Orient Obsess

A lackluster look at Americans abroad


American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945, by Douglas Little, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 424 pages, $34.95

In his book The Dream Palace of the Arabs (1998), the Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami took a page out of Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore (1962) in closing a chapter by describing a son as a coda to his departed father. Wilson did it with Tom Sherman, who epitomized the psychological pathologies of Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. (Tom became a Catholic priest, to his father's enduring regret.) Ajami did it with professional basketball player Steve Kerr, whose tenacity on the court replicated that of his father, Malcolm, a Middle East specialist who was president of the American University of Beirut (AUB) when he was murdered in January 1984.

Few Lebanese saw anything seminal in Kerr's death, let alone pondered its meaning in the context of well over a century of U.S.-Arab relations. Lebanon's on-again, off-again war was then in its ninth year, and the loss of this scion of patrician American missionaries was regarded as just another tragedy in a series of similar outrages, though unusual for having infiltrated the sheltered world of the AUB.

For Ajami, however, the murder represented much more. He described Kerr's death as that of "an intimate stranger," born in Beirut "in the very hospital where he was pronounced dead," an American who had sought to understand and address the Middle East on its own terms, and who could do so in its own language. Like Wilson, Ajami saw something transcendent in the contrast between father and son, a generational rupture that spoke to the complexities, moral and political, of the worlds navigated by the fathers. In Kerr's case, a world that devoured him.

Douglas Little, in American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945, provides a practical, competent overview of American relations with the Arab world, but one that will leave you in search of either drama or meaning. Little, a history professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, is good at chronological exposition, has blackened many a note card, and boasts a hefty bibliography. Yet the outcome is a book that will make you marvel at how someone could tackle such an enthralling subject and make it sound so flat.

The title doesn't help. Whenever the word Orientalism is used, people on all sides of the Middle East studies divide reach for their pistols. They will safely pack them away upon scanning Little's tome, however. He never really uses the term in an interesting way, in part because his definition is anemic: American Orientalism, he argues, is "a tendency to underestimate the peoples of the region and to overestimate America's ability to make a bad situation better." One suspects that even the late Edward Said, who famously developed the concept of Orientalism in a 1978 book of the same name, would wince: "What of the nexus of knowledge and power creating 'the Oriental' and in a sense obliterating him," Said might well sneer, citing himself.

Yet there are aspects of the book well worth examining. Little opens with a chapter on America's cultural alienation from the Arab world, where he makes the valid point that perceptions of Arabs in the United States lag far behind those of other ethnic groups in terms of sensitivity. American popular culture is shot through with appalling stereotypes of Arabs and Arab-Americans, though Little's path to this revelation is much too dependent on his reading of National Geographic, which he foolishly treats as the primary vessel for establishing American attitudes toward foreign cultures.

Little falters also in overlooking those sympathetic Americans -- missionaries, academics, and diplomats -- who sought to explain the Arab world to their countrymen. They were the ones who set up educational institutions that trained generations of Middle Easterners, who made understanding the region a cornerstone of their lives, and who, like Malcolm Kerr, paid a high price for embracing cultural ecumenism. Surely they deserve a mention in Little's inventory of American anti-Arab biases, if only to underscore their irrelevance in forming American opinions.

In fact, Little never gauges the impact these Americans of the Middle East played in defining their country's outlook on the region. He prefers sketching the grand policies of U.S. administrations and oil companies to explaining the psychology of the American-Arab encounter. That's fine, but one never gets a sense that Little has experienced his subject at first hand; American Orientalism reads like something crafted in a New England study. Infinitely more immediate is Robert Kaplan's rousing 1993 work, The Arabists (the term used to describe those Americans working in, enamored with, and knowledgeable of the Arab world), with its insights garnered through myriad interviews, lengthy taxi rides, and plodding lunches.

Little didn't need to duplicate Kaplan, but he would have gained by giving a face to his characters. The Arabists will remain valuable, for example, because of its unsparing account of Americans going native in the Middle East, an essential feature of the cross-cultural interaction Little is describing. Consider, for example, Kaplan's account of the mid-'80s kidnapping of American missionary Benjamin Weir in Lebanon by Islamic Jihad. What image could match that of Weir's wife Carol snapping at U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, who had just criticized the kidnappers, that her husband's captors "had some legitimate grievances against the United States"?

The Weirs suffered for their Middle Eastern sympathies, losing their daughter Ann in a bus-train accident in Egypt, where she had gone to teach. Yet their attitude only underlined how the Arabists, often remarkable for their educational, academic, and cultural achievements, were also astonishingly blind and petty when it came to certain issues.

