Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite

Article excerpt

The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite

By Robert D. Kaplan. New York: The Free Press, 1993, 333 pp. Bibliography and index. List: $24.95.

Reviewed by Arthur L. Lowrie

The subject of this book (U.S. foreign service officers who studied Arabic and specialized in Middle Eastern affairs--of whom the reviewer is one) would appear to be of such limited interest that one wonders why it was written and why a major publisher would publish it. It has some fascinating chapters on the 19th century British explorers and American missionaries, some entertaining portraits of top, but heretofore obscure, Arabists, and what apparently is the inside story of the rescue of the Falasha Jews from Ethiopia. For the rest, it is filled with half-truths, generalizations, and lots of damning by faint praise.

Kaplan describes the "traditional Arabist views" as a deep respect for British Arabists of yore, a belief that "Israel's displacement of the Palestinian people is the core problem of the Middle East and responsible in large part for the region's violence and instability," and a belief that a strong president can override a domestic lobby in the pursuit of U.S. national interests. Kaplan's litmus test to judge Arabists is whether they are pro- or anti-Israeli. In fact, most of us were neither one nor the other, but pro-American. We viewed Israel as a country with special ties to the U.S. for whose security the U.S. had a moral and realpolitik responsibility. We did not, however, favor giving Israel carte blanche to pursue its policies regardless of their impact on the extensive U.S. interests throughout the region (which the book never discusses). Kaplan also omits any mention of events that might have caused Arabists (and others) to question Israel's value as an "ally" (e.g., the Lavon affair, the secret Dimona reactor, the attack on the USS Liberty, Begin's duplicity at Camp David over a moratorium on settlements, the Jonathan Pollard spy case).

Kaplan's most exaggerated claim is that Arabists "have been the secret drivers of America's Middle East policy since the end of World War II." This will come as a great shock to Arabists who have spent their careers bemoaning their impotence over policy. If this statement were true, American policy would have been different in some important respects. Israel's well-being and security would certainly have been guaranteed, but the Likud policy of establishing "facts on the ground" in the form of settlements would not have been financed--directly or indirectly--by the U.S., nor would the annexation and expansion of East Jerusalem. The U.S. would not have acquiesced in the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and oppression of 1.5 million Palestinians for the past 27 years, and it decidedly would not have tacitly accepted and indirectly financed the Israeli nuclear arsenal that has resulted in the Muslim states' continuing search for nuclear weapons, threatening the entire area with eventual nuclear war.

The fact is that Arabists have had only a marginal impact on American policy. The real power was and is in the Congress, which has a record of increasing aid to Israel regardless of events or recommen-dations from the bureaucracy. A prominent Arabist and then assistant secretary of state for the Middle East described his job to me as "damage limitation, not policy making."

Another career diplomat who held the same position but made it clear to the media that, despite his service in Arab posts, he was not an "Arabist" because he had not formally studied Arabic, is described by Kaplan as the "most successful and influential of his generation of Middle East specialists," in part because of "his personal growth regarding the Arab-Israeli problem. …

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