The Knowledge That Doesn't Equal Power
Khalidi speaks quickly, more so in person than on screen. When you first meet him there's an unplaceable but familiar quality, something bright and brusque about him, suggestive of a good doctor with a lousy bedside manner. Smart, direct, a little impatient, all business. When he warms up to a stranger, the pace is just as fast, but the manner is softer, the language a bit spicier. On a park bench outside the Capitol, he stretches out his feet in the mid-morning sun, slouches a bit and waves vaguely toward the far end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
"The morons down there in the president's house," he says, with exasperation. What exasperates him is the contempt he feels has been shown for the Geneva Conventions at high levels in the administration. They have been "systematically derated," he argues, and it will come back to haunt us.
"Everyone in the armed forces should be furious," he says.
He's not just worried about policies, but people.
"I have students all over the Middle East," he says. His daughters -- one is an archaeologist in Yemen, the other is at a legal institute in the West Bank -- are both there. He has extended family there. He travels there regularly.
"There are kids I know in the service," he says, worried about what will happen to them if they're captured. "Every time I hear these laptop neocons talk about international law. . . ."
He trails off, disgusted. "Neocon" and "neoconservative" are among Washington's most fraught rhetorical markers, used by some people in much the same way that "liberal" was once used to dismiss an entire category of supposedly failed thinking. Others, including the AEI's Pletka, see a more sinister resonance.
"I think the phrase 'neocon' is much more popular among people who think it shields their anti-Semitism," she says. "But it doesn't."
Which goes to the heart of one of the ideas in Khalidi's book: that the debate about Israel and Palestine, and proper U.S. policy in the region, has become so bitter that even experts dare not discuss it. In his book, he bemoans "the pervasive atmosphere of intimidation and fear that makes many experts on the region reluctant to express themselves frankly." It is not a problem that has limited his own public commentary -- which has brought him ample controversy.
Khalidi, 55, straddles a difficult line between academic historian and political commentator. When Columbia hired him from the University of Chicago, where he was director of the Center for International Studies and had taught from 1987 to 2003, it was considered a coup for the university. He became the first scholar to hold a new chair named for Edward Said, the Palestinian intellectual who articulated the idea of "orientalism" -- the West's use of self-serving scholarship to define and control perceptions of people from the Middle East (and elsewhere). Khalidi has spent much of his career attempting to undo the habits of orientalism, to work back through the history and reinterpret it in a way that gives the West a better idea of what really motivates attitudes in places such as Palestine, Iran, Iraq and Egypt. His work on Palestinian history, and Palestinian identity, is particularly respected, but he has been an independent voice, often at odds with Palestinian intellectuals.
His thumbnail sketch of history, worked out in "Resurrecting Empire," goes like this: Once-great and often-autocratic civilizations of the Middle East were undermined by the 15th-century discovery of the New World, which reduced the Middle East's role in world trade. European civilizations, by contrast, flourished and eventually colonized the vast majority of the region. Local efforts at democracy were corrupted by colonial rulers. Oil made these interferences all the more egregious. Arabs and others turned to a sometimes aggressive nationalism to get the Europeans out; but nationalism, oil wealth and human nature corrupted these regimes, as well, and the people suffer still at the expense of cynical elites.
He has plenty of criticism for the leaders of the region, but no patience for blaming the region's woes on Islam. He has no patience for U.S. leaders who think they can bring democracy by force, rather than let it grow indigenously. He has no patience for people who think "they hate us because we're us."
"They like us, they like our values," he says. "They hate our policies."
He is, himself, a meeting point between the world he studies and the country he calls home. He is Arab American (his father was Palestinian, his mother Lebanese American), born in New York. His father was a U.N. staffer with high-level access to the backroom debates on Middle East policy. The affairs of the Middle East were dinner-table fodder. English and Arabic were spoken at home. He went to Yale (two years behind George W. Bush, he says), and felt isolated, especially as the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and Arab countries defined his political beliefs in a way that was undoubtedly in opposition to the way it defined the beliefs of students sympathetic to Israel. He ended up as a historian against his father's better judgment.
But there's no doing history of this part of the world without controversy. The New York Sun has labeled him "anti-Israeli" and poked into the financial backers of the Said Chair, which he holds, implying that he may be beholden to foreign governments or groups. Khalidi has also been regularly criticized by an organization called Campus Watch that has set itself up as a right-wing watchdog group covering academics whose work draws them into politically charged territory, especially the Middle East.
"He can't be characterized as objective," says Daniel Mandel of the Middle East Forum, parent organization of Campus Watch, citing Khalidi's view that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is illegal. "Views of that extremity can't be considered objective or impartial."
"He is eminently respectable," says Georgetown's Hudson. "I can't say the same for Campus Watch."
Khalidi's book is equally critical of corrupt Arab nationalist regimes and Israeli policies in the occupied territories. It is measured, perhaps even a bit safe in its main argument. It is footnoted, sourced to respectable books, journals and newspapers, and it is more a retelling than a work of new scholarship. But because it is critical of the war, it is unlikely to achieve his expectations: to educate, to cut through the media discourse and to give a sense of how American actions are perceived in the Arab world.
If one needs a clue to the book's fate, look to his C-SPAN appearance. On the screen, as he speaks, are three phone numbers: One for supporters of President Bush, another for Democrats, and a third for unidentified. He's trying to speak to America, but America is coming back at him, neatly channeled, into partisan categories. And America sounds too angry, this morning, to read a book.
© 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)