Michael Oren, Neo-Orientalism and the Ghost of Edward Said

By Daniel Brumberg | (Informed Comment) | – –

Poor Edward Said cannot rest in peace. Twelve years after he passed away from cancer, his ghost apparently haunts the State Department, Pentagon and even the White House. This, at any rate, is the argument that informs the grim diagnoses of Obama “Muslim World” policies offered by Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren in Foreign Policy (one of several articles that serve as an introduction to his new book, Ally). “Central to my research for Obama 101,” Oren writes, is the abiding influence of the book Orientalism, “Said’s scathing critique of Middle East studies, and subsequent articles in which he insisted that all scholars of the region be ‘genuinely engaged and sympathetic…to the Islamic World.’” http/

Oren’s musings about Said’s influence have received far less attention by comparison to his factually distorted–and widely assailedassessments of Obama’s Middle East policies. Still, his encounter with Said’s specter does merit attention, and not merely because Oren’s assertions are often ridiculous. More importantly, they require scrutiny because they serve a vital purpose: namely, to portray criticism of Bibi Netanyahu and his government as a manifestation of some kind of weird ideological pathology — rather than a pragmatic (if contestable) analysis of cold hard facts. Oren seeks to discredit or deter informed, rational debate by implying that those who assail the policies of Israel’s leaders are—for want of a better word—a little mechougena. Because he partly attributes such mental failings to Said’s influence, I begin this assessment of the “Oren controversy” by closely considering Oren’s strange obsession with the work, memory and legacy of the late Palestinian-American scholar.

Curiously, in pondering that legacy Oren vastly exaggerates the intrinsic coherence and relevance of Said’s work, ascribing to it a lasting influence more imaginary than real. Now, I am no fan of Orientalism. Indeed, I agree with critics of the book such as Bernard Lewis and the late Malcolm Kerr that the work was not so much a “scathing critique” (as Oren puts it), as an amalgam of so-called evidence whose selective packaging echoed the very problem of politicized scholarship that it was meant to discredit. Sadly, the worshipers of the book and its author had little interest in grappling with such ironies. That said, Oren is right about one point: in the eighties Orientalism was well received and widely taught in the US, French and British academies, often with little of the “critical” thinking that Said called for. But from my reading of the book–and from my own experience teaching at the University of Chicago and Georgetown University– I can say without any hesitation that Oren’s assessment is wrong on at least two points.  

To begin with, Oren writes that Said’s writings promoted the “notion that Islam was a uniform, universal entity with which the West must peacefully engage.” No one who read Orientalism seriously could possibly write these words. For if the book has one message, (apart its often crude assault on scholars of Middle East studies), it is that the Islamic world’s politics are shaped by concrete, “historically determined” economic, social and power forces that belie any notion of religious uniformity or ideological commonality. At its core, the book offered a neo-Marxist critique of all efforts to see the Muslim world through the lens of one shared and enduring set of Islamic values, ideas or practices. For this reason, Said registered a deep ambivalence when it came to the very concept of one “Islamic world.” Indeed, if he called for “engaging” the Islamic world or (God forbid!) showing sympathy for it, his work—as Leonard Binder has shown–did not seriously engage Islamic faith in theory or practice.

            That many scholars missed this this lacuna in Said’s work is not surprising. Not a few vulgarized rather than seriously engaged his ideas. But it was precisely the over saturation of Saidian ideas, and their selective and often politicized recasting that eventually produced Said fatigue, nicely captured by one prominent American anthropologist, who in 1990 opined that “Some things are better left un-Said.” Thus while Said’s influence endured in some quarters—such as the annual conferences of the Middle East Studies Association–by the nineties and the ensuing decade, a new generation of increasingly professionalized and methodologically sophisticated social scientists put much of the old polemics aside in favor of more serious and wide ranging scholarship. Determined to escape from what felt like an academic ghetto, these Young Turks (many of whom are now older Turks), transformed Middle East studies. Oren seems completely unaware of this change and its implications for US policy making. Oblivious to it, he argues that Said’s influence stretches from the time that Oren served as a visiting lecture in the US in the eighties all the way up to at least 2008—the year of Obama’s election!

This is quite a claim, and one that surely merits hard evidence. But whatever his credentials as an historian, in this particular case Oren connects the dots largely by supposition, sprinkled with one empirical reference, namely the “2008 monograph, ‘Strategic Leadership: Framework for a 21st Century National Security Strategy.” The choice of this study– which was published by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)– is bizarre. While Oren is correct that many of its authors ended up in –or connected to — the Obama administration (including Anne-Marie Slaughter, Bruce W. Jentleson, Anthony Blinken, Michael A, Gayle E. Smith and James B Steinberg), and while most if not all of these folks supported a two state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there is nothing in the CNAS study or in the educational histories or scholarship of these scholars that suggests that they cared a fig about Edward Said’s Orientlaism or that they were subject to some sort of insidious Saidian indoctrination.

