Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence In a New Middle East

  • David Rohde
  • Viking
  • 240 pp.
  • Reviewed by Steve Goldstein
  • May 14, 2013

The failures of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and a way forward following the events of the Arab Spring.

An old Arab proverb says “Do not cut down the tree that gives you shade.” A decade ago, after the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq, Western officials resisted advice to nourish the tree of law and order by immediately installing international police trainers to support and guide the notoriously corrupt and slack Iraqi police force. The tactic had been tried successfully in the Balkans. The outcome is history: Local police abandoned their posts, basic services disintegrated, and civil war and insurgency rose from the chaos.

The coalition sought to restore civil society by hiring the first of an endless wave of government contractors. Unfortunately, as David Rohde recounts in Beyond War, this effort was too little, too late, badly organized and successful only in enriching the contractors, who were only too glad to fill a void. Rohde documents similar missteps in Afghanistan and in dealing with instability in Pakistan. This is a scathing, if well-known, indictment of a system that enriched the so-called “Beltway Bandits.” Using a “cost-plus” contract, the contractor DynCorp “spent as much money as it deemed necessary to complete a project, and the government agreed to pay a set fee as a guaranteed profit,” Rohde writes. Credit card in hand, there was no incentive to keep costs down.

Rohde is a decorated journalist who has worked for Reuters, the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. His experience and perhaps his views are colored by a horrific experience. In November 2008, while working for the Times and researching a book about the history of American involvement in Afghanistan, Rohde, his interpreter and his driver were abducted outside Kabul by the Taliban.

Rohde and his interpreter escaped in June 2009 after being held for eight months. During his captivity, news organizations, encouraged by his Times colleagues, withheld news of his abduction in the hope of maximizing the chances of his survival or release. As he notes in the book, Rohde did not travel to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt or Libya after 2009 “for personal reasons.”

After detailing the failures of U.S. policy in the region, Rohde uses the events of the Arab Spring to suggest a way forward that relies less on the stick and more on the carrot, less on the Pentagon and more on the State Department, less on contractors and more on diplomats. Rohde advocates a more nuanced approach to the Islamic revolution, suggesting that the United States spend more money supporting moderate Muslim influences and less on military invasions and drone strikes to counter extremists. The author asserts that Islamists — conservative Muslims — have not been successful at governance, and therefore urges the United States to support local groups that abide by democratic norms, oppose violence and uphold human rights laws.

Turkey, Rohde says, is a model of what is possible. The country “represents the ability of Western technology, consumerism, entrepreneurship and investment to transform a country. And, unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, it is a potentially powerful example of a new interpretation of Islam fashioned by Muslims, not outsiders.” He is less sanguine about Egypt, which has an economy that compares unfavorably to that of Tunisia and Libya and an education system near collapse. Foreign investment is sorely needed. “More than anything, the United States must think strategically in Egypt, be patient and engage in non-military ways,” he writes.

Now, this is fine as far as it goes, but as I read I couldn’t help thinking that this was a magazine article for Foreign Affairs and not quite a book. What Rohde has “reimagined” is more convention and less invention about ways to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, Beyond War seems less like a cogent analysis of what can be done to hasten democracy and peace in the region than a rehash of his reporting followed by well-worn bromides about the need for more effective diplomacy and an end to Washington infighting. “In the end, the gravest threat to American security is Washington’s partisanship, feeble civilian institutions and failure to match its ambitions with its actual resources and capabilities,” he writes. “The world is changing but Washington is not.” 

I don’t begrudge Rohde wanting to make use of his excellent reportage. I just wish his editors had demanded more. I’m reminded of another Arab proverb that says, “You won’t gain knowledge by drinking ink.” This volume left me parched.

Steve Goldstein is a recovering journalist who worked as a reporter, foreign correspondent and Washington bureau chief for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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