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.

Responses to The Arabists

Few have charged the Arabists with lack of patriotism, willful deviation from U.S. policy or anti-Jewish sentiments.  However, grist for such allegations was given wide airing in Robert Kaplan’s The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite (1993) and his December 1992 article in The Atlantic Monthly titled “Tales from the Bazaar.”

Despite the sympathetic treatment of several Arabist FSOs (particularly Hume Horan), many of them found Kaplan’s book offensive.  They took particular umbrage at what they saw as mischaracterizations of contemporary events and personalities, notably his depiction of U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie’s role in the period immediately before that country’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.  Reflecting such views, former ambassador (to Algeria, Lebanon and Morocco) Richard Parker said that Kaplan’s account rested in part on “errors of fact and on misperception” and that he had propagated a myth that “a New England WASP elite that was emotionally involved with the Arabs dominated Middle East policy for thirty years after World War II.” (The Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn 1994).

Charles William Maynes (former Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs), referring to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, spoke of Kaplan’s “attempt to blame a few area specialists for a failure in U.S. policy that was approved at the highest levels and that reflected the geopolitical view of senior officers in charge of U.S. policy at the time.” (Washington Monthly, October 1993). 

In contrast to these views, Daniel Pipes criticized FSO Arabists in language even stronger than that used by Kaplan:  “Bound up in their own small world, Arabists lacked the imagination to understand either the United States or American interests abroad…. [M]ost of all they hated Israelis, whom they blamed as much for spoiling their century-old idyll as for the Palestinians’ plight …. As you might expect, Arabists compiled a disastrous record of making policy…. Carrying old grudges, they refused to see Israel’s value to the United States.  On occasion, they even took the Arab side against their own government ”  (The Wall Street Journal, September 16, 1993).

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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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