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.

The Arabists

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Robert Kaplan’s The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite is an engaging book that recounts the rise and fall of a little-known band of Americans who dominated their countrymen’s perceptions of the Arab world for over a century. Ironically, the Arabists’ hold on American policy toward the Arabs persisted only as long as the Middle East and North Africa remained exotic and marginal realms, outside the interests of most Americans. This situation changed dramatically with the birth of the state of Israel in 1948. Suddenly, millions of Americans were passionately concerned with the politics of the Middle East, and the Arabists, sharing the chagrin of their Arab coadjutors, found themselves facing their greatest challenge. Over the next four decades, the influence of the Arabists withered away before the reality of America’s commitment to Israel, leaving them a vilified remnant in the foreign policy establishment. Only the burgeoning prospects for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors promises to revive the Arabists’ importance. As Kaplan points out, however, it will be a new and different breed of Arabists who will play a role in the unfolding of a new order in the Middle East.

Kaplan is well suited for the task of bringing this tale to the American public. A contributing editor of The Atlantic and the author of books about the famine in Ethiopia, the war in Afghanistan, and the breakup of Yugoslavia, he gracefully blends history and journalism in his work. Kaplan expertly abridges a mountain of scholarship in the first quarter of his book, in which he explains the origins of American involvement in the Middle East and the emergence of the Arabists as a class. Kaplan devotes the balance of his pages to a brilliant study of the travails of Arabists in the State Department, drawing heavily on numbers of interviews with survivors of the “Foggy Bottom’s” bureaucratic wars. The Arabists is thus useful both as an introduction to the tangled relations between the United States and the Arab world and as a primer on twentieth century American foreign policy in the Middle East.

“Arabist” is an elusive term; it has meant many things over the years. Perhaps the most famous Arabists of all were the British explorers and soldiers who, in a series of brilliantly evocative books published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, created an enduring image of the Arab world as a scene of romantic adventure. The man who best embodied the exotic qualities of the British Arabists was T. E. Lawrence, known to legend as Lawrence of Arabia. A British political officer charged with fomenting an Arab rebellion against the Ottoman Turks during World War I, Lawrence embraced aspects of Arab culture even as he exploited the Arabs as a people. In the process, he self-consciously wove a myth around himself as a man caught between two ways of life and increasingly alienated from both, a moral drama all the more powerful for being enacted against the stark backdrop of the Arabian desert. Lawrence’s literary genius and his poetic re-creation of the moral and physical bleakness of his Arabian landscape captured the imagination of succeeding generations of Arabists, infusing their labors with an unmistakable, if sometimes ethically murky, glamour. The iconic figure of a morally deracinated Arabist striding through deserts and streets in Arab garb never died away, at least not in the minds of the Arabists themselves.

Yet the British Arabists, for all their lyric orientalism and swashbuckling enterprise, were in the end unabashed agents of Great Britain’s imperial interests. American Arabists, while entranced by the silver pens of their British colleagues, proved to be a decidedly different lot. Lacking the Britons’ literary panache, they also lacked their political ambitions. The first American Arabists came not as imperial janissaries but as missionaries, imbued not with the spirit of conquest but of uplift.

The American engagement with the Arab world was an enthusiastic emanation of the Second Great Awakening, a powerful religious revival of the early nineteenth century, which inspired American Protestantism with an evangelical zeal that spilled beyond the borders of the United States. Congregationalist ministers, fired by their fervor for Protestant Christianity and American republicanism, believed that missionaries from the United States were destined to convert the Near East, precisely because of the absence of any compromising American interests in the region. Beginning in the 1820’s, American missionaries spread throughout the Ottoman Turkish Empire, most significantly taking up station at Beirut, the leading city of a territory then known simply as “the Lebanon.”

The Americans in Beirut made few converts. Islamic Arabs demonstrated little inclination to abandon the faith of their fathers. Indeed, the American missionaries even failed to get along with the local Marionite Christians, whom they held to be a degenerate flock. The American mission in Beirut was saved through the labors of a remarkable man named Daniel Bliss, who possessed the courage and vision to transform the nature of the American role in Lebanon.

Bliss began his long career as an Arabist in 1855, as a typical Congregationalist missionary. Soon realizing the futility of operating along traditional missionary lines in the Arab world, he decided that the most effective way to minister to the Arabs and help them improve their lives was through education. American missionaries had already established a number of schools for their charges. Wishing to extend and...

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