Old Hands on Deck

Could the United States’ Arabists provide an exit strategy from Iraq?

Could the United States’ Arabists provide an exit strategy from Iraq?
Jeremy Traum
Illustration by Jeremy Traum

In the chain of disasters that has characterized the occupation of Iraq, one of the very first was also one of the most avoidable. Just before Baghdad fell, the United States administration flew in a Shia cleric, Abdul Majid al-Khoei, as its goodwill ambassador to the Shia holy city of Najaf. Upon arrival, al-Khoei was hacked to death by a mob on the orders of the radical, anti-American Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Washington didn’t seem to know that its potential allies, the Shia, were divided, or that al-Khoei’s father was a moderate who had been used by Saddam Hussein to stop a Shia rebellion in 1991.

There were experts on the Arab world in the US State Department who could have warned al-Khoei’s handlers. But Washington had decided against using such Arabists and even their own Arabic interpreters. Since then, the results, when not deadly, have been darkly comic. US Army engineers, for instance, were stymied in their reconstruction efforts by an explosion on a bridge in Baghdad because it was the same bridge they always crossed to get their Iraqi translator.

The consequences of America’s failure to use its Arabists in Iraq have been considerable. Before they were excluded, area experts had warned the US administration that it had less than half the number of troops necessary to hold the country after the invasion. They foretold the massive looting in Baghdad and the security breakdown. They warned against using Ahmad Chalabi as America’s man in Iraq, and Chalabi ended up misleading everyone. The Arabists warned Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, not to dismantle the Iraqi army and bureaucracy, and when he did, thousands of unemployed people took their guns to the insurgency. More recently, the lack of area experts has contributed to the framing of a constitution and the staging of elections that promise little peace, and might contribute to an all-out sectarian war between Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish factions.

Barbara Bodine, an American Arabist with a long track record in the Middle East, who is now a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, is bewildered by the US administration. It was blinded by “the inability or unwillingness to recognize the structures that could reinforce national identity,” she says. The Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds had got on reasonably well in Iraq, Bodine maintains. With an Arabist’s eye for history, she points out that Iraq is a riverine nation and that the Kurdish north, Sunni centre, and Shia south are united by trade routes established by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Bodine further argues that the three main groups mix in the regional capitals, and that Iraq, compared with other Middle Eastern countries, is relatively urban and modern. Its population is better educated, and intermarriage is common. First loyalties for many Iraqis extend to the tribe, to be sure, but as Bodine points out, in many instances tribes contain both Sunnis and Shia. For the Shia, Saddam Hussein and his Sunni Baathists were a political, not a sectarian, enemy, and both groups are united in their distaste for Iran. According to Bodine, it is this complexity and balance that the war and occupation have upset.

In 2003, when Bodine was posted to direct reconstruction in Baghdad, she met the sheik of one of the great Sunni-Shia tribes, who begged her, “Please don’t Lebanize us.” The fear that haunts Iraq—and Bodine—is indeed the example of Lebanon. It was the imposition of a sectarian government on Lebanon by foreign powers that led to civil war. In Iraq, Washington failed to understand that the three main groups had, however painfully, coalesced into a nation. Instead, it viewed the Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds as belligerent sects that needed to be placated. In balancing the provisional Iraqi governing council along these lines, the US divided the country. In setting up elections without electoral districts, it encouraged people to vote in massive religious and ethnic groupings rather than considering local interests that cut across sectarian lines.

To make matters worse, Washington’s ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, played the Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds off against each other through a series of horse-trades during the constitutional negotiations. Now the minority Sunnis are angry and under-represented, and the constitution, by encouraging Shia and Kurdish demands for autonomy, is contributing to a growing civil war. Sectarian rivalries complicated the December 15, 2005, parliamentary election. Provinces were belatedly used as electoral districts but the damage had been done. Now, Bodine speaks regretfully of “the Lebanization of Iraq.” By ignoring the inside information of experts, she says, the Americans have “set off forces they can’t control.”

Those in charge of implementing Washington’s policies on the ground bear no resemblance to the Arab-world experts described by T.E. Lawrence’s Oxford mentor, David George Hogarth: “dedicated men of special knowledge, in it neither for pay nor honours, men who understood historical trends and could interpret intelligence, and from all this form an opinion on policy.” According to Bodine, Hogarth’s definition should characterize any US diplomat serving in the Middle East. Echoing Bodine, author and investigative journalist Robert Kaplan, in The Arabists, quotes an expert who describes the ideal American Arabist as someone who knows the area and the culture well enough to anticipate the thoughts of local decision-makers.

Bodine emphasizes that the reluctance to use foreign-area experts did not begin with the Bush administration. As reflected by long-standing disputes between bureaucrats and politicians, the State Department has endured growing isolation within the US government over the years. As Bodine sees it, the State Department deals with things as they are, while the administration bends matters to fit with political objectives and constantly attempts to centralize power in the executive branch. The result for the State Department is perennially low staff morale.

