Iraq: Another “Expert” Blind Spot

Where are America’s Iraq experts? According to one view, the media are hiding them from you. That’s the claim of Juan Cole, University of Michigan historian. He’s one of the establishment boosters of Middle Eastern studies, and a staunch defender of the Middle East Studies Association against all comers. (He also edits its quarterly journal.) In a recent piece, he complains that the media are ignoring America’s historians of Iraq—people who know about the country in its historical context. “It is an index of America’s longstanding anti-intellectualism,” he remonstrates, “that long hours of cable television news are filled with the views on Iraq of small town radio talk show hosts and retired colonels, but virtually no one who actually knows Arabic or has written substantially on the country appears on the small screen.”

He goes on to list the historians and their fields of expertise, and the reader’s eye races ahead to learn the names of those who’ve done contemporary work. Suddenly, we crash into this paragraph:

No American historian has essayed a major work on Baathist Iraq, for which the sources would have to be propaganda-ridden Iraqi newspapers, expatriate memoirs with an axe to grind, Western news wire reports, and what documents the U.S. government has been willing to declassify. Given the limitations of these sources, it is no wonder that most scholars have devoted their energies to the Ottoman and British periods, for which more documentation exists, the biases of which are more easily dealt with because passions have cooled with the passage of centuries.

I wonder whether Professor Cole is even aware that he has contradicted himself. He complains that the media have excluded Iraq “experts” from the public forum, even as he reports that those same “experts” have excluded Baathist Iraq from their own area of expertise. In fact, the real scandal is not the “anti-intellectualism” of the American media. There is no reason on earth for them to ask an expert on 19th-century trade in Mosul about the intentions of Saddam Hussein. The scandal is the admitted fact that American academe has not produced a single work on Baathist Iraq.

Millions of taxpayer dollars have been poured into this field—including, after the Kuwait war, a special appropriation for research fellowships called the Near and Middle East Research and Training Program, justified on the grounds of “national security.” You would have thought that at least one bright young man or woman would have gravitated toward the study of Baathist Iraq, which for over a decade has been America’s top national security concern in the Middle East. But no one did, and the answer is implicit in Cole’s own words.

I’d like to work on Baathist Iraq, says the student. Don’t waste your time, says the professor. The sources are too unreliable, the subject is too burdened with passions. If you insist on working on Iraq, tackle some remote period. (Unless, of course, you want to join the legions of Middle East “experts” who are “working” on the Palestinians: any period, any subject is just fine. Palestinian newspapers, memoirs, and oral testimonies are evidence, and the historian of the Palestinians has special dispensation to indulge his or her biases and passions.)

It’s the guild masters who have created a situation where Baathist Iraq has been excluded from the research agenda. Outside America, where the guild is run differently, invaluable work has been done on this very subject. There is Amatzia Baram’s book on the Baath’s manipulation of Iraqi identity. There is Ofra Bengio’s book on Saddam’s political discourse. They made excellent use, among other sources, of those “propaganda-ridden Iraqi newspapers.”

Nor is it true, as Cole says, that there is “more documentation” for the Ottoman and British periods. After the last Gulf war, the United States government brought eighteen tons of Iraqi official documents to Washington, a treasure trove seized by Kurds from Iraqi government offices. Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya and Human Rights Watch have made use of these documents. Not so historians and political scientists, who presumably are too busy studying “masculinities in Egypt” and “perceptions of the deaf in Islamic societies” (real research topics funded with “national security” appropriations).

In the lengthening indictment of Middle Eastern studies, Cole’s confession—”no American historian has essayed a major work on Baathist Iraq”—is one of the weightiest counts. That absence, like the absence of studies of Bin Laden, is the result of a skewed academic culture that systematically discourages policy-relevant research. Why Washington continues to pump money into this enterprise is more of a mystery than the doings of Saddam Hussein.

POSTCRIPT: Now the Boston Globe has published a piece confirming the point of this entry from other sources. Dick Norton (Boston University): “We don’t have a single academic expert in America who understands how Iraqi politics work in 2003, not a clue.” Judith Yaphe, National Defense University: “There’s nobody in this country who really knows the internal dynamics, the fabric of how Iraq works.” So where did all that federal money go?