Posts Tagged Elie Kedourie

The NIC of time

The National Intelligence Council (NIC) has just published its fifth long-term prognostication, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds. This is an officially sponsored guessing game, but much of what government does has long lead times, so long-term projections need to be made by somebody.

By their nature, these hedged predictions say as much about present politics as future probabilities. One prediction (p. 71) is particularly striking, touching as it does on the drivers of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world:

Although al-Qa’ida and others have focused on the United States [as] a clear enemy, the appeal of the United States as the “great enemy” is declining. The impending withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and decreases in US forces in Afghanistan help to reduce the extent to which terrorists can draw on the United States as a lightning rod for anger. Soon, US support for Israel could be the last remaining major focus of Muslim anger.

It’s a peculiar assessment. After all, when al-Qa’ida attacked the United States on 9/11, there were no US forces in Iraq or Afghanistan. The 9/11 attacks undoubtedly did resonate in the Muslim world, and that couldn’t have been the result of an American boots-on-the-ground presence in the region. So what drove anti-Americanism back then? Is there a suggestion here that US support for Israel was already the “major focus”? What about American support for authoritarian regimes? We are told again and again how deeply Muslims have resented such support, and they could resent it even more in 2030, should the oil-saturated monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf last that long.

And what happened to the assessments in past reports, which cited “globalization” as the source of Muslim anger against the West in general, and the United States in particular? The report issued in 2000, anticipating 2015, offered this: “Popular resentment of globalization as a Western intrusion will be widespread. Political Islam in various forms will be an attractive alternative for millions of Muslims throughout the region, and some radical variants will continue to be divisive social and political forces.” Right on the mark, as evidenced by events unfolding before our eyes. Why isn’t such “intrusion” likely to continue to inflame the Muslim world?

Such resentment has a long history, and so does its neglect by Western analysts. The British historian Arnold Toynbee, in his 1922 book The Western Question in Greece and Turkey: A Study in the Contact of Civilisations, offered a striking allegory to illustrate the West’s effect upon the East:

Savages are distressed at the waning of the moon and attempt to counteract it by magical remedies. They do not realise that the shadow which creeps forward till it blots out all but a fragment of the shining disc, is cast by their world. In much the same way we civilised people of the West glance with pity or contempt at our non-Western contemporaries lying under the shadow of some stronger power, which seems to paralyse their energies by depriving them of light. Generally we are too deeply engrossed in our own business to look closer, and we pass by on the other side—conjecturing (if our curiosity is sufficiently aroused to demand an explanation) that the shadow which oppresses these sickly forms is the ghost of their own past. Yet if we paused to examine that dim gigantic overshadowing figure standing, apparently unconscious, with its back to its victims, we should be startled to find that its features are ours…

It is difficult for us to realise the profound influence on the East which we actually, though unconsciously, exercise… and the relationship described in my allegory cannot permanently continue. Either the overshadowing figure must turn its head, perceive the harm that unintentionally it has been doing, and move out of the light; or its victims, after vain attempts to arouse its attention and request it to change its posture, must stagger to their feet and stab it in the back.

The attacks of 9/11 were just such a stab in the back, and the confusion that ensued over Muslim enthusiasm for them arose precisely from America’s failure to grasp how thoroughly its revolutionary example undermines traditional orders everywhere. Where Toynbee erred, of course, was in his assumption that the West could simply “move out of the light,” thus liberating those in its shadow. No doubt there are still those who believe that if only we were to stand aside or step back, our profile would diminish, and with it the resentment against us. It was the historian and political thinker Elie Kedourie—a relentless critic of Toynbee as historian and seer—who added the necessary refinement.

In his view, the damaging effect of the West upon the East had nothing to do with what the West did. It was an inevitable effect of what the West was, and no amount of sidestepping or backtracking could mitigate the consequences. The West, Kedourie asserted, “cannot help being what it is. By the very fact of its existence, it was a destabilizing force for the Middle East.” And he employed a different allegory: “Someone who has influenza is not really responsible for the fact that someone else catches his disease.” The West could not be blamed for being what it is: the carrier of an aggressive virus that ravages all traditions.

So the suggestion in the NIC report, that Muslim anger against the United States might soon be reduced to a kernel of resentment over US support for Israel, is a species of wishful thinking. The United States will continue to infect the Muslim world, even if its willingness or ability to project hard power declines. The so-called “Arab Spring,” which is so often hailed as the product of indigenous processes, is in fact an inflammation produced by the most contagious of all viruses: the idea of freedom, now linked inseparably to American-style democracy. As long as Muslim societies remain internally divided over freedom and democracy, there will be governments and factions that will stoke hatred of America. In some places, American flags will be waved, but in others American embassies will be burned. In either case, the United States will be regarded, favorably or unfavorably, as the grinding wheel of change in the world.

There is another odd assertion in the report (p. 75):

Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have dramatic consequences for the region over the next two decades. For Israel, a permanent resolution to the conflict could open the door to regional relationships unthinkable today. The end of Palestinian conflict would provide a strategic setback to Iran and its resistance camp and over time undermine public support for militant groups such as Hizballah and Hamas.

This is the myth of linkage, and it echoes almost precisely a claim made by President Obama when he was still a candidate in 2008. “All these issues are connected,” Obama said.

If we can solve the Israeli-Palestinian process, then that will make it easier for Arab states and the Gulf states to support us when it comes to issues like Iraq and Afghanistan. It will also weaken Iran, which has been using Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to stir up mischief in the region.

