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.

How the Arabists Have Been Treated

As professional U.S. diplomats, the Arabists have been expected to report conversations and events as objectively as they can, and to offer policy suggestions appropriate for dealing with the realities they encounter.  As the Pipes quote above demonstrates, such behavior has not always been welcome, but Arabists have risen to their own defense.  In the 1980s, the Foreign Service Journal published articles by FSOs who felt unfairly questioned about their objectivity and service discipline and who resented being blamed for “driving” unsuccessful policies toward the Middle East. 

In his oral history interview in 2000 the late Hume Horan offered these observations:

“To those that see Arabists as ‘soft’ on Arabs, I ask, ‘What do they think we are? A bunch of idiot masochists?  Begging to be blown up again?  All this pain and vituperation is supposed to make us pro-Arab?  I mean, give me a break!’  To our critics, I’d say, ‘We are professionals.  We are like oncologists.  You don't like cancer, but you deal with cancer.  You don't like Arab radicalism, but it is there and you have got to deal with it. You don’t call your doctor a cancer-lover when he has to bring you the bad news.’

“I was never pro-Arab, or anti-Arab. But through Arabic, I was able enough to appreciate the good aspects of Arab civilization - so that the tawdry present did not sour me toward my hosts…like most Arabists, I saw myself as being only pro-American.  ‘My country right or wrong...but always my country.’  Does that sound too melodramatic?”

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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.

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