The Study of Middle East Politics, 1946-1996: A Stocktaking

By Bill, James A. | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 1996 | Go to article overview

The Study of Middle East Politics, 1946-1996: A Stocktaking


Bill, James A., The Middle East Journal


This essay postulates that political scientists in the United States have made little progress in the past 50 years in understanding and explaining Middle East political systems. Hampered by the complexity of the subject matter, limited interdisciplinary collaboration, inadequate research skills, counterproductive intellectual rivalry, the small number of outstanding senior scholars, the tendency for single country expertise, and the stifling proliferation of instant experts, US political scientists have largely failed to grasp the complexities of Middle East politics. Despite this undistinguished record, the future seems brighter, partly because of the increasing recognition of the problems of the past.

All is not well in the field of Middle East political studies in the United States. A review of the history of Middle East scholarship suggests that we have learned disturbingly little after 50 years of heavy exertion. Middle Eastern political systems remain as resistant to Western comprehension today as they did a half century ago. The waves of American scholars, businessmen, and diplomats that washed across the shores of the Middle East have carried away little of the sediment of understanding necessary to successful explanation and prediction of the region's political processes.

American analysts continue to explore their political empty quarter in search of the oases of knowledge necessary to explain political development in the Middle East. Eventually, these analysts all seem to end up at the same old watering holes, believing they have discovered new oases and giving them different names each time. In the 1950s and 1960s, the signs at the oases read "liberal democracy and Westernization;" in the 1960s and 1970s, the search focused on "political development and political participation;" in the 1970s and 1980s, the jargon was "legitimacy" and "the state and society" dichotomy; today, the words on the weather-beaten old signs are "civil society" and "democratization." We have come full circle.

In fact, Middle East scholars have used many different terms to describe their quest for the same phenomenon, an understanding of Middle Eastern power and authority relations as they form, reform, and transform themselves in the face of a rapidly-changing world. Today's scholars of "civil society" are to a large extent redigging old trenches already excavated by scholars of "political participation." Those who seek evidence of "democratization" tread the same paths already traversed four decades ago by those who defined "political development" in terms of "liberal democracy." The confusing and redundant conceptual scaffolding that has been erected about the investigation of Middle East politics has obstructed rather than enhanced our understanding. In the end, one can only conclude that we have learned little, in the past 50 years, about the processes of power and authority that define the core of Middle Eastern political systems.

I have been among those who have filled their canteens at these comfortable old caravanserais inhabited by those who ceaselessly intone development, legitimation, liberalization, and democratization. Where were the political analysts, however, when the Iranian revolution exploded in 1978, or when the Soviets attacked Afghanistan in 1979? What waters in what oases were we sampling when Iraq started a war with Iran in 1980, when Saddam Husayn of Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, when Lebanon and Algeria came apart at the seams, and when Islamic populism burst forth? What were we sipping from our canteens when Israel invaded its Arab neighbors in 1956 and 1967, when Egypt drove across the Suez Canal in 1973, and when Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated in 1981? Where were we during the peace negotiations in Madrid and Oslo?

THE OBSTACLES TO POLITICAL UNDERSTANDING

This essay seeks to explain why we have made only limited progress in understanding political processes in the Middle East and predicting their outcomes. …

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