The Middle East is in chaos. And while the sectarian and ideological forces which tear the region apart would exist regardless of U.S. policy, decisions made by President Barack Obama and his team of advisors have effectively thrown fuel on the fire. While history might be critical of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, oust Saddam Hussein, and seek to establish a democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East, historians will likely be far more critical of Obama’s decisions or, in some cases, failure to make decisions, and the impact of that action and inaction on countries like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Turkey, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Egypt.
For more than a half century U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East has been largely consistent and bipartisan. President Dwight Eisenhower briefly tried to reorient the basis of American policy away from close ties with Israel to a broader alliance favoring Arab states and the Arab narrative—hence the Suez debacle—but he quickly discovered that Israel simply made a better and more consistent ally than the likes of Gamal Abdul Nasser or the myriad Arab leaders, many of whom were simply the latest coup leaders.
It’s worth considering why Obama is such an outlier. While, on paper, Obama might be expected to be the most international president—with Kenyan family and a boyhood in Indonesia—when it comes to the Middle East, he had little practical background. His introduction to the region appears to have occurred in American universities, if not directly in Middle East Studies courses, than through his friendship and close association with Middle East Studies luminaries like Rashid Khalidi and perhaps Edward Said as well.
Martin Kramer, currently president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, penned in 2001 one of the best researched, careful, and damning assessments of Middle Eastern Studies, in which he traced the inverse relationship between its polemics and relevance. Much of this can be traced back to Edward Said. Said, is of course, famous for penning Orientalism, perhaps the most influential book in Middle East Studies in the last half century. Few people who cite Orientalism, however, have ever read it. If they had, they would readily see the emperor had no clothes, for Said’s essay is so full of errors of both fact and logic as to suggest scholarly incompetence if not academic fraud. Quite simply, the reason why Said is so popular on campus today is because his argument became a blessing to prioritize polemic and politics above fact and scholarly rigor. For Said, up was down, wrong was right, and power was original sin.
Rashid Khalidi, a close friend of Obama from their mutual University of Chicago days, now holds a chair named in Said’s honor at Columbia University. He has consistently argued that politicians and diplomats do not listen to those like himself who claim expertise in the Middle East. This was a complaint which permeated his 2004 book Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East, which I reviewed here. The irony here, of course, is that Khalidi, who was previously the PLO spokesman in Beirut, had never been to Iraq but nevertheless castigated policymakers for ignoring his advice on the subject.
Khalidi, as with many others in his field, both sought to prioritize and amplify the importance of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. At the same time, he appears obsessed with post-colonial theory. American power is corrosive, and the road to Middle East peace runs through Jerusalem. Likewise, cultural equivalence predominates: what the West calls terrorism is not so black and white. Hateful ideologies? They are simply the result of grievance. America should apologize and understand and accommodate to the position of the other if it is committed truly to peace.
Obama entered office internalizing such beliefs. Rather than act as leader of the free world, he approached the Middle East as a zoning commissioner. What he lacked in understanding, he compensated for with arrogance—dispensing with decades of accumulated wisdom and experience of predecessors both Democrat and Republican. Rather than jump start the peace process, Obama succeeded in setting it back decades.
When it comes to the U.S. military, there are few places with less trust and understanding than the university campus. Generations have now passed through the Ivory Tower since the end of conscription and, especially at elite universities, few professors or students have any experience in or with the military. The U.S. military is treated in an almost cartoonish, condescending fashion. Rather than see its projection as the enabler of peace, Obama—like many of his university colleagues—saw it as an arrow in the U.S. policy quiver with which past American presidents engaged in wars of choice and unjust gunboat diplomacy. Sovereignty and nationalism were enablers of evil; it was the United Nations and other multilateral institutions that held the key to peace and justice, if only they might operate unimpeded by the United States.
Of course, when put to the test, these assumptions failed completely. Obama’s promise to withdraw from Iraq did not win that country peace and stability, but condemned it to a return to terror and war. His failure to intervene in Syria early transferred a situation that might have been resolved with minimum force into a cancer which now spreads throughout the region. His outreach to Iran has shaken decades-long alliances with Arab allies to the core, and broken a trust in the United States and its red lines which will take decades to restore. Never before—not in 1979, not in 1967—has the Middle East been so torn asunder.
And yet, all Obama did was follow the prescriptions taught at so many American universities today: reconcile with Iran, condemn Israel, rationalize terror, trust Islamist movements, and refuse military solutions. The Middle East will test whoever succeeds Obama. It is doubtful that either a Democrat or a Republican will follow Obama’s path. History will treat him as an outlier. Still, it is worth considering whether Obama represents academe’s first grand experiment, enabling area studies professors to see their ideas put into action on the world stage. If so, perhaps it is worth considering whether many Middle Eastern studies programs are repositories of expertise, or rather have transformed themselves because of their own ideological conformity and blinders into a dustbin of wasted potential.