Skip Navigation
Government Attacks on Area Specialists Called Disservice to U.S. Middle East Policy

Government Attacks on Area Specialists Called Disservice to U.S. Middle East Policy

Rashid Khalidi sees perils for the U.S. in empire building while ignoring its own professional Middle East experts and the history of the region.

By Leslie Evans

"We are seeing a fact-free, faith-based approach to Middle East policymaking."

[Most Middle East specialists in the United States could have  predicted -- and often did -- the high levels of prolonged resistance American forces have encountered in Iraq. The Bush administration not only didn't ask them, it has frequently sought to belittle the scholars who know the region best, or to impugn their patriotism. So said Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi in a May 27 talk at UCLA for the Center for Near Eastern Studies.

[Khalidi is Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies and director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. He formerly taught at the University of Chicago. His talk was in part to promote his new book, Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East (Beacon Press, April 2004). Following is a slightly abridged report of his remarks.]

*    *   *

How is history relevant to what is happening in Iraq? The United States has been a major Middle Eastern power since signing an oil agreement with Saudi Arabia in 1932. It has had troops in the Middle East continually since 1942.

The United States has propped up regimes, fought wars, has exerted influence directly and indirectly. With the invasion of Iraq we have entered an entirely new phase. The United States was once celebrated as a noncolonial and even anticolonial power. It was known for founding the American University of Cairo and the American University of Beirut.

Since the Cold War the United States has involved itself more and more deeply. A number of things have rendered it less popular. Principally these are the presence of U.S. bases, support of autocratic regimes, and its position on the Palestine question.

With the invasion and occupation of Iraq and with the revelation that core pretexts for the war were false and faced with growing Iraqi opposition, the United States is being perceived more and more as stepping into the boots of previous Western occupiers. People remember French troops in Algeria, and older people remember British troops in Aden. These things are taught in schools if they are not part of personal experience.

The Bush administration has marched into Iraq proclaiming the best of intentions but the appearance is different. Napoleon on invading Egypt proclaimed, "I have come to restore you your rights." General Maude, commander of the British forces in Baghdad in 1918, declared, "Our armies do not come into your cities as conquerors but as liberators." We should remember that the anti-British rising began in Falluja. Rumsfeld said much the same [as these predecessors] in 2003.

Middle East Experts Disregarded

A wide range of Middle East experts warned against the dangers of an occupation of Iraq, including some who supported the war. Most have been attacked for failing to show the proper degree of enthusiasm or patriotism. We have seen the passage of  House Resolution 3077 which would set up an inquisitorial advisory committee to oversee teaching of Middle East studies in American universities.

Certain key Bush administration policies simply do not meet the reality test and are harmful to the United States and the peoples of the region. We are seeing a fact-free, faith-based approach to Middle East policymaking.

John O'Neil, Eric Shinseki, Richard Clark -- the administration has been vindictive toward even its own high officials when they try to call attention to the shortcomings of administration policy. The administration is plagued by the stifling environment of groupthink, especially in the office of the Secretary of Defense. I know many officials in the military and the State Department who cannot express themselves freely in their official capacities for fear of retribution. Some said invading Iraq would lead to a loss of focus on efforts to stop the people actually attacking the United States. The war has multiplied the number of people engaged in terrorism against the United States.

The Baath regime in 2003 posed no threat to the United States, although it was deadly to its own people. In 1991 all of Iraq's neighbors feared Iraq and its weapons. This was not true in 2003. Not one neighbor of Iraq felt threatened enough by Iraq to support the U.S. war effort openly (Kuwait did so covertly). We have seen the fiasco of the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, not to speak of the prison scandals. Very few experts inside or outside of the government dared to challenge the wisdom that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Within the government those who thought the weapons did not exist kept it to themselves for fear of inviting retribution from the vindictive heads of government. Paul Wolfowitz admitted that, once committed to the war, the weapons of mass destruction was the most convenient argument.

They underestimated the opposition in Iraq. Almost all Middle East experts pointed to the likelihood of prolonged resistance.

Sovereignty, if that means control of the armed forces and borders, will not be handed over to Iraqis after June 30. This milestone will be only a change of facade. There will still be more than 130,000 U.S. forces, and all security forces in the country will be under U.S. command. Then instead of the Coalition Command the orders will be given by the U.S. ambassador. I would prefer to call him viceroy or proconsul. Will the new government be able to tear up contracts with multibillion dollar corporations? I doubt it. Finally there is the ongoing privatization of Iraqi assets. All these issues are obscured in the media treatment but we should pay close attention to them.

