January 3, 20l9
See no evil
Why Donald Trump is wrong to ignore the murder of a Saudi journalist
America First is hurting America’s interests in the Middle East
Print edition | Leaders
Few political murders are as gruesome and well recorded as that of Jamal Khashoggi. The exiled Saudi journalist was throttled, dismembered and probably dissolved in acid in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month. Turkish intelligence has leaked the faces and names of the 15-man hit squad sent from Riyadh on private jets. Western spooks have listened to audio recordings of Khashoggi’s last excruciating moments.
After weeks of lies, the Saudi government has admitted the guilt of its goons. The only question is whether the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, personally ordered the hit. President Donald Trump appears not to care. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” he announced in a remarkable statement on November 20th, adding that America would remain a “steadfast partner” of Saudi Arabia. He sees the kingdom as a useful ally against Iran and Islamist extremism, an oil supplier that can keep prices low and a splendidly huge buyer of American weapons. The distortions and many exclamation marks suggest that Mr Trump drafted the statement himself. It starts and ends with “America First!”
At first blush, Mr Trump’s position is strikingly candid. His transactional attitude to diplomacy with Saudi Arabia looks like the realpolitik of past American presidents in dealing with the Al Sauds, minus the cant about human rights. In reality, Mr Trump’s glossing over the murder of a peaceful critic is an alarming departure for America. It helps to create a world that is more dangerous, not safer.
Previous presidents have sought to balance moral values and national interests. Mr Trump has given up almost all pretence at defending morality; his sanctions on 17 Saudi officials are designed to protect the crown prince, not punish him. Mr Trump has thus abandoned an important tool of American power—its role as a model of democracy. In repeating the absurd Saudi claim that Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state”, Mr Trump has given licence to autocrats everywhere to kill journalists and dissidents. He has also shown, once again, that he prefers the word of an autocrat to that of the CIA, which believes the crown prince is to blame for Khashoggi’s murder.
Even in narrow geopolitical terms, Mr Trump is wrong. The crown prince is turning Saudi Arabia into a force for instability, and so is helping Iran extend its influence. His war in Yemen is unwinnable and causing widespread hunger and disease; it is hurting Saudi Arabia and its Western allies more than Iran. His feud with Qatar has pushed it closer to Iran. Even though it co-operates in the fight against jihadist groups, Saudi Arabia still feeds their ideology through textbooks that promote the view that Jews, Christians, Shia Muslims and others are infidels. What about oil and arms sales? Saudi Arabia wants to raise, not cut, the price of oil. And it has signed contracts for only $14.5bn of the $110bn-worth of arms purchases that Mr Trump likes to tout.
There are many reasons for the West to keep Saudi Arabia close. It is crucial to Islam and to regional stability. However, working with the Al Sauds should not mean doing whatever they ask. They need America more than it needs them. America should tell the Saudis to get out of the war in Yemen and make up with Qatar. Above all, it should tell them that rule by fear is no recipe for stability at home.
It does not take a CIA report to know that ultimate responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder lies with Muhammad bin Salman. His reputation as an economic and social reformer, who allowed cinemas to open and women to drive, has transmogrified into that of an old-fashioned Arab tyrant: insecure, brutal and rash.
There are few angels in Arab palaces. But Khashoggi’s blood is a permanent stain on the crown prince. It is increasingly hard to imagine him being a stable and reliable monarch. The stories of disquiet among the Al Sauds are growing. King Salman would be wise to start sharing power more widely—starting with the appointment of a new crown prince.
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “See no evil”
October 20, 2018
The US-Saudi Relations Post Khashoggi
The US-Saudi relationship has been a rocky one, and its setbacks and scandals have mostly played out away from the public eye. This time, too, common interests and mutual dependence will almost certainly prevail over the desire to hold the Saudis to the standards expected of other close US allies.
Jamal Khashoggi- Just Dead Duck-– Saudi Arabia is simply too crucial to US interests to allow his death affect the relationship.
WASHINGTON, DC – The alleged killing of the Saudi Arabian dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a permanent resident of the United States, in the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul has unleashed a tidal wave of criticism. In the US Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike have promised to end weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and impose sanctions if its government is shown to have murdered Khashoggi.
But significant damage to bilateral ties, let alone a diplomatic rupture, is not in the cards, even if all the evidence points to a state-sanctioned assassination. Saudi Arabia is simply too crucial to US interests to allow the death of one man to affect the relationship. And with new allies working with old lobbyists to stem the damage, it is unlikely that the episode will lead to anything more than a lovers’ quarrel.
Saudi Arabia’s special role in American foreign policy is a lesson that US presidents learn only with experience. When Bill Clinton assumed the presidency, his advisers were bent on distancing the new administration from George H.W. Bush’s policies. Among the changes sought by Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, was an end to the unfettered White House access that Saudi Arabian Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan enjoyed during the Reagan and Bush presidencies. Bandar was to be treated like any other ambassador.
But Clinton quickly warmed to Bandar, and Bandar and the royal court would become crucial to Clinton’s regional policies, ranging from Arab-Israeli peace talks to containing Iraq. In 1993, when Clinton needed a quote from the Koran to go alongside those from the Old and New Testament for a ceremony marking an Israeli-Palestinian accord, he turned to the Saudi ambassador.
Before Donald Trump assumed office, he frequently bashed the Saudis and threatened to cease oil purchases from the Kingdom, grouping them with freeloaders who had taken advantage of America. But after the Saudis feted him with sword dances and bestowed on him the highest civilian award when he visited the Kingdom on his first trip abroad as US president, he changed his tune.
Even the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, could not damage the relationship. Though al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, himself a Saudi national, recruited 15 of the 19 hijackers from the Kingdom, senior Saudi officials dismissed the implications. In a November 2002 interview, the Saudi interior minister simply deemed it “impossible,” before attempting to redirect blame by accusing Jews of “exploiting” the attacks and accusing the Israeli intelligence services of having relationships with terrorist organizations.
Americans seethed, and it appeared that the awkward alliance between a secular democracy and a secretive theocracy, cemented by common interests during the Cold War, was plunging into the abyss separating their values. But the alliance not only survived; it deepened. Bandar provided key insights and advice as President George W. Bush planned the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Today, American politicians are again ratcheting up their rhetoric following Khashoggi’s disappearance. The Turks claim they have audio and video revealing his death, and Senator Lindsey Graham warned, “If it did happen there would be hell to pay,” while Senator Benjamin Cardin has threatened to target sanctions at senior Saudi officials.1
But Saudi Arabia wears too many hats for America to abandon it easily. Though the US no longer needs Saudi oil, thanks to its shale reserves, it does need the Kingdom to regulate production and thereby stabilize markets.
