SAN FRANCISCO - As Middle Eastern scholars from around the globe gathered for an annual conference here, many despaired about the influence of so-called neoconservatives, while others expressed alarm about the increasingly pro-Israel attitude of many American Christians.
Over the past four days, hundreds of members of the Middle East Studies Association of North America presented academic papers and offered critiques of the scholarship put forward by others. Critics have suggested that Middle East studies programs at American universities suffer from a profound anti-Israeli bent and that the professors are more left-leaning than those in other parts of academia.
At a panel discussion yesterday, the chief of the Middle East section at the State Department's Foreign Policy Institute, Peter Bechtold, estimated that 3% or fewer of the academics share the Bush administration's general view of the world.
"If you would poll the attending members of MESA - 1,500 members - no more than 50 would support U.S. foreign policy," Mr. Bechtold said. He said that while neoconservatives hold prominent roles at the White House and the Pentagon, in Washington they are vastly outnumbered by those who favor a more conciliatory policy in the Middle East.
"Who are the nuts?" Mr. Bechtold asked. "In Washington, the neocons do not amount to 20, at least, total."
Mr. Bechtold said there is a good chance that the neocons will lose control of American foreign policy at some point in the next four years. "Do not prejudge the outcome," he said.
Several of the academics warned that "Charismatic Christians" have emerged as a significant pro-Israel lobby.
"This group has gotten strong and powerful. They may well represent 40% of America today," said a professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, Lawrence Davidson. "Obviously, the core came through a couple of weeks ago," he said.
Mr. Davidson said President Bush subscribes, in large part, to the view that Christians and Jews have a God-given right to control the Middle East. "He sees the Arabs as a whole people are inherently violent and barbaric," the professor said.
Mr. Bechtold said many pro-Israel Christians pride themselves on being uninformed.
"You're dealing with people who have said in public they don't read," he said. "A person doesn't read because they're looking forward to rapture."
Many in the group said they viewed Secretary of State Powell as the administration official most favorably disposed towards their agenda, but they expressed disappointment that he had not been more forceful in battling officials at the Pentagon and in the office of Vice President Cheney. A professor at American University in Washington, Duncan Clarke, said the secretary of state-designate, Condoleezza Rice, could have similar inclinations to Mr. Powell's.
"Unless she's willing to persevere in situations in which he was not, I wouldn't hold my breath for breakthroughs in this area," Mr. Clarke said. He spoke approvingly of campaigns by some American churches to divest in companies that do business with Israel. Mr. Clarke said such efforts might be more productive while the neoconservatives are in power in Washington. "There's another route, a more forceful route through NGOs and church groups," he said.
A discussion about the possibility that Iran might acquire nuclear weapons produced no outrage and little concern. A professor at the University of Vermont, Gregory Gause, said that outcome is basically a foregone conclusion. "I think it's inevitable that Iran is going to have a nuclear capability," he said.
Mr. Gause said nuclear weapons tend to lead countries to act more responsibly, not less responsibly. "I assume that Iran would be just as careful," he said.