Both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations have faced challenges from the Middle East and Islamist terror. Both administrations wrestled with questions of unilateralism versus multilateralism, the efficacy of military force, failures in

Both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations have faced challenges from the Middle East and Islamist terror. Both administrations wrestled with questions of unilateralism versus multilateralism, the efficacy of military force, failures in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, and rising concern regarding jihadism and weapons proliferation in the region. During the same period, many of the articles and reports coming from the Council on Foreign Relation's Middle East program have opposed U.S. unilateralism and military action, exonerated the Palestinian leadership for their sponsorship of terrorism, supported engagement with rejectionist states and leaders, and downplayed the threat of radical Islam.

As the council prepares to celebrate its eighty-fifth anniversary, it enjoys a reputation for balanced debate.[1] Newspapers such as The New York Times, which provides space on its website for council products,[2] treat the institution as a neutral authority. But when it comes to the Middle East, the council has increasingly eschewed research and debate and instead picked a line to the detriment of its scholarship. As some scholars retire and council president Richard Haass taps younger scholars to take their place, he has an opportunity to restore the Middle East program's relevancy.

Panegyrics over Policy

The council's Middle East program has long been dominated by a trio of senior scholars: Judith Kipper and Henry Siegman, who remain at the council, and Richard Murphy, who stepped down in September 2004. All three have espoused unrealistic characterizations of Middle Eastern leaders and downplayed regional threats to U.S. interests, often without the benefit of corroborating evidence.

Judith Kipper is director of the council's Middle East Forum. Her scholarly credentials are minimal: a bachelor's degree from the University of California-Los Angeles. Writing in the Columbia Journalist Review, Janet Steele, University of Virginia rhetoric and communication studies professor, noted, "though Kipper has spent time in the Middle East, she does not speak Arabic and has written nothing of consequence on the region."[3] The council website credits her with no research publications and only seven opinion pieces in the past four years. In these, Kipper writes most often about the Arab-Israeli conflict, whose solution she believes lies in perfecting the land-for-peace formula.[4] The assumption that land-for-peace is the only viable formula ignores the experience of practitioners. Dennis Ross, the White House's Middle East peace process special envoy throughout the entire Oslo process culminating with the Camp David II summit, has written, "If the Arab world accepted Israel's moral legitimacy, Arab leaders could publicly accept that Israel has needs as well—justifying compromise and even pressure on the Arab side in the negotiation. But that has not happened yet."[5] Kipper's analysis also ignores issues such as the problem of Palestinian incitement to violence and terrorism and the absence of a Palestinian consensus supporting a two-state solution.[6]

Kipper also comments frequently on Islamism, arguing that radical ideology has nothing to do with Islam, a position that puts her at odds both with moderate Islamic leaders and a growing number of Middle Eastern intellectuals.[7] Says Kipper,

There's a tiny minority of people who are doing violence who happen to be Muslim. There is nothing in Islam that advocates violence. Islam does not tolerate suicide or suicide bombings. Like Christianity, like Judaism, like Buddhism or Hinduism, like you name it, everybody has their crazies, and every single religion has gone through reformation, transformation, modernization, and that's what we're seeing today.[8]

On an assortment of conflicts involving Muslim societies, Kipper has dismissed any possibility that religion is a motivating factor. Speaking before a town hall meeting in Los Angeles, she stated:

None of this is about Islam. Can you hear me? None of this is about Islam. 99.9 percent of Muslims are just like you and me. They want to live in safety and security, educate their kids, go to the mall on Saturday, and do whatever you do. The fastest growing religion in the United States of America is Islam. Your friends, your neighbors, your dentist, your lawyers, your doctors, your colleagues are going to be Muslim in the future.[9]

The assertion that "Muslims are just like you and me" is politically correct and true for many Muslims who have internalized Western democratic values. But, there is also ample documentation that Saudi-funded mosques have disseminated very different teachings. A recent report issued by Freedom House details how Saudi publications have disseminated extremist religious ideology in the United States, promoting hatred of Jewish and Christian "infidels" as well as the suppression of women.[10] Anti-American incitement has also led to violence. According to State Department statistics, between 1961 and 2003, terrorists killed 3,776 Americans.[11] Of that number, Muslim terrorist groups killed all but some two hundred.[12] Kipper's mantra may be in part motivated by naïveté, but the records of other council scholars suggest an unwillingness to cross lucrative supporters and business partners undercuts council scholarship.