I have many friends who are Iraq experts. Without exception they all loathed the former regime. But they were all also deeply worried about the prolonged postwar problems that would follow an American invasion. They could not disturb the blissfully serene and unreal scenario of the policymakers.

No Good Choices in Iraq

I don't think there are any good choices now for the United States in Iraq. The experts were also right to warn about the impossibility of imposing democracy from the barrel of a gun. Power maybe, but not democracy. For the last 12 months Bremer has tried successfully to prevent elections demanded by prominent Shi'a leaders. The stench of hypocrisy hovers over a regime claiming to support democracy that supports undemocratic regimes such as the Saudis and now Libya.

It is a myth that the Middle East has no experience with democracy or constitutionalism. There were constitutions in the Middle East, in Turkey in 1876 and Iran in 1905. The French and British supported antidemocratic regimes. The United States did the same, with the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953. What this administration seems to mean by a democratic government in the Middle East is a government that does as it is told.

The wholesale theft of Iraqi property as it is privatized is known all over the Middle East. Iraqi airlines is now 51% owned by a shadowy group of Iraqis and Jordanians who put up nothing but their expertise, while 49% is the $3 billion worth of planes and airports both in Iraq and of this airline throughout the world.

These things arouse deep fears in the Middle East in public opinion which is afraid of foreign control of Middle Eastern oil. Until the 1960s all decisions on oil production were made by the oil importing countries. This has been a source of bitterness and concern. It was only with the nationalizations of the 1960s and 1970s that even the governments in the Middle East began to benefit from the oil industry.

How will what we do be perceived by people of the region? They don't like foreign forces on their soil. The United States may be following in the footsteps of the old colonial powers.

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Another issue that has negatively affected perceptions of the United States in the Middle East is the issue of the Palestinians. Very little of what actually happens between Israelis and Palestinians appears in the media. Just watch the news from Al Jazeera, or French television, or even Mexican television. You will see pictures that are not shown on the American media.

The core problem is not Palestinian violence but an Israeli occupation that has gone on for more than three decades. Resistance is the natural result of occupation. That is the way it is. That is the way it was in Europe, that is the way it is in Iraq, and that is the way it is in Palestine.

Most Palestinians support a two-state solution, although there are people on the Palestinian side who don't want it. Some 1,000 Israelis have been killed, the majority innocent civilians, and 5,000 wounded, but the Palestinian toll is about 5 times that, also mostly innocent civilians. All we hear here is suicide bombers. The occupation has gone on for 37 years; that is two full generations. It is a very long time. We have an incomprehensible policy on this issue.

The president, in accepting Sharon's position, undermined the basis of a settlement. The president of the United States negotiated with the president of Israel but left out the Palestinians.

By saying that Israeli settlements in the West Bank can remain permanently this is legitimizing what was illegal and what was inadmissible. This is not acknowledging reality. By accepting the argument that there is no one to talk to, the administration has reversed a firm policy of seven previous administrations. I don't think this will work. You can't negotiate a settlement without the Palestinians. We look like a superpower conniving with a powerful local client.

Ignoring History at Our Peril

Everything taking place in U.S. policy in the Middle East since 9/11 is not grounded in real knowledge about the Middle East. Without a knowledge of resistance to Western control over two centuries, America cannot know how our policy is viewed in the region. We are seeing the dismissal of real history in favor of crude stereotypes.

Those who attacked the United States are very smart people who have played on real grievances in a very expert way. The Bush administration has not used the informational resources at its disposal to respond appropriately. The U.S. attack on Iraq was accompanied by an insidious attack on domestic Middle East experts. Experts can be wrong, but the dedicated professionals have often been prescient in their warnings.

It's a disgrace and a scandal that only a few low-level soldiers and sergeants are the only ones even investigated when the American gulag stretches from Afghanistan to Guantanamo to Iraq. The president's legal counsel proposed to set aside the Geneva accords and the highest level of government approved this.

"The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap that it will be difficult to escape from with dignity and honor." That was a comment by T. E. Lawrence in August 1920 on the previous effort to carry out regime change in Iraq. It could just as well be said today.

Center for Near Eastern Studies