The Cold War stretched from 1945 to 1991, and somehow the West ended up on top: Soviet Communism gave up. Then we had our "holiday from history": ten years of almost no concerns. Sure, there was a Khobar Towers here, a U.S.S. Cole there. But Muslim terrorists were always acting up, weren't they? They were something to put up with, like the weather. And then came 9/11, and a new cold war.
During the original cold war, America and the West built up many institutions, aimed at countering Communism, understanding the Eastern bloc, and communicating with people under the lash. Have we done the same in the War on Terror? Not even close, as George Shultz emphasized in an interview with me last January. It is a failing of these recent years — and we should get busy.
Professors of Middle East studies would be very helpful right about now. But they are, unfortunately, among the worst of the lot: among the worst in the American professoriate. A range of departments, of course, is the province of radicals and ideologues, rather than genuine scholars. But departments of Middle East studies may take the cake. If you'd like to read chapter and verse, see Martin Kramer's book Ivory Towers on Sand.
In the old days, "Sovietologists" tended to sympathize with the Kremlin (to put it crudely, and perhaps McCarthyitely, but not untruthfully). Middle East studies men are apt to sympathize with the PLO and worse. And the China people, a number of them, are just as frightful.
Recently, I met with Jian-li Yang, the great dissident and scholar. He has one Ph.D. from Berkeley (in math) and another from Harvard (in political economy). He lives in the Harvard community. I asked whether he ever had contact with Sinologists there. Oh, no, he said: They are impossible, because they simply toe the PRC line. "They're as bad as professors in Beijing University," he said. "No, worse!"
Many Sinologists are children of John K. Fairbank and Edgar Snow, men who are responsible for great harm. The children — like their fathers — exist not so much to study and explain Communist China as to defend and justify it. And they are corrupt, said Yang: awash in PRC money. Yes, I replied, but they'd do it for free, believing in what they do. He conceded that this was so.
Whether China scholars have more money from Beijing or Middle East scholars have more money from Arab rulers is an open question — but the safe betting is on the Middle East men. Some critics regard this money as absolutely corrupting. Others say, "No, they'd do it for free" — which is my view, and also that of Daniel Pipes, a Middle East scholar who is decidedly not the type to win an emir's favor. (That would have to be one enlightened emir.)
On this, most everybody can agree: Money must play some sort of role, if only at the margins; at the same time, you don't have to be bought to be wrong.
There was never much money in "Sovietology," according to Richard Pipes, the father of Daniel and the eminent historian of Russia. He remembered this crowd in a recent conversation: "They resented you if you criticized the Soviet Union, the Communist party, and I was regarded as really way out, because I was so critical." Why were others so uncritical? Well, "for one reason, they simply identified with the Soviet Union. For another, they liked to go there" — and Moscow wasn't real good about letting you in if you were critical (or letting you out if you were critical and a Soviet citizen).
One day, Pipes testified before Senator Jackson's committee about SALT. He took a hard, and realistic, line. Opposing him was an Ivy League Sovietologist who took the soft and unrealistic. As they were leaving, the Sovietologist said to Pipes, "I really agree with you, but if I talked as you do, I wouldn't be able to go to the Soviet Union. They wouldn't give me a visa."
Pipes says that, on balance, the Sovietologists did more harm than good — misleading the public, getting their subject "utterly wrong." And when the USSR fell, they simply glided on. Some of them are now attending conferences hosted by Putin.
Daniel Pipes has paid a price for being out of step on the Middle East — for speaking bluntly about dictatorships, Islamism, and related matters. He would not be welcome in most faculty lounges. Also, he has received his share of threats, and not of the light kind, either. But he has found his outlets, forged ahead, and done considerable good. Incidentally, his college roommate was Arthur Waldron — a China scholar who can be counted on for seeing that country clear. That was an amazingly bold and independent-minded room.
