Whoever paid attention to the American professors who specialize on the Middle East would have heard some surprising things before Sept. 11.
For one, they dismissed militant Islamic terror as unworthy of their attention. Listen to Fawaz Gerges - a well-known scholar whose credentials include connections to Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, as well as a professorship at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
Gerges declared himself skeptical of the U.S. government's warnings about terrorism and criticized what he called "the terrorist industry" (a disdainful term for specialists on this topic) for exaggerating "the terrorist threat to American citizens." Professor Gerges even accused (in a sentence I expect him deeply to regret) terrorist specialists of indirectly perpetuating an "irrational fear of terrorism by focusing too much on farfetched horrible scenarios." Hmm.
Gerges, it bears noting, published these insights just a half year before the farfetched suicide hijackings of Sept. 11.
He is just one scholar of many who got it wrong, as my colleague Martin Kramer shows in his new book, "Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America" (Washington Institute for Near East Policy). In fact, the professorate as a whole so ignored the militant Islamic threat that not one of them ever "got around to producing a single serious analysis" of Osama bin Laden.
Kramer recounts a string of missed opportunities, self-imposed isolation, and failed predictions on the part of university-based academics. Some examples:
* They insisted on seeing the surge of militant Islam as an Islamic version of the 16th century Protestant Reformation in Europe - ignoring that Martin Luther's goals were roughly opposite those of militant Islam.
* They forecast that the region's states would disintegrate; none did.
* They predicted that Palestinians would break the pattern of tyranny in Arabic-speaking countries and establish a truly democratic rule. Wrong - the Palestinian Authority is just another dreary dictatorship.
In all, Kramer concludes in his incisive and original study, "America's academics have failed to predict or explain the major evolutions of Middle Eastern politics and society over the past two decades." Time and again, they "have been taken by surprise by their subjects; time and again, their paradigms have been swept away by events."
And when not getting it wrong, the university specialists neglected the problems facing the United States in the region (such as rogue regimes and weapons proliferation) in favor of studies with a theoretical bent without value for understanding practical problems.
These failures have not gone unnoticed off-campus, where they "depleted the credibility of scholarship among influential publics," Kramer reports. In Washington, "the mere mention of academic Middle Eastern studies often causes eyes to roll."
Book agents run from them, while TV producers positively gallop. Foundations came to look at them askance. Even "portions of the general public had begun to write [them] off," sensing that this guild of experts has more information than common sense.
Journalists, think-tankers and ex-government officials have largely filled the gap. Their numbers are small and academics insult them as "intellectual counterfeiters" who purvey "superficial and twisted analyses," but they speak a language Americans understand, produce in a timely fashion, and get their subject right.
As a result, Kramer finds, some few dozen individuals working out of think tanks "managed to establish more public credibility" than the two thousand-plus professors at American universities. Professors found themselves left, in Kramer's biting words, "to debate one another in growing obscurity."
The Middle East presents the United States with singular dangers - rogue states, militant Islam, the Arab-Israeli conflict, disruption of oil and gas supplies, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, drug-trafficking, counterfeiting. The scholars' collective irrelevance makes the formulation of correct policies that much harder. And what Americans do in the Middle East has immense importance for the region, from saving Kuwait to brokering Arab-Israeli negotiations to making war on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Therefore, the failure Martin Kramer documents affects Americans and Middle Easterners alike, not to speak of others around the world.
A change for the better, he shows, will result mainly from two sources: senior American scholars, who need to recognize and rectify their mistakes; and those who fund Middle Eastern studies - from the federal government to university alumni - who need to demand improvement. The time is ripe for both of them to start making changes.