This thesis (the theatrical NIC version reads like “New Middle East” circa 1995) seems less persuasive with each passing month, as many other “dramatic consequences” unfold, eclipsing or competing with the long-running Israel-Palestine show. The reassertion of linkage here is thoroughly political. It is not a measured assessment, but it is the sort of statement that stands a chance of being echoed by a high administration official, if not by the President himself. And it draws rebuttals from people like me—which helps to keep the NIC, a poor cousin to the agencies that deal in hard intelligence, in the limelight and on a budget line. After all, this was an agency that the Obama administration first thought to entrust to the ministrations of Chas Freeman (click here in case you’ve forgotten). That wasn’t exactly a token of high regard for the institution.

But if one really does believe in linkage, and in the “dramatic consequences” that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would have for the region, why not reverse it? If such an agreement promises to be so transformative, shouldn’t its pursuit justify delivering hammer blows to Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, to keep them from obstructing it? The linkage thesis has dual uses—and abuses—which make it the favorite concept behind all sorts of reductionist approaches to the Middle East. It’s a pity to see it surface in a report that pretends to nuance and sophistication.

, , , , , , , ,

Elie Kedourie

Martin Kramer, “Elie Kedourie,” Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing (London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999), vol. 1, pp. 637-38.

Kedourie, Elie 1926-1992

British historian of the modern Middle East

For forty years Elie Kedourie was the most formidable practitioner of a dissident historiography of the Middle East, one who rejected the post-colonial dichotomy between Western guilt and Eastern innocence. In detailed studies of British diplomatic history, he attributed the failure of British imperial will in the Middle East to romantic illusions about the Arab-Muslim world. In his studies of Middle Eastern politics, he documented the importation of radical nationalism that ultimately transformed the Middle East into what he called “a wilderness of tigers.” A deep conservatism, born of a disbelief in the redemptive power of ideological politics, suffused all of Kedourie’s writings. Armed with a potent and lucid style, he waged a determined defense against the siege of Middle Eastern history by leftist theory, the social sciences, and fashionable Third Worldism. Kedourie’s iconoclastic work forms the foundation of a diffuse school that views the post-Ottoman history of the Middle East not as an “awakening,” but as a resurgence of its own despotic tradition, exacerbated by Western dissemination of the doctrine of self-determination.

Kedourie made his first systematic critique of British policy in his Oxford thesis, later published as England and the Middle East (1956). The thesis constituted a closely documented indictment of the British for their encouragement of Arab nationalism during and after World War I, especially in Kedourie’s native Iraq, where Britain had imposed a militantly Arab nationalist regime upon a diverse society. It also included a devastating account of the adventurism of T.E. Lawrence, at a time when Lawrence was still an unassailable hero. (Richard Aldington’s debunking biography would not appear until two years later.) Kedourie’s thesis stirred the ire of one of his examiners, the Oxford Orientalist Sir Hamilton Gibb, who insisted that Kedourie alter his conclusions. In a decision that demonstrated the depth of his convictions, the 28-year-old candidate refused, withdrawing the thesis and forgoing the doctorate. By then, the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott had extended a hand to Kedourie, bringing him back to the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1953, where he remained for his entire career.

Kedourie’s criticism of Britain’s indulgence of Arab nationalism animated much of his later work. This reached its culmination in his monumental study of the correspondence exchanged during World War I between the British high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, and the leader of the Arab Revolt, the Sharif Hussein. In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth (1976) demonstrated how later British officials, motivated by a mixture of self-doubt and self-interest, accepted the Arab nationalist claim that Britain had promised the Sharif a vast Arab kingdom including Palestine. Kedourie argued that Britain had made no such promise, and that British self-reproach over “defrauding” the Arabs rested upon a myth of Britain’s own making.

In an earlier essay, his most famous, Kedourie traced the intellectual origins of this British loss of confidence. “The Chatham House Version” (1970), a reference to the influential Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, constituted a sharp critique of its guiding spirit, Arnold J. Toynbee. Kedourie regarded Toynbee’s theory of civilizational decline, built on improbable analogies, as an exercise in moral self-flagellation that denied the civilizing role of empires, Britain’s included. For Kedourie, the end of empire—of Hapburgs, Ottomans, British—tended to bring not national liberation but misgovernment, frequently followed by lawlessness and oppression. The failure of the Middle East to find political equilibrium figured as the theme of his last book, Politics in the Middle East (1992).

In his critique of modern nationalism, Kedourie ranged beyond the Middle East, as did much of his teaching at the LSE. In his book Nationalism (1960), he emphasized the fluid character of national identity, which rendered national self-determination “a principle of disorder.” For Kedourie, nationalism represented an ideological temptation, which spread across the world in no discernable pattern, but largely in parallel with European influence. Ernest Gellner later criticized Kedourie for failing to explain the spread of nationalism in sociological terms, particularly as a feature of the early stages of industrialization. Kedourie pointed to many obvious exceptions to this postulate, and rejected any sociological explanation as a form of reductionist “economism.”

In this as in many other debates, Kedourie vigorously resisted the penetration of the social sciences into history, maintaining the primacy of evidence over all theory. In his many general writings on historiography, he criticized Marxist determinism, the structuralism of the French Annales school, and psychohistory of any kind. Kedourie maintained that “history has no depths to be plumbed or main lines to be traced out,” and that “history does not need explanatory principles, but only words to tell how things were.” These views, combined with his conservative politics, made him an adversary of mainstream trends in Middle Eastern studies. Kedourie’s own preferences governed Middle Eastern Studies, the quarterly he founded in 1964.

