‘Argo fuck yourself.’ The line is repeated several times in Ben Affleck’s 2012 historical spy thriller, Argo. Based on the memoir by Tony Mendez, a CIA agent, the movie depicts the covert rescue of six US embassy workers caught up in the 1979-81 Iranian hostage crisis; the CIA used a fake film-shoot – of a schlocky sci-fi story called ‘Argo’ – as cover for spiriting the diplomats out of Tehran. American audiences seemed to enjoy the joke. Argo won three Oscars and earned a presidential stamp of approval when Michelle Obama presented the Best Picture award live from the Diplomatic Room of the White House. In Iran itself, however, the film was less well received. Despite an opening sequence that apologetically acknowledged CIA involvement in an earlier operation – the 1953 coup against the nationalist prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh, which many Iranians view as a direct cause of the 1979 revolution – Argo made surprisingly little effort to reflect Iranian perspectives: most of the Iranians in the movie were either bungling officials or members of violent mobs. Some critics felt that the pun on the movie’s title might as well as have been a message from Washington via Hollywood to Tehran.
Why would a self-professed liberal like Ben Affleck – who majored in Middle East studies – show such insensitivity? The main reason, many scholars would argue, is Orientalism. When Edward Said elaborated his critique of Western scholarship about the ‘East’ in 1978, he focused on British and French Orientalists. Since the publication of Orientalism, however, a number of writers have applied his analysis to American culture and have found distinct similarities with European Orientalism, including a tendency to represent the Middle East in ways that implicitly justify Western imperialism in the region, portraying it as stagnant, irrational and licentious. Generations of American movie-makers have tended to use a narrow range of derogatory stereotypes – the greedy sheikh, the exotic belly-dancer, the fanatical terrorist – to portray Arabs and Muslims. Argo is, in this sense, merely a recent expression of a long cinematic tradition. Such Orientalism isn’t limited to the movies. With its depiction of Islamist terrorism as a threat to domestic American life, the TV series Homeland and its spinoff Tyrant have effectively functioned as a fictional rationale for successive post-2001 US interventions in the Middle East.
In America’s Dream Palace, Osamah Khalil goes further: he argues that Saidian Orientalism and the imperatives of the US national security state have affected not only producers of American popular culture but those who really should know better: the country’s Middle East experts. Khalil begins his story in the First World War with the ‘Western Asia’ division of the Inquiry, the team of US advisers established to help Woodrow Wilson prepare for the Paris Peace Conference. Made up of Orientalist scholars and Protestant missionaries (at the time, the only US citizens with any sustained first-hand experience of the Middle East), the division presented Wilson with a demeaning picture of the region’s inhabitants as congenitally incapable of self-government: their assessment helped to win Wilson’s agreement to British and French rule by mandate over the territories that would become Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. Unfortunately, the few Arabs consulted by the Inquiry – such as Emir Faisal, friend of T.E. Lawrence and future king of Iraq – reinforced this assessment, inaugurating the role of ‘native informant’ that other Arab leaders would fill for the Western powers in the years to come.
A similar dynamic operated during the Second World War, when the US government set about establishing an American presence in the Middle East independent of the European colonial powers. Ancient historians, missionaries and archaeologists, some of them consciously modelling themselves on Lawrence of Arabia, joined the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime precursor to the CIA. Although some OSS officers, like the Harvard anthropologist Carleton Coon, or ‘Lawrence of Morocco’, came to have considerable first-hand knowledge of the region, the intelligence they provided was shot through with paternalistic assumptions about Arab incapacity and Western superiority. ‘In general Muslims are impressed by force only,’ one OSS report insisted. ‘Democracy and freedom in the American and British sense of the word are not understood.’ These attitudes carried over into the postwar period when veterans of the disbanded OSS returned home and began to set up the first Near Eastern studies programmes at Princeton and elsewhere. Academia’s links with the national security state also continued, as the Cold War encouraged government agencies, research councils and foundations to look to universities for policy-oriented expertise about areas of interest. By the end of the 1950s, even private US institutions overseas, such as the prestigious American University of Beirut, founded by missionaries in the 1800s, had developed connections with the national security bureaucracy – possibly including, in the case of AUB, secret funding by the CIA.
The 1960s were the heyday of the ‘national security academics’, as Khalil calls them. Federal money flowed into new area studies programmes, including Middle East studies, thanks to the 1958 National Defence Education Act. Meanwhile, Middle East experts such as Princeton’s Manfred Halpern and MIT’s Daniel Lerner put a shiny new social science spin on Orientalism by applying ‘Modernisation Theory’ to their analysis of the region. Arabs and Muslims, they claimed, were pathologically attached to tradition, mired in medieval theocracy and poverty; American influence, benignly but forcefully applied, would help guide them into secular modernity. It was an enticing vision but, as events showed, not one necessarily shared by inhabitants of the region, or, for that matter, all Americans. In the late 1960s, younger scholars began to challenge the assumptions of both classical Orientalism and Modernisation Theory, a trend that accelerated hugely after the publication of Said’s book in 1978. The discipline was becoming less policy-friendly, indeed less government-friendly altogether – a development that, combined with the new neoliberal politics of the era, caused federal spending on it to decline steeply.