True enough, as Oren notes, the CNAS paper proposes that “America must seek ‘improved relations with more moderate elements of political Islam” and adapt a ‘narrative of pride in the achievements of Islam.” But, we must ask, on what factual basis can Oren actually demonstrate that these recommendations reflect the abiding influence of Said rather than something else? This theoretical issue in question here might seem too “academic” to be inserted into a short piece written for the blogosphere. Still, it is a question that that cannot (or should not) be avoided given Oren’s expansive and very alarmist conclusions about US Middle East policy.

The conceptual question is echoed in the long-standing debate within foreign policy studies about the “sources of foreign policy.” In its most basic contours, this debate pits “systemic theorists” against “domestic theorists.” The first attributes foreign policy to a means/ends calculation that assumes a universal or “exogenous” rationality born of threats to all states regardless of geography, histories or cultures. The second highlights the “endogenous” preferences of local leaders or elites, whose choices or decisions are generated by local politics, social or culture, and/or by the personal tastes, traditions or psychological traits of national leaders. Seen through these two frames, foreign policy is either embedded in the solid earth of a reliable universal realism, or it is rooted in more soggy (if not slippery) terrain of national, local, or regional politics, and the ideologies, psychological impulses or personal rationalizations that consciously or unconsciously impel leaders to resist “Rationality” with a capital R.

Not surprisingly, Oren’s assault fits pretty squarely into this second school. Rather than consider the possibility that Obama’s Middle East policy reflects a rational analysis of threats to US interests, Oren totally elides this question by invoking Said’s ideological egacy. Who needs to closely examine CNAS’ “Strategic Leadership” report when all Oren has to do is associate its authors with Said’s Orientalism and pick one sentence to demonstrate what is surely the obvious link between that book and the ideas set out by Slaughter, Jentleson, Steinberg, McFaul and other fellow travelers of Edward Said?

The same kind of treatment is reserved with even greater chutzpah for Obama himself. The nearly unbroken line of influence of Said to Obama is supposedly demonstrated not only by the dubious (and unproven) assertion that many of the president’s advisors imbibed Said’s ideas: even more so, this line is allegedly revealed in Oren’s cursory speculations on Obama’s childhood and upbringing! “I could imagine,” he writes, “how a child raised by a Christian mother might see himself as a natural bridge between her two Muslim husbands. I could also speculate how that child’s abandonment by those men could lead him…many years later, to seek acceptance by their co-religionists” (i.e. Muslims).

Speculation and imaginings are not supposed to the basis of serious argument much less policy prescriptions. Unwittingly, Oren reveals the Achilles heel of his silly, reductionist, and vaguely racist cultural/psychoanalysis, which is simply that it insists a priori on attributing non-rational or irrational motivations to foreign policy decisions and preferences that could easily be explained (or demonstrated) as a consequence of rational calculation –even raison d’etat!

To consider the implications of this kind of analytical abuse, let’s examine two of Oren’s evaluations of Obama’s Middle East policies. The first, which he discusses in his Foreign Policy piece at some length, is the approach to the Muslim world that Obama set out during the first year of his presidency. Putting aside the question of whether his vision was coherent, or whether he had a reasonable plan to translate his ideas into practice, the key question is whether at its core, Obama’s “Muslim World” policy reflected a pragmatic and rational evaluation of how best to advance US interests, or whether instead it was the product of ideology, psychology, or some other “deeper” forces working on a conscious or subconscious level.

Not surprisingly, Oren insists that Obama’s desire to connect with the “Muslim World” stemmed from deeply personal factors, rooted in his family origins, and in the geographical odyssey of his early years–which took him, of course, to Indonesia! Indeed, Oren argues, the “president’s use of the term ‘Muslim world,’ was a “rough translation of the Arabic ummah,” a “concept developed by classical Islam…(that) refers to a community of believers that transcends borders, cultures and nationalities” It was this ummah, Oren imagines, that the President sought to engage. But putting aside the fact Oren’s Islamic world/ummah equation is very dubious (as Said would have surely argued!) what evidence does he offer to suggest that Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world stemmed from a personal desire to identify with the “Islamic world?” The answer is none at all, save Oren’s observations about Obama’s “earlier ties to Indonesia and the Muslim villages of Kenya,” his “Arabic first and middle names” and the above-mentioned psychological musings on Obama’s parents.

True enough, Obama invoked this personal history during his June and July 2009 visits to Cairo and Istanbul.  But by on what basis does Oren demonstrate that this personal history –or Obama’s occasional references to it– caused his policy decisions? Perhaps they simply served as a useful trope to sell a policy that at is core was based a rational evaluation of US security interests? At the end of the day, Oren does not use some of the basic methodologies (such as counter-factual analysis) that a well-trained graduate student might employ to explore such alternative explanations. But using such tool requires seriously considering the possibility that other factors might offer a more cogent and even persuasive explanation of Obama’s policies.