In his later years, Kedourie became a well-known public intellectual in the United States, warning Americans against the same flagging of will that had diminished Britain. While his influence among conservative American intellectuals grew, he became disillusioned by the declining standards of British universities, including his own. He retired from the LSE in 1990, and was about to take up a new chair in modern Middle Eastern history at Brandeis University, when he died at the age of 66.


Born Baghdad, 25 January 1926. Attended Collège A-D Sasson and Shamash School, Baghdad; BSc, London School of Economics, 1951; graduate work, St. Antony’s College, Oxford, 1951-53. Taught (rising to professor) at London School of Economics, 1953-90. Married Sylvia Haim in 1950 (2 sons, 1 daughter). Died 29 June 1992.

Principal Writings

England and the Middle East: The Destruction of the Ottoman Empire 1914-1921, 1956

Nationalism, 1960; revised 1993

Afghani and Abduh: An Essay on Religious Unbelief and Political Activism in Islam, 1966

The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies, 1970
Editor, Nationalism in Asia and Africa, 1970

Arabic Political Memoirs and other Studies, 1974

In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth: The McMahon-Husayn Correspondence and Its Interpretations, 1914-1939, 1976

Islam in the Modern World and Other Studies, 1980

The Crossman Confessions and Other Essays in Politics, History and Religion, 1984

Politics in the Middle East, 1992

Hegel and Marx: Introductory Lectures, 1995

Further Reading

Maurice Cowling, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, 2 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980-85

Policy and the Academy: An Illicit Relationship?

Martin Kramer, “Policy and the Academy: An Illicit Relationship?” Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2003, pp. 65-73. The article was first delivered as the keynote lecture in a memorial event marking ten years to the passing of the late Elie Kedourie.

One of the issues that is much discussed since September 11, 2001, is the proper relationship between policy and the academy. For a host of reasons, a very wide gap exists between the two.

In part, this has to do with the political predilections of the academy. Much of the academy is left of center, distrusts anything that smacks of national security, thinks of itself in opposition to power, and imagines that the slightest contact with agencies of policy might infect and corrupt the agencies of thought represented by the academy. But the gap also arises from the highly over-specialized state of academe—its domination by theories, methodologies, and jargons that are inaccessible to anyone beyond the campus gates (and to many people inside the campus gates as well).

Since September 11, some have made bold to ask whether something should be done to close the gap, especially when it comes to the knowledge needed to formulate foreign policy. In the United States, government has made a sweeping gesture: since September 11, it has showered the academy with new funds to promote the study of foreign languages and cultures, especially of Muslim countries. And a few voices have been raised, especially among political scientists, arguing that the academy has been shirking its duty, and that it should render service if it expects to remain relevant.[1] Some in academe are beginning to appreciate a point made by the Orientalist Gustave von Grunebaum back in 1965:

No group, society, or civilization, so history allows us to postulate, will consistently support an intellectual endeavor unless it believes this effort to be serviceable either to its practical or to its existential needs—and one may do well to remind oneself that it is, in the last analysis, the existential need that determines what is to be recognized as socially useful and thus as a practical need.[2]

Von Grunebaum’s law is as demonstrable as gravity, as every academic empire builder is bound to discover sooner or later.

But there is a fly in this ointment, in the form of an essay by Elie Kedourie. It is entitled “Foreign Policy: A Practical Pursuit,” and it was originally published in 1961, in The Princetonian.[3] In it, the author repudiates the idea that academics have any business urging foreign policies on their governments. It is an argument that few would make today. Yet can the argument be lightly dismissed? Who was Elie Kedourie, and why should his essay of forty years ago detain us now?

Dissident Conservative

Elie Kedourie (1926-92), professor of politics at the London School of Economics (LSE), was the most formidable practitioner of a dissident historiography of the Middle East.

In detailed studies of British diplomatic history, Kedourie attributed the failure of British imperial will in the Middle East to romantic illusions about the Arab-Muslim world. In his studies of Middle Eastern politics, he documented the importation of radical nationalism that ultimately transformed the Middle East into what he called “a wilderness of tigers.” A deep conservatism, born of a disbelief in the redemptive power of ideological politics, suffused all of Kedourie’s writings. Armed with a potent and lucid style, he waged a determined defense against the siege of Middle Eastern history by leftist theory, the social sciences, and fashionable Third Worldism. Kedourie’s iconoclastic work forms the foundation of that diffuse school that views the modern history of the Middle East not as an “awakening” but as a resurgence of its own despotic tradition, exacerbated by the West’s dissemination of the doctrine of self-determination.

In Kedourie’s later years, he became a well-known public intellectual in the United States, warning Americans against the same flagging of will that had diminished Britain. While his influence among conservative American intellectuals grew, he became disillusioned by the declining standards of British universities, including his own. He retired from the LSE in 1990, and was about to take up a new chair in modern Middle Eastern history at Brandeis University when he died suddenly at the age of sixty-six. In a recent essay, the historian Efraim Karsh described Kedourie as a “forgotten iconoclast.”[4] Yet his work remains an inspiration for the small but influential group of scholars who continue to challenge the orthodoxies of Middle Eastern studies.

Had Kedourie been an economic or social historian, his ideas on foreign policy and the academy might be brushed aside. But he was first and foremost a diplomatic historian. No one outside the British Foreign Office understood the mechanisms of British policymaking better than he did, and no one knew the archival record of Britain’s choices in the Middle East as well as he did. For all these reasons, the essay entitled “Foreign Policy: A Practical Pursuit,” deserves—and repays—close reading.

