Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East
by Rashid Khalidi
"The silence of the experts is part of a larger problem," Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi laments in the introduction to his critique of American policy in the Middle East, taking policymakers to task for listening to "ill-informed pundits rather than people who are actually knowledgeable about the rest of the world."
Rather than demonstrating why academics should be consulted by policymakers, however, Resurrecting Empire is a case study of why they are not. Khalidi's book, which examines the record of Western involvement in the Middle East and analyzes the likely outcome of the most recent US incursions, rests on questionable sources, a tendency to favor polemic over fact and reflects little understanding of how policy is made.
In his historical analysis, Khalidi demonstrates little understanding of Iraqi history, failing to mention Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons on the Kurds and the draining of the marshes. Rather, he implies that Arabs think with one mind and hold the Israeli-Palestinian dispute central to their identity. But, after 35 years of Ba'athist dictatorship, Iraqis have a sense of historical exceptionalism.
Khalidi (who did no research in Iraq) instead transplants an Arab nationalist discourse into a society that has largely abandoned it. When UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi addressed Iraqis as "my fellow Arabs," they responded with stony silence. Iraqis have not forgotten that as undersecretary of the Arab League, Brahimi did not speak up as Saddam massacred tens of thousands of Arab Shi'ites.
If historians are trained to evaluate sources, then Khalidi is negligent, if not dishonest. For insight into policy development, for example, he cites Karen Kwiatkowski. She neither worked in the office of Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith nor was she involved in Iraq planning, as Khalidi implies. Rather, Kwiatkowski was the Morocco desk officer in the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary, several layers down. More troubling, Khalidi ignores Kwiatkowski's association with the conspiracy-prone Lyndon LaRouche organization.
Khalidi cites many speeches and reports in the course of his narrative. But, rather than access the original, he relies on secondhand interpretations by fringe Internet journalists. The result is repetition of bizarre (and anti-Semitic) conspiracies. He questions the loyalty of top administration officials, alleging falsely that they were advisers to former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Such allegations are inconsistent with the primary documents which focus on the American war on terror.
DISCUSSING POLICY, Khalidi throws away any pretext of research and relies instead on rhetoric. He condemns US unilateralism, dismissing the 49 countries which supported Iraq's liberation as the "Coalition of the Coerced." The same holds true in his narrative of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Khalidi cites statistics that count Hamas terrorists killed in firefights as civilian casualties. He laments the "mythology" of Oslo, and the "nursery fable" of prime minister Ehud Barak's "generous offer" at Camp David.
He repeats the canard that Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount sparked the Palestinian uprising, ignoring a string of statements by Palestinian officials to the contrary. In 1996, for example, then-Palestinian Authority Minister of Planning Nabil Shaath said that should Israel dismiss any Palestinian demands, "We will return to violence. But this time it will be with 30,000 armed Palestinian soldiers."
A month after the collapse of Camp David II, Palestinian Justice Minister Freih Abu Middein declared, "Violence is near and the Palestinian people are willing to sacrifice even 5,000 casualties." Palestinian terrorists killed an Israeli soldier the day before Sharon visited the Temple Mount.
Khalidi's lack of primary source research leads him down the path of flawed conclusions. Rather than interview Iraqis, Khalidi is dependent upon media reports. He implies that the one-in-six Iraqis who fled the country during the reign of Saddam lost their legitimacy within their families and among compatriots. Not only is this counterfactual, but such logic would also undercut Khalidi's own claim to insight in the contemporary Arab world.
Khalidi suggests a greater UN role, but ignores Iraq's unique history with that body. Had Khalidi done field work, Iraqis would have reminded him of Kofi Annan's February 24, 1998 press conference, in which the secretary-general said, "Can I trust Saddam Hussein? I think I can do business with him." In Iraq, these words have had special meaning since the Iraqi daily Al-Mada's exposure of UN oil-for-food program graft. To date, the UN cannot account for approximately $5 billion in oil-for-food money. Historically, Arab nations distrusted League of Nations mandates; the assumption that they would welcome a greater international role is based less in the realm of historical analysis than in Khalidi's own political beliefs.
Khalidi takes his Arab nationalism further, suggesting that Iraq's neighbors play a greater role in its fate. Assuming the Khalidi does not want to suggest Iranian or Turkish involvement (the former acceptable to no one, and the latter unacceptable to most Kurds), he underestimates the resentment with which Iraqis view other Arabs. Iraqis blame Kuwaitis for post-war looting. They label all Saudis as "al-Qaida." Their hatred toward Jordan, which they accuse of profiting from sanctions, is such that petrol station attendants refuse to fill Jordanian-plated cars. In 1999, the Jordanian director of UNICEF in northern Iraq replaced Swedish teachers with Palestinians from UNRWA. The local population protested. UNICEF had to reverse the decision because of the "psychological trauma" the presence of Palestinians caused among victims of chemical weapon attacks who had seen Iraqi state television footage of Palestinian demonstrations in support of Saddam Hussein.
On June 24, 1982, historian Bernard Lewis published a review of Orientalism, literary critic Edward Said's polemical work. Lewis's New York Review of Books article was devastating. He exposed numerous errors and omissions. That Khalidi dedicated this book to Said is appropriate. If Khalidi's analysis is meant to represent what academia can contribute to policy, then Resurrecting Empire is a damning indictment of academia today.
The writer, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of Middle East Quarterly.