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Field of Fire: Fifty Years in Middle East Studies (Part II)

This is Part II of a three-part series on the radicalization of Middle East studies. Over the past five decades Middle East studies have had a profound impact on the region. It has long been less an academic field than an ideological battlefield— and here is my report from the front.

Power, Faith, and Fantasy (W.W. Norton, 2007)

By Michael Oren

If the head of a corporation consistently failed over the course of forty years to even once turn a profit, he would certainly be fired. He would definitely not be regarded as an expert in his field, interviewed in the press, and consulted by decision-makers. Or, to take a more radical example, a brain surgeon who lost every patient she operated on over the course of decades, would not be someone whom anyone would turn to for lifesaving surgery. No one would consider her the go-to source for medicine.

It is only in Middle East diplomacy that individuals can claim to be experts and, for the most part are recognized as such, in spite their record of egregious, amateurish, and serial failures.

Let’s look at that record. Prior to 2020, the last great American success in the Middle East occurred in 1979. That year, through the intensive mediation of President Jimmy Carter, Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David Accords. That same year, Iranian revolutionaries overran the US embassy in Tehran taking 54 hostages and triggering a crisis that lasted 444 days. Three years later, President Reagan sent the Marines into Lebanon in a peace-storing mission only to withdraw them ignominiously after a suicide bomber murdered 241 American servicepeople. A semblance of success occurred in 1991, when US-led coalition forces drove the occupying Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and in 1993, when President Clinton concluded the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. But the First Iraq War inexorably led to the Second, which turned into a quagmire. The Oslo Accords concluded in the mass bloodshed of the Second Intifada (2000-2005) and the emergence of a terror state in Gaza.

These debacles were the result of decisions by senior American officials from both parties, Republican and Democrat, and from a variety of social, educational, and economic backgrounds. Common to them all, though, was a sense of American noblesse oblige toward the world and to the Middle East in particular. This unique characteristic of American thinking did not begin in 1979 or even in 1949, when the Cold War came to the region. Rather, it was hardwired in the American worldview since colonial times and, after independence from Britain, became a dominant feature of U.S. foreign policy.

That worldview was the subject of my book, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. Over the course of nearly 800 pages (!), I sought to show how American’s involvement in the area traditionally reflected three themes. There was power, military or economic, projected to protect vital interests such as the U.S. merchant ships that fell prey to North Africa’s Barbary pirates from 1776 to 1815. Next, there was faith, meaning initially the religious faith of the thousands of American missionaries who moved to the Middle East, and died there young, in order to infuse it with American-style Christianity. But, failing in their evangelizing task, the missionaries began preaching a different faith—democracy—and established institutions such as the American universities of Beirut and Cairo to propagate it. And finally, I maintained, and most influentially, there was fantasy. This was popular American image of the Middle East, expressed in myriad books, plays, and films, as a realm of sensuality, mystery, and wonder, the precinct of genies and flying carpets.

Power and faith exerted a profound influence over Middle East Studies. The children of those missionaries grew up speaking Arabic, returned for graduate work in the United States, and often went into the foreign service, forging U.S. policy. Others, such as the head of my Princeton department, remained within the universities and became prominent professors. But it was fantasy that proved most persuasive. As significant portion of my classmates had decided to study the Middle East after watching the 1962 blockbuster Lawrence of Arabia. They continued the tradition begun by earlier scholars who were attracted to what they then called the Orient by silent films such as The Shriek of Araby and pre-twentieth-century translations of The Thousand and One Nights.

Fantasy permeated the study of the Middle East. Back in 1991, I had the honor of accompanying Bernard Lewis, my old professor, on his visit to the Negev. On a wind-lashed January day, we joined a Ben-Gurion University sociologist working with the Bedouin. As we approached the encampment, a stream of Bedouin children ran toward us. Filthy, ragged, streaming snot, the children clustered around Lewis in his navy-blue boating jacket and silken cravat. “Oh! Oh!” he exclaimed in horror, desperate to escape their grasps. And I thought: so the academic fantasy of the Middle East—an illusion of kings and sultans and moonlit minarets—meets Middle Eastern reality.

But fantasy impacted not only the classroom. Romantic notions of the Middle East led American policymakers in the early 1950s to view Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser as an Arab George Washington, capable of uniting the region’s fragmented societies into a United States of the Middle East. In a move President Eisenhower later listed as his greatest foreign policy error, the U.S. backed Nasser against America’s closest allies, Great Britain and France, in the 1956 Suez Crisis, only to have Nasser emerge as America’s archenemy. American leaders similarly viewed PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Syrian strongman Hafez al-Asad as peacemakers, only to learn that both men were irredeemably murderous. President Jimmy Carter loved totalitarians like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, only to see the first one assassinated and the second overthrown. And in what is arguably the most disastrous flight of fantasy, generations of State Department Arabists promoted the image of beneficent Saudi princes who, while professing fealty to the Pax Americana, generously funded al-Qaeda.

The attacks of 9/11 ended all American fantasies about the Middle East—or so one would’ve thought. Instead, it institutionalized them. The neo-cons espoused the near-religious belief that behind every Middle Eastern breast beat a heart yearning for American-style democracy. Ignoring Israel’s warnings, the Bush administration allowed Hamas, a terror organization, to participate in the Palestinian elections of 2006. Hamas won and proceeded to crush the U.S.-trained forces of the more moderate Palestinian Authority in Gaza. The Strip became a terrorist state and an Iranian proxy that triggered no less than five mini-wars over the next fifteen years, culminating in the horrors of October 7.