Learned Fools

Kedourie begins his essay by stating the obvious: foreign policy is a practical pursuit. It is not speculation; its purpose is “the attainment of advantage or the prevention of mischief.” At which point, Kedourie asks this question: “Is the academic fitted by his bent, his training, his usual and wonted preoccupations, to take or recommend action of the kind which generals and statesmen are daily compelled to recommend or take?”[5]

Some would say yes, adds Kedourie; after all, academics have “a highly trained intelligence, they are long familiar with the traffic of ideas, and long accustomed scrupulously to weigh evidence, to make subtle distinctions, and to render dispassionate verdicts.” But Kedourie begs to differ:

If the academic is to recommend action here and now—and in foreign policy action must be here and now—should he not have exact and prompt knowledge of situations and their changes? Is it then proposed that foreign ministries should every morning circulate to historians and “social scientists” the reports of their agents and the dispatches of their diplomats? Failing this knowledge, the academic advising or exhorting action will most likely appear the learned fool, babbling of he knows not what.[6]

Kedourie then immediately anticipates the riposte:

It may be objected that this is not what is meant at all; we do not, it may be said, want the academic to concern himself with immediate issues or the minutiae of policies; we want his guidance on long-term trends and prospects; and here, surely, his knowledge of the past, his erudition, his reflectiveness will open to him vistas unknown to the active politician, or unregarded by him. And should not this larger view, this wider horizon be his special contribution to his country’s policies and to its welfare?[7]

Yet this, too, Kedourie rejects. “This appeal to patriotism, this subtle flattery, needs must be resisted,” he writes. Why? “The long view, the balanced view, the judicious view, can positively unfit a man for action, and for giving advice on action.” To make policy, writes Kedourie, is to leap into the unknown.

Shall academics presume to instruct a man how he shall leap? Presumption is the pride of fools, and it ought to be the scholar’s pride not to presume. It is pursuit of knowledge and increase in learning which gives scholars renown and a good name. How then should they, clothed as they are in the mantle of scholarship, yet imitate this lobby or that pressure group, and recommend this action or that, all the time knowing full well that in politics one is always acting in a fog, that no action is wholly to the good, and that every action in benefiting one particular interest will most likely be to another’s detriment.[8]

Contra Toynbee

From these passages, one might conclude that there was no equivocation in Kedourie’s position. In fact, we shall see that Kedourie did allow for a seemingly narrow exception to his rule. But before we explore it, two points about the essay are worth noting.

Kedourie published it during a stint as a visiting professor at Princeton, and at a time when he must have been largely unknown in America. But it would have been especially apt for an American readership.

Remember that in 1961, Harvard professors were flooding Washington, invited down from Cambridge by John F. Kennedy. It was as close to an academic takeover of Washington as there ever would be. That year, McGeorge Bundy, dean of arts and sciences at Harvard, left the university to become Kennedy’s special assistant for national security. In 1961 another Harvard professor, John Kenneth Galbraith, left the university to serve as U.S. ambassador in India. Again in 1961 a Harvard history professor, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., left the university to serve as Kennedy’s adviser and speechwriter. No American reader could have read through Kedourie’s piece without thinking of the so-called “best and brightest” from the academy who had assumed key policy positions. (Interestingly, The Princetonian elected to publish Kedourie’s piece. It is difficult to imagine that all the to-do about Harvard in the new Kennedy administration did not grate on the Princetonians.)[9]

But Kedourie himself may not have had these Harvard professors in mind when he wrote his 1961 essay. The best evidence is that the essay gives only one specific example of an academic’s folly, and it relates to none other than Arnold Toynbee, the celebrity historian against whom Kedourie would serve his most famous indictment, his 1970 essay “The Chatham House Version.”

As it happened, the reference to Toynbee in this article touched not on the Middle East, but on China. It will be recalled that the Republican regime in China had made Nanjing its capital between the world wars; and that Toynbee had adduced this as more evidence for one of his laws, about the migration of power from the interior of countries to their coastal marches. In 1949, the Chinese communists broke Toynbee’s law, by restoring Beijing as China’s capital.

Kedourie chose this instance as the prime exhibit of academic obtuseness in his essay, in these memorable words: “The famed academic, Dr. Toynbee, writing his Study of History in 1935 came to the conclusion, on the weightiest and most erudite of grounds, that there was no likelihood of Peking ever again in the future becoming the capital of China! Should he not have remembered the sad and moving confession of Ibn Khaldun—a writer he much admired—that his minute knowledge of prosody unfitted him for the writing of poetry?”[10] It appears to have been Kedourie’s first shot at “the famed academic, Dr. Toynbee,” and he would repeat this very same Chinese example in a footnote to “The Chatham House Version.”[11]

It is impossible to separate Kedourie’s hard-line position on policy and the academy from his contempt for the policy interventions of Toynbee—a contempt that built to a crescendo in the 1960s. Indeed, a careful reading of “The Chatham House Version” reveals that at various points, Kedourie finds the very root of Toynbee’s errors in his harnessing of history to policy and advocacy. As Kedourie put it: “The belief that there is a tight connection between the study of policy and the making of it, the assumption of the unity of theory and practice, has deeply marked the character and activities of Chatham House.”[12] Toynbee himself, wrote Kedourie, “believed in the practical uses of history and had no compunction in exhorting and advising.”[13] All of which not only had a deleterious effect on policy, but on the writing of history: “The desire to prescribe and prophesy was clearly one main reason why the Chatham House Version, as has been shown, also failed as history.”[14]

