Book review: Journalist David Rohde has worthwhile, though impractical, proposals for the Middle East

In his concise new book, the journalist David Rohde says the United States can maximise its influence in the Middle East and beyond by reducing its reliance on military force in favour of a more constructive approach, writes Fran Hawthorne

Palestinians at a barber shop in East Jerusalem watch Barack Obama deliver his landmark speech at Cairo University in 2009. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP
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Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East
David Rohde

David Rohde has spent 20 years reporting "across the Islamic world", as he puts it, for The New York Times, Reuters and The Atlantic. In fact, he was held prisoner by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan for seven months in 2008-09 before escaping. He has twice won the Pulitzer Prize and has written two previous books, including one about his kidnapping.

Clearly, Rohde knows and cares a lot about this part of the world. His newest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, is an overview of the past decade in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Tunisia and Turkey.

Although short, it is crammed full of fresh, inside details and stories. There is the Turkish soap opera Magnificent Century, which has swept the Arab world and outraged traditionalists with its portrayal of the Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent, and the workshop for potential high-tech entrepreneurs in Tunisia in 2011 that petered out after it did not receive the promised funding. As well, Rohde is clear-eyed about the numerous mistakes and missed opportunities by all countries.

With this breadth of knowledge, it is thus disappointing that the book's proposals for reform, while undoubtedly worthwhile and reasonable, are so utterly impractical.

The author urges the United States to completely revamp its foreign policy; reduce its reliance on military force; increase funding and staffing for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the key government agency for economic and non-military assistance; hire fewer outside contractors; work with local and moderate groups including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; finance programmes to train technocrats and entrepreneurs; offer economic and trade incentives; and much more.

"Lethal American force alone will not defeat militancy," Rohde writes. "Local moderates will, by slowly weakening, marginalising, and discrediting radicalism in the long term."

A reader is tempted to ask: where has Rohde been? Hasn't he noticed that the Republicans in the US Congress are in no mood to increase government spending on anything, let alone foreign projects that don't directly benefit the voters back home? That when sharp cuts in US government spending loomed at the end of last year, the only area that congressional leaders could agree should be spared was defence? That, even 11 years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, relationships in the Muslim world are a touchy subject in US politics?

The answer, of course, is that Rohde has been in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and other countries doing his job. Luckily, that is also the strength of Beyond War.

To establish the context, Rohde inevitably needs to devote huge swathes of the book to summarising histories that have been widely reported, such as the failure to quickly establish order in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003. But once the scenes are set, the author goes behind the curtain for the less-reported details that he has seen first-hand or learnt from talking to eyewitnesses.

Consider, for instance, the disappointing technology workshop in Tunisia.

It began as a way to produce concrete results from President Barack Obama's June 2009 speech in Cairo pledging "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world".

Ten months after the Arab Spring was kindled, the US promised to bring a delegation of high-tech managers and investors to Tunisia, to advise would-be entrepreneurs, examine their business plans, and select one lucky winner for "training and mentoring in the United States".

Dozens of eager Tunisian inventors flooded the delegation with proposals. But Washington DC failed to put actual money into the project. It "was so poorly funded that members of the delegation had to pay their own airfare and hotel bills", according to the book. "The US government did not propose, fund, or carry out the training of the winning entrepreneur." First prize turned out to be just three months in a Detroit business incubator, which the American Arab Chamber of Commerce in Detroit and the incubator, Wayne State University, scrambled to pay for.

Rohde digs just as hard to find the rare success story. One is Afghanistan's National Solidarity Programme, through which USAID, the World Bank, Canada, Europe and Japan gave a total US$728 million (Dh2.67bn) to 29,000 village councils for development and social services.

The key was that local people set their own priorities, and "each village was responsible for maintaining and protecting its project after it was completed". Some built schools or roads, while others dug wells.

More broadly, Rohde sees potential role models in Turkey, Tunisia and even Libya.

One intriguing idea is that "If Egyptians request assistance, American officials should discuss using the European Union accession programme that was applied to Turkey", which pushed that country to institute significant governmental and economic reforms.

Of course, Turkey still hasn't gained EU membership, which would presumably weaken that as a model - a point Rohde does not discuss.

Probably the best part of Beyond War is the character sketches of 10 little-known, mid-level players.

Charles Grader, for one, is an intriguing mix of Brooks Brothers shirts and working-class roots. He went to sea on a Liberian tanker after high school, then studied at the London School of Economics and ultimately earned a doctorate in economics plus a master's degree in business administration, before running a bauxite mine in Guinea, a university executive training programme, and a British non-governmental organisation in Afghanistan. By the time Rohde caught up with Grader, an American, the latter had "spent five weeks in a fetid Indian jail" falsely charged with smuggling antiquities and had also barely escaped capture by the Taliban. Later, Grader would be fired from his contracting job in Afghanistan for, he said, challenging the way USAID ran its contracting programmes.

Another colourful character with sharp insights into US foreign policy failings is Steven R Kolita, a "bald, bearish and intensely driven" former movie executive and internet entrepreneur, who had fled Hungary as a toddler with his family during the 1956 uprising.

Inspired by Obama's Cairo speech, Kolita signed up for a one-year unpaid fellowship with the State Department in 2009, then stayed two more years, for pay, as a senior adviser to promote entrepreneurship. But he finally quit, fed up with the lack of financial support and the political polarisation in Washington.

If the US government can't keep such talented and idealistic recruits, clearly the system is in trouble. Rohde is undoubtedly right that the US needs to seriously rethink its foreign policy strategy, and that "helping to create strong middle classes, independent business leaders, and civil society groups has the best chance of gradually promoting stability and moderation" in the Middle East.

Some of the book's proposed solutions, particularly the pinpoint-targeted ones, are more practical than others.

Certainly the US ought to be able to organise a better high-tech conference than the one in Tunisia and connect local applicants with US investors and entrepreneurs in a more coordinated way. Without increasing the total federal budget by a single dollar - or reducing the military share - Washington might be able to quietly shift resources away from outside contractors and towards small-scale projects like the National Solidarity Programme in Afghanistan.

Even those steps may be overly optimistic, however. As Rohde himself points out, the big outside contractors have powerful political connections and have defeated any attempt to rein them in before. The owner of the contracting company that fired Grader for whistle-blowing had been appointed to a government management job by the first president George Bush and, along with his wife, had contributed $98,000 to Republican candidates in the 1990s.

Many of the book's other ideas amount to wishful thinking rather than thought-out proposals. "America's policymakers must change their antiquated concept of national power." Another: "Washington must be less fractious and more patient."

Well, yes, and most of us really must go on diets and get more exercise, too. The catch is motivating us to actually do it.

To be fair, the book couldn't possibly keep up with the headlines. Thus, it went to press before Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's controversial declaration in November awarding himself near-absolute power, which he later partially rescinded.

That action somewhat undercuts Rohde's cautious hope that "If the Muslim Brotherhood continues to reject violence, abide by democratic norms, and embrace international human rights, it should not be considered an enemy of the United States".

The book might have worked better if it had clearly separated the two types of advice, distinguishing between small, feasible steps, and long-term, broader changes.

Still, Beyond War is worth reading for the depth of its reporting. And perhaps it will inspire readers to design equally rational but more practical answers.

Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning US-based author and journalist who specialises in covering the intersection of business, finance and social policy.