Immediately after the Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship Tuesday night with a 105-97 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, one of the commentators asked Golden State coach Steve Kerr who he was thinking about. "Lute Olson," said Kerr, referring to the legendary University of Arizona coach whom Kerr played for in the mid-80s. Kerr then listed a few other basketball influences, which presumably disappointed the interviewer who was almost surely trying to prompt an emotionally charged response from Kerr about his late father, Malcolm Kerr, who was murdered in Beirut 1984.
Malcolm Kerr, like Steve, was born in Lebanon, where his parents taught at the American University in Beirut, the school that Kerr would later take charge of as president during the country's civil war. Malcolm Kerr studied at Princeton and earned his PhD at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in 1958 and became one of his generation's leading scholars of the Middle East. His best-known book, a classic in the field, is The Arab Cold War: Gamal 'Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970. As the title indicates, Kerr was primarily interested in the politics of the Middle East as done by Middle Easterners. If the conceit sounds redundant, the reality is that the field of Middle East studies, certainly since Kerr's death, has tended to see Middle Easterners as supporting actors on someone else's stage.
"One of my main concerns," Kerr writes in the introduction to Arab Cold War, "is to dispel the notion of Arab politics as a projection of decisions made in Washington, London, Moscow, and Jerusalem." Of course, Kerr would soon find himself swimming against the current, for within only a few short years after the 1971 publication of Arab Cold War, a professor of English and Comparative Literature would alter the field of Middle East studies irrevocably.
Kerr reviewed Edward Said's Orientalism when it was first published in 1977. He praised parts of it while criticizing Said for his "overzealous prosecutorial argument" and defending some of the scholars, many were Kerr's colleagues, that Said attacked. In short order, it was Said's view of the Middle East that would win the day. If Kerr saw the politics of the region as a staging ground where regional players challenged each other's will and vied for power—Egypt going against Syria, the Palestinians testing both, etc.—Said saw it simply as a result of the many grievances that the people of the region have with the colonial powers, Britain, France, and the United States.
The problem with the Saidian view was twofold. First, it made it very difficult to analyze and describe actual political movements in the region. Consider, for instance, how most scholars, journalists, and other observers of the Middle East describe the origins of Hezbollah: the organization began, most argue, as a resistance movement to contest Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. However, as Tony Badran explained in these pages, Hezbollah was an outgrowth of Iran's anti-shah opposition that was seeded even before the 1978 Islamic Revolution.
Because the Saidian perspective, rather than Kerr's, carried the day, Western policymakers made bad policy decisions about Hezbollah, Lebanon and Iran for more than three decades. Oh, Hezbollah is just a regular Lebanese party, analysts argued. Sure, they get some help from Iran, but as soon as Israel withdraws, the resistance will put down its guns and join the Lebanese system.
Now that Hezbollah has committed thousands of troops to defend Iranian holdings in Syria, not even the most obtuse or mendacious observer of the Middle East could fail to acknowledge that the Party of God is nothing but a function of Iranian foreign policy. Unfortunately, it's way too late for getting it right—Iran's garrison on the eastern Mediterranean is already responsible for many thousands of deaths, American, Lebanese, Israeli and Syrian, and will no doubt be responsible for many thousands more.
The second problem with the Saidian perspective is that in explaining Middle East politics as an effect of the Western misdeeds that cause them, Said and his acolytes effectively supplied the intellectual rationale for terrorism. After all, you don't have to like what Iran does, for instance, but it's certainly understandable after all the bad things the United States has done to Iran—like the CIA's 1953 coup toppling Iran's democratically elected prime minister Muhammad Mossadegh! However, as Ray Takeyh showed in these pages, Mossadegh's fall was strictly an intra-Iranian affair. In refusing to step down when the shah demanded his resignation, it was Mossadegh who violated Iran's constitution.
It's interesting to imagine what American foreign policy would look like had the Kerrian perspective of the Middle East won out rather than the Saidian one. Among other things, American policymakers would presumably stop apologizing for the Mossadegh affair. The tone of Obama's correspondence with Iran's supreme leader would probably be at least a little less groveling. Our leaders would entertain fewer illusions about our adversaries, seeing them as real people with their own ideas and interests and not simply as mirror images of ourselves, or functions of our actions. That is, we'd see things as they truly are.
I wonder what Obama was thinking about when he heard Kerr say "Lute Olson." He's a sports fan. He knows Steve Kerr's story, and that his father was assassinated by two Hezbollah terrorists as he was leaving an elevator on the AUB campus. It must have reminded some viewers about the amount of suffering that the Islamic Republic has inflicted on the United States for more than 30 years.