Arabists

Since the Second World War, the U.S. Foreign Service has benefited from the extraordinary area expertise and professionalism of a cadre of officers, often referred to as “Arabists,” serving in the countries of the Near East within the region of the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA).  Informed by deep knowledge of the history, politics and culture of the Arab world and often highly fluent in the Arabic language, their insights and cross-cultural skills have served as a rich resource for American diplomacy. 

Valuable though their reports from the field have been, the Arabists as a group have also been charged with “clientitis” – being too sympathetic to the views of their subjects – especially when their interlocutors represent despotic regimes, espouse extreme versions of Islam or express virulent anti-American or anti-Israel views.  Like the FSO “China hands” of World War II who described the growing strength of the Chinese Communists, the Arabists, while seeking to promote the national interests of the United States, have on occasion fallen prey to U.S. domestic political forces beyond their control – tainted by their reporting of unwelcome messages, by a popular image of elitist fascination with exotic and dangerous cultures, and by favoring policies out of favor in Washington.

Arabists and Israel

Given the intense and volatile nature of relations between Israel and its neighbors, as well as the dynamics of U.S. domestic politics, it was perhaps inevitable that officers dedicated to understanding and reporting on a region, culture and religion unfamiliar to most Americans, even leaders in Washington, would be open to charges of lacking equal “understanding” and sympathy for Israel.  However, Arabists then and now contend that they, perhaps more than others, appreciate the complexities and pervasiveness of the Palestinian Arab/Israeli conflict on U.S. relations with and policies toward the Middle East.  While recognizing the legitimate security needs of Israel, they advocate an equitable settlement of that conflict.

Charges of Arabist bias gained currency when details became known of anti-Jewish attitudes within the State Department during the 1930s, of hard-nosed application of U.S. policies on visas for Jews seeking to flee Hitler’s tyranny and of adamant opposition to U.S. support for the state of Israel (with President Harry Truman overriding Secretary of State George Marshall and his other senior diplomatic advisors in 1948 to make the United States the first nation to recognize that country). 

Loy Henderson, known since as “Mr. Foreign Service” (and one of the “Examples of Excellence” featured on this website), was ambassador to Iraq from 1943 to 1945 and then until 1948 served as head of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs.   Though he did not speak Arabic and had earlier been considered a specialist on the Soviet Union, Henderson was one of the Department’s early “Near East specialists.”  Prone throughout his career to view all foreign policy concerns through the optic of U.S.-Soviet relations, he was one of the most outspoken advocates of a policy posture of holding Israel at arms length (if not to “strangle it in its crib,” as he was alleged to favor), while maintaining good relations with the strategically important and oil-rich Islamic nations of the Middle East.  In addition to concerns that a warm embrace of Israel would open up opportunities for the Soviet Union to expand its influence, Henderson also expressed deep anxiety that such a posture would produce a militant anti-American body of disgruntled Muslims, particularly from the Palestinian community displaced by the Israelis.

In those early days, however, most Americans paid little attention to the details of developments in the Middle East.  Then, during the 1950s and 1960s, as it became clear that the Arab-Israeli conflict was not only continuing but intensifying, the American public, and especially the U.S. Congress, became more involved in U.S. Middle East policy.  They began to pay more attention to what they perceived as advice by State Department Arabists serving in Washington and at embassies abroad. 

Although many Arabs regarded the U.S. posture toward Israel and its neighbors as even-handed on occasions, such as the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Arab public and governments became increasingly critical of Washington’s policies.  As U.S.-Israel relations became much more intimate after the Israeli victory in the Six Day War of 1967, ultimately evolving into a de facto alliance, Arabists reporting this trend sometimes felt that their warnings about the dangers to U.S. interests of growing Arab hostility were being ignored. 

The Arabists’ objectivity, moreover, has been questioned by those (in Congress and elsewhere) who have felt that they were too ready to explain the thinking and actions of Arab governments (or spokespersons from the Palestinian community) and too harsh in their judgments of Israeli thinking and actions.

top

pdfCurtis F. Jones, “The Education of an Arabist,” Foreign Service Journal, December 1982

bookKaplan, Robert.  The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite.  New York: The Free Press, 1993.

bookRugh, William A.  American Encounters with Arabs: The "Soft Power" of U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Middle East.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 2005.

top