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.

Kedourie is clearly without sympathy. But this does not make him wrong.

AS I have written previously, the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and the result was chaos; the United States did not intervene in Syria in 2011 and the result was also chaos. While the media blames U.S. policy for what transpired, the deeper reason is the legacy of Baathism—a toxic mix of Arab nationalism and East Bloc-style socialism, hammered out in fascist-trending 1930s Europe by two members of the Damascene middle class, one Christian and the other Muslim: Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din Bitar. Because Saddam’s aging Baathist regime in Iraq either would not have survived the Arab Spring or would have ignited mass killing in an attempt at survival, the result there, even if George W. Bush had not invaded, might well have been chaos. Indeed, it was only the empty shell of Baathism that lay between the richly developed civilization of Iran and the Mediterranean Sea, making Iran’s empire of proxy militias inevitable. Smarter American policy might well have ameliorated the result, but that would have required a worldview similar to Kedourie’s.

Baathism, writes Kedourie, was built on “annihilation.” Because it was a rickety edifice of utopian principles, in practice it was all about whatever tribe and clan happened to wield power. In Syria, the ruling, Shia-trending Alawites oppressed the Sunnis; and in Iraq, the Sunnis oppressed the Shia. In the 1970s and 1980s, it made, in Ajami’s words, Syria and Iraq “prisons,” even as Lebanon writhed in “anarchy.” Whenever I was in Iraq under Saddam, I compared it in my mind to Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania, where I also went repeatedly in the 1980s, and which was the most pulverizing tyranny in the East Bloc. Syria was actually less extreme. You could have conversations there, ride buses alone throughout the country, and file dispatches from the telex machine at any post office. But in both Iraq and to a lesser extent in Syria, I always sensed a terrifying emptiness and extremity: anarchy hidden under the carapace of tyranny. Baathism, like Nasserism in Egypt, was a dead end. Such was the sum-total of Britain’s and France’s colonial experiment in the Fertile Crescent. Bitter, no doubt, at his own childhood memory of the Farhud, Kedourie writes, “it is the British themselves who cheerfully led the way into these wastes.”

The British in Iraq had championed the Sunnis, “tamed the Shi’ites and Kurds and made it clear to the Jews, the Assyrians and the other groups that they had to look to Faisal [the Hashemite monarch] and his men for their protection and welfare.” The new constitution, meanwhile, denied any safeguards for these communities. Kedourie rails against “the hysterical mendacity of Colonel [T. E.] Lawrence” and “the brittle cleverness and sentimental enthusiasm of Miss [Gertrude] Bell,” both of whom Hollywood has made such heroes. He accuses Lawrence of, among other things, lying about the capture of Damascus in 1918 and afterwards becoming obsessed with finding a country in the Fertile Crescent for his beloved Sharifian dynasty to rule. Unsurprisingly, he considers Lawrence’s epic, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922), bad history, “full of advocacy and rhetoric.” As for Miss Bell, she demonstrates little more than a “fond foolishness … thinking to stand godmother to a new Abbasid empire.” This is all vanished history now, part of a lost world. But Kedourie brings it alive with his biting, sustained, and righteous passion. Of course, what burns in his memory is the Farhud, whose antecedents included the naivete and dishonesty of British policy in the Middle East since the end of World War I. Because The Chatham House Version depends for its emotional ballast so much on a singular human rights atrocity, it constitutes moral history.

It is important to underline why again Kedourie hates the British in the Middle East so much. It is not because of imperialism or illogical borders or the other fashionable things historians and journalists now chirp about. It is because he demands a Leviathan to protect men from other men. He understands a hard, sometimes unpalatable truth: that Thomas Hobbes was a moral philosopher, who wrote that without the coercive power of some authority monopolizing the use of violence, the weak cannot be protected from the strong. The Jews of Baghdad required a Leviathan to protect them, and the British failed in their responsibility to do so. Under the Ottoman Empire, the Jews at least enjoyed “communal standing and self-government.” Kedourie, with his defense of imperialism, is a reactionary with decades of evidence to back him up, and is therefore hard to dismiss.

