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.

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.