RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The long-running conflict in Syria has forced the United States to take a hard look at its role in the Middle East. The region has long been a tangle of complicated relationships and competing interests, and since 9/11, the response to terrorism has dominated American foreign policy. David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters. He's a Pulitzer Prize winner with decades of experience as a foreign correspondent. And he spent more than seven months in captivity in Afghanistan after being kidnapped by the Taliban. Rohde is the author of a new book called "Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East." And he says the U.S. needs to see its relationship to the Middle East as more than a fight against terrorism.
DAVID ROHDE: I want to sort of suggest a different prism at looking at what's happening in the Middle East today. There is a historical struggle right now across the Middle East between conservative Muslims, some of whom are very violent jihadists, and I think more secular, more moderate Muslims. And whoever wins this struggle is going to influence the Middle East culture and politics and even the very interpretation of Islam for decades. And it's not chaos. It's a rational struggle. And we need to figure out and realize we have allies here.
MARTIN: So, that's the big framework, but you also get specific thinking about the different problems that the U.S. had had. One of the problems that you identify is with foreign aid, and a heavy reliance - an increasingly heavy reliance - on contractors. Can you walk us through the gist of that problem and why it matters so much.
ROHDE: Since the Cold War, we have essentially shrunk our civilian agencies. Roughly 20 percent of the U.S. federal budget goes to the Pentagon, 1 percent goes to foreign affairs and foreign aid. And that occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq. A hidden story of the tragedy in Benghazi and the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens is that the State Department became completely reliant on hiring private contractors to guard its personnel and then some of them, such as Blackwater in Iraq, created a terrible reputation. So, after Gadhafi fell, the new Libyan government barred security contractors from the United States and any country from operating in the country. And the State Department literally did not have enough staff security personnel to man Benghazi. Without contractors, the State Department couldn't secure its own people.
MARTIN: You talk a lot in the book about Iraq and Afghanistan - mistakes made there - but you also focus on other countries - Tunisia and Egypt, two places that are going through profound social and political changes after the Arab Spring. You say the U.S. is missing opportunities there. Can you explain what isn't happening that should be?
ROHDE: One small example is that one of the outgrowths of the speech that President Obama gave in Cairo in 2009 that really sort of impressed young people across the region is that the State Department started to sending what they called entrepreneurship delegations across the region. And one of these went to Tunisia in 2011. And it was basically a dozen American high-tech executives and angel investors showed up in Tunis. Tunisians had to compete for the chance to meet with them. And they had to propose their own business ideas for high-tech start-ups. The winner was actually a young woman who had an idea for a biotech start-up. The members of the delegation were sort of horrified and embarrassed when they realized that this State Department program was so poorly funded that there was no prize for the winning start-up idea. So, they cobbled together their own prize, and this woman was given a three-month internship in the Tech Town incubator in Detroit, Michigan. And we've got to do better than that.
MARTIN: Do you know what she did with that, what she made of that experience, if anything?
ROHDE: She went there and she went back to Tunisia. I remember meeting Afghans who would sort of be brought on State Department tours to the U.S., and they'd go home and they feel like these kind of short, sort of superficial things don't really change conditions in the ground in their countries. And a lot of the problems with the programs is that they're about, again, Congress and our political needs and that's natural - and maybe I sound to idealistic here - but it was sort of creating metrics that would impress members of Congress - you know, schools built, miles of road constructed, you know, teachers trained.
MARTIN: But isn't there to be said about that? Those are things you can measure. And when Congress is in the business of making sure American taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and frankly to further American national interest, how do you do that with something that's hard to measure, like building entrepreneurship in Tunisia?
ROHDE: I agree, and I think it's hard. And I'm, I guess, I want realistic metrics too. There's a tendency, you know, naturally in any organization to try to impress the boss back in Washington. So, you had this constant push for more schools. And it was sort of Americans driving projects that local communities weren't asking for.
MARTIN: You do say that the key is to engage Islamic moderates, that that is the way that America can best leverage its influence in this part of the world. It does seem fairly obvious. Is that not happening now?
ROHDE: We try to do things ourselves. Our can-do Americanism can work against us. We don't think of the region and think of the people in the region as our allies enough. We need to sort of respect them more and listen to them more. Ryan Crocker, who is the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iraq, said the single best thing we can do is slow down and listen, ask these people how can we help you? And we've spent a huge amount of money. Everyone's tired of the Middle East now. But I think by doing fewer projects through local allies over longer periods of time, letting them guide us, I think we will achieve more.
MARTIN: David Rohde. His new book is called "Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East." He joined us from Louisville Public Media in Louisville, Kentucky. David, thanks so much for talking with us.
ROHDE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.