At this point, expertise about the Middle East returned to where it had begun: private hands. Independent think tanks started to spring up, often conveniently located inside the Washington Beltway, offering policymakers tailor-made expert opinion. Typically, this advice was even less friendly to Arab interests than that offered by the earlier area specialists. The think tanks tended to side strongly with Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict (and spent a lot of time denouncing university Middle East studies departments as hotbeds of anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian radicalism). But even in this era of privatised knowledge, officials continued to look to the universities to supply basic national security needs. Khalil ends his final chapter by surveying, with unforgiving disapproval, the recent surge in federal funding for ‘Terror Studies’; the Defence Department’s Minerva Initiative, which provides sizeable grants to security-oriented social science research projects; and the Human Terrain System, a counterinsurgency programme which embedded anthropologists and other scholars in US army units in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The Pentagon discontinued HTS in 2015 after complaints that the programme failed to distinguish researchers from military personnel. By then, three researchers had died during combat operations and a fourth had been indicted on murder charges for executing an Afghan prisoner who had attacked a colleague.)
Khalil’s strongly argued book isn’t the first study of this subject: Zachary Lockman and Matthew Jacobs have both written excellent intellectual histories of Middle East expertise in the United States. But Khalil provides a trove of new data, especially about the pre-Cold War and post-2001 eras and, in any case, his interest isn’t so much the history of ideas as the institutional career of Middle East studies in America. He’s particularly good at piecing together scattered archival evidence to reveal previously hidden patronage relationships between area specialists and government agencies such as the State Department and the CIA. And by quoting one undeniably prejudiced statement after another, he demonstrates the Orientalism of successive generations of Middle East experts to devastating overall effect.
But does he go too far? In the years after the publication of Orientalism, several scholars who basically accepted Said’s critique nonetheless complained that he had failed to take into account important variations – for example, between European and American Orientalism – or to give credit to individual writers whose viewpoint didn’t conform with that of the discipline as a whole. In other words, the claim was that Said had done to Orientalism pretty much what he had said Orientalism did to the East: represent it as monolithic and unchanging. A similar criticism could be made of Khalil. Even before Middle East studies took a turn to the left in the late 1960s, there were those in American academe with non or even anti-Orientalist views of the Arab and Muslim worlds, like Marshall Hodgson at the University of Chicago, whose enormous three-volume history of Islam still commands respect. And today a number of US scholars – Rashid Khalidi, Juan Cole and Mark LeVine, to name a few – are trying to offer the general public a better informed perspective on the region. Khalil does, once or twice, acknowledge the existence of such voices, and because this is a critical account he’s bound to emphasise the majority Orientalist over the minority anti-Orientalist strands of the discipline’s history. Nonetheless, he seems surprisingly incurious about what one supposes are the intellectual antecedents to his own position.
Khalil makes too much of his claim that Middle East studies have been beholden to the US foreign policy establishment. The last few years have seen some historians reacting against ‘Cold War determinism’: the notion that in the second half of the 20th century the US national security state completely dictated the terms of American intellectual life. It’s true that the CIA and its proxies were deeply involved in certain academic institutions, such as MIT’s Centre for International Studies, but claims that the Cold War shaped whole disciplines are exaggerated. In his most recent book, Zachary Lockman presents a different genealogy of Middle East studies.He plays down the role of government, instead tracing the origins of the subject as an academic discipline to the 1920s, well before official US involvement in the Middle East, when the American research councils, acting independently, began promoting the concept of area studies as an interdisciplinary project intended to focus academic attention on the modern non-Western world. And Lockman asks whether, whatever the intentions of government officials, the discipline really ever had much relevance for policymakers, with its arcane early 20th-century origins in ancient history and missionary work, and its tack leftwards in the 1960s.
One could argue that the national security state itself was far from monolithic in its approach to the Middle East. As well as anti-Arab and Islamophobic impulses, there has also always been a distinct tradition of Arabism in the American foreign policy establishment, especially the State Department, where – much as in the Foreign Office – Middle East hands often took positions favourable to the Arab countries, including over the Arab-Israeli conflict. At times, especially during the Eisenhower presidency in the 1950s, the Arabists seemed to have the upper hand. The reasons were partly geopolitical: Arabs were, after all, the majority population in a region of crucial strategic significance in the Cold War. Then there were the region’s massive oil reserves and the growing importance of the US-Saudi alliance, not to mention that fact that many Middle East hands passed through a revolving door between government service and lucrative jobs in the Arabian-American oil consortium Aramco. In some cases, anti-Semitism – or at least a patrician unease about the growing Jewish-American influence on US Middle East policy – may have played into foreign service Arabism too.
