Doctors No

When Middle East expertise breeds stalemate


If pundits, academics and other kibitzers one day consider the relationship between knowledge and action in the Bush administration's behavior in the Middle East after September 11, 2001, they might arrive at the conclusion that during that time, many regional experts enjoined stalemate in great part thanks to their fear of change. Standing against the notion of "creative chaos," apparently a neoconservative innovation, a confederacy of specialists, on the political left but also on the right among "realists" and "America firsters," cautioned that transformation could prove catastrophic, largely because it was being directed by a government "ignorant" of the Arab world.

Tied into this was a parallel development: that of commentators' explaining American behavior as the fruit of a new imperial calling. A crowning statement denouncing this evil interplay between American aspiration to hegemony and pervasive ignorance was provided by the late Edward Said, the vestal virgin who dominated Middle Eastern studies in America (though his academic field was comparative literature). This is what he wrote in the April 17, 2003 issue of the London Review of Books about the Iraq war:

This is the most reckless war in modern times. It is all about imperial arrogance unschooled in worldliness, unfettered either by competence or experience, undeterred by history or human complexity, unrepentant in its violence and the cruelty of its technology. What winning, or for that matter losing, such a war will ultimately entail is unthinkable. But pity the Iraqi civilians who must still suffer a great deal more before they are finally 'liberated'." [Italics mine]

The passage oozes disdain; you'd think the war in Iraq was a case of barbarians tormenting hitherto blissful illuminati. Though Said was right in sympathizing with Iraqi civilians, and never had any patience for the vile regime of Saddam Hussein, the matter of Baathist terror was missing from this hyperbolic broadside against the United States. This allowed Said to more easily underline, without any moral compunction, that "the history of human complexity" effectively dictated doing nothing if the "doer" in question was the illiterate Bush administration.

As one Said devotee hammered home not long afterwards, good schooling was simply not enough. Any presumption at all of success by the U.S. was preposterous because its incompetence was accompanied by imperial conceit. Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi, in his reedy 2004 book Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East, wrote: What "seems so painful to those with any real knowledge of the region" is the unwillingness of the U.S. to accept that it is stepping into the boots of past imperial powers, and that "this cannot under any circumstances be a good thing and cannot possibly be 'done right.'"

Again, the matter was one of a lack of American knowledge, with Khalidi offering readers an image of himself, mortarboard aslant, in front of the tube wincing at every philistine White House utterance on the Middle East. The pain was also evident in a 2004 interview the University of Michigan news service conducted with Professor Juan Cole, the president-elect of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), who hosts a well-known weblog revealingly—and immodestly—named "Informed Comment." Cole revived the competency and imperialism argument by saying: "I have to say that I can think of few attempts by one country to administer another in modern history that have been so plagued by incompetence and a lack of understanding of the local society."

Cole was more circuitous about the imperialism contention, because he was initially a supporter of the Iraq war (although hostility to the conflict in the Middle East studies field later dictated that he change his spots). Having had ample time before March 2003 to recognize the foul neo-imperial designs of the Bush administration, as well as its "lack of understanding" of Iraqi society, he was in a bind to explain how he could have ever considered supporting an endeavor that it sought to initiate. So Cole compromised, Solomonically observing: "Although Washington at least has represented this as not a colonial venture, it's in danger of turning into one. For some people, it has always been an imperial endeavor."

We can go on, quoting at will from Middle East specialists emitting contempt for how knowledge has been used in the service of uninformed American power in the Arab world. Here is Laurie Brand, a former MESA president and a professor at the University of Southern California: "No longer are the preferred foci [of knowledge pursued by the U.S. government] development or modernization in order to fight counterinsurgency, but rather studies of democratization, political Islam and terrorism to serve as the (often pseudo-) intellectual underpinning of the newest march to battle."

If knowledge is not about power, and therefore change (though Brand suggests that government-sought expertise must necessarily gravitate between helping crush insurgencies and preparing for other types of conflict), then what is it about? In remaining so ambiguous about power in general and its uses and practitioners, many of those studying and teaching about the Middle East have written themselves out of the discourse on the region's future, failing even to find effective ways to oppose policies they dislike. In the past, Said as well as Khalidi, Brand, and others have come to implicitly embrace the Middle Eastern status quo by condemning a great deal in American behavior but almost never proposing something in exchange—creating an intellectual climate where any such proposal would be tantamount to advancing an "imperial" project. They do so not because they like what's in place, nor even because they hate the U.S.; they embrace the status quo because it gives value to their static paradigms and expertise. They know they cannot be acknowledged as experts in a dynamic situation that challenges all their previous assumptions and, worse, one engineered by an administration they regard as unschooled, misinformed, and immersed in pseudo-intellectualism.

The irony, of course, is that a similar attitude was palpable in Israel, which has always prided itself on "knowing" the Middle East in a way the U.S. could not. No less ironic was that many of the experts in the U.S. considered, and still consider, Iraq a grand project planned by Bush administration neocons and Israel's Likud (though they provide little evidence beyond a document written by American neocons for former Israeli candidate and later prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in 1996). The reality was that Israelis were divided on the Iraq war, with half the population opposing it. The hardnosed Ariel Sharon, while he backed the Bush administration for reasons of convenience, was never taken by the neocons' democratization zeal, always preferring to deal with the Arabs in a far blunter way. Indeed, even the more recent U.S.-supported Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon was received remarkably coolly by the Israeli leadership, with National Security Advisor Giora Eiland warning that once the Syrians were gone, there would be no one left to control Hezbollah. Eiland was told to pipe down, but it was clear that his anxiety reflected that of others in the Israeli leadership.

Back in America, the Middle East experts would surely dislike being placed in the same boat as the Israelis (albeit pursuing entirely different ends) when it comes to recoiling at fundamental regional change. One difference between the two, however, is that opposition to the Bush administration's goals in the academy is shot through with bitterness, which perhaps comes from the failure of the grand transformational schemes many of the experts once believed in. It could have been Arab nationalism, Nasserism, the Palestinian "revolution" (which was regarded by many as a hook for regional metamorphoses), communism, a more consensual version of Arab socialism, or any variation of the above. Having seen all disintegrate, having read their own failures in those myriad fiascos, the experts could only fall back on a reassuring belief that, by virtue of their training, they at least held the keys unlocking the East's dark mysteries. When the Bush administration failed to respect that, the priesthood revolted without ever offering a credible alternative.

That the U.S. initially made a hash of things in Iraq is undeniable, as is the fact that Iraqis are today well beyond that debate in seeking to re-impose peace in easy or uneasy collaboration with the Americans. The democracy paradigm that George W. Bush has sought to advance in the region is far more powerful than the experts will admit. Eventually, Iraqis will take what they need from the U.S., including military and economic aid to put an end to the insurgency, and reject what they don't want—probably an open-ended U.S. military presence. But such Iraqi opportunism will almost certainly lead to closer relations between Washington and Baghdad in the long run, because states and peoples generally warm to the merits of self-interest. ?

Much the same goes for the Lebanese and the Palestinians, who will avoid assuming that their own self-interest somehow becomes a problem if it happens to coincide with Washington's aspirations. For them the battle for liberty and self-determination is taking place on the ground and involves their livelihood, home, and future. It is not a battle occurring in a secluded and self-referential world where, too often, knowledge breeds stalemate, dissent invites erudite disparagement, and past ideological failures and present irrelevance provoke a contrary insistence that no accomplishment is possible outside the gilded circle of the initiated.