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Field of Fire: Fifty Years in Middle East Studies (Part III). - The Scorpion and the Frog-

This is Part III 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.




In a version of an oft-repeated fable, a scorpion wishes to cross the Nile and asks a frog to ferry him. The frog replies, “What are you nuts? No sooner will we leave the shore then you’ll sting me.” The scorpion laughed. “Why would I do that? Do I look suicidal?” he asked and gave his word of honor not to use his stinger. So the gullible amphibian took the arachnid on his back and swam out to mid-river where the scorpion promptly stung him. “Why? Why?” the frog lamented as he sank. To which the scorpion replied, “You forgot, dear frog, this is the Middle East.”


The tale illustrates not only the venomous nature of Middle Eastern politics but also the region’s toxicity to those trying to transverse it. This was certainly the case with many scholars. Contrary to Edward Said’s thesis that the study of the Orient preceded its conquest, the conquest gave rise to the study of the modern Middle East. The result was a field deeply riddled with corruption—intellectual, moral, and financial.


In anticipation of the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I, in April 1916, British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart François Georges-Picot met secretly to divvy up the Middle East. Britain would receive the areas called Iraq and Palestine while the Ottoman provinces of Syria would go to France. The post-war settlement closely followed this plan. Iraq and Palestine and the Hashemite Kingdom cleaved from Palestine in Transjordan (shortened, in 1950, to Jordan) remained under British rule. Syria and the largely Christian Lebanon carved from it in 1925 were French. The map of the Middle East, demarcating countries that never previously existed and national identities forged by European interests, should have been rejected by scholars of the region. Instead, they unquestionably embraced it.



The Sykes-Picot Agreement (Institute for Curriculum Service)

Suddenly, there were experts on Lebanon, experts on Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. The borders of Middle East studies stubbornly stayed within those drawn by imperialism. The intellectual implications were far-reaching, limiting the scholars’ ability to gage the importance of the pan-Arab and pan-Islamic leaders who fought to erase those borders. But there were also moral pitfalls. To write about their chosen Arab state, scholars had to curry favor with their rulers. Almost without exception, these were autocrats and totalitarians who, after the British and the French lost their stomach for state-making in the Middle East, established power centers brutal enough to preserve their post-colonial polities.


Among the best examples of this perversion was Patrick Seale. A Belfast-born, Oxford-trained specialist in Syria, Seale’s books—The Struggle for Syria (1965) and Asad of Syria (1988)—were regarded as canonical in many Middle East departments. Throughout his career, though, Seale was careful to keep on cordial terms with a regime whose reputation for ruthlessness was singular even by Middle Eastern standards.


Seale was hardly unique. Hanna Batatu, who wrote extensively about Iraq, actively collaborated with its Baathists governments in the 1950s. P.J. Vatikiotis, a noted specialist on Egypt, would never write a critical word against Nasser and the military dictators who succeeded him, Sadat and Mubarak. Twenty years ago, while enjoying High Table at St. Antony’s College, I asked Oxford Arabist Eugene Rogen if he ever planned to visit Israel.


“I refuse to set foot in the Zionist entity,” he adamantly replied.


“But you visit Damascus all the time.”


Rogen shrugged. “They’re not doing anything wrong.”


Arabists not only served to whitewash Syria and other repressive states but advocated for the entire Arab world. Downplaying the multiple shortcomings and crises afflicting the region, specialists blamed all its ills on foreign interference and the need of Middle Eastern leaders to defend themselves against American-backed plots for regime change. Thus, the Lebanese Civil War of the mid-1970s was said to result from U.S. and Israeli meddling in the country’s internal affairs, and the Iranian Revolution to the Eisenhower Administration’s 1953 plot to overthrow nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. The rise of Islamic extremism merited scant academic attention. In the entire industry of Middle East studies—the university departments, the think-tanks, and research institutes—not a single scholar predicted 9/11. None, to the best of my knowledge, anticipated the Arab Spring.


