Lawrence of Academia?

Last month, academics who run a discussion log on Middle Eastern studies exchanged ideas on how to justify their Title VI federal subsidy. One of them posted this:

The anecdote/argument that I find works best with gov’t officals concerning the importance of Title VI funding is to note that Lawrence of Arabia was only in a position to help the British war effort because he had a grant to study crusader castles as part of his academic studies before the war. Without that “soft,” non-policy oriented academic work, he would not have had the linguistic skills, cultural knowledge and geographic familiarity with the region to help the war effort….[this] does tend to open the eyes of more narrow-minded gov’t folks looking for a direct payoff between gov’t funding of area studies and potential national security benefit.

Another academic responded with this:

Not in the same league as the T.E. Lawrence anecdote, but a bit closer to home. It turns out that General Abizaid, who is taking Tommy Frank’s position, has an MA in area studies from Harvard.

These anecdotes seem to be the best Middle Eastern studies can muster to support the notion that they do contribute to national security. In fact, they actually demonstrate the opposite of what the academics claim.

T.E. Lawrence, Oxford student, did go out to Syria before the First World War, to study medieval castles and do some archeology. And he did acquire a knowledge of Arabic, a familiarity with the Arabs, and a lot of geographic knowledge. But how did he get out to Syria, and who put him “in a position to help the British war effort”? Answer: D.G. Hogarth his professor.

It was Hogarth, Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and an Oxford don, who saw the potential of young Lawrence. It was Hogarth who arranged his travelling scholarship. It was Hogarth who employed him before the war, at his archeological dig in northern Syria. And it was Hogarth who directed the wartime intelligence branch known as the “Arab Bureau” in Cairo from 1916. Lawrence acted on its behalf in Arabia.

Lawrence always acknowledged his debt to his professor. “D.G.H. had been a god-father to me,” he later wrote, “and he remained the best friend I ever had.” “I owe to [Hogarth] every good job I’ve had,” he told two of his biographers. “He is the man to whom I owe everything I have had since I was seventeen.” And this, in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “Mentor to us all was Hogarth, our father confessor, and advisor, who brought us the parallels and lessons of history, and moderation and courage.” No Hogarth, no Lawrence—this has been the considered opinion of more than one Lawrence biographer.

So the Lawrence anecdote really poses this question: where are America’s Hogarths? Where are the professors with a strong sense of the national interest, lots of knowledge acquired in the field, good intelligence connections, a willingness to recruit their students, and an eagerness to serve in times of war? No such person exists in Middle Eastern studies. Indeed, Hogarth-like activities would be enough to get even the most established professor drummed out of the field.

And this leads to the second example: the new commander of CENTCOM, General John Abizaid. It is true that Abizaid, a West Pointer, spent a mid-career year at Harvard, where he earned a master’s degree in Middle Eastern area studies. But before you give Middle Eastern studies any credit for Abizaid, consider this: Abizaid’s mentor at Harvard was later drummed out of the field, for his very low-key links to U.S.intelligence.

Abizaid spent the academic year 1980-81 at Harvard, where he studied under Nadav Safran, a noted professor of Middle Eastern studies. At the time, Safran was working on a RAND paper on Saudi defense budgets and concepts. Abizaid’s main product as a student was a 100-page seminar paper on Saudi defense policy, written for Safran. ”It was absolutely the best seminar paper I ever got in my 30-plus years at Harvard,” Safran told a reporter.

If Abizaid benefited from Harvard, it is because he found in Safran a professor open to mentoring a career military officer. Such professors stir the visceral antagonism of their “colleagues,” and when Safran went a bit too far, they crushed him. The story is well known: Safran landed CIA funding for his Saudi project and a conference on Islamism. When his rivals exposed the fact, it unleashed a frenzy of academic witch-hunting. The 1985 Middle East Studies Association conference issued a resolution that “deplored” Safran’s conduct, and the next year he resigned his directorship of Harvard’s Middle East Center. That killed him academically: Safran wasn’t even sixty, but he never published another book or significant article.

Safran committed the one unpardonable sin in his field. You can kowtow to Middle Eastern despots, take money from oil-sodden emirs, apologize for suicide bombers, and mislead the American public on a grand scale. Hundreds of professors in Middle Eastern studies have done all these things, and have gotten promotions. But get too intimate with the CIA, and you’re done. Safran passed away on July 5. The Harvard Crimson ended its obituary on this note: “He taught for a few more years after his resignation as director of the center and was disappointed that the controversy followed him. Later in life, he was interested in painting.” A young professor reading these lines can’t miss the message.

But without professors like Hogarth and Safran—faculty willing to mentor and tutor officers, statesmen, and spies—the United States is not going to get any Lawrences or Abizaids out of academe. That’s why it’s time for the United States to use its resources to promote diversity in Middle Eastern studies. Reform Title VI.