American defense contractors are dependent on the billions the Kingdom spends on military hardware. Intelligence cooperation is crucial to ferreting out jihadists and thwarting their plots. But, most important, Saudi Arabia is the leading Arab bulwark against Iranian expansionism. The Kingdom has supported proxies in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen to contain Iran’s machinations. Any steps to hold the Saudis responsible for Khashoggi’s death would force the US to assume responsibilities it is far more comfortable outsourcing.
It is a role America has long sought to avoid. When the United Kingdom, the region’s colonial master and protector, decided that it could no longer afford such financial burdens, US leaders ruled out taking its place. Policymakers were too focused on Vietnam to contemplate action in another theater. Instead, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger conceived a policy whereby Iran and Saudi Arabia, backed by unlimited US military hardware, would police the Gulf. While Iran stopped playing its role following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Saudis still do.
It is a quandary Trump seems to grasp. Though he vowed “severe punishment” if the Saudis did indeed kill Khashoggi, he refused to countenance canceling military contracts, instead lamenting what their loss would mean for American jobs.
It is not only defense contractors who are going to bat for the Saudis. Before Khashoggi became Washington’s topic du jour, the Saudis paid about ten lobbying firms no less than $759,000 a month to sing their praises in America’s halls of power.
But it may be the Saudis’ new best friend who will throw them a lifeline. As Iran has become the biggest threat to Israel, the Jewish State has made common cause with the Saudis. Former Saudi bashers such as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s confidant Dore Gold now meet with the Kingdom’s officials. Following the 2013 military coup that toppled Egypt’s democratically elected government, Israeli leaders urged US officials to embrace the generals. They are likely to do the same today if US anti-Saudi sentiment imperils their Iran strategy.
The US-Saudi relationship has been a rocky one, and its setbacks and scandals have mostly played out away from the public eye. Yet it has endured and thrived. This time, too, in the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance, common interests and mutual dependence will almost certainly prevail over the desire to hold the Saudis to the standards expected of other close US allies.
September 7, 2018
Diplomacy: The Demise of ‘Kissingerism’ in the Trump Era
For decades, the international community has sought to maintain stability in the very turbulent Middle East through a policy approach forged by US secretary of state Henry Kissinger. However, under the leadership of US President Donald Trump, we are now witnessing the demise of “Kissingerism.”
In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Kissinger brought the world back from the brink of nuclear war. Once Israeli forces had recovered from the surprise Arab invasion and started advancing on Cairo and Damascus, the Soviet Union threatened to intervene militarily, even with nukes. Some historians say it was the closest the world has ever come to an actual thermonuclear exchange. Alarmed, Kissinger rushed to resolve the deepening crisis.
Former Secretary of State, National Security Advisor and Nobel Laureate Dr. Henry Kissinger is America’s Uber Diplomat known for his Shuttle Diplomacy
Shuttling between the various capitals, Kissinger managed to halt the IDF advance on Cairo at Kilometer 101 and 20 miles short of Damascus. His intervention positioned Washington as the primary mediator between Israel and the Arabs going forward.
Kissinger’s model for Middle East diplomacy was built on the premise that America is the only country that can bring Israel to heel, and thus the Arabs were wise to accept Washington as the main broker of peace between them.
Largely a product of the Cold War, this approach strengthened the West’s relations with the Arab world and ensured the free flow of Mideast oil to thirsty global markets for decades to come. Yet it required that the US (and its allies) adopt an even-handed approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This eventually meant that Israel’s historic rights and claims to its ancient homeland had to be put on a par with the much more novel Palestinian nationalist claims.
This contrived ‘neutrality’ required that everything had to be balanced. So for every condemnation of Palestinian terrorism or incitement, there had to be an equal denunciation of Israeli settlements. Every foreign leader who visited Jerusalem and laid a traditional wreath at Yad Vashem was also obliged to visit Ramallah and lay a wreath at Yasser Arafat’s grave.
Today, however, the Kissinger paradigm is collapsing. We saw this evidenced already when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a historic visit to Israel and Jerusalem in summer 2017 and very pointedly skipped Ramallah and the Palestinian Authority.
– Refrained from openly criticizing settlement activity,
– Threatened to shut down the PLO office in Washington,
– Cut off major US funding to UNRWA and even questioned its mandate, and
– Supported the Taylor Force Act, which freezes US funding to the Palestinians so long as their “pay-to-slay” policy continues.
Some are hoping Trump will also recognize Israeli sovereignty on the Golan or Israel’s annexation of parts of Judea/Samaria.
David R. Parsons is an author, attorney, journalist, ordained minister and Middle East specialist who serves as vice president and senior spokesman for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.
June 7, 2018
Witnessing the Obama Presidency
by George Packer
Ben Rhodes was the President’s speechwriter, foreign-policy adviser, and confidant. His book records the Administration’s struggle to shape its own narrative.
Barack Obama was a writer before he became a politician, and he saw his Presidency as a struggle over narrative. “We’re telling a story about who we are,” he instructed his aide Ben Rhodes early in the first year of his first term. He said it again in his last months in office, on a trip to Asia—“I mean, that’s our job. To tell a really good story about who we are”—adding that the book he happened to be reading argued for storytelling as the trait that distinguishes us from other primates.
Obama’s audience was both the American public and the rest of the world. His characteristic rhetorical mode was to describe and understand both sides of a divide—black and white, liberal and conservative, Muslim and non-Muslim—before synthesizing them into a unifying story that seemed to originate in and affirm his own.
At the heart of Obama’s narrative was a belief that progress, in the larger scheme of things, was inevitable, and this belief underscored his position on every issue from marriage equality to climate change. His idea of progress was neither the rigid millennial faith of Woodrow Wilson nor Bush’s shallow God-blessed optimism. It was human-scale and incremental.
Temperamentally the opposite of zealous, he always acknowledged our human imperfection—his Nobel Peace Prize lecture was a Niebuhrian meditation on the tragic necessity of force in affairs of state. But, whatever the setbacks of the moment, he had faith that the future belonged to his expansive vision and not to the narrow, backward-pointing lens of his opponents.
This progressive story emerged in Obama’s account of his own life, in his policies, and in his speeches. Many of them were written by Rhodes, who joined the campaign as a foreign-policy speechwriter in mid-2007, when he was twenty-nine; rose to become a deputy national-security adviser; accompanied Obama on every trip overseas but one; stayed to the last day of the Presidency; and even joined the Obamas on the flight to their first post-Presidential vacation, in Palm Springs, wanting to ease the loneliness of their sudden return to private life. Today, Rhodes still works alongside Obama.