Richard Murphy, until recently the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for the Middle East, was a career foreign service officer whose postings in the Middle East culminated with ambassadorships to Syria (1974-78) and Saudi Arabia (1981-83). Murphy holds a B.A. from Harvard University and an A.B. from Emmanuel College, Cambridge University. Sabbagh, his patron, is the vice-chairman of Consolidated Contractors Company and made his money in the Persian Gulf over decades working with regimes such as Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.[13]

Murphy's television commentaries show sympathy toward his subjects that sometimes trumps analytical dispassion. He downplays criticism of the Saudi kingdom despite evidence that Saudi officials have played a double game. As the 9-11 Commission found, the initial Saudi government's reaction to heavy involvement by its citizens in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks was "disbelief and denial." While Saudi authorities have often said their government sought cooperation with the U.S. anti-terrorist efforts, requests by Washington for assistance received at best lackluster support.[14] Saudi charities have also remained pivotal funding sources for terrorist groups like Hamas[15] that have not only murdered Israelis, but also Americans. For example, Hamas was responsible for the July 2002 terror attack in a cafeteria at Hebrew University frequented by American students. Five of the nine killed were American students.[16]

Responding on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" to allegations that Saudi officials and citizens financed terrorists, Murphy stated that the Saudis "don't fund terror." [17] Such statements stand in contrast to a body of evidence presented by Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer, in his book, Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude:

Princess Haifa's [wife of Prince Bandar, Saudi ambassador to the United States] contribution to a Saudi who aided two of the September 11 hijackers added up to $130,000. Throw in $550,000 that a mysterious Saudi donated to a San Diego mosque that served as forward base for the same two hijackers, and the money exceeds the roughly $500,000 the FBI estimates as the total cost of the 9/11 attacks. In other words, Bandar's—or some other Saudis—"lost" money ended up paying for nineteen jihadis to massacre more than three thousand people.[18]

Murphy may now be retired, but his shadow remains formidable as he keeps up his media commentary arguing, for example, that Washington should engage more with Islamists.[19]

Henry Siegman

The final pillar of the council's Middle East staff is Henry Siegman, resident at the council for more than a decade. His official biography trumpets him as the "Foremost expert on the Middle East peace process and inter-religious relations, Arab-Israeli relations, and U.S.-Middle East policy."[20] Yet, like Kipper, Siegman possesses no specialist qualifications. He holds only a bachelor's degree from the New School for Social Research. Prior to joining the council, Siegman was executive director of the American Jewish Congress for sixteen years.

Criticism of Israel and the support it receives from the American Jewish community[21] is a frequent theme of Siegman's writing. His perspective of the Arab-Israeli conflict is not based on fieldwork or practitioner experience but rather upon reference to his own background as a refugee from Nazism, which, he says, sensitized him to the tribulations of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.[22]

Siegman argues that Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict,[23] a conclusion that discounts both pre-1967 hostilities and attempts by rejectionist states like Iran and Syria to undermine Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. It also ignores statements by Yasir Arafat that the Oslo agreement was merely a part of the Palestine Liberation Organization's "phased strategy [for] the complete liberation of Palestine."[24]

Siegman's account of the Oslo accords' failure[25] also contradicts accounts by those with firsthand knowledge of events. Dennis Ross, for example, wrote, "Oslo might not have failed if Arafat had been prepared to be a leader and not just a symbol."[26] President Bill Clinton, too, speaking after the failure of the Camp David summit, said, "[Barak] moved forward more from his initial position than Chairman Arafat … particularly surrounding the questions of Jerusalem."[27]

