America's top-ranked Middle East experts can be thought of as the ideal boy band of policy thinkers. Historian Bernard Lewis is the "deep" one; political science professor Fouad Ajami is the "shy" one; journalist Fareed Zakaria is the "cute" one. And, depending on what kind of fan you are, historian and writer Daniel Pipes could be either the "bad" or the "funny" one.
However, the more pressing matter is how this genre of policy mania got started. How did a handful of foreign policy thinkers reach such a level of both influence on a presidential administration and quasi-celebrity status with the public? More important, how did Pipes, Ajami and Lewis, whose relations with a majority of academic Middle East experts in the US are distant and often highly antagonistic, manage so successfully to bypass the orthodoxies of the academy and place themselves firmly inside the policymaking establishment and on bestseller lists?
This success doesn't appear to be the result of any tactical unity though all, to some degree, supported the war in Iraq, tend toward the hawkish in US dealings with the Muslim world and in different ways have all diagnosed the current confrontation between East and West through a prism of Islamic and Arab pathologies.
Lewis is the author of countless tombstone-sized volumes on Islamic history, most recently, and popularly, What Went Wrong? Zakaria who is more wide-ranging than the rest and only occasionally edges into the role of Middle East pundit pens elegantly argued columns for Newsweek magazine, and recently became ABC Television's brightest star in Sunday morning punditry. Ajami, who has written influential books that include The Arab Predicament and the widely-cited literary history The Dream Palace of the Arabs, traces the modern story of Arab failure through an experiential, micro-historic web of intellectual cross-currents a technique at odds with Lewis' totalizing, big-picture version of Islamic history. And Pipes began as a rigorous if sensational scholar of Levantine history (with several excellent books on Hafez Assad and the "Greater Syria" ambition), but now writes a sharply polemical column for the New York Post, where he often does battle with academic Middle East experts.
Nor can one find much stylistic unity in the writings of these experts. Lewis is windy, pompous and bookish. Ajami is wistful, empathetic and full of regrets. And Pipes is punchy, combative and entertaining, a style well suited for the frequent scuffles he gets into with Middle East scholars and Muslim and Arab advocacy groups in the US. It was Pipes who last year launched the controversial Campus Watch, a website that compiles instances of alleged extremism, anti-American commentary, or simply criticism of Israel that Pipes finds excessive, by college professors.
Campus Watch elicited breathless accusations of "McCarthyism" when it debuted, as did the short 2001 book Ivory Towers on Sand, by Pipes associate Martin Kramer, which sounded the alarm about Middle East studies in universities. Kramer's book took aim at a range of academics, and more broadly at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the leading group of academic Middle East specialists in the US.
Kramer's attack, however, did not mainly slam academics for being too radical or politically biased, but for simply being wrong on militant Islam. The charge was neither trivial nor inaccurate. It is here that we can begin to see why Pipes, Ajami and Lewis have prospered in recent years while Middle East scholars such as Georgetown's John Esposito and Hisham Sharabi, Northwestern's Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Columbia's Rashid Khalidi and Edward Said, have found little traction with either the US public or the Bush administration.
If you had been listening to orthodox Middle East scholars on American campuses prior to Sept. 11, 2001, you might have reasonably thought that radical Islam was a spent force, that militant Islamists were as committed to democracy as people at a New England town hall meeting, that Osama bin Laden posed no threat to the United States and that Arab autocracies were in their twilight and bound to soon disintegrate.
To put it mildly, these claims were proved spectacularly wrong on and after Sept. 11, and none of the Middle East studies departments around the US have fully recovered their credibility. It's been fashionable in the past two years to complain that the Pipes-Kramer axis has launched a know-nothing campaign against scholars. Ever since Said labeled them as such years ago, it's been common to disparage Lewis as a falsely erudite "Orientalist" and Ajami as a Likud fellow traveler. These complaints are so much whistling in the wind: MESA and company haven't been marginalized by an assault from the academic right. They've been bypassed because after Sept. 11 they had nothing to say to a country desperate for answers about terrorism.
The elevation of the Pipes-Ajami-Lewis contingent and the three are in no sense a team or faction took place for largely the same reasons. In the wake of the terrorist crimes their stories made sense, and their seriousness about the terrorist threat spoke to the issues at hand. Their observations were refreshingly free of why-do-they-hate-us hand-wringing. Indeed, their diagnoses were especially palatable because they largely avoided questions of America's own past behavior and its consequences. Best of all, these experts offered not merely an assessment but a plan, a version of current affairs in which the sicknesses of the Middle East became manageable and curable.
How well the Pipes-Ajami-Lewis "dream team" fares in the future will be a function of how curable the Middle East really is. It might be a stretch to say these scholars contributed in a substantial way to the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq. Nevertheless, the war developed largely along lines they sketched out. This means America's top Middle East scholars are competing in the marketplace of ideas. They have the rare treat, and rarer burden, of seeing their ideas put to use, and must now accept the results. They were right about Sept. 11. Will they be wrong about Iraq?
Influence is a mysterious phenomenon. For all their important positioning in the American debate on the Middle East, none of the three scholars approach in distribution and popularity New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman. Yet on Iraq Friedman hedged his bets in so many ways that his influence evaporated. For every argument he advanced in favor of war, he laid out counterarguments about how disastrous the war could be. The dream team, by contrast, was sure in its pronouncements, and thus falsifiable. If the game plan in Iraq goes awry, we'll have a good reason to pay no attention the next time Ajami ponders the advantages of a pre-emptive war, or Pipes restates his peace-through-victory theme.
At the same time, could scholars like Esposito and Khalidi return from their cultural exile if the climate for American intervention in the Middle East changes? Is it too much to hope that there might be some other option in the intellectual marketplace that neither the discredited left-wing bromides of the orthodox scholars nor the dubious interventionism of America's top Middle East scholars will ultimately set the agenda for America's evolving experience in the region?