Just after World War II, US Arabists were accepted as a refined elite with the skills necessary to read the Arab world, even if they tended to romanticize it. In 1948, however, with the US supporting the creation of Israel in the face of an outraged Arab world, the Arabist started to become, according to Kaplan, “he who intellectually sleeps with the Arabs, someone…assumed to be politically naive, elitist and too deferential to exotic cultures.” And while the US supported Israel, it was Russia who supported the Arabs and, as such, American Arabists were increasingly viewed as unpatriotic.

The real sea change came after 1967 and the Six Day War. Israel’s remarkable victory followed by postwar support from the US, contributed to US Arabists becoming desk-bound bureaucrats, carrying out Middle East policies shaped by others and largely determined by the need to defend Israel. Where the old Arabists had seen the Arab world as multi-layered and nuanced, Washington viewed it as singularly untrustworthy and, according to Bodine, refused to listen to Arabists attempting to explain complexities and regional differences.

This tendency became more pronounced over the ensuing decades. Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s Secretary of State, saw Arabists new and old as too attached to the Arab world and not close enough to the realpolitik of the Cold War. Then, with the Reagan administration continuing to centralize policy-making throughout the 1980s, Arabists had less and less influence. As Bodine explains, there are three kinds of diplomatic appointments: first, career State Department diplomats; second, non-career diplomats and academics who act as policy planners; and third, political ambassadors—ideologically correct appointees parachuted into foreign postings from outside the State Department. Within the State Department there exists an internal think tank called Policy Planning, which the Reagan and Bush Senior administrations used as a Trojan Horse into which they put non-career operatives and political ambassadors. From the Policy Planning springboard, such political appointees often received top-tier diplomatic assignments.

By the end of the 1980s, almost all of the old-style Arabists were history. Foreign officers in the Middle East assumed increasingly technical jobs—involving drugs, terrorism, famine relief, etc.—and were often under suspicion merely for speaking Arabic. Francis Fukuyama, then a member of Policy Planning, condescendingly maintained that “Arabists not only take on the cause of the Arabs but also the Arabs’ tendency for self-delusion.” Years later, reflecting on the current situation and its historical policy origins, Edward Said, the influential Palestinian-American critic of US Middle East policy, identified the missed opportunity. Writing in the Egyptian English weekly Al Ahram, Said took aim at Fukuyama’s legendary statement: “The idea that Arabists and Arab speakers, by learning the language, also learned the delusions of the Arabs…is a hallucinatory Orientalist delusion.”

If the charge that America’s Arabist diplomats are too well informed to be trusted seems absurd, the contention that their views are blinkered by the local elites with whom they associate does hold some water. But perhaps a greater problem is the middle-class culture and careerism of the US foreign service. Kaplan quotes an Arabist describing “the kind of guys who crammed for their Arabic exam in order to get a high point-rating but who couldn’t utter a phrase in the street.” These are the yes-men and women who parrot Washington’s views and who rarely leave the embassy. They serve the purposes of an adminstration that doesn’t want facts on the ground to interfere with foreign policy.

After the first Gulf War, complacency was only abetted by the temper of the times. Islamic fundamentalists, the mujahedeen, were aligned with the United States against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda was not yet a global threat and Arabists, Policy Planning, and even Kaplan (writing in 1993) foretold an era of relative harmony with a quiescent “Arab street.” No one predicted 9/11. After the destruction of the World Trade Center, suspicion of the Arab world, which had begun in 1948 and accelerated in 1967, went full throttle. The monolithic enemy to replace Communism was now Islamic fundamentalism and its “safe house” was the Arab world.

Early in 2003, during the preparations for the invasion of Iraq, the US Department of Defense seized control of post-conflict and reconstruction matters through its Office of Special Plans. Working separately, the State Department prepared “The Future of Iraq Project—“a detailed prospectus created by the best Arabists and area experts available. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was given the authority to reject the blueprint and he did, relying instead on the fraudulent Ahmad Chalabi and his group of exiles, who told the White House what it wanted to hear. When Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to place Arabists in Iraq, Rumsfeld vetoed the moves. In the end, Powell got only fifteen Arabists into Iraq, and Bodine was one of them.

It was a pyrrhic victory. Bodine told me that her job, Coordinator for Post-Conflict Reconstruction for Central Governates in Iraq, was the hardest she had ever had. Her boss, Jay Garner, had to accept the few resources Rumsfeld granted him. Bodine had only two Arabists working for her. The Iraqi engineers she had assembled to get Baghdad’s electricity, sewage system, and roads in shape were not acknowledged by her Washington bosses. Her authorizations for engineers had to be sent to Washington for approval, and in many cases she never heard back. Bodine said that the few highly qualified State Department experts she knew of had been replaced by Pentagon-appointed neo-conservative loyalists.

On May 11, 2003, Bodine’s turn came. Though she was a seasoned Arabist who had served in Baghdad in the early 1980s and had directed an embassy under seige by Iraqi troops in Kuwait during the first Gulf War, she was dismissed. She has never received any explanation other than that she was needed back in Washington.

Little in Baghdad improved after Bodine’s departure. With the arrival of Paul Bremer, who replaced Jay Garner as head of the newly named civilian Coalition Provisional Authority (cpa), things got worse. According to Bodine, Bremer had “been out of State for fifteen years, had political links with the adminstration, and had no Middle East experience.” While it is now generally acknowledged that Bremer failed, little has changed. Journalist Nir Rosen, writing for the Asia Times, observed that in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, “congressional staffers put in six months to spice up their resumés, former military or State Department officials fish for contracts with General Electric or kbr after they finish their stint.” So much for Hogarth’s “dedicated men of special knowledge, in it neither for pay nor honours.”

Amid loud protests, Bremer’s non-Arabic-speaking administrators attempted to set up democratic local governments by selecting names from lists put forward by cpa-approved Iraqis. Bremer also tried to set up national elections in the same way, but the powerful Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani forced him to back down. The political consultants were American, the research groups were American, the model of democracy was American. And it was all to be done fast, the American way. The Arabists had been replaced by suburban, corporate America, and the results were disastrous.

Bodine has never believed, as the State Department is often accused of believing, that democracy is not suited to the Arab world simply because radical Islamists would use it to seize power. She says that democracy has to be brought in slowly, not force-fed under pressure (as it is currently), so that new parties can compete with the radicals. Secondly, she emphasizes that there are indigenous traditions that operate on consensus—not the majority-rules approach of western electoral politics—that can be used as foundation stones for democracy.

Since the end of Bremer’s tenure and the handing over of sovereignty to Iraq in June 2004, the US administration has admitted, tacitly, that things haven’t worked. The opening of the US Embassy was supposed to be a new start but the changes have been grudging and cosmetic. Interim Ambassador John Negroponte did hire four Arabists as top advisers, and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has increased the number of Arabists in Iraq. But Bodine thinks these moves are mere tinkering, not signs of a change in attitude. Indeed, according to a report by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, as of last year fewer than 100 Arabic-speaking foreign-service officers were stationed around the country. Even as it beefs up its personnel, the new US Embassy in Baghdad will have too few Arabists.

In the Weekly Standard, former cia officer Reuel Marc Gerecht complained that “the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency produced woefully few first-rate Arabists. The collapse of this profession parallels the deterioration of Islamic and Arabic studies in the American Academy, which in any case often disdains government service for its graduates.” As of December 2004, according to Juan Cole, an Arabist at the University of Michigan, only about 10,000 US students were studying Arabic.

After serving as the US National Security Council’s point man in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American, was sworn in last June as the new ambassador in Baghdad. He had previously been the US viceroy in Afghanistan, and had worked at Policy Planning before joining the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz group that laid the ideological groundwork for the invasion. Knowing Afghanistan, however, gives Khalilzad no particular qualifications for Iraq. When Khalilzad discusses the danger of warlordism in Iraq, he fails to acknowledge that warlordism is a rural, Afghan phenomenon and that Iraq is essentially an urban, Arab society. Nonetheless, the new ambassador appears to be as close to an Arabist as the US administration is willing to put in a position of high responsibility.

While the US insists it is trying to lower its profile in Iraq, it maintains an enormous embassy with roughly 5,000 employees. Most hardly ever venture outside of Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. Because of the violence, diplomats must leave their families behind and their tours of duty are limited to a year—hardly long enough to forge relationships with Iraqis. Brenda Greenberg, a human-resources officer at the State Department, told me somewhat defensively that the State Department has “at least nineteen Arabic-speaking employees in Baghdad.” But the department has access to roughly 400 Arabic speakers, and one wonders why they are not being put to more effective use.

The relative silence coming from Washington regarding American Arabists and Arabic-speakers doesn’t bode well. Together with an exit strategy confined to using an ill-prepared Iraqi army to replace the US military, it suggests that the administration remains reluctant to engage ordinary Iraqis on their own terms. Reports to Congress, political statements, and even the US embassy website all state that the US civilian presence in Iraq will help bring American values, globalization, and the free market to this war-torn country. It’s the sort of corporate-sounding mission statement that can only, in the long run, fuel resistance and mistrust. If the goal is to leave behind a stable Iraq, engaging Iraqis through their own culture, language, and history—not just at the diplomatic level, but with expertise applied all over the country—might produce far better results than have been seen to date. That sort of engagement requires trained Arabists.

Illustration by Jeremy Traum
Hugh Graham