Remembering Elie Kedourie: How One Analyst Spoke Truth to Power in the Middle East

April 25, 2020 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Tags: Foreign PolicyMiddle EastEgyptPoliticsIran

Remembering Elie Kedourie: How One Analyst Spoke Truth to Power in the Middle East

Elie Kedourie's merciless precision as a slayer of cant and formulaic thinking constitutes much more than a switchblade attack on polite, conventional wisdom about the Middle East.

All of this is inferred in Kedourie’s book, Democracy and Arab Political Culture, published in 1992 by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (one of the rare occasions when a think tank produces an enduring work of not merely policy, but intellectual, merit). This small, densely argued, and deeply researched book presents a debilitating saga of regional, sectarian, and ethnic divisions that combine with feudalism, tribal conflicts, and illiteracy to make orderly constitutional progress in Egypt and the artificial states of the Fertile Crescent impossible—all of them being rough equivalents of Lebanon with its on-again, off-again violence, in which democracy for too long has reflected, rather than alleviated, the region’s bloody communal divides.

THE PAN-ISLAMISM of the Ottoman Empire would in part give way to the pan-Arabism of the twentieth century, both being attempts at regional unity. Arnold Toynbee, in a book that Kedourie actually praised somewhat, The Western Question in Greece and Turkey, notes the fact that the Ottoman Empire “keeps a celebrated Christian cathedral as her principal mosque and a famous European city as her capital, lends an appearance of dominion which is gratifying to Middle Eastern populations…” Because the Arab world was largely united under the Ottomans, and then divided under the Europeans, it lent a hazy and superficial logic to Arab nationalism and concomitant attempts at Arab unity; even as Arab disenchantment and revolts against the late Ottoman Empire had been incessant. The problem though is that while the history of the Middle East has occurred largely under the melding force of great empires—Greek Hellenes, Romans, Byzantines, Achaemenid and Sassanid Persians, Ottomans, British, French, Soviets, and Americans—the Arabs are a people which, for reasons including sect and geography, left to their own devices, have usually exhibited more disunity than unity. Even the Oxford Orientalist Gibb announced: “The Arab nation … like all other nations, is not an entity of geographical or historical association, but the function of an act of will.”

This “will” had originally been the creature of disaffected Ottoman officers and others, of Arab extraction, who, once the Empire crumbled, suddenly found themselves able to pursue what had previously been only a dream. As Kedourie sardonically explains, “They came to politics not through consideration of concrete difficulties or the grind of pressing affairs or daily responsibility, but by way of a doctrine.” Their doctrine,” he goes on, “was compounded of certain European principles which made language and nationality synonymous, of a faith in sedition and violence, and of contempt for moderation.”

This is mean language, but follow his point:

When, therefore, the miraculous circumstances [of British and French victories in World War I, and the establishment of mandated territories] gave them suddenly a country to govern, it was not gratitude to fate and their patrons that they felt, but rather that they were cheated of their dream. They had desired an Arab country and an Arab state, and they got Iraq

with its wholly invented, Frankenstein monster of a geography. The new gridwork of states cleaved the Arab nation at the same time that the end of the Caliphate had done likewise. Subsequently, these newly minted Arab nationalists denounced the imperialist dismemberment of the Arab nation and the creation of such “arbitrary and artificial” boundaries. “This was indeed true,” Kedourie wryly states, “for what otherwise can boundaries be when they spring up where none had existed before?”

Because the borderless Arab polity that these Arab nationalists aspired to was simply impossible to establish, any attempt at borders to carve up the vast desert tracts of the defunct Ottoman Empire were bound to be artificial. Thus, the whole Arab nationalist enterprise was compromised from the start. In both The Chatham House Version and Democracy and Arab Political Culture, Kedourie details the dysfunction of Iraq politics lasting almost four decades from 1921 to 1958, with its British-backed monarch imported from the Hejaz, ministerial intrigues, and tribal rebellions, further undermined by ethnic and sectarian differences, featuring massacres of Assyrians, Yazidis, and others. In all, there had been fifty-seven cabinets installed in Baghdad during this period. However, Kedourie’s is not the only point of view. Miami University Professor Adeed Dawisha, also born in Baghdad, presents in his 2009 book, Iraq: A Political History from Independence to Occupation, an equally detailed picture of those four decades in Iraq as sustaining a feisty, if tumultuous, democracy and a freewheeling press. The fact that Dawisha was born in 1944, eighteen years after Kedourie, and is Christian rather than Jewish, may partially explain his more benign view of Iraq in those decades. But we can all agree that Iraq’s experiment with democracy was for a long period of the twentieth century a close-run thing—something that should have sobered rather than inspired those calling for immediate elections in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of 2003. (Though I supported the invasion, to the detriment of my peace of mind ever since, I did warn beforehand that, “the removal of Saddam [Hussein] would threaten to disintegrate the entire ethnically riven country if we weren’t to act fast and pragmatically install people who could actually govern.”)