The journalistic cliché of a “mind meld” doesn’t capture the totality of Rhodes’s identification with the President. He came to Obama with an M.F.A. in fiction writing from New York University and a few years on the staff of a Washington think tank. He became so adept at anticipating Obama’s thoughts and finding Obamaesque words for them that the President made him a top foreign-policy adviser, with a say on every major issue.
Rhodes’ advice mostly took the form of a continuous effort to understand and apply the President’s thinking. His decade with Obama blurred his own identity to the vanishing point, and he was sensitive enough—unusually so for a political operative—to fear losing himself entirely in the larger story. Meeting Obama was a fantastic career opportunity and an existential threat.
In “The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House” (Random House), Rhodes shows no trace of the disillusionment that gave George Stephanopoulos’s tale of Bill Clinton its bitter, gossipy flavor, or of the light irony that came to inflect Peggy Noonan’s adoration of Ronald Reagan. More than any other White House memoirist, Rhodes is a creature of the man he served.
When Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., went to work as a special assistant to John F. Kennedy, in 1961, he was a middle-aged Harvard professor, the author of eight books, and a Democratic Party intellectual. Schlesinger was a worshipful convert with serious blind spots about Kennedy, but he did warn the new President not to go ahead with the Bay of Pigs, persistently enough that Robert Kennedy told him to back off. It’s impossible to imagine Rhodes giving Obama that kind of advice, or writing a book like “A Thousand Days,” which isn’t so much a White House memoir as a history of the New Frontier.
What Rhodes lacks in critical distance he gains in unobtrusive proximity. He spent thousands of hours with Obama in the Oval Office, on board Air Force One, and inside “the Beast,” the bulletproof Presidential limousine. “My role in these conversations, and perhaps within his presidency,” Rhodes writes, “was to respond to what he said, to talk and fill quiet space—to test out the logic of his own ideas, or to offer a distraction.” Although Rhodes took on important projects like normalizing relations with Cuba and building support for the Iran nuclear deal, his essential role was to be the President’s mirror and echo.
When Obama mused that Ray Charles’s version of “America the Beautiful” should be the national anthem, Rhodes added, “They should play it before every game.” Obama seems to have wanted his right-hand man to be smart, loyal, and unlikely to offer a serious challenge. Reserved and watchful himself, Rhodes provided just the level of low-key, efficient companionship that his boss needed. It’s not surprising that the aide whose company Obama tolerated best was another writer.
This is the closest view of Obama we’re likely to get until he publishes his own memoir. Rhodes’s Obama is curious, self-contained, irritable, and witty, and Rhodes—sixteen years younger and six inches shorter—is his straight man. On a Presidential trip to Latin America in 2011, at the start of the NATO air campaign in Libya, Rhodes found himself cast as spokesman for a country at war. The stress—he’s appealingly candid about the anxiety and self-doubt, as well as the arrogance, that went with his job—caused him to lose track of his razor.
Obama noticed. “What, you can’t even bother to shave?” the President chided him. “Pull yourself together. We have to be professional here.” Rhodes wanted to plead that he was overtasked and underslept, but instead he used the rebuke to understand Obama better: “I realized that these little flashes were how he relieved some of the stress that he had to be feeling, and that being composed and professional—doing the job—was how he managed to take everything in stride. I hadn’t just failed to shave; I’d deviated from his ethos of unflappability.”
With a fine writer’s sense, Rhodes includes, along with the important speeches and decisions of state, a quiet moment in which Obama, standing on a beach in Hawaii, points to a hill and says, “My mom used to come here every day and sit there looking out at the bay when she was pregnant with me. I’ve always thought that’s one of the reasons why I have a certain calm.” This ability to stand back from the passing frenzy and survey it at a distance was an intellectual strength and a political liability.
More than any modern President, Obama had a keen sense of the limits of American power—and of his own. But it’s hard to build a narrative around actions not taken, disasters possibly averted, hard realities accommodated. The story of what didn’t happen isn’t an easy one to tell.
What Rhodes conveys forcefully is the disdain that he and Obama shared for the reflexive hawkishness of the foreign-policy flock, the clichés of the establishment media, the usual Washington games. Even in the White House, they saw themselves as perpetual outsiders. This aversion to normal politics gave Obama’s story its cleanness and inspiration, while leaving the progress he achieved fragile and vulnerable to rougher practitioners with fewer qualms about the business they were all in.
There were two moments during their ten years together when a gap opened up between the President and his aide. The first came at the start of Obama’s second term, when the promises of the Arab Spring were unravelling. The second came with the election of a successor who pledged to dismantle everything Obama had stood for. In each case, Obama was forced into a reconsideration of his idea of progress, and Rhodes, a step or two behind, had to catch up. The drama of “The World as It Is” lies between these points.
After Rhodes, a New Yorker, witnessed the 9/11 attacks, he considered joining the Army but instead went to Washington to become a speechwriter at the Wilson Center, a foreign-policy think tank. He supported the Iraq War in order to be taken seriously by the older people around him—he was just twenty-five—but his staff work for the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group, which issued a damning report on the war, in 2006, made him suspicious of the foreign-policy establishment.
“The events of my twenties felt historic, but the people involved did not,” he writes. “I wanted a hero—someone who could make sense of what was happening around me and in some way redeem it.” Professional connections led him to the nascent Obama campaign. Rhodes showed that he could write under pressure and think against the conventional grain. He had found his hero.
Rhodes was a liberal idealist. He turned against the Iraq War, but not against American intervention to prevent mass atrocities around the world. He was strongly influenced by Samantha Power’s book on genocide in the twentieth century, “ ‘A Problem from Hell.’ ” Power was an adviser in Obama’s Senate office, and she and Rhodes became comrades in the Obama cause, with “a sense of destiny” about their work on the campaign and their place in “a movement that would remake the world order.”
Rhodes saw Obama as a symbol of aspiration for billions of people, including Muslims who had become alienated from the United States in the years since 9/11. He believed that the identity of the new President could transform America’s relation to the rest of the world.
Rhodes drafted a speech for Obama to give in Cairo in June of 2009, outlining the difficulties with the Muslim world and promising a new start. “It expressed what Obama believed and where he wanted to go, the world that should be,” Rhodes writes. Eighteen months later, the Arab Spring began.