Yet the Faustian deal between Middle East scholars and the rulers they wrote about was sealed by more than mere access. According to a study conducted by Dr. Mitchell Bard, between 1986 and 2021, some 258 universities received 7,713 contributions from Arab countries, with a combined worth of $8,444,579,595. In 2019, the Department of Education launched investigations in several of America’s most prestigious universities which received an estimated $1.3 billion in unregistered gifts from the Middle East. Led by the oil-rich Gulf states, the list of contributors also includes relatively impoverished Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, and the State of Palestine. The National Association of Academics in the United States, in a paper published in 2022, found that Qatar, alone, had contributed $4.7 billion to American universities.


Arab largess was not restricted to colleges but also extended to prominent think tanks. The Brookings Institution, liberal and highly influential, received $14.8 million from the Qataris. The contribution led to a New York Times exposé and even an FBI investigation. More than a dozen D.C. research centers had received tens of millions of dollars in recent years, the Times reported, “increasingly transforming the once-staid think-tank world into a muscular arm of foreign governments’ lobbying in Washington.”


Qatar, alone, had contributed $4.7 billion to American universities.

The purpose of these payments was simple: influence. Not only were the recipients now disinclined, to say the least, to publish research critical of the donors, but they also produced young scholars indebted to their sponsors. My book, Power, Faith, and Fantasy traced the historical process in which the children of American missionaries in the Middle East majored in the field, graduated, and went into the State Department. Former ambassadors to Arab capitals then served as lobbyists for their erstwhile hosts or taught laudatory courses about them in universities. Arab donations spurred a similar process in which the beneficiaries of Qatari philanthropy, for example, completed their studies and pursued a career in government service or passed their views on to the next generation of students. Either way, the Arab investment was sage. Martin Indyk, vice president and director of the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings, later served as an advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry, pursuing policies that were—in the eyes of Israel and its Sunni allies—markedly pro-Qatari.


“Success has many fathers,” John F. Kennedy once said, “but failure is an orphan.” Regarding America’s policies toward the Middle East, though, the opposite is often true. The success of the Sinai Accords in the 1970s was owed almost exclusively to Henry Kissinger, the subsequent Camp David Accords to Jimmy Carter. By contrast, the great many policy failures stemmed from numerous sources—an overreliance on power, as I’ve mentioned, misplaced faith, and reality-obscuring fantasies. The result has been immense harm to U.S. interests in the region. After all, who can trust a nation which publicly betrays longtime allies such as Mubarak? Who can take seriously the belief that massive military power can install democracy in a deeply conservative country like Iraq that lacks even the shallowest democratic roots? Who can collaborate in the killing of Qaddafi and then walk away from the mess his murder left behind?


The solution lies, first and foremost, in the education that future decision-makers receive. That is my conclusion looking back on fifty years’ involvement in Middle East Studies. Needed is a field free of illusions, rabidly partisan politics, and foreign funding. Needed is a curriculum that addresses the real, as opposed to the imagined, Middle East, one that asks such hard questions as “how did America’s withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan impact national and global security?” and “was a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians ever possible?” What role did America’s insistence on Hamas’s participation in the 2005 Palestinian elections and, later, Washington’s refusal to stand up to Iran, contribute to the outbreak of the current war in Gaza?


These questions are especially pressing today, in the throes of that desperate conflict, yet they are more than ever before unlikely to be asked in Middle East Studies departments. With more than 2,700 members, the Middle East Studies Association, on March 11th, published an open letter categorically condemning Israeli actions in Gaza, calling for a permanent ceasefire, and demanding the halt of U.S. arms supplies to the IDF—all without once mentioning Hamas. They have recommended closer American cooperation with Qatar. Jewish students, even those highly critical of Israel, have reported feeling unwelcome or even threatened in courses on Middle East history, politics, and languages.


The policymakers produced by these programs will almost certainly repeat their predecessors’ mistakes and failures. Most likely, too, they will be consulted as experts by think tanks and the press.  Tragically, Middle East Studies will remain a field of fire, while the Middle East is engulfed in flames.


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