Siegman's tendency to use council prestige to add gravitas to his political pronouncements continued into the Palestinian terrorism campaign that erupted in the aftermath of Camp David II's failure. Ignoring several dozen suicide attacks in Israeli cafes, hotels, and buses, he asked:

Is there a justification for an Israeli policy that remains fixated on detestation of Yasir Arafat and deliberately ignores major changes within Fatah and the Palestinian population, withholding any action that might help these constructive forces achieve dominance? In fact, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has resorted to measures that undercut Palestinians who seek to abandon violence and resume a political dialogue.[28]

While Siegman holds Sharon guilty of original sin, Palestinian Authority prime minister Mahmoud Abbas received not only the benefit of the doubt[29] but also had expunged his record of Holocaust denial,[30] his efforts to avoid a Palestinian Authority commitment to dismantle terrorist organizations,[31] and the death of sixty-four Israelis in terrorist attacks during his brief premiership.[32]

Following Arafat's death, Abbas assumed the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. While Siegman maintained that Abbas was sincere in his desire to crack down on terrorism, the Palestinian politician has sidestepped any commitment to end permanently Palestinian terrorism.[33] During his election campaign, he shared the stage with wanted terrorists, whom he called "heroes."[34] He later confirmed death sentences on three Palestinians condemned by Palestinian state security courts for helping Israel fight terrorists.[35] Siegman, however, blamed Israeli counter-terrorism efforts for Abbas' failure to fulfill his commitments.[36] Even Benny Morris, among the most prominent of Israel's new historians, said Siegman "simply, completely, does not understand the Middle East."[37] When facts undercut Siegman's theories, he simply omits them.

Siegman's revisionism and factual inaccuracies extend to his treatment of Israel's security fence. While Siegman attributes the fence to Sharon,[38] left-leaning prime minister Ehud Barak first proposed the measure in 1999.[39] Sharon began to implement the Barak plan in February 2002 following a month in which Palestinian terrorists killed eighty Israelis and wounded 600 in twelve different suicide attacks. While the fence cut Palestinian terrorism in Israel by 95 percent,[40] Siegman suggested that the barrier might serve not only as an excuse for the Palestinian leadership to avoid dismantling terrorist infrastructure but also as the cause of an internal Palestinian civil war.[41] To Siegman, the fault for Palestinian intracommunal violence rests with Israel.

In recent years, Siegman has made his demonization of Israel more pointed. In 2001, Siegman wrote that Israelis "have found it painful to acknowledge the injustice that the establishment of the Jewish state inflicted on the Palestinian people for fear that such an acknowledgment would delegitimize the entire Zionist enterprise."[42] He has subsequently promoted an analogy between Israel and apartheid South Africa common among fringe political movements but not borne out in fact. "An apartheid political system that the world would not tolerate in racist South Africa will not survive in a racist Israel,"[43] he wrote in the International Herald Tribune.

Can CFR's Middle East Program Rebound?

While the Kipper-Murphy-Siegman trio overshadowed the council's Middle East program for years, a change of council leadership in July 2003 provided an opportunity to revitalize the program's scholarship. Richard Haass, director of State Department policy planning in the first George W. Bush administration, succeeded outgoing president Leslie Gelb.[44] While there have been some personnel changes during the first two years of Haass's tenure, he has yet to broaden the debate within the council's Middle East program. Scholars supportive of robust—and perhaps unilateral—counter-proliferation efforts, a no-nonsense approach to international organizations, and the prioritization of democracy promotion over engagement have little traction at the council.

