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The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite.

Because most Americans are the descendants of immigrants who chose to move to the United States, this country has always been somewhat suspicious of citizens who make the opposite decision to live abroad. Our diplomats are especially suspect. Robert Kaplan is therefore working with combustible material in his book, the story of the handful of Americans who over the past 200 years have chosen to learn Arabic and live in Araby.

Their fascinating history provided Kaplan with the material for an August 1992 cover article in the Atlantic, which has now been expanded into a book. The best pages in this study concern the story of early Christian missionaries who suffered incredible hardships to bring hospitals and colleges to the Middle East but few converts to Christ. Their subsequent contribution was that a number of their children, raised in the Arab world, entered the diplomatic service.

Some of this same missionary spirit survived even in the careers of those who were not descended from missionaries. Thus Kaplan describes the heroic efforts of the American Embassy in Khartoum in the mid-1980s to rescue thousands of Ethiopian Jews. According to Kaplan, the untold story of Operation Moses was the decisive role of American diplomats, who took great personal risks to carry this off. Ordered to maintain silence afterwards, they never claimed credit, while, as Kaplan notes, Israeli and Jewish-American sources rushed into print to highlight Israel's contribution, which was much less significant.

These and other human interest stories are the best part of Kaplan's book. But there is a more troubling subplot to Kaplan's study concerning U.S. policy toward the Middle East. According to Kaplan, the Arabists in the State Department collectively have inflicted great damage on the American people and government. Over the years they have maintained an unreasoning hostility to Israel, although he is careful to state that most are not anti-Semitic; they have virtually created Arab Sunni nationalism through their work in Arab higher education; they have excused outrageous Arab excesses in their zeal for better diplomatic relations between the United States and the Arab world; and, in the case of Iraq, they may actually have led their country into an unnecessary war.

Are these charges convincing?

Kaplan is certainly right that the Arabists have been more critical of Israel than most other American officials. And a failing of this group of diplomatic specialists has been that until recently, few of them lived or studied in Israel. These points have aroused even more concern than they otherwise might have because a few key State Department and other federal officials played a shameful role in World War II in dealing with knowledge of the holocaust. The actions of these non-Arabists have tended to taint the outside assessment of the postwar Arabists in the State Department.

In attacking their attitude toward Israel, however, Kaplan fails to note that Israeli scholarship has finally acknowledged a point that the Arabists have long asserted, namely that the bulk of Palestinians did not leave their land "voluntarily" in 1948 but were pressured or forced to leave and that the problem of the Middle East cannot be solved until the rights of the Palestinians are taken into account. (None of the prominent Israeli historians who have documented this - Benny Morris, Simha Flapan, Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev, or Illan Pappe - are found in Kaplan's bibliography.) The Arabists, came into daily contact with Palestinians who settled in other Arab countries and tried over the years to advance this view, but it was long rejected. Golda Meir, when Prime Minister of Israel, once famously pronounced that the Palestinians were not a people. The U.S. government refused until Camp David to acknowledge that the Palestinians had any rights at all. Even then, the formulation was extremely cautious - legitimate "interests," which others (including Israel) were to determine, not legitimate "rights," which others are to guarantee.

Recent changes on the Israeli political scene now date Kaplan's concerns, which reflect the right wing of Israeli politics - in power when he wrote his study but out of power now. For example, Kaplan denounces some Arabists for calling for talks with the PLO and is critical of their interest in Syria. But recently, Israel ended the ban on contact with the PLO, Shimon Peres met face-to-face with PLO leaders, and mutual recognition seems imminent. There is a growing recognition that the alternative to a settlement with the PLO is an unending conflict with religious fundamentalists among the Palestinian population. Israel sees Syria as a key component to progress in the peace process. These are all views with which the Arabists would be very comfortable.