To be fair, the illogic of British policy was driven by the realization that they were determined to leave Iraq, and therefore told themselves that the situation there was improving even if it was not. Their rush to leave robbed them of the illusion of permanence which is the essence of successful imperialism.

THIS ALL ends up at Chatham House, intellectually presided over for so many years by Arnold Toynbee, the author of the formidable twelve-volume Study of History, recording twenty-six world civilizations, and published between 1946 and 1957. The Chatham House Version is the term used by Kedourie to encompass “assumptions, attitudes, and a whole intellectual style” that roughly justified and ran parallel to the worldview of the likes of Col. Lawrence and Miss Bell. I have always found Toynbee’s great life work, as unwieldy as it is, to be quite useful and entertaining. His very emphasis on geography, history, and civilizations is a remedy to the way that policy studies have been sterilized by too much political science. Toynbee is just so creatively illuminating on so many topics. For example, his understanding of how in the Middle East there has been a vague historical alliance between the Arabs, Greek Orthodox, and Armenians against the Jews, Turks, and Persians (something that the ayatollahs have obviously upset); how overly militarized empires like Assyria have virtually disappeared from history; how history is a repetition of hubris and downfall; and so much else. Nevertheless, Kedourie is of a different view. He doesn’t deliver merely one of literature’s most brilliant hatchet jobs on Toynbee—a genre that can often be cruel more to the purpose of entertainment than to elucidation. Rather, he patiently explains how Toynbee’s interpretation of the Middle East—and of the Arab world in particular—does not hold up to the record of what has actually happened there since the nineteenth century.

Toynbee’s entire worldview is wanting, according to Kedourie. Toynbee places too little emphasis on economics and institution-building, or the lack thereof, in a region. Toynbee extolls culture and despises politics, even as it is politics that must be engaged in to make the world livable. Toynbee’s “dogmatic and insistent moralism … refuses to concede what common experience teaches, namely that the wicked do quite often flourish like the green bay tree, that in human affairs force and violence are occasionally decisive…” And, as you might expect, there is the issue of the Jews. Running throughout Toynbee’s voluminous work is a profound note of hostility, laced with an indeterminate lack of sympathy and context, for them. Toynbee contrasts the “gentle ethos” of Christianity and Manichaeism with the “violent ethos” of Maccabean Judaism and Sasanian Zoroastrianism. He was a tried-and-true appeaser who met with Alfred Rosenberg and Adolf Hitler in 1934 and 1936 in Germany. He believed that Gandhi’s and Tolstoy’s effect on human history would, in any case, be greater than that of Hitler and Stalin, since all politics is “tainted with cynicism.” To wit, he persisted throughout his lifetime in believing that Palestine had been promised wholly to the Arabs.

Whereas Kedourie lives in the world of life and death of real people, Toynbee seems to inhabit a more beautiful, ethereal world of ideas and aesthetics. Kedourie respects the Ottoman Empire because it was cosmopolitan and afforded relative safety to minorities like the Jews. Toynbee has little use for the Ottoman Empire for thereabouts the same reason: it was a universal state that sought dominion over several cultures and civilizations, undermining their purity. Toynbee sees universal states as the mechanism for global decline, robbing as they do indigenous groups of their richness and distinctiveness. It is an interesting argument, since it would have made Toynbee, who died in 1975, a powerful intellectual opponent of globalization.

As for the Arabs, in Toynbee’s view they are the victims of the living death of Ottoman rule. He thus defends Arab nationalism as representative of a pure civilization, and accepts at face-value the pan-Arab ideal for political unity. Early in his career, Toynbee nurtured the attitude that the Arabs had been the victims of Britain’s and France’s double-dealing with them. This puts Toynbee somewhat at odds with the likes of Lawrence and Miss Bell who were variously complicit, however guiltily, in all this. Though they, like Toynbee, are far more similar than different because of their general sympathy and—Kedourie would allege—naivete towards the Arabs.

Behind the psychology of such Britons was the assumption, in Kedourie’s words, “that the world and its ways – the existence of unequal relations ‘resting ultimately on force’ – may be conjured away with high-minded covenants and pious, elevated declarations.”