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.
Conditions for the current crop of State Department Arabists are somewhat different than in the past. Unlike in some earlier years, these professional diplomats find that being known as an Arabist is neither a badge of honor nor a valuable, career-enhancing credential. Many regional specialists work to develop ties to other regional bureaus, or at least to add Hebrew fluency and service in Israel to their resumes. Some latter-day Arab world specialists have held high positions on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide. For example, Daniel Kurtzer – like Edward Walker (former president of the Middle East Institute) before him – served as U.S. ambassador in both Egypt and Israel, and Edward Djerejian was ambassador to both Syria and Israel.
Among the new challenges is that heightened concern with personal security militates against the comfortable interchanges with local nationals that Arabists of previous years found essential in understanding on-the-ground conditions and attitudes. Another change is that today, many State Department officers feel further and further removed from the center of Middle East policy-making, which is tightly controlled by the White House.
Although events in the Middle East have raised interest in and awareness of the region, misinformation about Arabs still abounds in the American public dialogue. The fact that all of the 9/11 hijackers/terrorists were Arabs has created new stereotypes and led many Americans to reach simplistic conclusions about the Arab people. Currently serving and retired Arabists of the Foreign Service, rejecting facile generalizations because they see a much more complex picture, remain a valuable source of expert information and insight into a region central to U.S. security interests of the 21st century.