This long-running and tenuous experiment with limited democracy in Iraq, lauded for years in the middle of the twentieth century by respectable journalists and enthusiastic international statesmen, came crashing down at dawn, July 14, 1958. On that day, Sunni Arab nationalists, inspired by the pan-Arab coup in Egypt six years before and led by Iraqi Army colonels Abdel Karim Kassem and Abdul Salam Arif, murdered the prime minister, Nuri Al-Said, and practically the entire Hashemite royal family—a young king, his aged grandmother, aunt, servants, and so on—and handed some of the bodies over to the mob for public mutilation. “Regicide,” Kedourie says, is “peculiarly heinous and impious,” since kingship, “a storehouse of devotion and loyalty,” is a “dyke against bestiality.” More than that, the murder of the royal family in Iraq was one of the great seminal crimes of the twentieth century, like the murder of the Romanov royal family in Russia, exactly forty years earlier in July, 1918. Just as that earlier crime presaged seven horrific decades of Bolshevik rule, the 1958 coup in Baghdad presaged a series of military regimes, as one coup followed another, in the course of which Baathism was adopted, culminating in the coming to power in 1968 of Hassan al-Bakr and his powerful internal security chief, Saddam Hussein—who would prove to be Iraq’s ultimate Hobbesian nemesis. Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait revealed Arab nationalism for what it had always been: a matter of blood and iron rather than unity.

Marching on Kuwait and persecuting the Shi’ites, policies alive in the minds of the interwar Iraqi politicians, and rooted far back in Ottoman realities and inclinations, took on an added urgency under the Sunni army officers who ruled as Arab nationalists after 1958. In Kedourie’s telling, this was all an old Iraqi story. The Baghdad regime of Saddam Hussein, as well as the Baathist one next door in Damascus ruled by Hafez al-Assad, pursued a virulent pan-Arabism as a salve to their own internal contradictions. Their borders being artificial, they obtained legitimacy only from the dream of unity across all Arab frontiers. And it naturally followed that the more artificial the state, the more anti-Zionist it was. Sunni Arabs in Iraq especially, writes Kedourie, dreamed of being “the Prussia or Piedmont of a new Arab empire.” Whenever I traveled to Baghdad and Damascus in the 1980s, I was told that I was inside “the throbbing heart of Arabism.”

Syria, too, in the early- and middle-decades of the twentieth century, proved in terms of ethnicity, sect, and geography, irreconcilable to constitutional development, with frequent clashes and National Assembly chaos. There was a “lack of any traditional political bonds between Damascus and Aleppo,” Kedourie writes. “The three coups d’état of 1949 were the prelude to successive … interventions by army officers which put paid … to any possibility of Syria being governed through parliamentary and representative institutions.” Between 1947 and 1954, Syria had three national elections that all broke down according to regional, sectarian, and other differences. In February 1993, I laid this out in an argument in The Atlantic predicting that the elder “Assad’s passing may herald more chaos than a chaotic region has seen in decades.” It was precisely because Syria was ungovernable except by the most brutal means that army officers, terrified for the country’s future, bonded with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic between 1958 and 1961. But that desperate attempt of Arab unity proved short-lived because neither the Egyptians nor the Syrians could decide who would really be in charge. Syria, rather than enjoy a history of a state or empire like Iran, had always been a mere vague geographical expression between the rugged plateau of Anatolia in the north and the scorching sands of Arabia to the south. Its inhabitants had always thought of themselves as either Sunnis, Shi’ites, Druze, Greek Orthodox, Maronites, or Jews. Though they all spoke Arabic, this was of little political significance until following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. The post-World War I borders drawn by the British and French, though denounced for a hundred years now by historians, journalists, and other experts, are treated with much more detachment by Kedourie. The new borders “would of necessity be in the nature of a compromise. It is inappropriate to demand that political settlements should be ‘natural’ or ‘logical.’ Politics is neither like a geometrical theorem, nor like the mating instinct.”