Rashid Redux

Congratulations to Columbia University, for bagging Rashid Khalidi, University of Chicago historian, to fill the new Edward Said Chair of Middle Eastern Studies. The still-anonymous donors must be very pleased. Now that the deal is done, Khalidi has resurfaced, to take a stand on a possible war against Saddam.

As it happened, I spent the last Gulf war, in 1991, at the University of Chicago as a visiting professor, on the same hallway as Khalidi. Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies became a cauldron of agitation against the war, stirred vigorously by the faculty. Khalidi thought even that war was unjust, and he predicted a dire outcome. My favorite Khalidi quote from 1991 assessed the Iraqi army: “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 they’ll fight and fight hard, even if you bomb them with B-52s.” (This and more in my book Ivory Towers on Sand, p. 66.)

What does Khalidi have to say about another possible war? He’s not so foolish as to predict how the battlefield will look this time. In fact, he anticipates an “overwhelming victory.” But the day after will be a mess. “We will have a long American military occupation that will eventually provoke resistance,” Khalidi predicts. “However much Iraqis loathe their regime, they will soon loathe the American occupation that will follow its demise.” He gives the occupation about two years, the length of time Britain ruled Iraq before it faced a rebellion in 1920. Then it will become “bloody.” And the regional implications? “We will be creating legions of new enemies throughout the Middle East.” His suggestion: “I propose that we withhold our consent and stop this unjustified and unjustifiable war before it begins.”

I’ve always been amazed by Khalidi’s readiness to make unequivocal predictions. I suppose he realizes that it’s very unusual for anyone to remember them years later. In academe, predictions are the equivalent of politicans’ promises. They serve some immediate polemical purpose, and are given on the assumption that people have very short memories. Well, Sandstorm promises to remember them for you—and for Professor Khalidi.

Of course, Israel is never far from Rashid Khalidi’s mind. Now that he’s definitely New York-bound, he can say it out loud: this war is the project of “crackpot” neoconservatives who “dominate the commanding heights of the American bureaucracy.” And (wink) we know who they work for:

This war will be fought because these neoconservatives desire to make the Middle East safe not for democracy, but for Israeli hegemony. They are convinced that the Middle East is irremediably hostile to both the United States and Israel; and they firmly hold the racist view that Middle Easterners understand only force. For these American Likudniks and their Israeli counterparts, sad to say, the tragedy of September 11 was a godsend: It enabled them to draft the United States to help fight Israel’s enemies.

This is about as close as you can get in America today to the charge of dual loyalty, and the claim that Washington is run by a Zionist conspiracy, without coming across as a “crackpot” yourself.

“Khalidi has received praise from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” relates the Columbia Spectator in reporting his decision to take the new chair. “His supporters believe this speaks toward his strengths as a teacher and scholar.” Sorry, but the notion of Khalidi as someone above the fray doesn’t quite ring true to me. He won’t be the worst of the lot at Columbia, but that doesn’t say much. Still, all things considered, Khalidi’s move is for the best. Why?

Khalidi will become the Edward Said Professor of Middle Eastern Studies. That’s a warning label the size of a Times Square billboard.