MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS - Imagining the Middle East: The Building of an American Foreign Policy, 1918-1967

By Davidson, Lawrence | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS - Imagining the Middle East: The Building of an American Foreign Policy, 1918-1967


Davidson, Lawrence, The Middle East Journal


Imagining the Middle East: The Building of an American Foreign Policy, 1918-1967, by Matthew F. Jacobs. 318 pages. $39.95.

Reviewed by Lawrence Davidson

Matthew Jacobs has written a competent book describing the various groups and individuals that sought to shape American perceptions of and policies in the Middle East from the end of World War I to just after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. A brief epilogue brings the story up to the present.

Jacobs's thesis is that these various elements constituted an "informal network" the individual participants of which "shared a professional and policy-oriented interest in the Middle East" (p. 4). They were mostly missionaries, academics, businessmen, and diplomats, but eventually included ideologically- driven lobbyists. Collectively, their influence created "mutually reinforced ways of understanding the region that helped to establish the boundaries of debate" (p. 10).

Though of differing origins and occupations, each of these groups "imagined" the Middle East based on assumptions derived from American culture and history. According to Jacobs, the primary assumption was that the United States had a "secular and sacred" mission to better the world along with the "authority, expertise and knowledge" to achieve this goal (p. 35). The interests and desires of indigenous populations, such as the Arabs, were often ignored or misunderstood.

Jacobs shows how this network of experts evolved over time from a generation of missionaries (and often their adult children) with direct experience in the Middle East, to a generation of academic area specialists and diplomats, to a generation of State Department bureaucrats and lobbyists. As this evolution took place the Middle East became "imagined" in terms of "problems:" the problem of religion (Islam), the problem of modernization, the problem of charismatic leaders and mass politics, and finally the problem of the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All of these problems were influenced by other, parallel issues such as war (cold and hot), economics (oil), and ideology (Zionism).

It was the participants of the informal network who struggled to solve these problems by influencing US foreign policy in one direction or another.

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