New Middle East program hires under Haass' stewardship have mirrored his own views favorable toward engagement and skeptical of sanctions, unilateralism, and military force. Following Operation Desert Storm, while Haass served as a senior director for the Near East on the National Security Council, he counseled "moderation" toward Saddam, who had turned his Republican Guards on civilians to crush the Shi'ite and Kurdish uprising.[45] After resigning from his most recent stint in government in 2003, Haass penned several articles critical of George W. Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq.[46]

Under Haass, in July 2004, the council published a working group report entitled Iran: Time for a New Approach.[47] The working group was stacked with long-time proponents of engagement and penned by Suzanne Maloney, a Middle East advisor for ExxonMobil. The report proposed renewed U.S engagement with the Islamic Republic and was dismissive of the decision by Iranian authorities to give Al-Qaeda operatives safe-haven within Iran.[48]

Such views mirrored those espoused by Haass both during his government tenure and in his think-tank interludes. Utilizing funding by oil companies Conoco and Arco to promote his work, he has consistently opposed U.S. sanctions against Iran.[49]

Further mirroring Haass's views is 2004 hire Ray Takeyh, a task force member and Maloney's husband. Takeyh, who took the unfortunate step of predicting the death of Islamism a few months prior to 9-11,[50] in recent years has become a leading voice for rapprochement with Iran despite its nuclear ambitions.[51] Ignoring Iran's status as "the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2004,"[52] and absent supporting evidence, Takeyh wrote that Khatami "secured Khamenei's essential backing for his 'good neighbor' diplomacy."[53]

The polemization of scholars' work extends beyond the Iran issue, though. In 2005, David Phillips, a former State Department official who serves as the deputy director of the council's Center for Preventive Action, wrote a book purporting to be a study of post-Iraq war planning.[54] He argued, for example, that "Iraq was thrown into crisis when Bush administration officials, especially Pentagon political appointees, rushed to war and decided to ignore the planning that was under way."[55] But much of the book's discussion was inaccurate.[56] Phillips omitted discussion of the interagency process and based analysis of post-war reconstruction upon secondary accounts rather than fieldwork. When pressed, his publicist acknowledged that he had not traveled to Iraq to interview Iraqis or conduct research. The Wall Street Journal determined that he had lifted descriptions of Iraqi cities from newspaper accounts.[57] The Economist opined that Losing Iraq "resounds with the unmistakable sound of bureaucratic scores being settled."[58]

Rachel Bronson, senior fellow and director of Middle East and [Persian] Gulf Studies, has scholarly credentials—a Ph.D. from Columbia University[59]—but seldom produces research that challenges the conventional wisdom of the more cautious State Department establishment. Her opinion articles counsel continued support for Arab regimes[60] with an emphasis on maintaining the U.S.-Saudi partnership.[61]

The Middle East program can, however, produce solid and timely research. Steven Cook, a New Generation fellow, speaks Arabic, has a Ph.D, and has published solid journal articles on subjects ranging from political liberalization in Algeria, to U.S. and Turkish cooperation against terrorism,[62] to the value of the U.S.-Egyptian partnership.[63]

The council has been unable to retain other scholars, though, who might have added to the council's intellectual diversity on the Middle East. Adjunct senior fellow Michael Doran, a specialist on Arab politics who has criticized the Saudi royal family,[64] left the council after a brief affiliation. The White House subsequently tapped Doran for a senior National Security Council position.[65] Michael Mandelbaum, a U.S. and European foreign policy specialist, also parted ways with the council in mid-2004.

Max Boot, a senior fellow in national security studies, takes a more hawkish approach to terrorism, Islamism, and their Middle Eastern sponsors than does Haass. He bucks the rule that council scholars do not support the Bush administration's democratization drive, Israel's right to defensible borders, and a no nonsense and at times undiplomatic approach both to terrorism and counterproliferation. Then again, Boot remains outside the council's Middle East program altogether.


