When Israeli historian and DC native Martin Kramer delivers the keynote in DC Friday for the annual conference of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, he will ask a question that no one has satisfactorily answered: why does America keep misjudging the Middle East?
From Jimmy Carter’s debacle in Tehran, to George W. Bush’s overreach in Iraq, to President Obama’s missteps in Syria, why has a region so important to our national interests destroyed so much statecraft? Why has it already tarnished presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, in Benghazi, and why will it test the understanding of her cabinet, assuming she is elected next month?
Kramer, the founding president of Israel’s first liberal arts college, and ASMEA, a diverse group of experts co-founded by his mentor, Bernard Lewis, are notorious dissidents from most thinking about the Middle East, and are sure to have some answers. In 2001, Kramer published “Ivory Towers on Sand,” a critique of Middle Eastern studies so devastating it made him more reviled in academia than Osama Bin Laden. In 2007 Lewis and Fouad Ajami launched ASMEA as an alternative to the Middle East Studies Association, which Lewis, a founding member, saw enfeebled by postmodernism, multiculturalism, and political correctness.
Kramer’s latest book, “The War on Error,” released last week, exposes the mistakes that historians, journalists, filmmakers, and others have made doing history in the region, and shows that our vision has only grown worse.
“For the last thirty years, new myths (in the guise of ‘new history’) have replaced old ones,” he writes. This is lamentable because “the distortion of history is more grievous than a failed prediction”—producing a “banality” in policymaking “so ubiquitous that we no longer notice it.” So is it any wonder that Americans have been caught flatfooted by the Arab “Spring,” the rise of ISIS, Iraq’s unraveling, regime change in Egypt, upheaval in Turkey, Syria’s disintegration, Russia’s aggressions—indeed by almost everything?
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Isn’t Sparking All the Rest
Kramer has led a lonely charge against two pillars of banality in U.S. foreign policy: linkage and democracy promotion.
“‘Linkage’ might best be described as a domino theory peculiar to the Middle East,” he writes. “It rests on the assumption that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, more than any other issue, prompts the rise of terrorism, weakens friendly governments, and makes it impossible for the United States… to win Arabs and Muslims over to the good cause. The region is rife with conflicts that impact US interests, but peoples and governments won’t respond to American efforts to resolve them, unless the United States conjures up a resolution for the Palestinians first.”
Kramer demurs. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is relatively stable, and the status quo is sustainable, he says. “It is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is ‘linked’ to everything in the region. To the contrary: the conflict is containable, because a powerful Israel deters regional adversaries from actively intervening on behalf of the Palestinians. It is the Syrian conflict that is ‘linked’ to almost every other conflict, because it involves the most durable fissure in the region, the Sunni-Shi’ite cleavage, and because no player is strong enough to impose order.”
Kramer traces the linkage banality to a false historical analogy. The belief in linkage requires the belief “that the Middle East is a system, like Europe, and that its conflicts are related to one another,” he writes. “Europe in modern times became a complex, interlocking system in which an event in one corner could set off a chain reaction. Linkage… is a projection of this memory of Europe’s re-creation onto the Middle East… From NATO to the European Union, from the reconstruction of Germany to Benelux, Europe’s experience has provided the template for visions of the future Middle East.”
But “the Middle East is not analogous to Europe, it has multiple sources of conflict, and even as one conflict moves to resolution, another may be inflamed. This is because the Middle East is not a single system of interlocking parts. It is made up of smaller systems and distinct pieces, that function independently of one another.”
A Willingness to Think Outside the Mind-Meld
The “tragedy of linkage,” he concludes, is that it “proved to be a huge diversion from a necessary focus on far more dangerous and destabilizing conflicts in the Middle East. While Western diplomats, led by the Americans, fiddled obsessively with the Rubik’s Cube of the ‘peace process,’ a large part of the Arab world came undone, and no one had the presence of mind to develop a strategy to prevent it. The ‘linkage’ purveyors bear much of the responsibility for the grim consequences of this neglect.”
Kramer likewise doubted the democracy promotion agenda of the neoconservatives. Blinded by linkage and wishful thinking, they made extravagant claims about the likely effects on the region of Iraq’s “liberation” from Saddam Hussein’s regime, which they analogized to the destruction of Hitler’s dictatorship.