Rhodes quotes a Palestinian-born woman telling him that Obama was its inspiration: “The young people saw him, a black man as president of America, someone who looked like them. And they thought, why not me?” A more seasoned adviser might have been skeptical, but Rhodes lets this dubious claim stand. His firsthand experience of the rest of the world came from the huge crowds that he saw through bulletproof glass lining the route of Obama’s motorcade in Lima and in Hiroshima, from the young people who posed earnest questions at town-hall meetings in Ramallah and Mumbai. He took them as evidence of the tide of progress.
Rhodes and Power were among the White House aides who wanted the United States to stand with the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Obama encouraged Rhodes to speak up more in meetings: “Don’t hold back just because it’s the principals. You know where I’m coming from. And we’re younger.” After Egypt came the American-led military intervention in Libya—prompted by Muammar Gaddafi’s threats to rebel-held Benghazi—which ended up toppling the dictator. The spring of 2011 was the high-water mark of Obama’s foreign policy: Osama bin Laden dead, American troops withdrawn from Iraq and preparing to leave Afghanistan, the Arab Spring in full flower. “Barack Obama’s story was gaining a certain momentum,” Rhodes writes. “But something was missing—the supporting characters, in Congress and around the world.”
“The supporting characters”—Mitch McConnell, Vladimir Putin, Egyptian generals, Libyan warlords, reactionary forces that had no stake in Obama’s success—were in fact forces of opposition, and they weren’t just missing; they were gathering strength. You get the sense that Rhodes, and perhaps Obama, too, wasn’t ready for them. Relentless Republican obstruction didn’t fit with Obama’s tale of there being no red or blue America; rising chaos and nationalism were out of tune with his hymn of walls falling. In Libya, civil war killed thousands of people and left much of the country ungoverned and vulnerable to terrorists, and the U.S., as usual, had no plan or desire to deal with the aftermath of intervention. But Rhodes took the criticism that followed as a sign of the absurdity of American politics: “I couldn’t reconcile how much doing the right thing didn’t seem to matter. . . . I thought it was right to save thousands of Libyans from Gaddafi, but we were now being second-guessed.”
The failure of the supporting cast to join the march of progress came as a kind of irrational affront: how could they be so impervious to the appeal of Obama’s example and words? “One of Barack Obama’s greatest frustrations during his time in the White House was his inability to use rhetoric and reason to better tell the story of his presidency,” Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s communications director, tells us in another new White House memoir, “Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump” (Twelve).
Rhodes stuck to the ideals of the Arab Spring, but Obama was leaving him behind. “Our priority has to be stability and supporting the scaf (Egyptian Military Council),” he snapped at Rhodes in one meeting. “Even if we get criticized. I’m not interested in the crowd in Tahrir Square and Nick Kristof.” This sounded like cold realpolitik, and it came as a shock to Rhodes: “For the first time, I felt out of step with my boss.”
It got worse with the Syrian civil war. Rhodes again supported American military intervention, but without much faith, and Obama half-listened to Rhodes’s half-hearted arguments. “It was wrenching to read about the brutality of Assad every morning, to see images of family homes reduced to rubble,” he writes. “I felt we had to do something in Syria.”
In August of 2013, Bashar al-Assad killed hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons, and the White House debated whether to punish the regime for crossing Obama’s stated “red line.” The President decided to leave the decision to Congress, which meant no military action. “It will drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism,” he told his advisers. “Everyone will see they have no votes.”
Obama regarded this decision as a clever tactical win, as if exposing Republican hypocrisy mattered more than trying to prevent another gas attack in Syria. He was willing to follow the logic of inaction as far as it led. “Maybe we never would have done Rwanda,” he told Rhodes during the Syria crisis. “There’s no way there would have been any appetite for that in Congress.” For Obama idealists, this stance was apostasy. “ ‘A Problem from Hell’ ” turned out to be one of the least relevant foreign-policy books for the Obama White House.
Rhodes had to choose between sticking with the principles that originally drew him to Obama and continuing to identify with his hero. He went with the latter. When Egyptian generals overthrew the elected Islamist government, and the Administration refused to call it a coup, Rhodes made one last pitch for Arab democracy, but “as with intervention in Syria, my heart wasn’t entirely in it anymore.” It’s hard to blame him. There was no obvious policy that could have reversed the Egyptian coup or, short of a full-scale military invasion, forced the departure of Assad. Worse to try and likely leave a bigger mess, Obama concluded, than not to try at all. Other voices—Secretary of State John Kerry; the National Security adviser, Susan Rice—argued for more American activism, but Obama was unmoved. Without congressional or allied support, without a clear answer to the question “And what happens after we bomb the runways and Russia, Iran, and Assad rebuild them?,” he dropped “Never again” for a more skeptical motto: “Don’t do stupid shit.” Rhodes adopted the more minimalist words and ideas, though never with the same equanimity as his boss. “It was as if Obama was finally forcing me to let go of a part of who I was.”
“The World as It Is” charts the education of Ben Rhodes through his White House years from liberal idealism to a chastened appreciation of how American power can be more wisely harnessed to limited ends—hence the title. With Obama’s encouragement, Rhodes spent the last years of the Presidency trying to realize his original ideals through diplomacy. He took the lead in talks with Cuba that achieved normalized relations after more than half a century of Cold War hostility. He helped prevent Congress from sinking the Iran nuclear deal. He involved himself in humanitarian issues in Southeast Asia. He became more emphatic in his contempt for the Washington establishment (although I’m not sure what makes you a member if not eight years in the White House), and he became a high-profile target of the conspiratorial right wing.
Rhodes concludes his book with the thought that “billions of people around the globe had come to know Barack Obama, had heard his words, had watched his speeches, and, in some unknowable but irreducible way, had come to see the world as a place that could—in some incremental way—change. The arc of history.”
That’s more qualified than the sense of high destiny with which Rhodes set out, but it’s still a story of progress, of the philosophy that he ascribes to both the chef Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama: “If people would just sit down and eat together, and understand something about each other, maybe they could figure things out.” Yet Rhodes was still fighting the last war against the tired Washington establishment, the reflexive hawks, the carping ignoramuses in the media. Meanwhile, in places as far-flung as Turkey, India, the Czech Republic, Moscow, and Washington, the strongest political forces were running dead against the idea of sitting down together over a meal and figuring things out.
After Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the burden of proof is on anyone who would make the case for military action as a force for good. But Obama, proudly defying political convention and confident in the larger forces of progress, was reluctant to acknowledge that inaction, too, is an action. We don’t know what a missile strike against Assad in 2013 might have achieved, but we do know what followed Obama’s refusal to enforce his own red line: more Syrian government atrocities (including the repeated use of chemical weapons), millions more Syrian refugees, the shift of European politics to the populist right, an emboldened Russia intervening militarily in Syria. It turned out that prudent inaction didn’t necessarily further the cause of progress any more than a naïve confidence in overt action. When America sobered up under Obama, other powers saw not wisdom but a chance to fill the gap.
Obama doesn’t seem to have known what to make of Vladimir Putin: “He neither liked nor loathed Putin, nor did he subscribe to the view that Putin was all that tough.” This dusting-off-the-shoulder attitude underestimated the Russian leader’s ambition to manipulate the resentments and hatreds of democratic citizens. Obama told Rhodes that he knew all about the Putins of the world—from the Tea Party, Fox News, and the Republican extremists who had been trying from the start to delegitimize his Presidency. “Obama was more sanguine about the forces at play in the world not because he was late in recognizing them,” Rhodes writes, “but because he’d seen them earlier.” Obama had come to think that he could work around Putin and McConnell and Fox News, by picking his shots, setting the right example, avoiding stupid shit, and bringing change in increments.
In fact, he was too sanguine, perhaps because he was overconfident in his own transformative power, perhaps because he wasn’t alert to the brittleness of his achievement. Progressives find it hard to imagine that there are others who in good faith don’t want the better world they’re offering and will fiercely resist it. Obama was always better at explaining the meaning of democracy than at fighting its opponents. Other than “Yes, we can” and a few other phrases, it’s hard to remember any lines from his speeches, including ones drafted by Rhodes. Many of them are profound meditations that can stand reading and rereading—Rhodes quotes some of the best—but Obama’s way was to rise above simplifications that would have stuck in people’s heads and given them verbal weapons with which to defend themselves.
His aversion to the dirty tasks of politics culminated in the moment during the 2016 campaign when U.S. intelligence about Russian meddling on behalf of Trump reached the Oval Office. Obama’s instinct was to avoid politicizing it at all costs. Rhodes urged the President to be more vocal, just as he’d urged him to intervene in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, but Obama replied, “If I speak out more, he’ll just say it’s rigged.” Trump, if he lost, was going to say the election had been rigged regardless. His supporters were going to disbelieve anything Obama said. The rest of us deserved to hear it, anyway. “I talk about it every time I’m asked,” Obama protested to Rhodes, concerning the issue of Russian interference. “What else are we going to do?” He wasn’t going to worry about it, true to character; Rhodes, true to character, did the worrying instead, and still does.
In “The Final Year,” a new documentary that focusses on Obama’s foreign policy at the end of his Presidency, Trump’s victory leaves Rhodes unable to speak for almost a full minute. It had been inconceivable, like the repeal of a law of nature—not just because of who Trump was but also because of who Obama was. Rhodes and Obama briefly sought refuge in the high-mindedness of the long view—“Progress doesn’t move in a straight line,” Rhodes messaged his boss on Election Night, a reference to one of Obama’s own sayings, which the President then revived for the occasion: “History doesn’t move in a straight line, it zigs and zags.” But that was not much consolation. On Obama’s last trip abroad, he sat quietly with Rhodes in the Beast as they passed the cheering Peruvian crowds. “What if we were wrong?” Obama suddenly asked. Rhodes didn’t know what he meant. “Maybe we pushed too far. Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.” Obama took the thought to its natural conclusion: “Sometimes I wonder whether I was ten or twenty years too early.”
Rhodes wrestled with this painful blow. It sounded like a repudiation of everything they had done. But then he found an answer, and it was in keeping with the spirit of his years in service to Obama: “We were right, but all that progress depended upon him, and now he was out of time.” ♦
May 20, 2018
Prominent Historian Bernard Lewis dies at 101
Note: Prominent British-American historian Bernard Lewis, a leading scholar on Oriental and Middle Eastern studies, died Sunday at the age of 101, twelve days before his 102nd birthday.
Born to a Jewish family in London in 1916, Lewis completed his studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London in 1936. Three years later, he earned his PhD on History of Islam. He served in different agencies of the British military, intelligence and foreign office during World War II, and returned to SOAS. He was appointed Near and Middle Eastern History department chair in 1949. Between 1974 and 1986, he taught at Princeton University in New Jersey, a period that included some of his most famous works. He continued teaching at the Cornell University until 1990.
Known as one of the leading names in Oriental studies in the Western hemisphere, Lewis is widely recognized as the first foreign academic to deeply study Ottoman archives.
His works on the Islamic world were important at a time when terrorism and extremism were at the rise in the Middle East, and cited as the first academic to use the term “clash of civilizations,” which was later made famous by his Harvard colleague Samuel Huntington in 1993.
However, Lewis also faced criticism for ignoring colonialism or external effects as the source of problems and conflicts in the region. At a time when the U.S. and other partners invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in early 2000’s, he was one of the top-sought names for policymakers, including neo-conservatives of the U.S., and media.
During his career, he wrote more than 30 books and hundreds of articles. He was also competent in at least a dozen languages, the Post wrote. Speaking Sunday at an event in Istanbul, Professor Ilber Ortaylı, considered the most popular and influential Turkish historian alive, said that Lewis was very fluent in a number of languages, including Turkish, Persian, Arabic and classical Latin.
Lewis is also known in Turkey for his stance on the Armenian issue. He argued that the mass killings of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 and afterwards cannot be defined as genocide and should be linked to World War I and other atrocities surrounding it.
Bernard Lewis at 100: An Appreciation
National Review asked friends and admirers of Bernard Lewis to say some words about the man and his achievements to mark the occasion of his 100th birthday today.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Bernard Lewis once asked me, Is there anyone who as a leader has really impressed you? And I said, well, you do. He smiled and said he was flattered, but asked about a political leader. And I had to think about it. He said the fact that you have to think about it so long is a mark of our time.
From left: U.S. News & World Report editor-in-chief Mort Zukerman, Prof. Bernard Lewis, former U.S Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and AFTAU National Chairman Jon Gurkoff
Bernard Lewis was born in 1916, into a world writhing with conflict from all corners. A world poised for a century of war, of revolt, of treaties, of fighting for and against modern values. He watched as, from the ashes of destruction, there rose a world transformed: a world embarking farther down the path for freedom, equality, and prosperity than was previously thought possible. Bernard Lewis watched the birth of the modern world.
