When a leading book review like The New York Times Book Review (NYTBR) decides to display a review of a certain book on its cover, it usually means that the editors believe that that is a notable book that ought to be read by, or at least draw the attention of the intellectual elites as well as the general public. It doesn’t mean that the editors expect the writer they assign to write the review to sing the praises of the book and its author. But they certainly don’t expect the reviewer to bash the book and pour scorn at the author.
But that is exactly how Max Rodenbeck, the Middle East correspondent for The Economist treated Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack and his new book Path out of the Desert: Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East in his Sunday’s NYTBR review. The way the review is displayed, accompanied by a large drawing and a bombastic title, “War and Peace,” is quite misleading. Rodenbeck calls the book “big” and “ambitious,” which is another way of saying that it is pretentious, and goes on to suggest (among other things) that the book “consists of vague outlines and policy homilies” and “salient distortions;” to point out to “this thick book’s thinness of ideas” (which, he adds, “is not its only flaw”); to argue that the author “commits errors that, despite his years in the corridors of power and some 70 pages of footnotes, betray a lack of intimacy with his subject,” “shows shaky grasp of history,” and is disingenuous and bias in his treatment of the subject. And he ends his review by suggesting that what is “troubling about Pollack’s view, which his fairly representative of his fellow liberal interventionists, who are likely to be in power soon is the lack of clarity.”
Some liberal critics have alleged that under editor Sam Tanenhaus, the NYTBR has become a “neoconservative damage-control gazette.” That certainly doesn’t apply to this latest review. It’s quite possible that Tanenhaus, who has been following the pro-Iraq-War coverage of The Economist expected Rodenbeck to follow the line of the magazine that employs him, which didn’t happen in this case.
Personally, I find most of what Pollack writes unoriginal and wrong and very, very boring, and reflect the me-tooismon on Iraq that has been promoted by many “liberal internationalists.” It seems to me that his latest book (which I don’t plan to read unless someone pays me to do that) is an attempt to create the impression that notwithstanding who wins the presidency, Democrats (like Pollack) and Republicans (like Robert Kagan) could help fashion a bi-partisan Middle East agenda. That would probably happen. But I still enjoyed the review.