The academic left justifies its rejection of an advisory role by arguing that proximity to power corrupts—that the mere interaction of the academy with policymakers could easily corrupt the professors and so should be abjured. Kedourie believed that the greater danger was that the professors would corrupt the policymakers—that they would infect them with dangerous theories. A consistent theme in Kedourie’s work is the destructiveness of half-baked academic theories planted in the minds of decision-makers, whether democrats or despots. It was not only in the interest of academe, of its freedom and self-regulation, that it refrain from advising. It was in the interest of society and the polity that the hazardous speculations of scholars be contained within the academy, lest they mutate into doctrinaire policies. Certainly this is what had happened at Chatham House, which through Toynbee had become a transmission belt for English radicalism into British foreign policy.

Making Exception

So much for Kedourie’s principled position. But Kedourie allowed for an exception to his rule, both in the 1961 piece and later. In 1961, he put it this way:

Scholars, of course, are also citizens, and as such jealous for the welfare and honor of their country. Equally with other citizens they can recommend and exhort, but they should take care that a scholarly reputation does not illicitly give spurious authority to some civic or political stance.[15]

And again, in his posthumous essay on politics and the academy:

The notion of freedom from political commitment does not imply that an author floats in some colorless empyrean, removed from all sublunar judgments and references. Such a being is simply unthinkable. Freedom from political commitment signifies what it says—namely, that in his work, the writer is not concerned to defend or attack some political cause in order to ensure either its victory or its defeat.[16]

As a particular example of a scholar who had failed to distinguish between his academic responsibilities and his politics, Kedourie offered Sir Hamilton Gibb. Gibb, Britain’s preeminent Orientalist, had disapproved of Kedourie’s Oxford thesis, on what Kedourie regarded as purely political grounds. Kedourie withdrew his dissertation and never received his degree. “Gibb was politically committed,” Kedourie wrote years later. “He had strong sympathies and equally strong views about the right policies for the Middle East. In itself, this was not objectionable, but the political commitment fatally spilled over into, and encouraged, academic tendentiousness.”[17]

Here we come closer to the heart of the issue. It is legitimate to have strong views about policies, writes Kedourie, but not to allow them to spill over into one’s academic work, one’s professional realm. One may advise, admonish, exhort, demonstrate—but not bring such commitments into the work area. Here was Kedourie’s first concession to the fact that an academic is also a man (or a woman), and that man is a political animal. But Kedourie also insisted that the academic not be a political animal everywhere and always—not in his dominant role among students (as Gibb had been), and not in his university study.

Having myself written a book decrying what Kedourie called “academic tendentiousness”—the way in which political commitment has penetrated scholarly writing—I find myself in strong agreement with Kedourie on this point. Yes, academics are entitled to their views like anyone else, and they are entitled to demonstrate for them in the streets, hobnob with policymakers to express them, or even take a leave of absence to work as practitioners. What they are not entitled to do is inflict them on either their students or the readers of their academic work.

But how does one translate Kedourie’s principle of virtuous scholarly conduct into practice? Consider his exhortation that scholars “should take care that a scholarly reputation does not illicitly give spurious authority to some civic or political stance.” It is a fine principle, easiest to implement for scholars with very small reputations. But scholars do not control their scholarly reputations; it would be a very different world if they did. When those reputations grow large, scholars’ names become inseparable from their scholarly accomplishments.

If a scholar takes a political position as a citizen, how can he possibly neutralize the effect of his scholarly reputation on the reception of that political position? How would one expect a Noam Chomsky, or an Edward Said, or a Bernard Lewis, or an Elie Kedourie to actually do this? Would it suffice if Professor Noam Chomsky, MIT, signed his diatribes on Palestine as Mr. Noam Chomsky, Lexington, Massachusetts? It probably would be a good thing if scholars could agree never to sign a political petition with their academic titles and affiliations, never to speak at a political gathering as professor of this or that. But it is obvious that such an attempt to separate the person from the persona is destined to fail.

More intriguing is Kedourie’s admonition that a scholar, in his work, should not defend or attack some political cause in order to ensure either its victory or its defeat. Elsewhere, Kedourie gives examples of “work” that might serve as models: Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, von Grunebaum on medieval Islam, Jakob Burckhardt on the Italian Renaissance, Fustel de Coulanges on the ancient city, S.D. Goitein’s A Mediterranean Society. Of these works, Kedourie writes, “By no conceivable stretch of the imagination can they be said to work in favor of a political cause or against it.”[18] Kedourie is most probably right, although it is telling that he does not cite a work of modern history among these examples—or, for that matter, von Grunebaum’s work on modern Islam.

But where does “work” end in contemporary academe? The classroom should not be a forum for political advocacy by professors. But once an academic has taught his hours, supervised his theses, and written for peer review and promotion, there is occasion for other pursuits, other lecturing, and other books.

For example, professors Chomsky and Said are committed to the Palestinian cause. In Professor Chomsky’s book Syntantic Structures, Palestine is not mentioned. Nor is it mentioned in Edward Said’s Beginnings: Intention and Method. Both gentlemen did their “work” in their respective fields, linguistics and literature. Is Chomsky’s subsequent authorship of Fateful Triangle, or Said’s later writing of The Question of Palestine, a transgression of Kedourie’s principle? If so, how? Kedourie takes Edward Granville Browne to task for his 1911 book, The Persian Revolution, a volume that Kedourie rightly calls a “failure” as history.[19] But Browne did not purport to be a historian. He was a philologist and incumbent of a chair of Arabic, whose principal “work” was his four-volume Literary History of Persia. When it came to contemporary politics, Browne was a naked partisan, but it could well be argued that The Persian Revolution was not his “work,” only his pleasure.

