies that can actually meet the needs of their people. If we can do that, I don’t think we’re ever not going to have a relationship with the Middle East. But at some point in time that relationship is going to be a lot different than the one that we’ve had for the last 60 years.
Ryssdal: Ken Pollack, thanks a lot for your time.
Pollack: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me here.
Ryssdal: Ken Pollack’s at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His latest book is called, “A Path Out of the Desert.”
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