We Need Arabists More than Ever

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Once upon a time, Syria was among the most enthralling and beautiful countries on earth, without the forest of hideous concrete architecture that came to deface the outskirts of its cities, without the pollution, and, of course, without the violence and lawless roads of today. Syria was a stage set for the merger of the Bible and the Mediterranean: wind-ransacked plains, littered with archaeological ruins in all the earthen colors of a rich palette, in places like Palmyra and Qala'at Samaan. I caught the last traces of this magic during visits there in the mid-1970s and early-1980s. But there was a very important group of Americans who saw an even purer Syria in the 1950s and experienced the country at a far deeper level than I did.

This group was the Arabists, a group of American officials, mainly from the State Department, who made the study of the Arab world their life's work. Though the term "Arabist" has been used far more broadly, during the Cold War in Washington it often came to refer to people at the State Department. They tended to have come of age during World War II, were educated at the best private schools in New England, were in some cases descendants of American missionary families in the Middle East in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and by mastering Arabic in their twenties and thirties, spent their entire foreign service careers in one Arab country after another. Syria was often their lodestar: the essential Arab country.

Syria was the throbbing heart of Arabism, the most steadfast country in its refusal to compromise with what, in Syrian eyes, was the post-colonial monstrosity known as Israel. Syria led the rejection front against Israel in the latter phase of the Cold War. Syria was at the dead center of the Levant. Along with Lebanon -- which had once been part of Syria -- it in fact defined the Levant. For a U.S. State Department Arabist, a posting to Syria was, in a thematic sense, fundamental to a successful career.

While the Arabists as a group harbored a certain sympathy for the Arab case against Israel, this rarely impinged on their professional performance. For example, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Talcott Seelye had a history of occasional statements critical of Israeli policy. Nevertheless, it was Seelye who in 1976 engineered the low-key evacuation of American diplomats and their families in the midst of civil war-torn Beirut. Henry Kissinger once remarked that as secretary of state he could not have accomplished the things he did in the Middle East without area specialists like Seelye. Given the fact of almost two dozen Arabic-speaking countries and only one Hebrew-speaking country to which one could be posted, an American diplomat's professional lifetime might be spent among Arabs much more easily than among Israelis. Not to develop sympathies would be inhuman.

And truly, Arabists developed a passion for Syria, even as it did not blind them to its flaws as a state. The Arabists knew that it was a myth that Syria did not experiment with democracy like Israel. Syria had held three relatively free elections in 1947, 1949 and 1954, and all broke down more or less along ethnic, sectarian, tribal or regional lines, with military rule resulting after each failure. The Arabists understood better than anyone else (except, that is, for the locals) that Syria was an artificial state built on a mass of contradictions.

But they also knew that the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 had exacerbated Syrian internal political tensions, even as it made life for American diplomats in Damascus suddenly more difficult. In 1946, American diplomats had been seen as heroes in Damascus against French colonial forces, while two years later they were seen as the agent of Greater Syria's dismemberment with the hacking away of contiguous geographical Palestine.

It is tempting to deride the old-time Arabists of the Cold War era from the vantage point of 20/20 hindsight. After all, they dutifully communicated the diplomatic positions of one Syrian dictator after another to Washington, and especially so during the three-decade-long rule of Hafez al Assad. But one is forced to argue: What else were they supposed to do? The United States, owing to Soviet support of Damascus and U. S. support of Jerusalem, had, in any case, relatively little influence in the Syrian capital. Syria may have been, underneath the carapace of al Assad's tyranny, a nest of ethnic and sectarian tensions. But that carapace of tyranny, nevertheless, remained stable for many decades. In international relations, a third of a century is an eternity: Few political orders go on indefinitely. In sum, the Arabists dealt with the political reality as they found it.

The tragedy of al Assad family rule in Syria is not that it produced tyranny: That tyranny, remember, produced sustained domestic peace after 21 changes of government in the 24 years preceding the elder al Assad's coup. The tragedy is that the al Assads did nothing useful with the domestic peace they had established. They did not employ the order they had created to build a civil society, one that would have prevented the current war. They never converted their population from subjects to citizens: Citizens rise above sectarianism, whereas subjects have only sectarianism to fall back on.

But these are issues that went above the pay grade of the Arabists. The Arabists were in Syria and other countries not to plan American grand strategy or to tell dictators how to behave in the midst of a titanic struggle with the Soviet Union (in which America, perforce, supported many dictatorships) but to report perceptively on what was going on in their parcel of the world.

The Cold War Arabists, quite a few of whom have passed away, would be demoralized and heartbroken at the events in Syria. Yet, it is their specific talents that are more required today in the Middle East than ever before. The Middle East, wracked by clan, tribal, ethnic and sectarian unrest, will always require area specialists with years of experience living in the region to help Washington make sense of it all.

It is ironic that, whereas the Arabists were pilloried by pro-Israel neoconservatives and others in the late 20th century, they are now held up as heroes by the same groups. For example, Ryan Crocker learned Arabic at the Foreign Service Institute language school in Tunis in the 1970s long before serving as ambassador to Syria (1998-2001) and later to Iraq (2007-2009), among many other postings in the Greater Middle East. Supporters of the Iraq War lauded Crocker's efforts to help stabilize Iraq, even as Crocker himself had warned in a 2002 memo that an American invasion of Iraq would unleash internal and regional chaos. Crocker's heroic work in Baghdad was no different from the kind he had been doing throughout his career -- a career very similar to that of his Cold War Arabist colleagues.

Then there is Robert Ford, America's current ambassador to Syria. He has been lauded by neoconservatives and many other pro-democracy groups for his support of the Syrian uprising. But Ford is straight out of the mold of Arabists going back decades: dealing with a new situation as he has found it, basing his judgments on considerable area and linguistic expertise.

The more that 21st century geopolitics becomes fraught with both internal rebellions and regional clashes, the more that area expertise will be necessary inside the foreign ministries around the world. The 21st century, in other words, demands individuals with a 19th century sense of the world: people who think in terms of geography, indigenous cultures and local traditions. Phenomena like electronic communications and social media can easily be factored in, provided one has a firm grounding in the region in question. Thinking globally in an intelligent fashion first requires a love of regional specialization. Thus America's State Department Arabists of the Cold War era should never go out of fashion.

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