To take one more example of Oren’s confounding of analysis and polemics, consider his analysis of Obama’s opening to Iran and his subsequent efforts to secure an internationally backed negotiated settlement of Iran’s nuclear program. Once again, Oren suggests that ideology and hope  substitute for a sober grasp of the facts. Noting that the president declared that a “’nuclear deal with Iran will render it ‘a very successful regional power’ capable of healing…historic schisms,” Oren asserts that this idea has “remained central to Obama’s thinking.” Since Oren has told us all we need to know about what’s going in the president’s head, he gladly rips a few sentences out of context to reaffirm his argument.

In point of fact, a reading of the full interview suggests that Obama had concluded that given the options facing his administration, a negotiated solution backed by the international community could serve “US interests” far more effectively than a drift to containment or even more so, to war. As Obama put it, “when I came into office, the world was divided and Iran was in the driver’s seat. Now the world’s united because of the actions we’ve taken, and Iran’s the one that’s isolated.”

This strategic assessment reflects a rational and even reasonable cost/benefit calculation of the options facing Obama in 2009. Paradoxically, those options had been vastly narrowed by decades of failed and incoherent US Iran policy. Premised on the idea that Iran could be forced or negotiated into accepting “0 enrichment” of nuclear fuel, that pipe dream policy unwittingly abetted the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program. By the time Obama arrived at the White House, US policy leaders had to contend with a much more unfavorable context, namely an Iran that had thousands more spinning centrifuges and an international community that was divided precisely because “0 enrichment” was a non-starter for any serious negotiations.

Now, Obama might well be gambling that he can get a nuclear deal — and that such a deal just might strengthen the influence of more reformist elements in Iran’s leadership. But this is a wager born not out of dreams (be them of Obama’s father or someone else), but rather out of a cool assessment of a strategic context bequeathed to a young president who had little experience in foreign affairs. To reiterate: Obama’s assessment of that context could very well be wrong or misguided. This is a question that surely merits serious debate. But Oren never considers accounts of Obama’s policies based on any assumptions other than those that he imposes on his readers.

In point of fact, Obama inherited the rubble of a foreign policy legacy abroad and economic crisis at home for which no president, no matter which party he came from, could provide easy or obvious solutions. Obama’s penchant for embedding his real politick calculations in the language of a more expansive “vision” has long invited contrasting assessments of what he is truly up to, and the motivations that ultimately influence his policies and those of his closest advisers. Indeed, if this professor-president finds himself under assault by other professors –or in the case of Oren, professors turned politicians—Obama has himself partly to blame for the slings and arrows flung his way. But that does not absolve Oren of the duty to give the elected leader of Israel’s closest ally serious, balanced and objective consideration, shorn of speculative reveries on the ideological influence of Edward Said or the emotional/policy consequences of being abandoned by two Muslim fathers.

Daniel Brumberg is a scholar of Middle East politics and Co-Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University.

Related video added by Juan Cole:

Edward Said explains Orientalism in 5 minutes

5 Responses

  1. At the end of the second paragraph, the phrase

    ” Because he partly attributes such mental failings to Said’s influence, I being this assessment of the “Oren controversy …”

    reads better as:

    Because he partly attributes such mental failings to Said’s influence, I begin this assessment of the “Oren controversy…”

  2. I am in general, in my historical writings since 1980, a huge advocate of the radical concept that we need a science of history that says that _Every Person_ is important, in the whole story of human beings in the world.

    In this particular article, however, Brumberg has me heartily agreeing that Obama’s policy decisions are much more motivated by — dare we say ? — strategic vision, than by any personal/psychological factors in Obama himself, or by any huge wave of Said-worship among American commentators on the Middle East over the last 3+ decades.

  3. Orientalism was a dense book, a lot like this posting, where its worth getting to the heart of what Said was trying to say. The clip is the best distillation I’ve encountered.

    Its more important, however, to back-off and look at the criticism Brumberg is making of Oren’s criticism of Said. Creating an “other” to oppose, as a bête noire, is indispensable in helping people to define themselves (WE are not like THEM), and on a larger scale it is what empowers Imperialism. This is a strategy that empowers things as inconsequential as small town football rivalries, but it is also a key tool for Zionists, which people like Oren have mastered and wielded relentlessly over the decades.

    However many years ago Said died, and however few people actually slogged through his book, it does attempt to expose the realities of how even a small nation is able to divide and conquer through fear of the unknown. It’s extraordinarily telling when a guy like Oren now resurrects Said’s book to create a straw man, in order to indirectly manipulate the people who now advise Obama.

  4. Speaking of needing an enemy…..the very next post gets at the quandary of choosing one. Should it be Russia or China; ISIL or AQ? There seems to be no possibility of rationality when it comes to mobilizing a constituency.

    link to juancole.com

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