In sum, even Kedourie allows sufficient exception to his own principle as to make it nearly unworkable. In no realm of endeavor does the notion of “company time” have less meaning than in academe. And in no realm of endeavor is the notion of “work” more elastic. Kedourie was always a staunch defender of the academy’s privilege of self-regulation—he was an LSE adherent of the Oxbridge ideal. But what is the mechanism of academic self-regulation, if not peer review? And has not peer review defined what once would have been considered blatant political advocacy as “work”? It is peer review that determines what is “work” and what is not, so that we stand today in astonishment at what university presses publish, which books appear in syllabi, which publications confer tenure.

So while Kedourie may have restated the problem, he didn’t solve it. And his exceptions to his rule—a scholar might act politically as a citizen, outside his “work”—opened precisely those loopholes that have made the academy so political a place. In any case, arguing that advocacy is inappropriate—that it is a betrayal of a professional code—is something akin to confronting a stampede of cattle with a stop sign. The more practical question, then, is this one: what does a scholar do, once surrounded by other scholars who advocate foolish or dangerous policies? This was the actual situation in which Kedourie found himself, time and again—to which he found an interesting answer.

Discreet Consultant

The answer, of course, is that Kedourie began to take advantage of that very exception he himself had allowed. As his reputation grew, more people from the media and government called upon him for his advice on foreign policy. He gave it. By the 1980s, Kedourie’s views on matters of policy were very much in demand, and his writing also became more contemporary. It was never straightforward policy writing, which is a distinct art, but Kedourie led his reader ineluctably to a policy conclusion—even if he did so only by way of a question.

Here is but one example. In 1978, Kedourie published an article in Encounter entitled “How to (and How Not to) Seek Peace in the Middle East.” In it, he analyzed the weaknesses of a now-forgotten policy report on the Middle East prepared by the Brookings Institution in the mid-1970s. The report had determined that the security and future development of Arabs and Israelis would remain in jeopardy “until a durable settlement is concluded.” This sort of banality is so ubiquitous that we no longer notice it. Yet listen to Kedourie interrogate it:

Is it not inconceivable that the very search for a “durable” settlement between Arabs and Israelis will so exacerbate matters, and arouse among various parties such fears for their security and interests, that tensions in the area will be increased rather than lessened? Again, may it not be the case that a “durable settlement” will do nothing to provide “security and future development”? This is simply because the political and social problems of the Middle East are such as to preclude stability in any conceivable future. The Arab world today is the prey of an ideological and activist style of politics that is not compatible with stability.[20]

Without having stated a policy preference, Kedourie effectively expressed one—and had he only been in America in the 1990s to argue for it, perhaps his cautionary questions would have dampened the giddy euphoria for a “durable settlement” that has produced the present impasse.

Kedourie did more than write on policy. He also advised. Yet he gave advice with an exquisite discretion that reflected his determination to maintain something of that sacrosanct distinction between the academic cloister and the political arena. Peter Roberts, in his contribution to Kedourie’s memorial volume, has an interesting passage on Kedourie and policymakers that strikes just the right tone:

Those directly concerned with government also had a high regard for [Kedourie’s] knowledge of, and insight into, the contemporary world. He was discreet and modest about his relations with leading politicians and never discussed them with me. The interviewer in Canada asked him about his influence on Pierre Trudeau. Elie made clear the former prime minister was never his student. When pressed about acknowledgement in Trudeau’s books, Elie conceded that “there were some references.” The open record of consultations made by political leaders is slight. It is, however, difficult to ignore it altogether. … It may be enough to say that the teacher of “government” had opportunities to observe those who governed. His observations perhaps reinforced his view that the tasks of the academic and even the journalist are different from the craft of making foreign policy.[21]

More could be said here, and some more was said in some of Kedourie’s obituaries, especially about his occasional advice to Lady Thatcher during her premiership.

Scholar’s Skepticism

Kedourie was a principled scholar but not a doctrinaire man. His position on policy and the academy might best be summarized in this manner: in an ideal world, the two should not meet, and to the extent feasible, the two should be separated; but in this less-than-ideal world, where the radical part of academe has so intruded itself in policy, the conservative part has a license to neutralize it by doing the same. Kedourie did not stand entirely above the fray. But at least he knew it was a fray and never confused it with academic “work”—”work” that he continued to pursue to his dying day, in his researches on conservatism and Hegel. Kedourie had something to say on policy, and he said it; but he never professed to speak as a policy expert.

But there is one mischievous passage where Kedourie suggests that policymakers might have something to learn from professors after all. It perfectly summarizes where he had come to rest on the question, and where perhaps all of us should come to rest. It is the last paragraph in his essay on “How to (and How Not to) Seek Peace in the Middle East.”

It is usually (and rightly) said that the academic’s virtues—his critical turn of mind, and his willingness to follow the argument wherever it leads—become defects in the man of action, who must accustom himself to make quick decisions on the basis of hunches and imperfect information. But in a region like the Middle East, where yesterday’s friend can become today’s opponent, where alliances and allegiances shimmer and dissolve like the fata morgana, the academic’s skepticism, his readiness to scrutinize far-fetched theories and unlikely suppositions, are perhaps qualities that even busy men of action should cultivate.[22]

And perhaps, one might add by extension, busy men of action should cultivate academics who possess these qualities, and those academics should allow themselves to be cultivated. Why? Kedourie makes the ultimate exception to his own rule, and it is this: We are dealing, after all, with the Middle East.

