11/30/2005 09:42 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Arabists, “Nightline,” and Stubborn “Chinatown” Reality

The Arabists are back, and “Nightline” has got ‘em. Not everyone is going to welcome these Arabists, of course, but it seems that US foreign policy can’t function without them.

“Arabist” is the term used to describe those foreign-affairs professionals—State Department officials, academics, charitable workers, and others, including the occasional travel writer—who dominated America’s Middle East mindsetting and policymaking for most of the 20th century. Oftentimes, they had personal ties to the Middle East; their families might have been missionaries, or merchants, or educators in the region. Or they might have had an Arab spouse. In any case, they knew the language, the culture, the people. And yes, they were often sympathetic, even admiring, of the Arabs.

But in the last decade, the influence of the Arabists in Washington has been severely curtailed. An opening salvo was fired against them in 1993, in the form of a book by Robert Kaplan, The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite. Reviewing the Arabists’ record in regard to such matters as the run-up to the first Iraq war, Kaplan was unsparing: the Arabists had not only “failed,” he wrote, but in addition, “their performance was a disgrace.” And after the Palestinian intifadah, and after a string of terrorist attacks on the US, culminating in 9-11, many concluded that that Arabist influence on US foreign policy toward the Middle East had not only been a disgrace, but an outright disaster.

The anti-Arabist view was most strongly held, of course, by the neoconservatives, who came from a very different tradition. Many of the “neocons” made no pretense of knowing much about the Middle East, except for Israel. By background, most of them were pundits, polemicists, and military theorists, as distinct from career soldiers. When they looked to the Middle East, they focused not so much on the region itself, but on US policy toward the region. And they disdained the Arabists, whom they regarded as naïve apologists at best and terrorist-coddlers at worst. But the neocons went further: they also disdained much of international law, most international organizations, and many traditional allies of the US, most notably France. Still, powered by their energy and intellect, they surged to great influence during the Clinton years—and then to vastly greater influence during the Bush years.

After 9-11, the neocons gained the heart of the President. So they began their effort totally to transform America’s Middle East policy. Whenever the Arabists raised objections (practical or ideological) to the emergence of the neoconservative Bush Doctrine for remaking the Middle East, the neocons stomped them down —in intra-government meetings, in opinion pages, in the larger court of American public opinion.

So in the run-up to the second Iraq war, from 2001 to 2003, the neocons were supreme. The State Department, traditional home to Arabist thinking, was shunted aside in the war-planning and post-war planning by the Pentagon, where such neocons as Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith gave the ideological marching orders for the New Iraq. Thus Operation Iraqi Freedom, and its aftermath, was entirely a neocon venture; the despised Arabists, while hardly silent, were on the sidelines.

The world watched as the new experiment went forward: Would American forces be greeted with jubilation? As liberators? And what of other positive outcomes that the neocons had promised—would the Palestinians become more peaceable? As many neocons insisted, “The road to peace in Jerusalem runs through Baghdad.” A bold claim. Would it be proven true? And what about even more audacious goals: Would the Saudi Arabians change their ways? Would the Iranians prove more pliable? Would “moral clarity” triumph?

Not even three years later, the answers to all those questions are clear enough. And so US foreign policy is in the midst of yet another transition. Wolfowitz and Feith are gone from their Pentagon posts; Feith is reportedly under investigation by the Defense Department’s Inspector General for his role in the production and distribution of faulty intelligence about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.

So while overall policy toward the Middle East is still undeniably being run from the White House, by neocons-in-chief Bush and Dick Cheney, the actual policy implementation, on the ground, is changing.

That’s where “Nightline” comes in, providing a window into that change. Monday night saw the premiere of the post-Ted Koppel version of the news show. Co-anchor Cynthia McFadden noted that the new “Nightline” is beginning where the old “Nightline” began, 26 years earlier—in the Middle East. Then the country in the spotlight was Iran; today, of course, the spotlight is just to the west, on Iraq. And that’s where we found McFadden’s co-anchor, Terry Moran, who kicked off the show with a profile of Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Ambassador to Iraq.

For his part, as his name suggests, Khalilzad, is a Muslim. Born in Afghanistan, he hardly fits the typical neocon profile. And while it’s reasonable to assume that his views, as he worked his way up through the ranks, have been in sync over the years with those of his superiors, it’s equally evident that nowadays, from his posting in Baghdad, he is striking out in new directions. He told Moran that he is willing to deal with at least some of the insurgents—although not those with American “blood on their hands.” Yet, as Moran noted, it’s hard to know the difference. Moreover, Khalilizad added that he had been authorized to bargain with Iran—the same Iran that’s the Great Satan in the neocon worldview.

There’s not much “moral clarity,” of course, to be found in talking with either unreconstructed Arab Ba’athists or nuke-minded Iranian ayatollahs. But such dealings are realistic, given the power of the IED-laying Sunni fighters and the greater power of the Iranian Shia. And that’s the point: On the ground in Iraq, far from the rhetoric of Washington, Khalilzad is trying to be pragmatic. And while no doubt contacts with various kinds of tough customers have been going on for the past three years, for Khalilzad to say what he said to ABC News (and also, separately, to Newsweek) is a potentially big deal.

Which is to say, it looks as if the Arabists are making a comeback. Khalilzad, fluent in the languages of his native Afghanistan, speaks some Arabic. And the leader of US Central Command, the hot-spot region that includes Iraq and Iran, is General John Abizaid, of Lebanese descent, who is fluent in Arabic. Indeed, across the region, thousands of Americans, with no natural orientation toward the Middle East, are getting to know Arab and Muslim culture, for one overriding reason: They have to. It’s their job, their mission. Sunday’s Washington Post, for example, cited the pacification efforts of US Army Major Doug Vincent in the land once controlled by the Taliban, describing him as “well-versed in the literature of Afghanistan.” Perhaps Vincent is reading Leo Strauss, too, but probably not. But in the meantime, for America’s long-term well-being, one can only hope that Khalilzad, Abizaid, Vincent, and others will possess the cultural simpatico and bureaucratic clout to put a stop to such obvious abuses of Arab and Muslim sensibilities as Abu Ghraib in Iraq and the burning of bodies in Afghanistan. If so, then prospects for American success in the region will improve considerably.

America may never produce a T.E. Lawrence--that is, a Western figure who became a hero to Arabs in the region, and an advocate for their cause back in his home country. But it’s a safe bet that if America continues with its “generational commitment” to the Middle East, vast numbers of Americans—in the military, in the foreign service, in NGOs, in the huge realm of contractors--will learn Arabic, embrace Arab culture and, perforce, become “neo-Arabists.” If the US is going to be dealing with Arabs intensively, then it behooves us to have people on our side who can deal with them effectively. Call it an unintended consequence of superpowerdom: As we seek to change “them,” we find that “they” have an impact on us, too.

Finally, the same Arabizing process is taking place in the media, as a multitude of reporters are shuttling in and out of Iraq. Admittedly, they aren’t getting a friendly reception, many of them, but surely that’s part of their “education”—nothing is easy in the region. Just on Tuesday, for example, Moran of “Nightline,” in the second part of his Iraq reports, showed his ABC viewers how an Iraqi policeman was killed by an roadside bomb that went off right in front of his camera. Interestingly, Moran went back after this incident and asked an American army officer, in a skeptical tone of voice, if US officialdom was viewing the war through “rose-colored glasses.” So while some might object that Moran had already formed his views before he went to Iraq, it’s undeniable that after this trip, he has better credentials as an observer.

The glum realization that nothing changes easily in the Middle East—the geopolitical equivalent of the fatalistic movie line, “It’s Chinatown, Jake”—is part of the Arabization process, too.

Eventually, America will be full of veterans, of various kinds, who are full of new impressions and opinions about Iraq, and about the Middle East overall. And that will surely have a major effect on future policy.