Foreign policy is contentious and includes a range of legitimate points of view. The Council on Foreign Relations built its reputation by hosting a range of views which encapsulate the debate. Guided by a consistent vision of U.S. and international interests and empirical rigor, the council has made important contributions in many areas. In recent years, though, its production relating to the Middle East has been the exception. Collaboration across disciplines, fieldwork, and practitioner experience separate the premier policy think tanks from the isolation of university departments and the shallowness of many pundits. Research quality declines when fieldwork, language ability, and practitioner experience take a back seat to polemics. Columbia University, for example, has seen its reputation plummet because of the tendency of a single department to apply political litmus tests in both job searches and tenure decisions. Islamism, Arab-Israeli diplomacy, and terrorism ensure that the Middle East will challenge the U.S. policy establishment for years to come. The Council on Foreign Relations can play a role in developing relevant strategy. Whether its Middle East program will do so remains to be seen.

Daniel Mandel is author of H.V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel (Frank Cass, 2004) and Asaf Romirowsky is a research fellow at the Middle East Forum.

[1] See CFR mission statement, accessed June 3, 2005; CFR brochure, 2003-04, p. 6.
[2] See "From the Council on Foreign Relations," The New York Times website, accessed June 14, 2005.
[3] Janet Steele, "TV's Talking Headaches," Columbia Journalism Review, July/Aug. 1992.
[4] Judith Kipper, "Cease-fire Fails to Stop Violence in Middle East," The San Diego Union-Tribune, July 8, 2001.
[5] Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), p. 762.
[6] On these sources of conflict, see Yossi Klein-Halevi, "The Asymmetry of Pity," The National Interest, Fall 2001, pp. 37-44; two representative polls: "While Indicating Important Shifts in Palestinian Public Attitudes toward the Intifada and the Peace Process, PSR Poll Shows Significant Support for the Appointment of a Prime Minister and Refusal to Give Confidence in the New Palestinian Government," no. 6, Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Nov. 14-22, 2002; "Opinion Poll #11," Development Studies Programme, Birzeit University, Mar. 12, 2003.
[7] See, for example, "Arab Liberals: Prosecute Clerics Who Promote Murder," Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2005, pp. 84-6.
[8] Judith Kipper, speech at town hall meeting, Los Angeles, Jan. 21, 2003, accessed June 3, 2005.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Fill American Mosques (Washington, D.C.: Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House, 2003), chaps. 1, 2, 3, 5.
[11] "Significant Terrorist Incidents, 1961-2003: A Brief Chronology," Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State, Mar. 2004.
[12] Ibid.
[13] See Consolidated Contractors Company official website, at; Forbes, Dec. 5, 1994.
[14] The 9/11 Commission Report (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004), p. 373.
[15] Dore Gold, Hatred's Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global
(Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2003), p. 127.
[16] "Americans Killed by Terrorists," editorial, International Broadcasting Bureau, Aug. 6, 2002.
[17] Fox News, Apr. 10, 2002.
[18] Robert Baer, Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude (New York: Crown Publishers, 2003), p. 69.
[19] Richard Murphy and Basil Eastwood, "Talk to Political Islamists in the Arab World," Daily Star (Beirut), May 4, 2005.
[20] Henry Siegman biography, CFR website, accessed June 3, 2005.
[21] Chris Hedges, "Separating Spiritual and Political, He Pays a Price," The New York Times, June 13, 2002.
[22] Henry Siegman, "How Palestinian Property Was Seized," The International Herald Tribune, Jan. 27, 2005; Hedges, "Separating Spiritual and Political."
