President Obama and the Failure of Area Studies?
Michael Rubin doesn't have the most positive opinion on area studies in "What Does [the] Current Morass Say About Middle East Studies?" (Commentary, March 30, 2015):
The Middle East is in chaos . . . [and] President Barack Obama and his team of advisors have effectively thrown fuel on the fire . . . [H]istorians will likely be . . . critical of Obama's decisions . . . and the[ir] impact . . . on countries like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Turkey, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Egypt . . . [On] paper, Obama might be expected to be the most international president, . . . [but in] the Middle East, he had little practical background. His introduction to the region appears to have occurred in American universities, . . . [perhaps] directly in Middle East Studies courses, . . . [or] through his friendship and close association with Middle East Studies luminaries like Rashid Khalidi and perhaps Edward Said . . . [If only he had known the scholarly work of] Martin Kramer, . . . [who published] in 2001 one of the best researched, [most] careful, and [most] damning assessments of Middle Eastern Studies, in which he traced the inverse relationship between its polemics and [its] relevance. Much of this [irrelevance] 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 . . . 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, . . . power was original sin.How does Rubin answer his own question, "What Does [the] Current Morass Say About Middle East Studies?" As we see in the third paragraph of the block quote above, the assumptions held by area studies experts on Middle Eastern problems "failed completely."
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 . . . Khalidi, as with many others in his field, . . . 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. [If it is truly committed to peace,] America should apologize and understand and accommodate to the position of the other . . . Obama entered office . . . [with] such beliefs. Rather than act as leader of the free world, he approached the Middle East as a zoning commissioner, . . . 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.
[As for] the U.S. military, . . . [one finds] few places with less trust and understanding than the university campus . . . [F]ew professors or students have any experience . . . 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 . . . 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. [America's s]overeignty and [its] nationalism were enablers of evil . . . [T]he United Nations and other multilateral institutions . . . held the key to peace and justice, if only they might operate unimpeded by the United States . . . [W]hen 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 [enough] transferred a situation that might have been resolved with minimum force into a cancer . . . spread[ing] 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 . . . 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 . . . Obama represents academe's first grand experiment, enabling area studies professors to see their ideas put into action on the world stage.
Those ideas in action thus don't look so good, but the area studies experts can always claim that their ideas weren't enacted correctly. Excuses come easily for failure these days.