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Hichem Karoui: Do you listen to your experts?
March 17, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

If the US foreign policy is as often assumed the product of a consensual process of decision-making between experts and policy-makers, then why does it give the impression these days that it is just groping in the dark? Look at what is happening with Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention Iran and the Palestinian issue.

Are the US experts doing their work, or should we assume that the US foreign policy has been overtaken by the managers of big corporations and the military-industrial complex, forever? So, what is the use of training people if you would never listen to them?

The United States and the region conventionally called “Middle East” – which to date experts do not agree on its definition and boundaries – have a long love-hate story that goes back to the 19th century. The peoples of this region and their ruling elite may sometimes fight each other for varied reasons (injustice, oppression, freedoms…) However, the reasons they state when they fight each other are specifically different from those they claim when they fight a foreign power. The main difference may be related to the religious beliefs. As it is clear from several cases opposing the local governments to their citizens, religious grievances are not evocated even by the religious parties. But if you look at what is happening right now in Afghanistan and Pakistan for instance, you will easily see that people mobilise on a religious ground to fight the Americans.

In both countries, the US presence has become part of the problem and no longer part of the solution. Yet, in their last meeting in Washington, neither President Obama nor Prime Minister Cameron seemed to understand or give any thought to this issue. They kept saying broadly “we’ll stay the course,” as if nothing happened at all. Better: they seem convinced that the situation has improved, whereas it is clear for everybody that the unpopularity of their troops and their policies have reached a climax, so that if they continue, they will probably lose Pakistan to the radicals and Afghanistan to the Taliban.

It seems really as if the US policy-makers are improvising according to the moment. When you look at the lists of Middle East experts working in more than 2,000 think tanks, not to mention the universities, you would wonder: with all its experts, the United States is still incapable of leading a coherent and convincing policy in this region? What? Are they all useless?

Just look at the universities:

The history of Middle East scholarship in the United States is part of the history of the American universities themselves.

The Middle East Studies at Princeton University go back to 1899, when Howard Crosby Butler organised the first expedition in Syria and Anatolia. Since 1944, under Philippe K. Hitti, the Programme in Near Eastern Studies was reorganised to meet the lack of teacher-scholars in the sociology and politics of the Near East by providing language study and research opportunities in the area for two social scientists…

The department called The Middle East and Islamic Studies at New York University claims “a long and distinguished history, which may well have begun with the university’s founding in 1831.” We are thus informed that since 1837, Arabic, Syriac, Persian, Hebrew and Ethiopic were being taught as Oriental languages. To better reflect its changing composition and orientation, the department changed its name to Middle Eastern Studies during the 1995-96 academic years. In 2004, in recognition of the developing scholarly range of its faculty, its name was changed once again, to Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies — abbreviated as MEIS.

The University of Berkeley (California) claims that its programme of Middle East Studies is more than a hundred years old. But the establishment of CMES as a federally funded National Resource Center (NRC) in 1965 greatly increased its importance as an area of study, and in 1979 CMES was reorganised as a fully independent interdisciplinary and interdepartmental unit.

Teaching at the Center for Near Eastern Studies at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) began in 1957 with just four scholars. “From a core of four scholars in 1957, the faculty corps involved in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at UCLA has grown to include more than 60 individuals across the humanities, social sciences and professional fields.”

The University of Texas (Austin) prides itself for a long history of academic focus on the Middle East. Its Center for Middle Eastern Studies was set up in 1960 and offers some 300 Middle East languages and area studies courses each year.  “Today, the Middle Eastern Studies programmes bring together more than 150 scholars in 22 departments throughout the University, who offer nearly 300 Middle East language and area studies courses each year.”

The University of Chicago states that its Center for Middle Eastern Studies, which focuses on the region stretching from Morocco to Kazakhstan, was established in 1965. “The study of the region extending from Morocco to Kazakhstan since the rise of Islam is coordinated, encouraged, and stimulated at the University of Chicago by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES).”

The Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University was “founded in 1954. The Center’s original mandate covered both the classical and modern aspects of the region, but, as is reflected in its endeavours today, its interests soon grew to include Islamic societies and cultures worldwide.”

There is also the American Oriental Society, which proclaims its founding year in 1842, making her the oldest American learned society devoted to Eastern civilisations. But although there are many other respectable Centers and Departments of Middle Eastern Studies, which I am not going to mention, one of the most interested universities in the Middle East Studies is certainly Yale, which claims that it started them since the 18th century.

With all those Middle East experts that have never been available neither to the British Empire nor to the French, America is still “lost in translation”!

It should be noted that since September 11, 2001, the studies of the Arabic language, Islam and the Middle East have gone through a significant revival in the United States. This interest is not only a popular concern, but also governmental. The US State Department has then announced new measures to encourage young students to register in the departments of Oriental languages and civilisations, usually called: Middle-East Studies.

Yet, the question is still the same: are you listening to your experts?

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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