“The idea of transforming the region into a zone of peace and democracy like Europe is a chimera,” he emails. “The problems of the region can’t be resolved, certainly by outsiders.” They can at best be “managed”—not with reset buttons and disengagement, but by applying the rules of statecraft: support your allies, punish your enemies, define your interests sensibly, communicate red lines clearly, and enforce them consistently.
For Kramer, history trumps ideology. Viewed by most as a free-market conservative, he does not believe conservatism and capitalism are eternal goods. Indeed the facts of Israel’s founding suggest otherwise. “The Zionist revolution… in its most fevered (and productive) phases… elevated the collective above all else, even above the family,” he writes. “Socialism failed everyone—except, at a crucial moment, the Jews. The point is not to question the contemporary primacy of economic freedom and the family. But we cannot know what challenges the future may pose, and whether they will require that Jews become revolutionaries again.”
Your Ideas Are Wrong. So Change Them
For the rest of the Middle East, meanwhile, the great challenge has become “the cancerous growth” of the all-intrusive state. “There is no greater evil,” Kramer declares. But it wasn’t always so—it wasn’t under the Ottomans—and Americans must study both why it wasn’t, and how it came to be, if they hope to anticipate what might come next.
Academe has been no help. Since its beginnings in the 1950s, “the Middle Eastern studies enterprise ha(s) not spared us even one unpleasant surprise,” Kramer wrote in Ivory Towers. Fifteen years on, he asks in an interview: “Why don’t Americans get the Middle East, which has a nasty propensity for occupying all the bandwidth of government in foreign policy, with results that are indifferent at best? Why is it so intractable? It was not so for the European powers of yesteryear, or for Israel or Russia today. Why is there a blockage in this country? Is there something about the way knowledge is structured and processed, some set of preconceived notions, which makes it inevitable that you will fail?”
His answer in Ivory Towers holds today: Political scientists “argued against the erudite mastery of languages, histories, cultures, and societies. It was sufficient to come armed with the right theory, the most universally valid paradigm, and then apply it to the Middle East.” But the academics were wrong: “Concepts manufactured in the theory mills of North America broke down in the rugged environment of Saddam’s Iraq and the Taliban’s Afghanistan…. Authoritarianism, monarchy, and religion all continued to dominate the politics of the Middle East in ways that defied rational-choice analysis, econometric models, and game theory.”
“You won’t understand what ISIS means when it says it wants to restore the Caliphate if you don’t know what the Caliphate is,” he says now.
Middle Eastern Studies Influences Our Failure
Kramer in his keynote will survey the current state of Middle Eastern studies, but he is not one to explain Americans to themselves or to issue policy papers proclaiming the best way forward. He has been too busy waging a one-man war against shoddy research and the distortion of history—while running Shalem College, which he helped found in 2013.
One hopes their experiences will have inoculated them against the false paradigms and pieties that have so long reigned.
“My criticism isn’t a policy posture,” he says. “It’s about what you see, and what you don’t see. This was the point made by Lewis regarding Islam. What you don’t see will eventually afflict you. And my main criticism isn’t of the foreign policy establishment. It has been of an approach, not a group. What is the foreign policy establishment anyway? If I have been focused on an establishment, it has been the monolithic one in Middle Eastern Studies, not the varied one in Washington. There you at least get some turnover.”
The field is ripe for new leadership. Lewis turned 100 this year. Ajami died in 2014. Their chief antagonist, Edward Said, is also gone, and his influence is thankfullywaning. ASMEA is a vibrant marketplace for ideas—policymakers would do well to attend its conference—but it is small and lacks political muscle. MESA has three times the membership, but it, too, (also thankfully) lacks clout to shape policy.
Our fortress of ignorance may at last be conquered by the people who conquered the lands themselves—the 2.5 million Americans who deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq for the wars there, and the hundreds of thousands of civilian contractors who went with them. At least a few of these are now trickling into academe, think tanks, and public service, where one hopes their experiences will have inoculated them against the false paradigms and pieties that have so long reigned there.
“The habit of inattention must be considered the greatest defect of the democratic character,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America” in 1839. Inattention and a streak of optimism have left us cockeyed about the Middle East, the graveyard for good intentions. Falling skyscrapers failed to teach us wisdom. What else must fall? The alternative to enlightenment is grim.
Shepard Barbash’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, City Journal, Education Next, and other publications. He is former bureau chief of the Houston Chronicle in Mexico City and is the author of five books, including “Clear Teaching,” published in 2012 by the Education Consumers Foundation.