The Foreign Service Journal - April 2017
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APRIL 2017


people and the

draining of wet-

lands that were the

historic homeland

of the Marsh

Arabs for centu-

ries. Whatever

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

to Washington.