Speaking last week at the Middle East Institute, Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution surprised me by saying that the United States ought to invite China into the Middle East -- from Iran to Iraq to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It wasn't what I expected from Pollack. He was speaking about his new book, A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East, a rather grandiosely titled tome whose principal focus is the need for political, economic, and social reform in the region. It was Pollack's earlier (2002) book which earned him the enmity of the liberal-left. It was called The Threatening Storm : The Case for Invading Iraq, and it probably did more to rally the liberal interventionists and Democratic hawks in support of President Bush than any other effort.
Well, Pollack hasn't reformed, though he did make some ironic references to the subtitle of his earlier book. But when I asked him about the role of China, and whether China could help rebuild and stabilize the region, he agreed. Not only should the United States ask China to get involved in the Persian Gulf, but the rather dysfunctional Quartet (the US, the EU, the UN, and Russia) set up to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict should become a Qunitet, including China.
"The rise of China is the preeminent issue," he said. "China is really the big issue. ... They are fixated on the Middle East. And the Chinese are the rock stars of the Middle East."
"China has exactly the same interests as the United States in the Middle East," he said, citing primarily the need for the sustained flow of oil at reasonable prices. During his recent trip to China, said Pollack, he heard from many senior officials and analysts there the same thing: "We are terrified of the Middle East." The Chinese, said Pollack, see the Middle East as "the graveyard for great powers," having watched first Russia disintegrate in part because of Afghanistan and then the United States bog down in Iraq.
"You've got to let them in," he said. "You've got to make them our partner."
Now, the Chinese aren't dumb, and neither is Pollack. China already has good relations with Iran, and Iran counts on China as a potential friend and ally in its looming showdown with the West. China is also building close economic ties with Iraq, and it recently signed a $3 billion oil deal with Baghdad that could be worth $55 billion in petroleum supplies. And China is deeply involved in Saudi Arabia, too, where thousands of Chinese workers are helping to build an entire new city there. The industrial future of China will be fueled by Middle East oil.
But in contrast to some neoconservative analysts, who seem eager for a showdown with China over the region (and who probably intended the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to be a triumphant coup against China, which had oil deals in place with Saddam Hussein), Pollack gets credit for suggesting that rather than use our sharp military elbows to keep China out, we need to invite them in.
I asked Pollack if his view about inviting China into the region (rather than keeping them out) was widely shared among the American establishment, and he said that it wasn't. "But when I talk about it, they nod their heads." We'll see.