The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East

Book Review

Michael Rubin, senior lecturer at the United States Navy Postgraduate School and editor of the Middle East Quarterly (MEQ), reviews The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East, a new book written by Olivier Roy, research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and a lecturer for both the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) and the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (IEP).

Olivier Roy, research director at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, is best known for his work on political Islam. In The Politics of Chaos, he transitions from scholarly research to policy advocacy and presents a sharp indictment of U.S. foreign policy in general and neoconservatives specifically.

“While it is fitting to blame the arrogance and incompetence of the Bush administration” for instability in the Middle East, Roy argues, “the ideas that drove the American neoconservatives are still part of the current climate, muddying the traditional left/right divide.”

Some of Roy’s criticisms are valid: The Bush administration poorly described its adversary after 9-11, and postwar planning left much to be desired. Roy understands traditional neoconservatism better than most and explains the nuances of neoconservative views toward democratization, civil society, and free markets. He assesses the failure of U.S. democratization policy and suggests the problem underlying U.S. policy has been choosing wrong interlocutors. “Negotiation is always possible and, furthermore, it is desirable,” he declares. There follows a plea to engage political Islam and groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Roy’s arguments are nuanced. He separates terrorists from Islamists (who campaign for a political entity), from fundamentalists (who seek Islamic law), and from “cultural Muslims” who may promote the veil, for example, but also pave the way for the other two. He examines Arab state and Iranian concerns and grievances and argues that the West should “abandon” the global war on terror because it “leads to the wrong perceptions and policies.”

However, Roy’s polemic falls flat. He is sloppy, has a tendency to make straw-man arguments, and shows little understanding of how U.S. policy develops. Rather than use primary source documents to support his descriptions of U.S. policy and its practitioners’ motivations, Roy provides vanity references to his own work. On occasion, he appears to embellish. He relates a November 2001 conversation with the “Deputy Secretary of State for Defense” in which Paul Wolfowitz confided that the “true objective” was “Iraq, of course!,” comments both inconsistent with Wolfowitz’s style and fact.

To advance his belief that the campaign against Iraq was preordained, he ignores the 2002 National Security Strategy that outlined the concept of preemption, Saddam’s bluff with regard to his weapons capability, and the fact that presidents make decisions based on the intelligence they have, which is sometimes flawed. Nor is Roy’s dismissal of Saddam’s relationship with radical Islam justified. The official study of documents seized from Iraq demonstrates cooperation between Saddam’s regime and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s number two.[1]

Roy also gets wrong the discussions surrounding the decision to occupy Iraq. In contrast to his narrative, neoconservatives sought to transfer sovereignty and authority immediately to a new Iraqi council; they opposed occupation of Iraq until the president made the decision.

Exaggeration undercuts his analysis in other ways. He criticizes neoconservative “unconditional” support for Israel, an argument that may play well in Europe. Neoconservatives certainly argue that the United States should not force allies to make concessions to terrorism, but the same neoconservatives also condemned Israel for its earlier military dealings with China. This suggests that Israel is not the primary issue but rather U.S. national security.

Rather than provide a basis upon which U.S. policymakers might better approach the Middle East, as some of the book’s endorsers have suggested, what Roy produces is an impassioned plea for surrender, and through sloppy methodology and logical somersaults, he provides yet more evidence of just how poor a resource so many professors are when it comes to formulating foreign and national security policies.


1. Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Iraqi Documents, Vol. 1 (Redacted) (Alexandria, Va.: Institute for Defense Analyses, Nov. 2007), p. 42.


One Response to The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East

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