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

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

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

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

Synopsis

As its interests have become deeply tied to the Middle East, the United States has long sought to develop a usable understanding of the people, politics, and cultures of the region. In Imagining the Middle East, Matthew Jacobs illuminates how Americans' ideas and perspectives about the region have shaped, justified, and sustained U.S. cultural, economic, military, and political involvement there.

Jacobs examines the ways in which an informal network of academic, business, government, and media specialists interpreted and shared their perceptions of the Middle East from the end of World War I through the late 1960s. During that period, Jacobs argues, members of this network imagined the Middle East as a region defined by certain common characteristics--religion, mass politics, underdevelopment, and an escalating Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict--and as a place that might be transformed through U.S. involvement. Thus, the ways in which specialists and policymakers imagined the Middle East of the past or present came to justify policies designed to create an imagined Middle East of the future. Jacobs demonstrates that an analysis of the intellectual roots of current politics and foreign policy is critical to comprehending the styles of U.S. engagement with the Middle East in a post-9/11 world.

Excerpt

When President George W. Bush addressed the nation in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, he framed the event in an apparently self-evident five-word question: “Why do they hate us?” His answer to that question appeared equally obvious: “They hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” Leaving aside the fact that both the question and the answer left who “they” were largely undefined, it is important to note that the exercise met a rhetorical need at a particular moment in time as people tried to make sense of such terrible acts. It was reasonable to ask, albeit in a more sophisticated manner, what ideas these terrorists held about the United States that inspired them to take such actions. of course, framing the issue as President Bush did suggested another equally important and ill-defined question: What do “we” think of “them”?

It is that very big question that I address in Imagining the Middle East. My foremost premise is that the exercise of U.S. power—cultural, economic, military, and political—in the Middle East has been enabled, justified, and sustained through the ways Americans have thought about and interpreted the region, the people who inhabit it, and the forces at play there. Thus, I examine the ways in which, to borrow a phrase from David EnGerman’s work on nineteenth-and twentieth-century Russian and Soviet experts in the United States, academics, business persons, government officials, and journalists who were “paid to interpret” the Middle East “for American audiences” understood the region in the twentieth century, from roughly the end of World War I through the late 1960s. I argue that, over time, these analysts, commentators, experts, observers, and specialists interpreted the Middle East in two primary ways. First, they imagined the region possessed certain characteristics, and their beliefs about the region were revealed in a series of discourses about its people, religions, political movements, social structures, polariz-

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