When the newly-established Center for American Studies and Research at the American University in Beirut (AUB) asked its students what subjects they would be interested in covering, the topic that "stuck out above all others" according to AUB Professor David Koistinen, was US foreign policy.
To meet this demand, the center asked Columbia University Professor Richard Bulliet to speak on the development of US foreign policy after the Second World War.
Bulliet, author of several books on the Middle East and Islam, talked about how Middle Eastern studies has affected US policy toward the region. He began by saying the US' relationship with the Middle East was very different from the European experience.
"The American vision of the Middle East is profoundly different from the European one," he said, before referring to "Orientalism," a work by the late Edward Said. He pointed out that this ground-breaking book only dealt with European attitudes toward the Middle East.
"Orientalism seldom refers to American views ... The 'other' for America was black slaves," he said.According to Bulliet, proponents of modernization theory, not Orientalists, became influential in US foreign policy."They were only interested in what was going to happen in the future, and how that future was going to produce a region that was anti-communist, in favor of free enterprise, democratic and most importantly pro-American," he said, adding that their theories ignored a key element.
"This leaves out one important subject and that was religion, or Islam in particular, because within that body of theory, religion was considered irrelevant to modern affairs," he said. According to Bulliet, the Iranian revolution came as a shock."The revolution of Iran proved that for some 25 years American academia had been dead wrong in one of their central views," he said.
Bulliet also said it was often underestimated how much the cold war influenced US policy in the Middle East.
"We have taken it as a given for so many years that American foreign policy was predicated by a triad of interests - security of Israel, security of energy supplies and confronting the Soviet Union - that it's hard to recall sometimes that of those three the one that was vastly, overwhelmingly the most important in the 1950s was opposing the Soviet Union," he said.
Bulliet illustrated this by describing a visit he made to the US State Department in 1977. When he asked the desk officer for Iran about the information he had on Ayatollah Khomeini, Bulliet was told "we have a pamphlet or two but that's not important, here are the files about the Communist Party in Iran."Bulliet added that the ideology of intervention also stems from the cold war period.
"The notion of the United States being involved actively in faraway places arose during the cold war because there was a vision of a world wide context between 'freedom,' as America called it, and communism," he said.
To the audience's amusement, Bulliet used the work of Bernard Lewis as an example of how some US academics reacted to events in the Middle East.
"In his book 'What Went Wrong?' you realize that basically he's talking about himself. He had a vision of the future of the Middle East. The Middle East didn't match his vision so it isn't that his vision was wrong, the Middle East went wrong," Bulliet said. "And 'What Went Wrong?' ends up being a very self indulgent book about how he was right in 1950, he's right now and the Middle East is wrong."
Yet despite the sometimes humorous tone of Bulliet's lecture, his message was serious, and he seemed almost exasperated by the way US foreign policy has evolved.
"The process of changing American policy fundamentals is extremely slow, very frustrating and, for people from the academic community, often seems just like the task of Sisyphus - pushing the rock up the hill and having it fall back down again," he said.