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WSJ Review: The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite
Wall Street Journal ^ | September 16, 1993 | Daniel Pipes

Posted on 04/24/2003 7:18:50 PM PDT by rmlew

The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite
by Robert D. Kaplan

New York: Free Press, 1993. 336 pp. $24.95

Wall Street Journal
September 16, 1993

Reviewed by Daniel Pipes

By the time the Reverend Benjamin Weir was taken hostage on the streets of Beirut in April 1984, he had lived thirty-one years in Lebanon, where he had taught theology, done charitable work, and spread the gospel. Over the decades, he and his wife Carol came totally to identify themselves with the Muslim Lebanese while at the same time disassociating themselves completely from the U.S. government (so much so, they didn't even know the name of the U.S. ambassador in Beirut). Remarkably, Weir's kidnapping by Shi'i extremists did nothing to change the couple's views. During a March 1985 meeting with Secretary of State George Shultz, Mrs. Weir surrealistically defended the Shi'is as a sincere people with "some legitimate grievances against the United States" and blamed her husband's abduction on U.S. foreign policy. Then, on his release from captivity, Weir held a news conference at which he demanded the U.S. government fulfill his kidnappers' demands.

While the Weirs' dogmatism makes them somewhat atypical, many American teachers, missionaries, and aid workers living in Beirut or elsewhere in the Arab world share their outlook: unbounded sympathy for Muslims and loathing for the actions of the U.S. government.

Robert D. Kaplan shows two things about this outlook in his pioneering, fascinating, and important study: that the Weirs are heirs to an enduring tradition of American Arabists which goes back over one-and-a-half centuries; and that tempered versions of their viewpoint have inspired much of American diplomacy toward the Middle East since World War II.

The Arabist tradition goes back to 1827 when Eli Smith, an upright Yankee from Yale and the Andover Theological Seminary, took off for the mountains of Lebanon to learn the Arabic language. Within a few years, Beirut had become the center of a remarkable missionary effort by American Protestants. Unlike the British Arabists, who always retained connections to their government, these Americans crossed oceans and braved terrible odds without public support or ulterior purpose; they strove only to bring their vision of Christianity to the Middle East. As Mr. Kaplan notes, "Mission work defines the American Arabist, much as imperialism defines the British Arabist."

When it became apparent that few Middle Easterners would accept their faith, Arabists turned to good works-feeding the hungry, ministering to the sick, and establishing schools (notably the American University of Beirut, "probably the most inspired idea in the history of foreign aid" according to Mr. Kaplan). They had a vast cultural and political impact, especially in promoting Arabic as a modern literary language and in incubating the ideology of Pan-Arab nationalism. "America's first foreign aid program" certainly made its mark.

Through his readings and interviews, Mr. Kaplan beautifully evokes this exotic outpost of Americans abroad. While staunchly patriotic Americans, the Arabists pursued a strikingly non-American way of life, with households full of servants, a passion for foreign languages, and a singular sense of family continuity. Talcott Seelye, U.S. ambassador to Syria until 1981, is, for example, the fourth generation in his family to serve in the Levant; his great-grandfather arrived there in 1849. Even today, the Seelye tradition persists, as one of his daughters works as a staff aide to Queen Noor of Jordan. This is the elite and the romance of Mr. Kaplan's subtitle.

The Arabist impact on U.S. policy dates back to the late 1940s, when Washington first got actively involved in the Middle East. Like their first cousins, the "China hands," Arabists had precisely those skills the Department of State sought: language, knowledge of local culture, useful contacts. The Arabist cohort at State so dominated the Middle Eastern bureau, it managed to absorb many others to its viewpoint, including farmers' children from the mid-West and ethnics from New York City.

Trouble was, it also brought strange prejudices to the government, reminiscent of the Weirs'. Bound up in their own small world, Arabists lacked the imagination to understand either the United States or American interests abroad. They loved a pristine Middle East, and regretted its modernization. Against all evidence, Arabists quixotically sought to show the "essential harmony of Western and Arab-Islamic culture." On the negative side, they loathed Maronites and Greek Orthodox Christians, the French, and Iranians ("Scratch an Arabist and you'll find an anti-Iranian"). But most of all, they hated Israelis, whom they blamed as much for spoiling their century-old idyll as for the Palestinians' plight. Washington's increasingly strong support for Israel caused many Arabists to slide into anti-Semitism.

As you might expect, Arabists compiled a disastrous record of making policy. The "obsession with the Arabs" that Mr. Kaplan sees as their defining trait repeatedly tripped them up. Carrying old grudges, they refused to see Israel's value to the United States. On occasion, they even took the Arab side against their own government (most notably in 1973, when James Akins, the ambassador to Saudi Arabia, encouraged oil company executives to "hammer home" the Saudi line in Washington). Given a chance to run Iraq policy, they created the ill-fated policy of appeasement that encouraged Saddam Husayn to invaded Kuwait.

Fortunately, the Arabist reign in the State Department is nearing its end, as interlopers shoulder increasing responsibilities. Since Joseph Sisco took over the State Department's Middle East bureau in 1969, "peace processors" have steadily gained at the Arabists' expense. The two, Mr. Kaplan shows, could hardly be more different. Peace processors barely know enough Arabic to give directions to a taxi driver. They are hooked not on rugs but on the Arab-Israeli conflict. They love not Arab culture but policymaking. For pleasure, they don't read travel books by sand-mad British explorers but inter-office memoranda. Symbolic of the changing of the guard, two peace processors (Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk) now counsel the secretary of state on the Arab-Israeli negotiations. They're far less colorful than the Arabists, but they also make far better policy. Their dispassion and goodwill made Washington the main force behind the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979 and the PLO-Israel agreements of last week.