Still, the neo-con’s faith remained firm. When I refuted it, in a briefing to Congress and in the press, I was accused of being a racist for denying the Arabs the ability to evolve democratically. Though no prophet, I wish I’d been less so in predicting the failure of America’s state-making crusade in Iraq — “The British and the French got sick of it,” I warned, “and so will the United States”— and the vast expansion of Iranian influence westward.

A decade passed and still the fantasy thickened. Scarcely six months after swearing in, President Barack Obama gave a speech more than twice as long as his inaugural address to a handpicked crowd in Cairo. Its purpose was to reach out to the Arab and Muslim worlds and heal the wounds of many years’ antagonism between them and the West. Consequently, Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, like his father before him, was seen as a peacemaker, along with Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Arafat’s successor as President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, was expected to join negotiations toward a two-state solution.  America’s relationship with Israel, historically rated special, were to be downgraded to open the path toward peace between America and the Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the democratically elected leader of America’s principal ally in the area, was treated—in the words of one Washington columnist — “worse than a third-world dictator.

It all failed. With the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, the Obama administration forced the resignation of America’s thirty-year Egyptian ally, Hosni Mubarak, participated militarily in the ouster and mob murder of Qaddafi, and quietly backed the Syrian rebels battling al-Assad. In every other country swept up in the Spring—Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen—America’s hopes for triumphant freedom proved baseless. Libya was cast into a civil war that smolders to this day and Egypt, after a pitiful interregnum of U.S.-backed Muslim Brotherhood rule, restored its army dictatorship. Assad, in the face of empty American threats to retaliate for his use of poison gas, slaughtered his opponents into submission. Erdoğan showed himself to be a merciless autocrat and Abbas ultimately bolted from a major American peace initiative. By 2015, American policymakers could look across the Middle East and not point to a single success.

Except for Iran. In that year, 2015, the White House signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—a clumsy euphemism for the nuclear deal with Iran. For several years before, I’d listened to State Department careerists lamenting how the United States had backed the wrong horses in the Middle East—the Sunni Arabs, on whom Americans spent a trillion dollars in Iraq only to get terror in return, and the Israelis who received massive amounts of military aid only to spit in America’s eye with settlement-building. A far better horse, these professionals argued, were the Iranians who, despite their problematic government, were basically pragmatic and pro-American. Earnestly engaged and incentivized, President Obama held, Iran could become “a responsible regional power.” I listened to Defense Department types speculate whether Iran should get the bomb and so create a balance-of-terror and mutually assured destruction (MAD) with the Middle East’s other nuclear arsenal, Israel’s. I heard all this and thought: talk about fantasy.

With the signing of the JCPOA, that fantasy became a reality that almost instantly devolved into a nightmare. Rather than build hospitals and schools, Iran invested the billions it received from sanctions relief into expanding its sphere of influence and enhancing its nuclear program’s ability to swiftly make and intercontinentally deliver nuclear weapons. Rather than become a responsible power, Iran more than reenforced its reputation as the world’s largest state sponsor of terror.

Repeatedly as ambassador and after, as Deputy Minister for Diplomacy in the Israeli government, I witnessed the impact of fantasy on America’s Middle East policies. When, in February 2011, the U.S. prepared to veto a Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s West Bank settlements, the administration assured me “with 100 percent certainty” that U.S. embassies around the region would be sacked in revenge. The next day, America cast its veto and… nothing happened. Similar prognostications preceded Washington’s recognition Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem in December 2017, when State Department officials assured me that the move would ignite anti-American riots from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. And, again, nothing happened.

So many of these policy failures can be ascribed to the misuse of American power in the Middle East, to the misapplication of faith, and, above all, to the intoxication of fantasy. But much of the bumbling can be traced to the higher education these decision-makers received. Speaking with them in Washington, I could almost tell from their perspectives on the Middle East and the lexicon they used to describe it what departments they had studied in and with which professors. A straight line extended from Harvard and Oxford, Berkeley and the University of Massachusetts directly to a foreign policy bureaucracy that viewed Middle Eastern rulers as rational modernizers, Middle Eastern societies as ready to reconcile with a contrite and philanthropic United States, and the Arab-Israeli conflict as a core dispute which, if resolved, could turn the entire region into Switzerland.

Those revisionist historians who set out to debunk the myths surrounding the Middle East ended up embracing new ones. Purveyors of those myths—Martin Indyk, Aaron David Miller, Robert Malley, just to name a few—became the experts who tried and repeatedly failed to act on them. The fact that they, unlike bankrupt businessmen or fumbling brain surgeons, are still regarded as experts says much about the inability of other scholars, guided by a thorough knowledge of the region’s history and a mastery of its languages, to promote alternative policies.

Not surprisingly, the greatest single achievement of American diplomacy in the Middle East since 1979, the Abraham Accords, was accomplished without input from the region’s scholars. They, like the U.S. policymakers they taught, hewed to the belief that no further peace agreements between Israel and Arab states could be forged without first creating a Palestinian state in almost the entire West Bank, in East Jerusalem, and in Gaza. Relations between Arab states and Israel could never be normalized prior to concluding the two-state solution. The agreements Israel signed with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco in 2020 totally upended this assumption. Normal relations were established not only between the signatory governments but also between their peoples.

Its dismal record notwithstanding, academia’s role in the creation of Middle Eastern fiascos is difficult to quantify. Not so the degree to which academia has in turn been colored and often tainted by the Middle East. Organizationally, philosophically, and financially, Middle Eastern Studies has been corrupted by its subject-matter. The field has been mortally poisoned

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