Having lived through the good times and the hard times, Bernard has truly become a leader whom I admire greatly. An unparalleled mind, a prescient adviser to many, he stands out for his humility, his warmth, and his honesty. There are few who are as respected by their foes as they are by their friends. An ardent historian of the Middle East, Bernard published his book The Middle East and the West in 1964. It was translated into Arabic by the Muslim Brotherhood. The translator wrote in the preface: “I don’t know who this person is but one thing is clear. He is, from our point of view, either a candid friend or an honest enemy and in any case one who disdains to distort the truth.”
I want to thank Bernard for his dedication, for his courage, and for his vast legacy. For this is what truly makes a leader and his work timeless. There is so much to celebrate in the life of Bernard Lewis. Happy birthday to a dear friend.
— Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the Founder of the AHA Foundation, a Fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the best selling author of Infidel (2007) and Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (2015).
I met Bernard Lewis only once, in 2010. I had been living in Istanbul for nearly six years and so had special reason to be awed by his reputation as the Heimdall of Ottomanist Valhalla.
He had been the first Westerner to examine the Turkish government archives, in 1950. The Emergence of Modern Turkey, published in 1961, revolutionized the study of the late Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. It consigned his successors to writing footnotes.
The Turkish proverb “Türk’ün Türk’ten başka dostu yoktur” — the Turk has no friend but the Turk — is true and self-fulfilling. Turkey inspires in Arab and European countries suspicion and rancor. The sentiment is reciprocated. Fears of foreign conspiracies endlessly poison Turkish political debate; Turks believe they are under siege, and sometimes they are even right. Lewis had paid Turkey the compliment of curiosity and deep, honest study. In doing so, he had loved the country as no other Westerner had. The proverb is sometimes amended in Turkey:“Türk’ün Türk’ten ve Bernard Lewis’ten başka dostu yoktur” — the Turk has no friend but the Turk and Bernard Lewis.
I was introduced to him by one of his disciples, Harold Rhode. Our drive to his home in Princeton had the aspect of a pilgrimage. Rhode carried with him a digital recorder. He followed Lewis around with it, he told me, just in case. There was something a bit ghoulish about this.
I was expecting a terrifying figure. But to my surprise, he was loveable. He was sweet and avuncular with me, and inspired instant affection and the urge to settle in for a good gossip. “His students call him Uncle Bernie,” Rhodes whispered. Uncle Bernie’s manners were exquisite, and while he walked slowly, he was otherwise suffering no obvious infirmity, nor the characteristic self-absorption of the elderly.
We discussed Turkey, of course. For reasons I wish I better understood, it was at the time widely reported and believed in the West that Turkey, under then–Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was “liberalizing.” This was not true. The government had for years been arresting its opponents, staging show trials, and terrifying journalists into cowed compliance.
Lewis likened Erdogan to Adnan Menderes, who was hanged by the military after the 1960 coup. He recounted an anecdote that subsequently made a translated appearance in his Notes on a Century. He’d been sitting in the faculty lounge in Ankara, he told me, several years into the Menderes regime. To everyone’s bewilderment, a professor said suddenly that Menderes was the father of Turkish democracy. What on earth could you mean, asked another. Well, said the first, Demokrasinin anasini s**ti – “he screwed the mother of Turkish democracy.” I had heard exactly the same joke about Erdogan.
Over lunch he said that while his memory for the archives remained unerring, his ability to commit to mind recent events was less reliable. For my part, I’m not sure if my most vivid recollection of him is true (it’s possible I later superimposed it over my real memories). But this is what I seem to remember him saying to me, in a voice low enough to escape Harold Rhode’s recorder: that I was not wrong, that the situation was as bleak as it looked, that the West and the Islamic world would exhaust and destroy each other, leaving the world to China and India.
The remark weighs on my mind. It’s easy to dismiss my own assessment as so much pessimistic self-indulgence. After all, what do I know? But it is not so easy to say, “What does he know?”
— Claire Berlinski is the author of Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too. She writes for Ricochet.com.
Victor Davis Hanson
Bernard Lewis reached a considerable popular audience after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when his earlier assessments of Muslim anger at the West (e.g., “The Roots of Muslim Rage”; What Went Wrong?) proved prescient. From the 1990s onward, Lewis, almost alone among scholars of Islam, had warned that the traditional diagnoses of contemporary Muslim and Arab furor at Europe and the United States, the dysfunction of the Middle East, and the either/or nihilism of Middle Eastern theocracy and autocracy were misguided and politicized. For Lewis, the implosion of the modern Middle East was not attributable to the usual academic bogeymen: imperialism, colonialism, Westernization, exploitation, or Zionism. Rather, he drew on a rich learning of Muslim history and literature, both to pay homage to earlier Islamic cultural achievements and to suggest that the recent spate of Islamic terrorism was largely aberrant and a reflection of late-19th- and 20th-century dysfunctions in Middle Eastern societies, which had mostly failed to adopt constitutional systems, transparency, human rights, free-market capitalism, religious tolerance, and equality of the sexes — at least in comparison with modern Western and Westernized nations that have found such protocols the keys to economic progress and social stability.
Millions in the late-20th-century Middle East, who had not found parity with the West and who lived in poverty and danger, were persuaded by both religious and autocratic authorities to redirect their rage at supposed Western oppressors — and especially at their own modernist detours from religious purity, which had left Islam weak and a shadow of its supposedly glorious past. In other words, if a man in Damascus or Cairo could not get a job, it was the fault of the West — and it was his own lack of religious purity that had permitted such injustice.
Because Lewis, a classical liberal, was not an activist and had enjoyed a half-century-long reputation as a sympathetic student of Islam, critics were at first dumbfounded and unable to deal with his bleak analyses. Detractors on the left charged that he was “blaming the victim”; even as some on the right, although more sympathetic to Lewis’s views, nevertheless objected that he was naïve in that the roots of Muslim rage were hardly new, but discernible throughout East–West tensions since the seventh century, that Islamic culture was fundamentally different from Christian culture (i.e., inherently more violent and intolerant), and that Lewis danced around issues such as the Armenian genocide.
Yet, because of his calm demeanor, engaging prose style, wit, and prolific and long record of scholarship, Lewis usually came out on top in these many disputes that arose in the second half of his career. Such was Lewis’s historical insight that almost alone he fashioned a framework for understanding the modern Middle East in ways that were both empirical and commonsensical — and more or less remain the standard Western understanding of why global terrorism is largely an Islamic phenomenon: Middle Eastern political, social, cultural, and economic failure — widely apparent to the Arab masses in the age of instant global communications — is blamed on the West rather than addressed through reform by the various countries’ autocratic rulers, who in turn buy off internal opposition from Islamic theocrats by subsidizing their extremism and terrorism as long as it is directed westward.
