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Nothing new under the sun


In the mid-1950s, Elie Kedourie, an outstanding scholar of Mideastern politics, penned an essay less exhaustive but no less damning of the enshrined expert opinion on the Middle East in the Britain of his day than Martin Kramer's Ivory Towers on Sand is of American academic expertise today, and for essentially similar reasons. Even now - especially now - it rewards reading.

Where Kramer points to the deleterious influence of the late Edward Said, particularly his tract Orientalism, Kedourie points to the widespread acceptance of the "tendentious" reading of history encapsulated in George Antonius' The Arab Awakening, and secondarily, "the outcome of an accident, the consequences of which are prodigious and inexhaustible. This accident is the involvement of Lawrence and his friends in British middle eastern policy."

Kedourie continues,

The result of all this has been to establish as a commonplace of political discussion that the two most important issues confronting statesmen in the middle east are Zionism and imperialism. It is asserted that these two factors are at the root of instability in the area. If these two factors could somehow be removed, or if the Arabs could be convinced that they have been removed, or at least neutralised, then there would be a hopeful prospect of peace and prosperity.
But conservatives wishing either to appeal to Kedourie's authority or to cite his well-thought-out demolition of these doctrines (and for that, they'll have to read the essay itself) may be disappointed. There is nothing new under the sun, but what's there does periodically get rearranged. What were in Kedourie's day among the kneejerks of the the anti-imperialist school are today the patrimony of the neo-imperialists.

The essay, entitled "The Middle East and the Powers," opens with the following observations:

Ever since the nineteenth century, when so-called reforms were intitiated in the Ottoman empire, there have not been wanting western ministers and diplomats to look on middle eastern politics with hope and expectancy. It is quite common knowledge that in the last hundred years the middle east has seen no quiet, that disturbance has suceeded disturbance, and that violent, categorical men have followed each other to prescribe and apply drastic but unavailing remedies. It might therefore seem more prudent to assume that the distemper of the modern east is not a passing one, that its political instability is rather the outcome of a deep social and intellectual crisis which the schemes of the reformer and the goodwill of the philanthropist can scarcely assuage or modify. And yet the sober assumption that middle eastern instability is today endemic has found little favor in Britain or in America. The prevalent fashion has been to proclaim the latest revolution as the herald of a new day, and the newest turbulence as the necessary and beneficient prelude to an epoch of orderliness and justice.

The meliorism of western liberals, the activist categories and the hopeful concepts of their political science go far to explain such an attitude, as also their conviction that a stable, universal peace will ensue only when the world is composed of democratic and progressive nation-states. Whatever the truth of this dogma, it is not one which a statesman should entertain, and indeed it is irrelevant to him whether the events with which he has to cope are milestones on a road leading somewhere, or mere variations on an eternal theme eternally repeated.

These words might have made useful reading in the unreflective corridors of power just a short year or two ago. Subsequent events would seem to affirm their wisdom.

(All quotes here are from the text as published in Elie Kedourie, The Chatham House Version and other Middle-Eastern Studies. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970.)

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