Tales From the Bazaar

As individuals, few American diplomats have been as anonymous as the members of the group known as Arabists. And yet as a group, no cadre of diplomats has aroused more suspicion than the Arab experts have. Arabists are frequently accused of romanticism, of having "gone native"—charges brought with a special vehemence as a result of the recent Gulf War and the events leading up to it. Who are the Arabists? Where did they come from? Do they deserve our confidence?

For Jack McCreary, it was a moment of sweet satisfaction. A self-described "child of the sixties," who had spent nearly two decades of his life in the Arab world, McCreary was the U.S. embassy's press and culture officer in Iraq in January of 1988, when the doors of the new American Cultural Center, on Mansour Street in Baghdad, opened for the first time. At last, McCreary thought, there was one place under Saddam Hussein's rule where ordinary Iraqis and Americans could talk to each other in the same room. "The great thing about living for long stretches in an awful country," McCreary said during an evening I spent with him and his wife, Carol, at their home in Virginia, "is the smallest victory, no matter how pathetic and inconsequential, gives you an incredibly big boost."

Life in Baghdad for the McCrearys and their young daughters, Kate and Joanna, was made up of a number of such boosts. If anyone can squeeze a little water from an ugly regime's monolithic stone, it is McCreary.

After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1968, McCreary entered the Peace Corps, serving in Marrakech, Morocco, where he and Carol met and were married. At the American University of Cairo, McCreary perfected his Arabic. He then joined the U.S. Foreign Service, working as a political officer at American embassies in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. In Yemen, where I first met him, McCreary was becoming frustrated. Doing his job properly, he felt, ought to mean immersing himself in Arabic with Arabs. "I still marvel at the physical beauty of Arabic script. I'm shocked at people who come to Arab countries and can't read the signs." But Yemen, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, was politically closed and sterile. Embassy officers were denied regular, official contact with Yemenis. McCreary, who has a "4" rating in Arabic, on a Foreign Service test scale of 5—meaning he speaks and reads Arabic fluently—was meeting nobody except other diplomats. So he gave up the job of political officer in order to run the embassy's press and culture division. As far as his career was concerned, this was an unorthodox move. But McCreary's life changed. "Suddenly I was with Yemenis all the time."

Hume Horan, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Sudan, observes, "It's the embassy cultural officers who get the real internist's-eye view of a difficult country. They have fewer restrictions placed on their movements. Since Arab writers and artists are in a terrible financial situation and nobody cares about their work, they come cheap: for the price of a meal and a bit of appreciation they'll pour their souls out to you, providing the kind of psychological clues to the workings of a system that a political officer will never get from his Foreign Ministry contacts."

In the summer of 1987, after finishing his assignment in Yemen, McCreary was posted to Iraq. "On a strictly political level, nothing was happening," McCreary explained. "The embassy people knew nobody at the palace. We had no access to the Baath Party. We'd invite Iraqis to receptions and they were too frightened to show up. For us to claim we knew Baghdad would have been like a Third World diplomat claiming to know Washington because there was one desk officer at the State Department who returned his phone calls. But on the cultural level in Iraq there was tremendous hope."

Western secular culture was a bone that Saddam tossed to his affluent urban subjects. Among other things, Baghdad was the lone Arab capital offering classical piano and violin recitals and a degree program in European music. McCreary's daughters took ballet lessons at an Iraqi government school. McCreary became involved in a jazz club, Al-Ghareeb ("The Stranger"), in downtown Baghdad, where he played the saxophone and Joseph Wilson, the embassy's deputy chief of mission, sang, while McCreary's daughter Kate—along with a crowd of Iraqi artists—made charcoal sketches of the performances. "It was a marvelous place: jazz at night, me playing, Kate and the Iraqis drawing away. From the point of view of my job, the Iraqis' interest in classical music and jazz was certainly to be encouraged."

The jazz club and his daughters' ballet lessons bought McCreary and his wife rare entrees to the homes of numerous Iraqi families. "It was an artsy crowd of ancient regime types and politically neutered intellectuals. Carol and I worked constantly to give these people a sense of American values, to demonstrate how free people think and behave: to show them it was possible. But they were cowed. The big crisis in one family was the teenage daughter, whose beauty had attracted one of Saddam's Takriti goons." (Takrit is Saddam Hussein's birthplace, and that of many of his closest associates.)

The United States Information Agency helped arrange for an American singer, Billy Stephens, to give a concert in Baghdad. Stephens sang "We Shall Overcome" and John Lennon's "Imagine." But when the singer asked the crowd of English-speaking Iraqis to join in, there was silence. "Nobody dared," Carol McCreary remembered.

"But there was such hope, things really were getting better," Carol went on. She described the lifting of internal travel restrictions after the Iran-Iraq War was over, and the end of rationing. The American diplomatic community in Baghdad assumed that there was a thin wedge of opportunity it could exploit, especially after the revolution in Romania. Maybe it could happen here. The diplomats all knew it wasn't much of a hope, but it was enough to keep them going.

Jack McCreary said, "Of course, considering all that has happened, this must sound silly to you. I'm embarrassed to talk about it. They were building chemical and nuclear weapons while they let a few diplomats open a library and play in a jazz club. It all seems so stupid and misguided."