[23] Henry Siegman, "Middle East Conflict: Seek Palestinian Confidence in What?" The International Herald Tribune, July 17, 2001; idem, "The Road Map Was Doomed from the Outset," The International Herald Tribune, Sept. 1, 2003.
[24] "Political Program for the Present Stage Drawn up by the 12th PNC, Cairo, June 9, 1974," Journal of Palestine Studies, Summer 1974, pp. 224-5; Daniel Pipes and Alexander T. Stillman, "Two-Faced Yasser," The Weekly Standard, Sept. 25, 1995.
[25] Siegman, "Middle East Conflict."
[26] Ross, The Missing Peace, p. 767.
[27] President Bill Clinton, statement on Middle East peace talks, Washington, D.C., July 25, 2000.
[28] Henry Siegman, "Sharon's Real Purpose Is to Create Foreigners," The International Herald Tribune, Sept. 25, 2002.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Yael Yehoshua, "Abu Mazen: A Political Profile," no. 15, Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Apr. 29, 2003.
[31] The Sydney Morning Herald, July 23, 2003; Michael Freund, "Abu Mazen—Arafat's 'Pragmatic' Protégé," The Jerusalem Post, Apr. 2, 2003.
[32] London Telegraph, Sept. 9, 2003.
[33] Bruce Thornton, "Will Abbas Bring an End to the Conflict?" Private Papers (Victor Davis Hanson), Jan. 15, 2005.
[34] WAFA (Palestinian News Agency), Jan. 1, 2005; Associated Press, Jan. 1, 2005.
[35] The Jerusalem Post, Feb. 16, 2005.
[36] "Siegman: Abbas Needs Political Boost from Bush,", May 25, 2005.
[37] New York Review of Books, Apr. 8, 2004.
[38] International Herald Tribune, Dec. 26, 2003.
[39] Ehud Barak, "Peace as My Paramount Objective," Mideast Mirror (London), June 28, 2000.
[40] David Makovsky, A Defensible Fence: Fighting Terror and Enabling a Two-State Solution (Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2004), pp. 16-7.
[41] Henry Siegman, "Don't Be Fooled by Sharon's 'New' Message: Israel's Future," The International Herald Tribune, Dec. 26, 2003.
[42] Henry Siegman, "Israel: A Historic Statement," The New York Review of Books, Feb. 8, 2001.
[43] Siegman, "Don't Be Fooled."
[44] Richard N. Haass biography, CFR website, accessed June 3, 2005.
[45] Lawrence F. Kaplan, "Drill Sergeant: The Oil Industry's Man at the State Department," The New Republic, Mar. 26, 2001.
[46] Richard N. Haass, "Wars of Choice," The Washington Post, Nov. 23, 2003; idem, "Freedom Is Not a Doctrine," The Washington Post, Jan. 24, 2005.
[47] Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert M. Gates, co-chairs, Iran: Time for a New Approach (Washington, D.C.: CFR, July 19, 2004).
[48] "Iran's Link to Al-Qaeda: The 9-11 Commission's Evidence," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2004, p. 72; Agence France-Presse, July 19, 2004.
[49] Kaplan, "Drill Sergeant."
[50] Ray Takeyh, "Islamism: R.I.P.," The National Interest, Spring 2001, pp. 97-102.
[51] Ray Takeyh, "Iran's Nuclear Skeptics," The Washington Post, Apr. 25, 2003.
[52] "Iran," Country Reports on Terrorism, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State, Apr. 27, 2005, chap. 5B.
[53] International Herald Tribune, June 17, 2005.
[54] Losing Iraq: Inside the Post-War Reconstruction Fiasco (New York: Basic Books, 2005).
[55] John J. Miller, "The Phony Insider," The Washington Examiner, May 15, 2005.
[56] The New York Times, July 10, 2005.
[57] Robert Pollock, "The Armchair Analyst," The Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2005.
[58] The Economist, July 2, 2005.
[59] Rachel Bronson biography, CFR website, accessed June 3, 2005.
[60] Rachel Bronson, "Recall, Reagan Had Riyadh to Thank," The Daily Star, June 19, 2004.
[61] See various opinion articles catalogued at Rachel Bronson biography, CFR website.
[62] Steven A. Cook biography, CFR website, accessed June 3, 2005.
[63] See, Steven A. Cook, "Egypt - Still America's Partner?" Middle East Quarterly, June 2000, pp. 3-13.
[64] Michael Scott Doran, "The Saudi Paradox," Foreign Affairs, Jan./Feb. 2004, pp. 35-51.
[65] Jewish Telegraph Agency, May 11, 2005.