Thursday, April 02, 2015

President Obama and the Failure of Area Studies?

Michael Rubin

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.

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.
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."

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.

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At 6:25 PM, Blogger King Baeksu said...

As someone who currently lives in the Middle East, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia to be precise, I feel obliged to comment. To wit: Where is the name of Bush in this shameless piece of conservative propaganda? It was Bush, after all, who sought to remake Iraq and the rest of the Middle East in the image of the West, which is to say that it was Bush and his neocon enablers who were classic Orientalists, privileging their own culture or civilization as "superior" and unable to recognize the subjectivity and difference of the peoples of this region.

In other words, it was Bush who transgressed the so-called Pottery Barn Rule, so blaming Obama for all the broken pieces we currently see in the Middle East is neither here nor there, is it?

I work with quite a few latter-day neo-imperialists who might be classified as Orientalists themselves, many of them from Britain and not without coincidence (they still can't seem to accept that the sun set on their empire long ago); our students are quite adept at picking up on their racism and arrogant, condescending attitudes towards them. They seem quite disinclined to learn even basic Arabic, either, another telling feature of the Orientalist mindset. Blaming academia or Obama here is but a distraction, a reaction to what is itself the product of profoundly reactionary worldview. Try again, y'all!

At 8:59 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"Where is the name of Bush in this shameless piece of conservative propaganda?"

I think you're talking to Rubin - I hope so, at least - and I believe he does mention Bush. You'd need to read the original, not this Reader's Digest version.

"Try again, y'all!"

I'm not a member of anyone's group, so I hope you're not talking to me. I call things as I see them, and President Obama - whom I've previously supported, by the way - has profoundly disappointed me. He's a highly intelligent man who initially lacked experience and hasn't gained sufficient wisdom since to deal with the problems we face.

If you want to post comments, please maintain your good humor. Having talked to you previously, I know you can.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:30 PM, Blogger King Baeksu said...

I've no need to read another long "think" piece from the shills of American empire, life is too short for that, but I have a hunch that he is not nearly so tough with Bush as he is with Obama. Am I wrong?

In any case, it doesn't really matter who is president in the US, and partisan articles like this merely obscure an analysis of the deeper structures, and failings, of the Empire.

Indeed, I'm quite bored with the neocon position at this point and don't really care to discuss it further (of course, anyone with half a brain can see that Obama has become a neocon himself). I came to your site because an ex-colleague linked to it and used the F-bomb in reference to Said. Who's humorless, anyway?

Said's main point stands, which is that much of the West thinks it's better than the East, and for the past several hundred years has used "knowledge" as an instrument of power to subjugate and dominate it. This is so clearly obvious that anyone who attempts to argue otherwise is operating in intellectual bad faith, and deserves to be taken to task accordingly.

I probably would have left my original comment on his site instead, but he has a track record of censoring comments with which he does not agree. Intellectual bad faith, indeed.

At 9:48 PM, Blogger King Baeksu said...

Coda: Because I am not an advocate of intellectual bad faith, and because I happen to know you, I have read the article in question in full. I think you should have quoted the first two sentences without selectively trimming them:

"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."

You have to laugh when he claims that US policy has played no role in "the sectarian and ideological forces which tear the region apart." If you're going to write propaganda, Mr. Rubin, at least try to be a little more subtle and persuasive, but then again I suppose there's more than a little truth to the claim that "the great masses will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one."

In any case, Mr. Rubin's so-called "think" piece is nothing but an advertorial for the Military Industrial Complex. And we all know how much the MIC cares about what "academia" thinks, eh?

There, I finally snuck in a joke for you!

At 4:14 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"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 advisers have effectively thrown fuel on the fire."

I like to keep issues concise and to the point. I may in some cases over-excise.

Be that as it may, I think Rubin's statement generally accurate. I would go even further: "the sectarian and ideological forces which tear the region apart" go back a long way. These forces have gone after each other whenever there was no strong state, usually some empire, to enforce order.

The Roman conquerors carry blame. The Arab conquerors carry blame. The Crusading conquerors carry blame. The Ottoman conquerors carry blame. The British conquerors carry blame. The American conquerors carry blame.

No one is blameless . . . each has fallen and allowed the chaos that threatens genocide.

As for Said, he was careless and one-sided. Of course Westerners believe their own civilization superior - every civilization thinks its own civilization the best.

As for President Obama, he has not yet learned the wisdom of knowing when to speak and when to maintain silence. His eloquence often makes things worse. Better not talk about red lines than talk and not follow through.

At least Putin (of all people!) was there to pull Obama's chestnuts out of the fire . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:06 AM, Blogger King Baeksu said...

"These forces have gone after each other whenever there was no strong state, usually some empire, to enforce order."

Which begs the question: What happens when an invading force creates a power vacuum, as in the case of our actions of Iraq or Libya, and magnifies those underlying tensions exponentially?

There is a reason why the concept of "blowback" is discussed so often in the context of the Middle East. From Operation Ajax, when the CIA overthrew the Prime Minister of Iran, which ultimately led to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, to our support of the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, which in turn led to the attacks of September 11th, to the creation of ISIS in the wake of our invasion of Iraq, our policies have certainly had a very real destabilizing impact on the Middle East in the modern era. And let's not forget that our military and diplomatic support of Saudi Arabia has allowed it to promote Wahhabism throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world, which has in turn inflamed Sunni-Shia sectarian strife profoundly.

Indeed, the current crisis in Yemen is itself a form of said blowback. The Sunni-Shia conflict we are currently seeing there is but a recent phenomenon, and is a direct consequence of our meddling in the region. I could go on and on, but I would hope that you have gotten the point by now.

See more here:

At 6:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I didn't need any convincing. Unbeknownst, you've read my mind.

Jeffery Hodges

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