There has been a lot of attention in the last month to the reporters, columnists, and TV generals who mis-predicted the outcome of the Iraq war — all that talk of "quagmire" and an army "bogged down" against "stiff resistance." Media heavies have either admitted their mistakes (Chris Matthews), defended their record (William Raspberry), or done a bit of both (Nicholas Kristof).
In contrast, academic specialists on the Middle East remain unrepentant, even defiant about their wildly faulty predictions, and no one seems to call them on the matter. Here a few choice prognostications:
- Edward Said, professor of English literature, Columbia University: "The idea that Iraq's population would have welcomed American forces entering the country after a terrifying aerial bombardment was always utterly implausible."
- Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East studies, Sarah Lawrence College and ABC News consultant: "There is a high risk that Iraq will become a symbol of Muslim resistance against American military presence similar to Afghanistan for the Soviets."
- Joel Beinin, professor of Middle East History, Stanford, and past president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA): The fighting in Iraq would "justify Israel's use of pre-emptive force against Palestinians," permitting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "to push Palestinians into Jordan."
- Jere L. Bacharach, professor of Middle East history, University of Washington: "the war is over and we have lost," he announced on March 28, while predicting that American tank forces will be "surrounded and forced to surrender." Perhaps worse than this misreading, Bacharach excused the Iraqi regime's practice of using its own civilians as military cover. "We may denounce these Iraqi tactics as immoral and inhumane, but the goal of the Iraqi military is to win, not play by international rules," he said.
An extensive search to find a public admission of error by these prophets turned up nothing whatsoever. I therefore contacted each of them and asked if they "stood by or repudiated" their views.
Despite repeated attempts, both written and by telephone, I reached only two of the professors. Joel Beinin replied with a curt "no comment." Jere Bacharach acknowledged his error ("We should all be pleased I was wrong") and indicated he would further address the topic in print.
This problem of terrible predictions, then pretending they never happened and shuffling on to the next topic, is nothing new for Middle East studies. Here are some other examples, some from the very same individuals who got the Three-Week War so wrong:
- Edward Said for years told all who would listen about the rise of a moderate and democratic Palestinian leadership. Here's what he said in 1979, by way of example: "Fateh tacitly encourages a real democracy in political ideal and style." He actually called Yassir Arafat a mere "symbol of authority" who never appeared to be "despotic or capricious."
- Fawaz Gerges often minimalized the importance of militant Islam in general, and Osama bin Laden in particular. In late 2000, about the time the 9/11 attacks were in planning, he pronounced Osama bin Laden "exceptionally isolated" and "preoccupied mainly with survival, not attacking American targets."
- Rashid Khalidi, professor of Middle East history at University of Chicago and past president of MESA: writing in January 1991, he said this about the Iraqi soldiers who soon after went on to surrender to unarmed journalists: "They're in concrete bunkers. And it won't be easy to force them out without resorting to bloody hand-to-hand combat. It's my guess that they'll fight and fight hard, even if you bomb them with B-52s."
- John Esposito, professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University and another past president of MESA: the rise of militant Islam presents no particular problem. In 1994, for example, Esposito informed readers of The Middle East Quarterly that militant Islamic movements "are not necessarily anti-Western, anti-American, or anti-democratic."
None of these analyses proved correct, just as none of their dire predictions occurred in the current Iraq conflict; and none of them — so far as my research can find — were acknowledged or lessons learned.
Can one ask for a more succinct proof of Middle East studies' failure?