The main difficulty with Kaplan's account, however, is that it attributes an importance to the Arabists that they never had. Like the China hands, many of whom also had missionary parents, the Arabists have tended to look for ways to improve U.S. ties with countries to which they are accredited, and to this end, they may have downplayed some of the more unattractive features of Arab political life. But the source of American policy nevertheless has remained in Washington, and the lodestar has been a combination of domestic politics and geopolitics, not human rights. This recently became clear when Washington sent a senior official to Yemen to warn the government there that its recent, relatively free election was no model for neighboring states, i.e., oil-rich and pro-American but undemocratic Saudi Arabia. For most of the period since 1948, Israel has benefited from being able to contend that it was an ally of the United States in the common effort to reduce Soviet influence in the oil-rich Middle East.

Kaplan's strongest case for the view that embassies, not Washington, set policy occurs during the section on the Gulf War. Kaplan describes April Glaspie, ambassador to Iraq, as a person who "drove" U.S. policy in the area prior to the war's outbreak.

Now, Ambassador Glaspie certainly did not distinguish herself in her fateful last minute interview with Saddam Hussein prior to the invasion of Kuwait. Perhaps had she done something professional ambassadors rarely do - depart from their instructions - and had decided on her own authority to warn Saddam Hussein that the U.S. would respond militarily, the Iraqis might have hesitated and the war could have been averted.

But as a general rule ambassadors do not drive policy. They execute it. Their role is primarily that of messenger and observer. The idea that a young ambassador who never met the leader of Iraq until her famous interview could "drive" U.S. policy towards Iraq is unlikely on its face and contradicted by Kaplan's own text. According to his own account, when Under Secretary for Political Affairs Robert Kimmet and Policy Planning Director Dennis Ross attempted in April 1990 to put the U.S.-Iraq relationship "on ice," they encountered opposition from National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. Supporting the Iraq policy was Richard Haass, a strong supporter of close ties between the United States and Israel and the NSC staff member responsible for the Middle East - in other words, no Arabist.

The first female ambassador in the Middle East in American history was not going to challenge the conventional wisdom when such powerful and politically connected figures supported it. She was going to make her mark by showing them how well she could carry out instructions. Her performance during that critical hour had more the character of a follower than a leader. It is worth noting that Haass, who says he was never approached by Kaplan for an interview, regards the idea that Glaspie "drove" U.S. policy as "absurd." Haass contends that although key figures in the Bush administration were disturbed by some of Iraq's actions and therefore decided to reduce agricultural credits to Iraq prior to the war, overall there was a consensus in policy toward Iraq until the fateful invasion. He does not know of the policy shift Kaplan says he helped to turn down. Nor, for that matter, does Scowcroft.

In making his case against Glaspie, moreover, Kaplan never mentions that in the few days remaining before the invasion, Washington passed up the opportunity to correct Glaspie's presentation. In brief, Kaplan detracts from an otherwise interesting book with his attempt to blame a few area specialists for a failure in U.S. policy that was approved at the highest levels and that reflected the geopolitical view of senior officials in charge of U.S. policy at the time.

Indeed, the real charge against U.S. diplomatic officials in the Middle East is not so much that they are hermetically sealed inside the Arab culture and language but rather that they are locked inside the American bureaucracy. Secluded in their security-obsessed embassies, deprived of adequate travel funds, terrified of criticism (particularly from Congress, which passes on ambassadorial appointments), incestuously commenting on cables from Washington or neighboring posts, left with little time to read much else, too many of them lead a closed existence that makes living in Omaha seem like a cosmopolitan experience.

To break out of this pattern, it will not be enough to recruit ethnics instead of WASPS, as Kaplan urges, or to encourage assignments in Israel, which are already taking place. Rather it will be necessary to resist the polarization and character assassination that are so often part of policy discussions concerning the Middle East. Area specialists will have to know that they will be rewarded when they tell Washington what is going on rather than parroting what Washington wants to hear.
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Article Details
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Author:Maynes, Charles William
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Previous Article:Case Closed.
Next Article:Pressed for time.

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