There is an organization for orthodox scholars of the Middle East — that is, for leftist and politically charged ones. It's called the Middle East Studies Association, or MESA. It is led by such men as Rashid Khalidi, an FOB (Friend of Barack) and the holder of Columbia University's Edward Said chair.
The late Said is the father of this MESA crowd, or at least an influential big brother. So much has been written about him, I will not add a word here. But I'll give Paul Johnson one. In September 2006, he was contemplating a book to be called "Monsters." And he wrote that he would include Said, "this malevolent liar and propagandist, who has been responsible for more harm than any other intellectual of his generation."
Before 9/11, MESA was pretty much a joke, a Marxoid playground whose pinup was Yasser Arafat and whose significance to the larger world was slight. It was hard to get a decent education in Middle East studies, but that was okay: We all have to make sacrifices. After 9/11, however, the joke was not so funny. There was a real need for soundness on the Middle East. As the Iraqi-American scholar Nibras Kazimi put it, "America and the world cannot afford to lounge around in the blissful lethargy of intellectual shallowness now that the jihadists of the Middle East . . . have declared their war and delivered their bomb-laden calling cards."
Last year, an encouraging event occurred: the founding of a new organization, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). This was to be, in brief, what MESA should be, and almost certainly used to be. (MESA was founded in 1966, before the rot set in.) ASMEA's chairman is Bernard Lewis, the great nonagenarian London-born scholar. On the academic council sits George Shultz, who is so desirous of new and helpful institutions.
Launching the institution, Lewis gave a typically learned, elegant address. "It seems to me that we are beset by difficulties," he said — difficulties in Middle East studies. That was putting it mildly. And one of those difficulties is "the deadly hand of political correctness." He hopes that ASMEA can help provide relief from that hand. MESA men have denounced the rival organization as, essentially, a neocon plot. So, what else is new?
In a phone call with me, Lewis said that there are of course scholars who are with him and his crew, but who must keep their heads down, given the academic climate. "They explain that coming out openly would be destructive of their careers, and they're right — it would be." Well, are they cowardly or merely prudent? That was what I wanted to know. Lewis was not inclined to pass judgment.
I myself once thought of being a Middle East man. This was when I was an undergrad, in the mid-1980s. I thought that the Middle East would become ever more important, not because I was so prescient but because, frankly, it was rather obvious. I was an excellent candidate for Middle East studies: I thought that the Palestinians were the most wronged, the most victimized people in the world; and I thought that the Israelis were the worst, most hypocritical oppressors in the world. Etc.
Fired with purpose, I enrolled in the Middle East studies department. I have written about this experience elsewhere, and will not wax too autobiographical now. Suffice it to say that I was scared straight. Do you remember that phrase, which is from the same period, the 1980s? It had to do with drug use. If you saw the horrific effects of such use, you were scared straight. And, in that department, I saw true radicalism and hate and zealotry — a belligerent lunacy.
Among other episodes, I remember a kind of beer-hall speech that a young professor of ours gave. This was at a forum whose audience was dominated by Arabs. Shouting and pumping his fist, he admonished them to forget any negotiating with Israel and not to surrender an inch. Stay true, stay true, he said. The audience cheered like crazy. Later, an older professor said to this younger one, "No one gets Arabs riled up like you do." (The young professor was not Arab, by the way.)
In the fullness of time, my guy became president of MESA — a perfect fit.
As for me, I withdrew from the department, knowing that this was not my crowd. I may have been anti-Israel, but I drew short of jihad. And later I found Lewis, and David Pryce-Jones, and Fouad Ajami, and many others who furnished understanding. You can always find such people. But you have to work for it, and how many people have the time and drive?
It would be nice if average Middle East scholars were more helpful than they are. The same is true of the China guys — and was true of the Sovietologists. But somehow we make do. And, today, we have the Middle East Media Research Institute: MEMRI.org. They provide an invaluable education all by themselves.
And if you have 10,000 MESA profs on one side, and just Bernard Lewis on the other — it's still an unfair fight, favoring Lewis.