Book Review

America's Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East

Chas W. Freeman, Jr.

Fall 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 3

Ambassador and former assistant secretary of defense Chas Freeman is a knowledgeable and well-regarded analyst of the Middle East. His latest work continues a narrative of U.S. policy challenges, setbacks and mistakes in the region begun in his 2010 volume, America's Misadventures in the Middle East. The current work is a compilation of Freeman's speeches and other presentations on a variety of topics related to the Middle East between 2010 and 2015. His overarching message is one of frustration and disappointment.

The collection covers the gamut of current issues in the region, in Freeman's well-developed witty and generally provocative style, making for an interesting read. The 24 chapters are organized into four thematic areas: "The Role of the Israel-Palestine Conflict;" "After the Arab Uprisings: Regression and Anarchy;" "The Middle East and the World Beyond It" and "The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy." A 12-page introduction provides an up-to-date context for the topics in the book, and each section begins with a current overview of its themes. The book closes with a 12-page conclusion, "Fixing the Mess in the Middle East."

The first seven chapters deal with the Israeli-Palestine conflict. In reviewing its evolution over the past several decades, Freeman clearly puts himself into the camp of those who support a safe and secure Israel, a viable independent Palestinian state and regional acceptance of Israel. In his discussion of the failure of such a resolution of the conflict to have emerged, despite decades of effort by the parties and well-intentioned outsiders (most important, the United States.), Freeman primarily assigns fault to the Israeli side, in particular the Israeli political leadership (and domestic political dynamics in Israel) over the past decade and more.

Freeman is also unsparing in his criticism of a U.S. domestic political climate which, in his view, has played an important role in enabling what he considers counterproductive policy positions ( "a suicidal strategy") of Israeli leaders. He also underscores the detrimental impact this has had on the image and influence of the United States among the Arab states. He describes his own changed perception of the issue over the years: "With great reluctance, I came to see that, given U.S. enablement, Israel has never been prepared to risk peace with those it displaced from their homes in Palestine."

Freeman's next five chapters are devoted to what he calls the "Arab Uprisings," a phrase he uses "to avoid confusing the objectives of the mobs in the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Sanaa, Manama, and Damascus with the westernized democracy evoked by the term 'Arab Spring.'" Speaking in the early days of what he then called the "Arab Reawakening," Freeman notes of the protests, "it is clearer what they are against than what they are for," and questions "what future balance will be struck between secular and Islamist politics." From today's perspective, in a world in which the efforts of Arab populations in 2011 to reform and modernize their governments, economies and societies have mostly led either to abject failure (Egypt) or tragic violence (Syria), Freeman's early skepticism seems prescient. Along the way, in Freeman's view, U.S. influence and credibility with rulers in the region suffered a major blow, due to the decision to withdraw support from longstanding partner Hosni Mubarak.

The third element of Freeman's work contains five chapters that look at the Middle East beyond its regional confines. Here Freeman notes the growing diversity of the economic and political relationships of key countries in the Middle East, in particular the states of the Gulf. Growing disillusionment with the United States — first in its reaction to the Arab Spring, and more recently in its engagement with Iran — has caused the region, and the Gulf states in particular, to seek new or strengthened relationships with China and India. As Freeman notes, with Asia being the area of strongest current economic growth, and with an increasing share of the Gulf region's energy resources being exported to Asia, we are seeing a more "balanced" and less Western-focused orientation of the countries of the region.

The final section of the book focuses on American foreign policy in the region. Here, Freeman presents his most thorough criticism of U.S. regional engagement, in particular citing a strategy he describes as "imbalanced" in favor of military intervention. Indeed, as he notes in the section's introduction, "Diplomacy-free foreign policy does not work." Freeman is harshly critical of what he sees as the current dominance of drones, economic sanctions and military-first policies. Along the way, Freeman makes note of the fact that "domestically appealing rhetoric" and a "military-industrial-congressional complex" has led to "our now heavily militarized political culture," with its unfortunate impact on U.S. policies in the Middle East.