In bringing the Arabist legacy to light, Mr. Kaplan does more than retrieve an obscure aspect of American life. By plumbing these deep waters, he shows why America's connection to the Middle East inspires such strange views and intense passion. It's not just a matter of oil or Israel; devotion to the Arabs is also part of our history.

TOPICS: Editorial; Foreign Affairs; Government; Israel; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: arabists; bookreview; danielpipes; orientalists; statdepartment
I know that this is an old piece. However, it is suddenly relevent again for two reasons.
1. The recent comments by Newt attacking the State Department.
2. The nomination of Daniel Pipes for a seat at the US Institute for Peace.
1 posted on 04/24/2003 7:18:51 PM PDT by rmlew
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To: rmlew
Excellent posts. I knew something about the Arabists from my reading (not just the current news, but Talbot Munday's old romances, for example, and Percival Christopher Wrenn) but I never ran across this book.

What this review suggests is that maybe we need a third generation in the State Department. The Peace Processors replaced the Arabists, and now they need to be replaced too, ASAP. No doubt Martin Indyk is better than some sand-mad romantic from the Victorian age, but he hasn't done such a great job.
2 posted on 04/24/2003 7:29:39 PM PDT by Cicero (Marcus Tullius)
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To: Cicero
Wow, you brought back a strong surge of Nostalgia, mentioning P. C. Wrenn, who I used to read as a boy. But, weren't his books more extolling the Brits than the Arabs? That's just a feeling left from books read many years ago, so I could easily be wrong.
3 posted on 04/24/2003 7:45:15 PM PDT by expatpat
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To: expatpat
Oh, yes. Incurably romantic. And somebody always had to die selflessly in every novel. I think I was about twelve when I came across them in the school library and read them all.

Now I'm remembering A.E.W. Mason's "The Four Feathers."
4 posted on 04/24/2003 8:11:05 PM PDT by Cicero (Marcus Tullius)
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To: rmlew
And oh what a stir the Pipes appointment is making. The Counsel on American Islamic Relations is having a collective cow. I got a chance to hear Pipes at CPAC, and the Middle East Forum is second to none. Five stars to the president on this one.
5 posted on 04/24/2003 8:23:29 PM PDT by A. J. Nolte
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To: rmlew
Thanks for the good article posted for a good reaosn.
6 posted on 04/24/2003 9:00:00 PM PDT by TopQuark
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To: A. J. Nolte
I enjoyed the debate with Serge Triflovic at CPAC.
The sad part is the number of college students who were shocked by the debate. This included my sister and other College Republicans in attendance. They are so indoctrinated by the left that any real investigation of Islam is seen as racist.
7 posted on 04/24/2003 10:07:18 PM PDT by rmlew ("Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.")
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To: rmlew
Thanks for posting this. Bookmarked.
8 posted on 04/24/2003 10:36:58 PM PDT by Valin (Age and deceit beat youth and skill)
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To: rmlew
Triflovic was a bit hard core for my taste. However, I do find it funny that Pipes is considered an extremist by liberals. As for indoctrination on Islam, you're right on. I go to a Christian college in Central P'A, and people here still claim Islam is no different from Christianity.
9 posted on 04/25/2003 5:24:11 AM PDT by A. J. Nolte
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To: rmlew
Good article - the fact that it's ten years old merely shows how long this problem has been going unattended, noticed only by a few, such as Daniel Pipes.

"They loved a pristine Middle East, and regretted its modernization."

I think, as he points out, while much of the current problem is motivated by certain modern political movements, the difficulty in dealing with it is based on this peculiar and long-entrenched (and unacknowledged) romantic attitude.
10 posted on 04/25/2003 5:32:31 AM PDT by livius (Let slip the cats of conjecture.)
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To: rmlew
An excellent reminder.
11 posted on 04/25/2003 6:46:34 AM PDT by SJackson
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To: dennisw; Cachelot; Yehuda; Nix 2; veronica; Catspaw; knighthawk; Alouette; Optimist; weikel; ...
If you'd like to be on or off this middle east/political ping list, please FR mail me.
12 posted on 04/25/2003 6:47:17 AM PDT by SJackson
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To: rmlew
Thanks for reposting this excellent history lesson which many of us have no concept of.

It is very timely and sheds some understanding of the romance some of our elitist Ivy Leaguers have. Obviously, this did not rub off on our President!

I have bookmarked this.
13 posted on 04/25/2003 9:08:15 AM PDT by Grampa Dave (Being a Monthly Donor to Free Republic is the Right Thing to do!)
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To: SJackson
Thanks for the ping to this interesting history that most of us are not aware of.
14 posted on 04/25/2003 9:09:20 AM PDT by Grampa Dave (Being a Monthly Donor to Free Republic is the Right Thing to do!)
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To: A. J. Nolte; rmlew
Now, I understand why CAIR and the pro Islamofacist crowds in America are so against Mr Pipes.

He will be able to cut through the romantic BS that has cost lives and billions of $'s. That has to be a nightmare for CAIR, the Zogbys and their left wing supporters in America.
15 posted on 04/25/2003 9:12:23 AM PDT by Grampa Dave (Being a Monthly Donor to Free Republic is the Right Thing to do!)
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To: Grampa Dave
Agreed. Their posturing is hillarious to watch though.
16 posted on 04/25/2003 12:05:22 PM PDT by A. J. Nolte
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To: A. J. Nolte
So much of their American support is based on this hero worship or the simple hate the Jews/Israel groups.

They have to be very uncomfortable with this.
17 posted on 04/25/2003 12:51:56 PM PDT by Grampa Dave (Being a Monthly Donor to Free Republic is the Right Thing to do!)
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To: A. J. Nolte
18 posted on 04/25/2003 2:11:19 PM PDT by SJackson
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