The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite

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The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite

By Robert D. Kaplan
The Free Press, 1993
317 pp. $24.95
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Arabists are not like other area specialists, at least not in the popular imagination. If one refers to an Africanist or a Latin Americanist, the image evoked is that of someone who has specialized in the history, languages and cultures of these regions and who has spent some time there. No pejorative connotations would automatically come to mind. With Arabists, however, there is a more sinister implication: anyone who has taken the time to master Arabic, or who has lived for long in the Arab world, must be anti-Israeli, struck by the disease of "clientitis," a bit romantic. Like the old China hands in the 1950s, they are widely viewed with suspicion.

To some degree, Kaplan seems to be trying to dispel this negative image, but not entirely. He even has some trouble defining who fits the category of Arabist. Knowledge of Arabic and some experience in the Arab world seem prerequisites, yet nearly half the individuals he describes are not Arabists by this definition. At times he seems only to mean State Department officials who have served in Arab countries.

Kaplan feeds the stereotype that he later partly rejects by beginning his book with the statement that Arabists represent "the most exotic and controversial vestige of the East Coast Establishment." Really? In whose eyes? He goes on to quote approvingly from Francis Fukuyama, who claims that Arabists are "an elite within an elite, who have been more systematically wrong than any other area specialists in the diplomatic corps. This is because Arabists not only take on the cause of the Arabs, but also the Arabs' tendency for self-delusion."

The early generation of Arabists had something of a romantic, missionary streak. And some of the Arabists who Kaplan interviews live up to the image of being harshly critical of Israel and apologetic for various Arab regimes. But his prototypical figure of the early Arabist, Loy Henderson, was not an Arabist at all. Whatever motivated him to oppose the creation of Israel, it was not romantic Arabism. It may well have been an obsessive concern with communism, worry about oil, and an exaggerated belief that the Soviet Union would manipulate the Arab-Israeli conflict to the disadvantage of the United States. In taking this stance, he was joined by such foreign-policy luminaries as Dean Acheson, James Byrnes, George Marshall, Robert Lovett, George Kennan, James Forrestal, and Dean Rusk. Whatever else they had in common, it was not Arabism, and no one has ever demonstrated that they were captives of the State Department Arabists.

Kaplan is unable to provide convincing evidence that the Arabists, even loosely defined, have been "the secret drivers of America's Middle East policy since the end of World War II." Certainly in the past 25 years, the top policy positions dealing with the Middle East at State and the National Security Council did not often go to Arabists. So where is the allegedly "prodigious" influence of the Arabists seen?

Iraq, and Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, turn out to be Kaplan's evidence of the malign influence of the Arabists. The argument is simple: the Arabists encouraged a policy of appeasement of a ruthless dictator, allowing their emotions and biases to cloud their judgment. The crucial evidence comes from the Iraqi transcript of Ambassador April Glaspie's famous encounter with Saddam Hussein on July 25, 1990. (Her version of events is dismissed as inaccurate, and Kaplan seems to have made no effort to interview Glaspie to hear her side of the story.) In Kaplan's words, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait represented "the greatest debacle in the history of America's Arabists."

But do the Arabists, and especially Ambassador Glaspie, deserve so much of the blame? After all, few Arabists remained in policy positions after the "purges" of the early 1970s. Kaplan himself notes that when the State Department urged a freezing of relations with Iraq in April 1990, it was the White House that blocked the proposal-not the American Ambassador in Baghdad, or any other Arabist. But he does not probe further to try to figure out why this was so. Nor does he note the curious fact that a number of neoconservative, pro-Israelis were making the case in 1989-90 for a "moderate" Saddam Hussein. After all, Saddam had spoken openly of peace with Israel; he had opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; he was standing up to the spread of Iranian-backed Islamic fundamentalism; he was supporting pro-Israeli Christian groups in Lebanon; and he was locked in a deadly quarrel with Syria's Hafiz al-Asad. The fact that friends of Israel were becoming apologists for Iraq was at least as important as the role of some Arabists in promoting better U.S.-Iraqi relations.

Kaplan's portrait of the Arabists largely exempts them from the charge of being harshly anti-Israeli. He is more convinced that they have erred by being soft-headed about Arab dictators. His hope is that a new generation of Arabists is coming along, tough-minded, analytical, knowledgeable about both Arabs and Israelis (what about Kurds, Turks and Iranians?), and from diverse backgrounds. But Kaplan, by distorting the past role of Arabists, by exaggerating their pernicious influence, and by ignoring their successes, has provided fuel for the continuing feud between Arabists and their critics. His concluding appeal for a truce therefore rings a bit hollow.

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