[1] Bruce W. Jentleson, “The Need for Praxis: Bringing Policy Relevance Back In,” International Security, Spring 2002, pp. 169-83; Larry Diamond, “What Political Science Owes the World,” PSOnline, Mar. 2002, at
[2] Gustave E. von Grunebaum, “Specialization,” in George Makdisi, ed., Arabic and Islamic Studies in Honor of Hamilton A.R. Gibb (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 285.
[3] Elie Kedourie, “Foreign Policy: A Practical Pursuit,” in The Crossman Confessions and other Essays in Politics, History, and Religion (London: Mansell, 1984), pp. 133-6 (first published in The Princetonian, Jan. 4, 1961).
[4] Efraim Karsh, “Elie Kedourie: The Forgotten Iconoclast,” International History Review, Sept. 1999, pp. 704-13.
[5] Kedourie, “Foreign Policy,” p. 133.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., p. 134.
[8] Ibid., p. 135.
[9] Kedourie later held up one of these Kennedy professors as an example of the dangers of the academic’s intervention. He does so in his essay, “The Apprentice Sorcerers,” where he reviews Miles Copeland’s Game of Nations. Kennedy had sent one of his economics professors, Edward Mason, to meet Nasser and report on the regime. As Copeland related, Professor Mason reported back to Kennedy that “he could not conscientiously find fault with any of Nasser’s major actions”—including nationalizations, press censorship, arrests of dissidents, and propaganda assaults on Arab leaders friendly to the West. They were “actions which Nasser could logically be expected to take given his circumstances.” As Kedourie wryly noted, it was “doubtful whether Nasser and his fellow-conspirators had any need to call on the resources of American political science for such lessons in tyranny.” Kedourie, Arabic Political Memoirs and Other Studies (London: Frank Cass, 1974), pp. 174-5.
[10] Kedourie, “Foreign Policy,” p. 134.
[11] Kedourie, The Chatham House Version and other Middle-Eastern Studies, new ed. (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for Brandeis University Press, 1984), p. 459, n. 51.
[12] Ibid., p. 353.
[13] Ibid., p. 392.
[14] Ibid., p. 394. When Toynbee, in a rejoinder, claimed that the “key” to “The Chatham House Version” was “the tragic fate of the Jewish community in Baghdad,” Kedourie shot back: “Has it not occurred to Professor Toynbee that the wish to rescue history from prescription and prophecy could actually be the key to my book?” Kedourie, “Was Britain’s Abdication Folly? I: A Reply to Arnold Toynbee,” Round Table, July 1970, p. 358.
[15] Kedourie, “Foreign Policy,” p. 135.
[16] Kedourie, “Politics and the Academy,” Commentary (Aug. 1992), p. 55.
[17] Kedourie, England and the Middle East, rev. ed. (London: Mansell, 1987), p. 8b.
[18] Kedourie, “Politics and the Academy,” p. 55.
[19] Ibid., p. 53.
[20] Kedourie, Islam in the Modern World and Other Studies (New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1980), p. 244.
[21] Peter Roberts, “A Personal Memoir,” in Sylvia Kedourie, ed., Elie Kedourie CBE, FBA, 1926-1992: History, Philosophy, Politics (London: Frank Cass, 1998), p. 82.
[22] Kedourie, Islam in the Modern World, p. 248.


Policy and the academy

“Scholars on the Sidelines” is the headline of an op-ed by Harvard’s Joseph Nye in Monday’s Washington Post. There he notes that the Obama administration has appointed few political scientists to top positions, and predicts a widening of the divide between policymaking and academic theorizing. His Harvard colleague Stephen Walt has echoed the complaint, placing the blame upon scholars who follow what he calls “the cult of irrelevance.” Michael Desch, a Notre Dame political scientist, also has written in the same vein in a new piece entitled “Professor Smith Goes to Washington,” claiming that while Obama may be “depopulating the Ivy League and other leading universities with his appointments,” it’s unlikely the academics can match the influence of the think tanks or overcome the anti-intellectualism that pervades society and government.

I addressed the question myself, in an article entitled “Policy and the Academy: An Illicit Relationship?” originally delivered as a lecture in 2002. The occasion was the tenth anniversary of the passing of Elie Kedourie (1926-1992), who taught politics at the London School of Economics and whose work has had an abiding influence upon many students of the Middle East, myself included. My subject was a short essay by Kedourie, dating from 1961, entitled “Foreign Policy: A Practical Pursuit.” I explored (and contested) Kedourie’s principled belief that policy and the academy should not meet, and that the divide benefited them both.

My piece is on the web and many have read it. But now that this debate has resumed, I think it useful to provide access to Kedourie’s own text—a trenchant 1,100 words—which I think speaks rather more forcefully than my synopsis of it. Read his piece first, and only then read my discussion of it. (By the way, the poet he quotes is Eliot; the poem, Gerontion. And yes, Kedourie usually did put “social scientists” in quotation marks.)

When I last saw Gaza

The Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza stirs my memory of my only visit to the place. It was twenty-two years ago, before the words intifada, Hamas, and “Oslo” had entered the Israeli-Palestinian lexicon. I had taken up my appointment at Tel Aviv University a couple of years earlier, and we had a treat that semester: the historian Elie Kedourie and his wife Sylvia left the comforts of London to spend the term with us. One of our tasks was to fill up their time with interesting people and trips. Someone had the idea of taking them to Gaza, and I went along to provide small talk on the way. As Elie had a famous aversion to small talk, it was a daunting assignment.