For instance, most Arabists' deep revulsion for Arab Christians, particularly Lebanon's Maronites, was legendary. One explanation is that the mainly Protestant Americans couldn't abide the Eastern Christians' attachment to Catholic France, or their devotion to the outward trappings of religion at the expense of spirituality. That may be true, but it misses the point: What pro-Arab Americans couldn't stomach was that the Christians were often estranged from their Muslim brethren and from the Arab nationalism the region engendered (though minorities were among the first theorists of the ideology). The Arabists believed, particularly during the heady days of "national liberation" in the 1950s and '60s, that archaic Christians were stubbornly resisting the Middle East's future. There was something very American in their reaction: a righteous indignation that the Arab consensus was being bucked, but also a romantic identification with a dogma regarded as modern and progressive. Ironically, a similar motivation shaped the Arabists' outlook on Israel -- always perceived as a foreign body interrupting potential regional harmony.

This is all absent from Little's unadventurous log. The few discernible Americans populating his book are government officials, who for much of the half-century of American-Arab transactions after World War II were preoccupied with the Soviet Union. Throughout the Cold War successive administrations tried to resolve the following conundrum: How far could Arab governments go in expressing their sovereign nationalism without threatening America's position vis-à-vis the USSR? The specter that haunted Washington was that of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was seen by the United States as an anti-communist nationalist until he sought to play the superpowers off against one another, while also developing his relationship with Moscow, which had no qualms about arming him.

A consequence of this anxiety that Arab regimes might tilt the Soviet Union's way was an American quest for stability in friendly states. Little takes an intriguing look at how numerous administrations sought to pursue this goal through a strong dose of Yankee hopefulness, which was much needed since pro-American Arab leaders were often splendid thugs. And they had an incentive to stay that way: Washington was so obsessed with losing ground in the Cold War that the regimes could easily abuse their populations and stifle free expression. The U.S. wouldn't turn up the heat on them as long as they were regarded as anti-communist -- as "sons of bitches, but our sons of bitches."

American policy makers understood this reality but still stalwartly requested that their repressive confederates advance reform, development, and modernization to garner domestic support and ward off coups or revolutions that might harm U.S. interests. The only problem, as Little observes, was that reform raised expectations (he uses the examples of Iraq under the Hashemites, Libya under King Idris, and Iran under Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi), mobilizing populations even more aggressively against their pro-American masters. What Washington could not grasp was that reform and modernization contradicted regime immovability: The U.S. wanted its friends to stay solidly in place as enlightened despots, but Arab populations (not to mention the Iranians in 1979) naturally saw reform as an invitation to oust their leaders -- even if what came afterward was often far worse.

The USSR ultimately collapsed through Mikhail Gorbachev's similarly misguided notion that a sclerotic and largely discredited system could somehow survive political and social renovation. The Soviet leader's efforts provoked much derision in the United States. Yet many forget that American policy in the Middle East was for decades based on similar logic.

Do the Bush administration's actions in Iraq portend change? One paradox, it appears, has been replaced by another very similar one: Where the U.S. had previously sought reformist change by its Arab allies to ensure steadiness, today it claims to spread liberalism through American military might but is so far finding this difficult to manage. The Bush administration is again confronting the familiar problem of introducing positive change and realizing afterward that dynamism can be a headache. In response, the U.S. can revert to familiar behavior, averting its gaze from the illiberal practices of friendly Arab regimes, or it can stick it out and turn Iraq into a liberal-capitalist showcase, whatever the regional fallout.

For the moment the administration is taking both approaches simultaneously, but ultimately only one can prevail. In calling for a new American empire to replace the Pax Britannica of the 19th century, the British historian Niall Ferguson has referred to the U.S. as "an empire in denial, a colossus with an attention deficit disorder." Yet what Ferguson forgot was that for half a century, until the 1991 Gulf War, the United States had it both ways -- managing the region like an imperial power, but doing so from a distance without getting its hands, or conscience, too dirty.

That much has changed. America has virtually become a Middle Eastern state because of its Iraqi presence. More often than not the region has absorbed its conquerors and neutralized them. Against this history stands an American tendency to impose the will of the United States and, as Mark Twain put it in Innocents Abroad, to bear down on the people of the region "with America's greatness, until we [crush] them." A liberal Middle Eastern order will emerge only if America is able to sidestep these two extremes -- absorption into the region or its gradual suffocation.