Freeman is also quite harsh on what he calls the U.S. forfeiture of the moral high ground through post-9/11 policies of torture ("enhanced interrogation") and denial of Geneva Convention protections to battlefield enemies. Whereas the United States used to be able to invoke its principles and values to receptive foreign publics as it engaged internationally, policies in recent years have badly tarnished the U.S. image. Freeman also notes the insidious effect of "the overwhelming military and economic leverage of the United States," fostering a hubris that has not served U.S. interests well.

Concluding his work, Freeman lists what he considers the basic U.S. regional policy objectives, which, he underscores, have not really changed in decades: "gain acceptance and security for a Jewish homeland"; "ensure the uninterrupted availability of the region's energy"; "preserve our ability to transit the region"; "prevent the rise of a regional 'hegemon'"; "maximize profitable commerce"; and "promote stability, … human rights and progress towards constitutional democracy." He sees two structural problems that stymie the attainment of these goals, what he calls "enablement" and "moral hazard": "Enablement occurs when one party to a relationship indulges or supports and thereby enables another party's dysfunctional behavior." A corollary to enablement, moral hazard, arises when regional partners come to believe that the United States will (unilaterally) undertake actions ("bear the burden") on their behalf, thus relieving them of the need to take what might be painful or costly decisions to safeguard their own interests. In Freeman's view, these afflictions are all too common in our relationships with both Israel and many of the Arab states.

The nature of the book's content — speeches — limits Freeman's ability to provide an in-depth treatment of the underlying assumptions, motives and other parameters that animate the actors in the region. For example, while Freeman's criticisms of Israeli policies vis-à-vis a peace agreement with the Palestinians are well-founded, his narrative does not explore the specifics of the issues in contention — security, borders, the status of Jerusalem, the right of return, etc. — and thus which factors might be addressed, and how, in order to resolve the conflict. Likewise, given the nature of its content, the book assumes a fairly sophisticated understanding of the region, its recent history and its dynamics, a quite reasonable assumption regarding someone who would have originally encountered Freeman's remarks by attending one of his lectures.

As someone who has participated in U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, I would also like to have seen a fuller exposition of the political calculus at play in the U.S. approach to the region. Freeman thoroughly and convincingly outlines the basic tactical and strategic blunders that have afflicted U.S. policy in recent years; however, there could be more discussion of the delicate balance the United States has sought in its dealings over the decades with the region's autocrats and monarchs between preserving stability and promoting positive change, such as greater individual freedoms and more responsive governance. Freeman downplays the U.S. support for democracy, the rule of law and human rights in the Middle East, but, as a U.S. diplomat who served in the Arab world over three decades, I was quite aware of U.S. diplomatic engagement at the highest levels to promote such values to regional leaders. Moreover, as a public-diplomacy officer, I was centrally involved in our efforts — through support for civil society, implementation of educational and professional exchange programs, and other means — to foster the development of the human and institutional capital that would help these states move toward greater individual rights and more responsive governance.

The nature of the material also imbues it with a certain rhetorical quality — distinct from dispassionate "analysis" — that is typical (indeed, necessary) to the task of verbally presenting complex and nuanced ideas. A certain flair is needed to hold the attention of an audience, and Freeman's mastery of the witty turn of phrase and unexpected characterization of ideas make him a renowned public speaker.

Compiled over a five-year period — the most recent entry is from June of 2015 — these essays provide more of a glimpse into the recent public discussion of issues related to the Middle East than a current account of them. For example, while there is a discussion of the P5+1 diplomatic engagement with Iran in remarks from September 2014, the last speech in the book was delivered before the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal in July 2015, leaving the implications of that diplomatic success outside Freeman's discussion.

These considerations notwithstanding, Freeman's insights into and very readable treatment of recent developments in the Middle East and the rather poor U.S. track record there very effectively point out where American actions and policies have been contradictory, inconsistent, misguided and unhelpful. Through his detailed analysis and documentation of such shortcomings, Freeman convincingly diagnoses how and why the United States finds itself in its current regrettable situation. Whether Washington will be able to take the necessary political decisions to change course remains to be seen.