Until there is massive reform inside the Middle East and within Islam, we should expect the post–September 11 world to continue to be a place of instability and violence. In sum, the events of the new century seem to keep proving Lewis right about his diagnoses of the prior one.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.
Andrew C. McCarthy
As a federal prosecutor in 1993, I was placed in charge of one of the most important and unusual criminal investigations in the United States.
Its focus was the terrorist cell that had just bombed the World Trade Center and was at that moment engaged in an even more ambitious plot to bomb several New York City landmarks. The case was important for obvious reasons. It was unusual because we did not know what we were dealing with.
That’s where Bernard Lewis comes in.
We were straining against the Nineties manifestations of what today is rampant political correctness. Our suspects were all Muslims and proclaimed Islam as their motivation for war against the United States. Yet the official position of our government — then as now — was that Islam had nothing to do with their atrocities.
Having had little intersection with the faith that boasted over a billion adherents worldwide, I badly wanted our official position to be true. But doubts gnawed. Khomeini’s 1979 revolution, a self-proclaimed jihadist upheaval, was still fairly fresh history. So was Hezbollah’s mass murder of our marines in Lebanon, the emergence of Hamas, and the mujahideen triumph in Afghanistan, which seemed a pivotal domino in the Soviet Union’s collapse. Plus, my top suspect, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, was a blind man unfit to perform any acts useful to a terrorist organization, yet he was its unquestioned leader — a fact that obviously owed to his status as a renowned scholar of Islamic jurisprudence. Why, I wondered, would anyone figure that Bill Clinton and Janet Reno knew more about “true” Islam than the Blind Sheikh did?
Prosecutors can’t prove cases unless they can demonstrate what motivated the defendants to act. Political correctness is for the press room, not the courtroom. I needed to get a grip on what we were dealing with — fast.
So I made my best professional decision ever: I bought a copy of Islam and the West by Bernard Lewis.
What the West’s preeminent scholar of Islam taught this grateful student was that it was possible to acknowledge the richness of Muslim history yet still see Islam plain. One could appreciate the diversity and accomplishments in Islamic traditions and still see as sheer nonsense the notions that Islam was monolithically peaceful and tolerant, that its legal and political systems were seamlessly compatible with Western democracy, and that jihad was merely, as modern Western apologists insisted, an internal struggle for personal betterment. To the contrary, Lewis explained, “the overwhelming majority of early authorities . . . citing relevant passages in the Koran and in the tradition, discuss jihad in military terms.”
Professor Lewis made me realize that Islam was not one thing but several, many of them internally contradictory, often to the point of bloody conflict. Perhaps none of them have a monopoly on authenticity. The Blind Sheikh was an Islamic scholar and a dyed-in-the-wool terrorist. Emad Salem, my main informant witness who infiltrated the Blind Sheikh’s cell and almost single-handedly thwarted the New York City landmarks plot, was Egyptian-educated and patriotically drawn to America and the West. They are both devout Muslims.
Lewis is also an observer of incomparable insight. Over a half-century ago he foresaw the difficulty of democratizing Islamic societies, noting that attempts “to show that Islam and democracy are identical” were “usually based on a misunderstanding of Islam or democracy or both.” Islam, in fact, traditionally had a tyrannical streak, a culture of obedience to authority that was depressingly reminiscent of Communist societies, including in its antipathy to the West. Lewis ruefully wrote, “The humorist who summed up the Communist creed as ‘There is no God and Karl Marx is his Prophet’ was laying his finger on a real affinity.”
In 2004, Professor Lewis told Die Welt that “Europe will be Islamic by the end of the century.” A dozen years later, London has just elected its first Muslim mayor, an Islamist. I wouldn’t bet against Bernard Lewis.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior policy fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.
After the very few occasions I have been invited to speak at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London my feeling has tended to be that the place should be knocked down and the earth salted over. The memory of a single person reminds me to refrain from such uncharitable thoughts. For though it may now be unpleasantly radical, this part of the University of London once helped produce the young Bernard Lewis. For this, almost any subsequent sin ought to be forgiven.
But the truth is that scholars and writers of Lewis’s stature do not appear anywhere very often, not even in the course of a lifespan as considerable as the one he has lived. There have been few enough experts in any discipline of such depth, range, and influence. I doubt that there is any scholar — professional or amateur — of the Middle East or Islam who does not have a shelf dedicated to the works of Bernard Lewis. From The Arabs in History to Notes on a Century, his output is striking for its depth and broad accessibility as well as its extraordinary span. His works have long been the indispensable resource of academics, journalists, and policy makers alike.
If few people have matched Lewis’s depth of research, even fewer have returned to tell the tale without falling through the looking glass. Lewis came back time and again to tell the world what he found, in works filled with respect not only for his subject but also for his readers.
In recent decades the world has come to have special need of that learning. Always appreciated by the best among his peers, Lewis has also become the possession of the widest — and most grateful — possible public. Our public discussions on Islam and the West are always in need of improvement, but if they are more informed than they once were (and, despite some evidence to the contrary among a certain subset of elites, I sense that they are), it is in no small part because a young British scholar immersed himself in his subject, went to America, and helped influence the course not only of scholarship but of ideas. His mother country, as well as his alma mater, should feel enormous pride at the centennial of this son’s birth.
–Douglas Murray is the author of a number of books, including Bloody Sunday and is working on an expanded version of his earlier work Islamophilia.
I first heard about Bernard Lewis in the 1980s, when I was in college. I took some courses in Middle East studies. My professors (leftists) mentioned him, as a Big Bad Conservative. But they couldn’t help speaking of him with respect. I was intrigued.
Flash forward to National Review after 9/11. We prevailed on Lewis to write a piece for us on the general situation. I say “we”: It was really our senior editor David Pryce-Jones, an old friend of Bernard’s. When people at other magazines saw Lewis in our pages — they might have been a touch envious. One couldn’t blame them.
In later years, I asked Bernard, “Did you ever think your expertise would turn out to be so useful to the world, and craved by it?” No, he said, absolutely not.
He has been a frequent guest on NR cruises: a sparkling guest, as well as a learned one, of course. I can see him holding court in a lounge, wearing a tuxedo, delighting his listeners, especially the women. But the woman he cares most for is Buntzie.
I have prized every meal, every conversation, with Bernard Lewis. One always learns things, and expands one’s repertoire of stories. I expect to be drawing on what Lewis has taught me for a lifetime. His teaching includes not a few jokes (from assorted countries).
