Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author examines the cardinal failing of Washington’s war on terror
This book distills eleven years of expert reporting for The New York Times, Reuters, and The Atlantic Monthly into a clarion call for change. An incisive look at the evolving nature of war, Rohde exposes how a dysfunctional Washington squandered billions on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, neglected its true allies in the war on terror and failed to employ its most potent nonmilitary weapons: American consumerism, technology, and investment. Rohde then surveys post-Arab Spring Tunisia, Turkey, and Egypt, and finds a yearning for American technology, trade, and education. He argues that only Muslim moderates, not Americans, can eradicate militancy. For readers of Steve Coll, Tom Ricks, and Ahmed Rashid, Beyond War shows how the failed American effort to back moderate Muslims since 9/11 can be salvaged.
On September 11, 2012, the American ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were murdered. A bizarre American-made amateur video that portrayed the prophet Muhammad as a libidinous child molester sparked anti-American protests across the Islamic world. The conflict in Syria raged. And Israeli leaders talked of preemptive military strikes against Iran’s nuclear program.
To Americans, the Middle East seemed as inimitably volatile, radicalized, and anti-American as it did on September 11, 2001. Despite the sacrifice of sixty-six hundred American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan and the spending of $1.2 trillion, the region seemed as unstable as ever. Reeling from economic problems at home, exasperated Americans wanted as little to do with the region as possible.
This book is an effort to describe a new, more pragmatic, and more effective American approach to the Islamic world. I believe that a more economic and less military-oriented effort will achieve more than the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan did. In some instances, drone strikes, covert operations, and lethal force may be necessary, but investment, education, and normalized relations are equally potent weapons. We must develop a more multifaceted understanding and approach to the region.
The murders of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya were part of a historic struggle between moderates and hard-liners over the future of Islam. Its outcome will affect the United States, its allies, and the global economy for decades.
Intensive media coverage of violent anti-American protests distorts American views of the Arab Spring. The Arab world is not a monolith. Nor are the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. In the weeks after the murder of the four Americans, tens of thousands of Libyans protested against the killings, apologized to the United States, and demanded that militias disarm. In public opinion surveys, clear majorities in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, and Pakistan called for democracy and personal freedoms—and Islam—in political life.
The polling matched my experience in a decade of reporting across the region since 2001. Arabs and South Asians said they did not want to be dictated to by Americans. Nor did they want militants to impose an extreme version of Islam on them. Instead, they yearned for a third way where their countries could be both Muslim and modern.
In Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt today, young people long for American high-tech investments, trade, and education. Public opinion surveys show an admiration for American technology, pop culture, democratic ideals, and ways of doing business. They also show a deep suspicion of America’s intentions in the Middle East and its commitment to democracy.
In its second term, the Obama administration should publicly ally the United States with Arabs and South Asians who support and abide by democratic norms, oppose violence, and uphold international human rights laws, whatever their faith. The core focus of American policy in the region should be finding ways to quietly, consistently, and effectively strengthen those groups over the long term. The most potent long-term weapon against jihadists is moderate Arabs and South Asians, not American soldiers.
The process will not be easy. American policy makers must learn to differentiate among opaque organizations and movements. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist political parties that won elections in Egypt and Tunisia are not ideal. But our true enemies— and theirs—are violent Salafist militants.
Across the region, twin imperatives should guide American policy. Terrorist groups should be targeted but economic growth must be fostered as well. Today 60 percent of the Middle East’s population are under the age of thirty. If they are to be gainfully employed, more than 100 million jobs will need to be created in the region by 2020, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Change is also needed at home. Over the next four years, it is vital that the Obama administration revamps and revitalizes Washington’s archaic foreign policy apparatus. From 2001 to 2009, I covered Afghanistan, Pakistan, and, to a limited extent, Iraq for the New York Times. During that period, Washington’s outdated reliance on military force and its weakened civilian agencies severely limited its efforts. While numerous books have focused on the post9/11 American military and intelligence efforts, the first half of this book will examine the over $67 billion the United States spent on civilian aid programs in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. Between 2001 and 2011, tens of thousands of Americans implemented a civilian effort designed to promote economic growth, build infrastructure, improve governance, strengthen institutions, expand education and health care, foster civil society, and train local police, judges, journalists, and human rights advocates.
By almost any measure those programs produced meager results. Washington squandered billions, neglected its true allies in the region, and failed to employ its most potent nonlethal tools: American technology, consumerism, and investment.
Of the roughly $1.3 trillion the United States spent in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the global war on terror, 95 percent went to the American military effort. When civilian initiatives were mounted, sweeping changes that would take years at best to achieve were expected within months. And to an extent never seen before in American history, post-9/11 Washington relied on private contractors to achieve its goals and waged for-profit war.
At the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010, 46,000 American contractors and 214,000 third-country and local contractors worked for the American government in both countries. At times, American government contractors outnumbered American troops.
Congressional investigators later concluded that the use of contractors minimized the number of American troops and hid the wars’ human toll. Between 2001 and 2011, 8,560 U.S. soldiers and contractors died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of the dead, 28 percent were contractors. While newspapers across the country faithfully printed the name of each American soldier who perished, there has been no such listing of contractors.
At the same time, privatization proved to be wasteful. Investigators found that contracting was sometimes more costly than employing government workers, and tales of shoddy work abounded. All told, federal agencies paid a staggering $206 billion to contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2001 to 2011. Investigators estimated that $31 to $60 billion was lost to waste, fraud, and abuse.
In Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, I met civilians, government workers, and contractors who were in pursuit of money, adrenaline, or escape. I also found well-intentioned civilians intensely frustrated by the American government’s ill-suited strategies and tactics.
While working as a columnist for Reuters and the Atlantic in 2011 and 2012, I visited Turkey and post–Arab Spring Tunisia and saw opportunities to back moderates being squandered. There, and across the region, speed, visibility, and American political dynamics ruled. Patience, complexity, and deference to local cultures were shunned.
This book is a call for change. After analyzing the Bush and Obama administrations’ civilian efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, it details the opportunities and risks that the rise of Turkey and the Arab Spring present.
In hindsight, Washington’s unsuccessful civilian efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan exposed the dangerously weak state of its own civilian institutions. In the decades since the end of the cold war, the ability of the White House, State Department, and Congress to devise and carry out sophisticated political and development efforts overseas has withered. And while the complexity of global challenges has increased, rising partisanship and a twenty-four-hour news cycle in Washington have fueled demands for quick, inexpensive resolutions that are illusory.
The use of contractors is a symptom—and a cause—of the decay in American civilian institutions. In all three countries and so far in the post–Arab Spring, the result on the ground has been a disjointed, wasteful, and largely failed civilian effort. In a volatile and rapidly changing region, there is a desperate need for a new American approach. This book describes it.
“The lesson that Rohde teaches… is important....[Rohde] expose(s) the deep contradiction between Washington’s long experiment in slashing the civilian instruments of American power and its post-9/11 attempt to use those same instruments to remake the greater Middle East.”
- The New York Times
– The Daily Beast
“A reminder that there is a limit to what we can accomplish through force.”
– Daily News
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