The Arabists

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Robert D. Kaplan’s THE ARABISTS: THE ROMANCE OF AN AMERICAN ELITE is an exciting book which recounts the rise and fall of men and women who, for years, dominated American thinking about the Arab world. The first American Arabists were nineteenth century Protestant missionaries, hoping to convert the subjects of the Turkish Empire. Finding few disciples, the missionaries dedicated themselves instead to improving the lives of the Arabs through education. The greatest monument to their efforts was the American University of Beirut, which, because of its role in training Arab leaders, became a nursery of Arab nationalism.

The American educators identified themselves with the nationalist aspirations of their students; in 1948, the Arabists instinctively shared the Arabs’ hostility to the new Jewish state of Israel. This had important consequences for American foreign policy, because many of the sons of the American educators in Beirut had joined the foreign service. Hence the State Department firmly opposed President Harry Truman’s recognition of Israel. In the following decades, the Arabists in the State Department fought a hopeless rearguard action against American sympathy for Israel. The Arabists became a vilified minority until, finally, the Nixon administration purged many of the most unyielding from positions of influence. However, enough Arabists remained to play a leading role int he American policy of appeasing Iraq in the 1980’s. This led to disaster in 1990, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait believing that the United States would not oppose his action.

Kaplan tells this story with insight and compassion. While criticizing the Arabists’ distaste for Israel, he defends them from charges of anti-Semitism. Kaplan ends by predicting a constructive role for a new generation of Arabists as Israel and its Arab neighbors move toward a lasting peace.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XC, October 15, 1993, p.399.

Foreign Affairs. LXXII, November, 1993, p.175.

Library Journal. CXVIII, September 15, 1993, p.90.

Los Angeles Times. October 27, 1993, p. E2.

The New Republic. CCIX, November 22, 1993, p.39.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, October 17, 1993, p.3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, August 16, 1993, p.92.

San Francisco Chronicle. October 24, 1993, p. REV8.

The Wall Street Journal. September 16, 1993, p. A18.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, October 24, 1993, p.6.