In 2011, I filmed an interview with him, for a series called “The Human Parade.” In his home, two chairs had been set up: a big, comfortable armchair and a quite modest, uncomfortable-looking one. Bernard insisted he would be more comfortable in the second chair — leaving me in the grand one, and feeling sheepish.
Have you read his memoirs, Notes on a Century? When you do, you will know Bernard, pretty well.
In 1966, he was a founding member of MESA, the Middle East Studies Association. Forty years later, he was a founding member of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). This had been created as an escape from MESA. The older organization had been taken over by radicals and ideologues, just as the Maoists had taken over Chinese studies.
That’s the way Bernard put it. He was genuinely hurt, I sensed, at what had happened to his field.
In his address inaugurating ASMEA, he quoted Dr. Johnson: “A generous and elevated mind is distinguished by nothing more certainly than by an eminent degree of curiosity. Nor is that curiosity ever more agreeably or usefully employed than in examining the laws and customs of foreign nations.” That is Bernard.
He is obviously one of the greatest historians of the Middle East we have ever had. He is a great historian, period, and a great scholar.
One year, a book of his was published in Hebrew translation — by the Israeli Defense Ministry. That same book was published in Arabic — by the Muslim Brotherhood. In his preface, the translator of the Arabic version said, “I don’t know who this author is, but one thing about him is clear: He is either a candid friend or an honorable enemy, and in either case is one who has disdained to falsify the truth.”
Some former students of Bernard’s refer to him as “the Imam.” I know just what they mean. Happy birthday, great one.
— Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor at National Review.
Three quotes establish Bernard Lewis’s career. Martin Kramer, a former student of Lewis, sums up his teacher’s accomplishments:
Bernard Lewis emerged as the most influential postwar historian of Islam and the Middle East. His elegant syntheses made Islamic history accessible to a broad public in Europe and America. In his more specialized studies, he pioneered social and economic history and the use of the vast Ottoman archives. His work on the premodern Muslim world conveyed both its splendid richness and its smug self-satisfaction. His studies in modern history rendered intelligible the inner dialogues of Muslim peoples in their encounter with the values and power of the West.
The University of California’s R. Stephen Humphreys notes “the extraordinary range of his scholarship [and] his capacity to command the totality of Islamic and Middle Eastern history from Muhammad down to the present day.” And, as the late Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University put it on Lewis’s 90th birthday, he is “the oracle of this new age of the Americans in the lands of the Arab and Islamic worlds.”
Lewis’s career spanned a monumental 75 years, from his first article (“The Islamic Guilds”) in 1937 to his autobiography in 2012. Midway, in 1969, he entered my life. In Israel the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, with my aspirations to become a mathematician in doubt, I thought of switching to Middle East studies. To sample this new field, I visited Ludwig Mayer’s renowned bookstore in Jerusalem and purchased The Arabs in History, Lewis’s 1950 book.
It launched my career. Over the next 47 years, Lewis continued to exert a profound influence on my studies. Although never his formal student, I absorbed his views, reading nearly all his writings and favorably reviewing seven of his books, far more than those of any other author. His name appears on 508 pages of my website. Beyond numbers, he more than anyone else has influenced my understanding of the Middle East and Islam.
That said, Lewis and I argued strenuously during the George W. Bush years, narrowly on Iraq policy (I was more skeptical of U.S. efforts) and broadly on the matter of bringing freedom to the Middle East (ditto).
I first met Professor Lewis in 1973 in London, when he generously invited me to his house and offered advice on my Ph.D. studies. I saw him recently at his small apartment in the Philadelphia suburbs. He’s impressively fit in body and mind, spending time on the computer, ever the raconteur (“What’s a Jewish joke? One which non-Jews can’t understand and Jews have heard a better version of”), and conjuring up anecdotes from a time before the rest of us were born (such as his 1946 discussion with Abba Eban about the latter’s career choices). It’s wonderful to see him doing well even if it’s sadly understandable that he no longer engages in scholarship nor opines on current events.
Lewis was born a mere 15 days after the Sykes-Picot agreement that defined the modern Middle East, and their common May centennial finds Syria and Iraq in shreds. And yet Bernard Lewis more than ever is an inspiration to his many self-identified disciples, including this one.
–Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum. He tweets @DanielPipes.
Bernard Lewis knows more than anyone else about the world of Islam. That world is beyond the experience of most of us. Specialists, or “Orientalists” in the academic jargon, have familiarized the unfamiliar. Nowadays, pretty well all such specialists are either narrow-minded partisans in one or another of the causes that have turned the Middle East into an extensive battlefield, or else immersed in trivia of interest only to professors. Bernard is different; he’s the last in the Orientalist tradition of interpretation based on careful scholarship. There’s no one like him, and probably never will be.
Already as a teenager, he showed himself to be a born linguist, and it’s impossible to be interested in languages without also being interested in the people who speak them. I once heard him wonder if his Italian were good enough to give a lecture in it in Siena. He’s published authoritative studies illuminating some aspect of Turkish, Persian, or Arab society and culture, studies on faith and ethnicity, or race and slavery and Jews, war and politics and modernity. Brilliantly original books like The Muslim Discovery of Europe and What Went Wrong? are based on a lifetime’s research, reaching the painful conclusion that Muslims have believed in their superiority so uncritically and for so long that they lost contact with reality. However bad things may be, though, he never quite rejects hope for a better life.
Objective analysis of the sort was too much for Edward Said, a Christian who became the foremost apologist for the Arabs of his day. In his view, there was no such thing as Western scholarship about the world of Islam: Each and every Orientalist was an aggressor, sometimes openly, sometimes secretly, and in any case disqualified from any comment about the Middle East, especially where Israel was concerned. In the polemic that ensued, Said attempted to fit Bernard into this fanciful conspiracy. Bernard got the better of it by insisting on the universality of knowledge and reason.
A day came when I received a letter from Bernard approving of a book I had written. Since then, it has been my privilege to discover that friendship is as much part of his personality as scholarship. I see the humor in his face when he told me that the United States ought to deal with Iran and Iraq in alphabetical order. I see it again when he described the first Gulf war as “Kuwaitus interruptus.”
Among his wonderful stories is one about training Cypriot waiters as possible intelligence agents in 1940. I can recall almost word for word his warning that a clash of civilizations was now upon us. Sometimes I am asked if I have met any great men — Bernard is certainly one. In the words of the Jewish blessing, may he live to be 120.
–David Pryce-Jones is a senior editor at National Review and the author of The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs.