The Knowledge That Doesn't Equal Power
Mideast Expert: Policy Born of Ignorance
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2004; Page C01
It's only 8:30 a.m. on the East Coast, so some of the angry Americans dialing into the glass-walled C-SPAN studio with the perfect view of the Capitol are very early risers. In the "Washington Journal" hot seat, for 45 minutes, is Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University and author of a new book about colonialism, memory and U.S. policy in the Middle East.
It may be early, but Americans are already hard at work trying to calibrate other people's outrage. Oklahoma wants to be sure that New York has its priorities straight, that people who are inclined to be saddened about Abu Ghraib are at least as outraged about the decapitation of Nicholas Berg. It's a beautiful, bright Washington morning, the white dome glistens in the background, and out in the heartland, rage is being balanced in the scales.
"Get our planes up and flatten 'em," says a caller from Pennsylvania. When he gets this kind of question, Khalidi looks down at a notepad and starts writing. His face is scrupulously blank. He's very good at not taking the bait when the caller is just looking for a little anger endorsement. (Tell me mine is the rage that matters most, so many callers seem to say.) Khalidi is also deft at taking just that part of the question that leads him where he really wants to go.
"The caller shows a healthy skepticism," Khalidi says to a caller who has, in fact, shown what feels a little more like paranoia. The subject is the media, the media's preoccupations, and the degree to which journalists bring back to the American people an accurate view of a part of the world in which we are now, with troops "and treasure," as the cliche goes, deeply involved.
Khalidi's book, "Resurrecting Empire," is part a primer on the history of the region and part an effort to sketch an intellectual battle that, in his view, we lost before the war even began. There has been "a muzzling of expertise," says Khalidi, a failure of academics familiar with the region, knowledgeable in its history, fluent in its languages to put themselves forward at a critical time. Especially during the march to war. The administration also failed to consult or heed its own government expertise, an expertise cultivated and created at huge cost over the years, he argues. Into the breach, an ignorance breach, stepped political ideologues -- "neocons" he calls them -- who advocated policies that are turning out to be disastrous.
Among other scholars who specialize in the region, this isn't a radical take on the present state of affairs. Michael C. Hudson, director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown, describes Khalidi as preeminent in his field, a courageous scholar and public figure.
"The whole question of academic expertise in the Middle East is a scandal," he says. "This administration is particularly knowledge-averse, not only to the academic world outside but to their academic experts inside."
This understanding, naturally, is disputed. Danielle Pletka, a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute (which in his book Khalidi calls a "nest of some of Washington's most outspoken hawks"), disputes the information gap idea.
"What one finds, particularly in an election year, is that the world is filled with two kinds of people," says Pletka, who acknowledges Khalidi's credentials as a historian but not as a student of inside-the-Beltway policy making. "The kinds that make policy and the kinds who felt that if only the policy people had read their book, their memoir, their article, the policy would be different."
Khalidi's argument is that the world isn't divided into the lucky experts who get to make policy and resentful experts shut out of the conversation. Rather, it is divided between experts and ignorant political ideologues.
"The country was going to war blindly," he says of the time when he was contemplating writing his first book intended for a general audience. He started speaking publicly on the dangers of blundering -- even with good intentions -- into a region where memory of past colonial regimes is still fresh. Friends said the lectures should become a book, which they now are.
"Resurrecting Empire" may remind some readers of other lectures made into books, as it covers and recovers the same ground, but it is based on long experience with the region. Even as he was finishing it, however, it was being overtaken by events. The fast-moving, good-news war of the early months was over. The long grind had set in. Words such as "exit strategy" were beginning to be floated. In his book, Khalidi called for an "international mandate" -- with international peacekeepers -- to run Iraq during its transition to sovereignty.
He's not so optimistic that will work anymore.
"The options are bad, worse and much worse," he says. "The U.S. is going to leave Iraq. . . . The only question is when do the troops leave." To all the politicians who talk of disaster if we leave, he says the disaster is already here.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
To the politicians who talk of disaster if the U.S. leaves Iraq, Rashid Khalidi says that the disaster is already here.
(Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)