THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
people and the
draining of wet-
lands that were the
of the Marsh
Arabs for centu-
the U.S. inva-
sion unleashed, it did not
unleash it in a country with domestic
For Freeman, mistakes made in
Washington had a great deal to do with
why and how relative stability in the
Middle East disappeared.
In several places he lays out a linear
narrative of increasing U.S. involvement
starting with the larger military presence
required for the dual containment of
Iran and Iraq, growing animosity in the
region as a result, the backlash of terror-
ism, more intervention, more terrorism
and, ultimately, the collapse of whole
states and the rise of ISIS.
Freeman also expresses a consistent
animosity for Israel, which he blames for
much of what has transpired.
In the midst of all this, he says, the
United States lost its soul—with torture,
rendition and the “promiscuous use of
drone warfare.” He stresses the “limi-
tations of purely military solutions to
political problems” throughout.
In the realm of solutions, Freeman
begins by stating U.S. objectives in the
region: securing a place for Israel, keeping
oil and gas at reasonable prices, main-
taining freedom of navigation, engaging
in commercial relations and promoting
stability and expansion of liberty.
No Simple Answers
America’s Continuing Misadventures
in the Middle East
Chas W. Freeman Jr., Just World Books,
2016, $33.99/hardcover, $19.99/paper-
back, $9.99/Kindle, 251 pages.
Reviewed By Keith W. Mines
I never miss a Chas Freeman article—he
is colorful, provocative and engaging.
While others might make similar argu-
ments, who else would accuse our lead-
ers of saying, “Don’t just sit there, bomb
something”—or warn that “Strategic
incoherence invites punishment by the
uncontrolled course of events”?
This collection of speeches given to
widely varying but serious audiences
is vintage Freeman, and reminds me
why I love his work. At the same time, I
found many of his critiques in this
collection unfair, and his suggestions
largely undeveloped. The challenges
of the Middle East are simply more
complex, more varied and less prone to
simple solution than Freeman would
often like to concede.
On the issue of what went wrong in
the Middle East, Freeman has an almost
Noam Chomskyesque sense for how the
region was before U.S. involvement, and
for how it could be if the United States
were to leave it alone.
When reflecting on taking up his
posting as ambassador to Saudi Arabia
26 years ago, he describes it as having
been a “zone of tranquility”—a jarring
characterization for a country where one
could lose a limb for petty theft, and that
was facing a menacing Saddam Hussein
intent on regional hegemony.
Elsewhere, Freeman states how the
U.S. invasion of Iraq ended that coun-
try’s “domestic tranquility”—a tranquil-
ity enforced by the gassing of its own
But the recommendations culled
from various chapters add up to more
of a list of what not to do than what to
do. He argues for stopping the militari-
zation of our strategy (“when in a hole,
stop digging”), ceasing the facilitation
of “Israel’s indulgence in denial and
avoidance of the choices it must make,”
and ending the free ride we are giving
our Arab partners on their defense.
These are all good points, and a nar-
rative that is largely defensible when
taken piecemeal. But my own experi-
ence leads me in a different direction.
The idyllic version of the Middle East,
if it ever truly existed, has been collaps-
ing under the weight of the multiple
transitional challenges the region has
confronted over the past four decades.
Tribal societies are giving way to the
demands of civil society; dysfunctional
command and oil-based economics
must move to open capitalist economies
to provide for a growing population;
religiously organized and rural societies
are becoming urban and being chal-
lenged by pluralism; and citizens are
demanding a say in government, leaving
traditional totalitarian systems reeling.
All of this has unfolded against a
demographic picture that would make
Malthus cringe: Of the 20 countries in
the world with the highest population
growth rates, six are in the Middle East
and North Africa.
Whether or not one accepts this as
a counter-narrative, Freeman could, at
a minimum, concede more historical
inevitability within these societies and
ascribe less blame to Washington. While
Freeman could, at a minimum, concede more historical
inevitability within these societies and ascribe less blame