It’s also important to remember the missionary tradition from which many US Middle East experts emerged – a tradition that often involved respect and even admiration for Arab culture. Yes, American missionaries in the 19th-century Levant usually assumed that their Christian, Western way of life was superior to the one they were seeking to change. But several also developed a keen awareness of the historic debt that the West owed to Arab civilisation, as well as of Christianity and Islam’s shared heritage; and these attitudes were passed on to their 20th-century descendants. William Eddy, for example, a scion of a prominent missionary family associated with the American University of Beirut who went on to serve in the OSS and the State Department before working for Aramco, nursed an almost mystical faith in the possibility of a grand synthesis between Christian and Islamic civilisations that would save the world from godless communism. Allied to such beliefs was a definite sympathy for Arab nationalism. Protestant American missionaries in the Levant had always been at odds with the French Catholics there, and AUB became an important incubator for Arab resistance to French colonialism. The Arabs themselves, while not necessarily buying the missionaries’ line that they were motivated only by ‘disinterested benevolence’, did see a clear difference between the motives of the Americans in their midst and those of the European colonists. Some even held up the United States as a model of the sort of independent, modern society they hoped one day to build. (That so many Arabs are now so bitterly disenchanted with America may have something to do with the way it has disappointed that hope.)
Such attitudes were even present inside the US agency that Arabs and Muslims would come to resent and fear more than any other: the CIA. Like other US institutions, the Agency, which was founded in 1947, drew many of its first Middle East officers from among the Levantine missionaries. The new recruits were predisposed to side with the Arab nationalists, sympathising with their desire to cast off the last shackles of European colonialism – and their opposition to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. These inclinations were reflected in several of the covert operations the CIA conducted during its first years. In Egypt, after the nationalist Free Officers had overthrown the British client King Farouk in 1952, CIA operatives helped ‘coup-proof’ the new revolutionary government, assisting Nasser’s rise to regional leadership. (The British objected to this operation for obvious reasons, showing that American and European perspectives on the Middle East didn’t always coincide; the statements of US officials about Arab nationalism often compared favourably with the frankly racist comments of their British counterparts.) Meanwhile, back in the United States, in 1951 the CIA secretly helped to organise and fund the launch of a pro-Arab, anti-Zionist front group, the American Friends of the Middle East (AFME). Made up of Protestant clerics, oilmen and a small group of anti-Zionist Jews, AFME publicised the achievements of Arab civilisation to American audiences, boosted Nasser’s image in the United States, and contested Zionist calls for increased US support for the new state of Israel.
Later in the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration backed away from its support for Nasser, and the pro-Israel tendency in US foreign policy started to make itself felt. By the time AFME’s covert links to the CIA were exposed by journalists in 1967 – the same year that the Six-Day War dealt a decisive blow to Arab fortunes in the Middle East itself – Arabism was already on the back foot. Still, the flame was never entirely extinguished, in the CIA at least, as readers of The Good Spy, Kai Bird’s excellent 2014 biography of Robert Ames, the CIA’s Near East director, will know. And other groups, usually associated with one of the liberal Protestant denominations, took over from the discredited AFME in advocating for Palestinian rights and questioning pro-Israel US foreign policy. American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), for example, created in 1968 to coordinate US relief for Palestinians displaced by the 1967 war, is still the largest American NGO operating in the Occupied Territories.
There is another voice we don’t get to hear much in America’s Dream Palace (a voice that, as some observers pointed out, was ironically also missing from Said’s Orientalism): that of the Arabs themselves. When compared with Israel, the Arab cause has never enjoyed much domestic or foreign backing in the United States at large, which partly explains why the CIA felt the need to stimulate such support artificially through AFME and similar initiatives. Nevertheless, there have long been some groups, from the Institute of Arab American Affairs in the 1940s to the Arab American Institute today, determined to promote Arab interests and concerns on US soil. Recently, these organisations have been joined by groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which protest against negative representations of Muslims on TV and elsewhere. Arabs in the Middle East have actively tried to shape US perceptions of the Arab world, whether in the form of Saudi government funding for new university chairs in Middle East studies or academic protests against Islamophobic imagery in the American media. But it would be wrong to claim that there is a powerful Arab lobby in the United States, as some pro-Israel commentators have argued. The Arab-American community is too fragmented and marginalised to achieve much influence over US policy, and Arab governments lack the purpose and experience that Zionists and Israelis have brought to the task of winning popular American support. Simply put, the Arabs and the Americans who sympathise with them haven’t told their story as well as their pro-Israel counterparts. If the Arab remains the quintessential Other for many US citizens, the Israeli is still a kind of mirror-image American in the Middle East: modern, democratic and potent.
And part of the blame for the poor reputation of Arabs and Muslims in the United States does indeed lie, as Khalil argues with such force, with Middle East experts and their patrons in government. Even ardent Arabists never completely escaped the gravitational pull of European Orientalism and colonialism. The same CIA officers who supported Nasser’s Arab nationalism behaved in other parts of the Middle East – such as Iran in 1953 – much like secret agents from the heyday of the British Empire. It says something about the enduring grip on the American imagination of British Orientalism that T.E. Lawrence is still taught in US counterinsurgency training programmes today.