Pekinese Orchids

The McCrearys, whom a right-wing observer might be tempted to ridicule as "liberal, multicultural, Peace Corps types," have in fact tested a canon of neoconservative interventionism—"the export of democracy"—on a deeply personal level under the worst possible conditions, and have the emotional scars to prove it. "The Arab world can be a nasty place," says a key State Department official currently engaged in Middle East diplomacy. "But the Arabist is someone who doesn't have the luxury to theorize from the sidelines. He must actually live there and work solo with this intractable reality."

McCreary and his colleagues are, of course, aware that "Arabist" is among the most loaded words in America's political lexicon. In the Middle Ages an Arabist was a physician who had studied Arab medicine, which was then more advanced than the kind practiced in Europe. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries an Arabist was a student of the language, history, and culture. With the birth of Israel, in 1947, the word gained another meaning. "It became a pejorative for 'he who intellectually sleeps with Arabs,"' said Richard Murphy, a former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, during a recent interview. Murphy's wife, Anne, nodded sadly. "If you call yourself an Arabist," she said, "people may think you're anti-Semitic."

Along with that suspicion come suspicions of "clientitis" and elitism. I was told a story about one U.S. diplomat's wife in Cairo during the 1956 Sinai war who innocently said of the Egyptians, then fighting a British-French-Israeli alliance: "We're so proud of them." The head of a conservative foundation in Washington once lectured me along these lines. "Spanish—because of our intimate contact with the Latin world—connotates a non-elite, drug-lord, 7-Eleven-store culture. Arabic is a distant, difficult, and thus mysterious language, and fluency in it suggests erudite entry to a ruling class where Jews and other ethnic Americans are not welcome."

In the wake of Iraq's August, 1990, invasion of Kuwait, which most Arabists did not anticipate, the term "Arabist" became even more negative. Francis Fukuyama, then a Reagan Administration appointee on the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, and now a consultant for the Rand Corporation, commented after the invasion, "Arabists are more systemically wrong than other area specialists in the Foreign Service. They were always sending cables, and coming into the [Planning Staff] office, saying things about Saddam being a potential moderate that now they're claiming they never said."

The more it gained ascendancy as a term of political abuse, the more indiscriminately "Arabist" came to be applied. During the Gulf crisis the New York Times columnist William Safire and the Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland frequently described John Kelly, who was then the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, as an Arabist, even though Kelly, with his limited Middle East experience, was distrusted by real Arabists as a politically imposed outsider. By war's end anyone who was vaguely sympathetic toward Arabs was being called an Arabist, even if he or she didn't speak the language and had never lived in the Arab world. I asked a senior Arabic-speaking diplomat at the State Department about the word "Arabist," and he frowned, his chin slumping to his chest, as he muttered, "The word has become poison; nobody uses it around here anymore."

But people do. One reason is sheer convenience. Terms like "Arabic-speaking officers" and "Middle East specialists" are simply too cumbersome. Another reason is prickly pride. "NEA [Near Eastern Affairs] is the best bureau at State," says one State Department Arab hand. "It attracts the best people because Arabists are always exposed to crises." Another NEA type says, "Any fool can learn Spanish in order to serve in Latin America." "The Eastern Europe people never had a riot on their hands until 1989," says Carleton Coon Jr., a former ambassador with wide experience in the Middle East. "They never had an ambassador killed. Near East hands know what it's like to be shot at and in the media hot seat." The attacks on Arabists notwithstanding, these people are a self-assured breed, for whom the word "Arabist" implies a tight-knit fraternity within the diplomatic corps, united by their ability to speak a "superhard" language and by a vivid, common experience abroad that, as one Arabist told me, "we can't even properly explain to our relatives." "We Arabists," says Hume Horan, in a whimsical, self-mocking tone, "are the Pekinese orchids begot by an American superpower. I suppose only a rich and powerful nation has a justification for us."

Horan knows that that is an overstatement. Arabists, or something like them, would be needed by the United States in the Arab world even if America were to abandon the internationalist assumptions of its foreign policy and its overreaching hopes for a new world order. Leaving the question of Israel aside, American businesses have economic interests in the Middle East worth many billions of dollars. It is important to know what is going on in the region. Then, too, there is the obvious matter of the Middle East's oil, on which much of the world economy depends. Though it should stop well short of the role of policeman, the United States clearly needs to maintain a significant presence of some sort.

And yet, even during the hottest moments of recent history in the Middle East, few diplomats have been more anonymous than the Arabists have. With the exception of April Glaspie, the recent U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Arabists are just an opaque "them," even to many of their worst enemies. Arabists, I found, are privately talkative, publicly shy. Like other bureaucrats and civil servants, they don't call attention to themselves. They don't pontificate on talk shows or op-ed pages. Peter Rodman, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute, who ran the Policy Planning Staff in the Reagan Administration, believes that the breadth, depth, and texture of the Arabists' knowledge of the Arab world may work to immobilize their analytical thinking about it.

Buffeted by this and other, more sinister judgments about Arabists, I began an investigation of them warily. In what follows I will describe conversations with people who are or have been among the leading U.S. Arabists. I will look at the origins of the calling in the lives and writings of a handful of adventurers and missionaries. I will examine some of the psychological traits that one encounters among Arabists—traits that may help to explain U.S. diplomacy prior to the debacle in Iraq. Finally, I will describe the emergence in recent years of a newer kind of Arabist, one who is perhaps more suited to an adjusted view of America's role in the world.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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