Our guide on that occasion was Zvi Elpeleg. I came to know Zvi quite well in the mid-1990s, when he served as Israeli ambassador to Turkey and opened many doors for me. But back then, I knew him only as a street-smart Arabist who’d served in every war as a military governor. As a young man in the mid-1950s, he had governed a large swath of the Arab-populated “Triangle” in Israel. He later served as a military governor in Gaza in 1956, in the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, in Fayed in Egypt in 1973, and in southern Lebanon in 1982.

In Gaza Elpeleg still knew plenty of people. He had kept up old ties and did some business there. So he was more than happy to plan the day, do the driving, and introduce the Kedouries to some of his friends. In those days, driving an Israeli car through Gaza was a routine exercise, not fraught with any great danger. As we left, Zvi deliberated over whether he should take his sidearm; I don’t even recall whether he did.

During the drive down, I did my best to distract Kedourie, and at one point touched a nerve. Elie had been born and raised in Baghdad; he had left Iraq for Britain in the general Jewish exodus, never to return. Since we were headed into Gaza, I asked him whether he had traveled anywhere else in the Arab world—perhaps to Egypt, about which he had written a great deal. He answered that he hadn’t, and then pointedly added that he didn’t feel any need to do so. I was taken aback, but it reminded me of an old Jewish-American joke. Irv wants to impress his Old-World Jewish mother with his success. “Mama!” he announces triumphantly, “Sheila and I are going to Europe!” “Nice for you,” the old lady mutters dismissively, “I’ve been already.”

Here and there, as we drove through Gaza City, older men waved to Elpeleg or shouted out greetings. He’d obviously left an impression all those years ago. And our prime destination was one of his old interlocutors: Haj Rashad ash-Shawwa, a former mayor of Gaza (twice appointed and twice deposed by Israel) and a big landowner and citrus merchant, who had a long history of shifting to and fro among Israel, Jordan, and Fatah. He also enjoyed the exclusive franchise for issuing travel permits for Gazans who wanted to visit Jordan—the so-called “Shawwa passports”—and applicants formed a crowd outside his offices. Haj Rashad was nearing eighty, which made him the grand old man of Gazan politics.

I can’t say I remember exactly what Haj Rashad and Elie Kedourie said to one another about the issues of the day. Back then, “peace” diplomacy focused on getting Palestinian notables to come out for King Hussein in favor of a Jordanian-Palestinian federation. Haj Rashad was all for it, and so were many Israelis and Americans, but the “Jordanian option” never gelled. I do remember Haj Rashad and Elie hitting it off nicely. Here were two men who shared a memory of British order in the Middle East, who distrusted nationalist passion, and who exchanged views with meticulous civility. So we drank our coffee and mulled over various proposals, unaware that the pressure outside was building toward an explosion. They lived through its beginning, but not to its end: Haj Rashad died of a heart attack in 1988, and Elie died of the same in 1992.

Given the little history I’ve just described, I’ve wondered what Elie would have thought of the Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza. In 1978, he published an article entitled “The Retreat from Algeria” in the Times Literary Supplement. It was of a piece with his reproach of Britain for “abandoning” its responsibilities in the Middle East. “France and Frenchmen were guilty of a wrong no greater than that committed by the conquerors whom they supplanted,” he wrote. “What seems exorbitant and monstrous is for a state deliberately, suddenly and precipitately to withdraw its protection from those who look to it for the defense of their lives and possessions.” Algeria, he once told an interviewer, “was abandoned in the most lamentable and pitiless fashion, from one day to the next. Abandoned without any regard to the interest of those for whom France had taken responsibility for 130 years. That much can be said. In Algeria the French had a great responsibility and they fell down on it.”

But this responsibility—and this was Kedourie’s point—was owed by France to all the inhabitants of Algeria, not only the settlers. The French army had quelled the Algerian insurrection by 1959, he wrote. “This could have been the opportunity for the French state to assume its historic responsibilities, and at least to institute a public order which was not the plaything of the pieds noirs [the Europeans settled in Algeria], which would treat Frenchmen and Muslims as equals, and protect the life, property and livelihood of all without exception.” De Gaulle’s retreat not only betrayed the pieds noirs (who had seen him as their savior); above all it betrayed the Muslims, who were left to the terror and vengeance of the FLN.

This passage, more than any other, makes it impossible to infer anything about Gaza from what Kedourie wrote about Algeria. In leaving Algeria, Kedourie argued, France failed to live up to its universalist ideal. But Israel claims no “civilizing mission,” it has never annexed territory that would compel it to assume full responsibility for large numbers of Palestinians, and its long-standing objective has been to find someone credible to assume that responsibility. In leaving Gaza and putting up a high barrier there and in the West Bank, Israel has spurned the messianism of the far right and the universalism of the far left. It is still inspired by the model of the classic nation-state, in which the dominant nationality enjoys a clear majority and lives behind impermeable borders. Today Israel is reaffirming its faith in that model.

The problem is the weakness of Palestinians who share that faith. In leaving Gaza to the Gazans, Israel hopes to compel the Palestinians to mirror Israel. It’s a gamble: people like Haj Rashad don’t call the shots. Israel will soon find out whether, in the person of Abu Mazen, it has found someone who does.