Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Does Historian Rashid Khalidi Believe that "History Repeats"?

In a review article titled Reason: Imperial Waltz: Is American power good, bad, or distressingly reluctant?, Michael Young points to the faulty "reasoning" of Rashid Khalidi, author of Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East, as he attempts to fall back on "historical lessons of empire" with regards to the attempt by America to foster democracy in the Middle East.
Rashid Khalidi, who holds the Edward Said Chair in Arab Studies at Columbia University (and who dedicates his book to “EWS”), is one of those who doubt the sincerity of this project. His Resurrecting Empire is a tribute to the headlock of history, the idea that the lessons of the past must somehow invariably apply in the same way today. Khalidi comes to readers from the commanding heights of expertise, arguing that what “seems so painful to those with any real knowledge of the region” is the unwillingness of the U.S. to accept that it is stepping into the boots of past imperial powers, and that “this cannot under any circumstances be a good thing and cannot possibly be ‘done right.’”

Khalidi thus offers a very different view from that of Perle and Frum, for whom the messenger can alter the nature of the message. Where the latter see American power as a force for good, Khalidi, who has no doubts about America’s imperial bent, rejects the possibility that it might represent something potentially constructive.

If this is the use to which history is put, it is stifling indeed. Khalidi is unimaginative when it comes to seeing the possible advantages of American power in the Middle East. Instead, he falls back on a standard template of Arab criticism, arguing that the Iraq war was part of “a new form of hegemony over the region, in collaboration with Israel.”

The first half of that judgment is possibly true, but the second is based on scrawny evidence—mainly that in 1996 a group of American neoconservatives, including Perle, helped write a policy paper titled “A Clean Break” for Israeli prime ministerial candidate Benjamin Netanyahu. They outlined a vision for the region very much to Israel’s advantage, including going after Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, “weakening, containing and even rolling back Syria,” and bringing the Hashemites to power in Iraq.

The only problem with Khalidi’s theory is that the paper sought to influence Israeli rather than American behavior. Much in it was never implemented. This was not because neocons wouldn’t have liked to see a Middle East in that image but because policy is not made in the way Khalidi suggests. Position papers rarely have a direct influence on grand strategy; contending bureaucracies kick in to muddy the waters. As the neoconservative publicist Max Boot put it, describing the influence of his Bush administration brethren: “While neocons temporarily won the policy argument in some areas, the president and his inner circle are hardly marching in lockstep with their agenda. As in all administrations, there are competing factions at work, and no side will ever win all the policy arguments.”

The Israeli link to Iraq is important to Khalidi because he sees it as proof that the Americans are hypocritical democratizers. The pity is that Khalidi never asks how Arabs and Palestinians have benefited from the overthrow of Saddam, arguably the worst tyrant modern Arabs have known. Was it never conceivable that a democratic and multiethnic Iraq would provide Arabs with a contrast to their usual condition under dictatorship? Or that it would highlight Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians? Or that it would prove that Islam and democracy are compatible?

Alas, the know-how of Arab intellectuals has rarely generated democratic change in the Middle East during the last half-century. Many, like Khalidi, came to reject transformational fantasies about the region, over time becoming de facto guardians of the status quo. It was not a status quo they liked, but one they accepted after the failures of their preferred alternatives, the most obvious one being Arab nationalism. Frustration was palliated by a perception that the region was far more complex than the uninitiated suspected, and that to understand its dynamics one had to be an expert. And so Arab “expertise” slowly bred sterility—most flagrantly in Iraq.

Security is a word rarely seen in Khalidi’s text, nor does one ever get a sense from him how the 9/11 attacks shaped U.S. Middle East policy. If America’s war in Iraq is old-fashioned imperialism, then it cannot be a preliminary effort to change a region that, intentionally or not, dispatched 19 young men to kill 3,000 innocents. The administration botched its justifications for war in Iraq, and probably post-war revival, but underneath was a sensible view that Middle Eastern autocracy had generated frustration and much hatred for America, and that therefore it was necessary to change the situation.

Ironically, Khalidi and his comrades long blamed Washington for failing to do just that. So how does Khalidi react to America’s ambitions in Iraq? He says that if American support for democracy and human rights were “lasting and consistent throughout the region,” it would be welcomed. But sweeping change doesn’t occur in a flash; piecemeal progress is necessary. Yet accepting this would mean that Khalidi would have to embrace the transitory advantages of the U.S. invasion of Iraq (advantages that may be more difficult to discern today thanks to bungling post-war policy), which would imply that American imperialism might occasionally be a force for good. Yet he has already made clear that this proposition is unacceptable. The sage has boxed himself in.

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