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.

Thus Kedourie, the Jew on the ground in a murderous, unstable Arab region, undermines the lofty and guilt-ridden judgment of a British luminary, Arnold Toynbee, who sees the same region through a redemptive moralism. Kedourie’s realism not only puts him in a category with such great thinkers of the genre as Hans Morgenthau, Robert Strausz-Hupe, and Henry Kissinger, but he actually adds a vital layer to their worldview by, again, anchoring his extended argument in a human rights tragedy interwoven with obscure events, that he personally witnessed.

THE FACT that pan-Arabism has in recent decades been replaced by Islamism is not a contradiction but, once more, part of the same old story, according to Kedourie. Pan-Islamism was employed by the Ottomans to justify their empire in the Middle East. And given that the Arab world is the cradle of Islam, Islamism is conceived by the Arabs as a force of unity, just as Arab nationalism formerly was. The fact that one movement is religious and the other secular is of secondary importance, especially since secularism is a Western construct, even as religion has always infused the Arab world to a degree that the West has not known since the days when it was called Christendom.

This brings us to another unpleasant realization of Kedourie’s: the fact that whereas Western liberal thought is more at home defining conflicts abroad as between good guys and bad guys, the Middle East features contests where it is often bad guys versus bad guys. As Kissinger quipped about the 1980s’ Iran-Iraq War, “it’s a pity both sides can’t lose.” Whereas the elder Assad’s killing of 20,000 people with troops, airplanes, and tanks in the Syrian city of Hama in February 1982 was a great tragedy, had the secular Arab nationalist Assad been defeated there, with the Sunni Moslem Brothers emerging victorious, “they would have wreaked as great a destruction” on Syria as Assad’s Baath party had done. “Here,” writes Kedourie, “were two absolutist ideologies in confrontation, and between them no space was left at all for constitutional government even to breathe.”

Alas, the Arab world since independence following World War II has journeyed from pan-Arab nationalism to an interlude of revolutionary Marxism in the late 1960s (enthralled to certain radical Palestinian groups) and finally to religious fundamentalism. It all broke down in the streets of civil war-torn Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, and more recently in the genocidal terror and communalism of Iraq and Syria in the early twenty-first century—which the essence of Kedourie’s scholarship saw coming. The Americans not only created the havoc in Iraq after 2003, they also exposed what was lurking there all along. The very extremity of Saddam’s methodical murder machine was partially a function of the society he had to keep under control. Had Kedourie lived a decade longer he might have given Bush the younger better council than he got before invading Iraq. True, Kedourie might have championed the urge of imperialism on the part of the Americans. But more to the point, he would have delivered pitiless, unvarnished advice on the nature of Iraqi politics and society throughout the twentieth century, warning the president that to invade was to govern, and to govern such a place required no illusions about the nature of human perversity. “Good luck, and expect the worst,” he might have said to Bush.

But will Kedourie always be proven right? At the end of Democracy and Arab Political Culture, he notes that democracy had been tried for decades in Arab countries and “uniformly failed.” Arab regimes may have been despotic, but their methods “were understood and accepted” by the populations themselves. Yet the spread of Western ideas into the Middle East has complicated that thesis, he admits. How far have such ideas gone? Even the Arab Spring, as I’ve said, came along too early. Yet, the spread of ideas through technology is inexorable in a more urbanized and claustrophobic world. The mass eruptions of hope for a more liberal society in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, beautifully evoked in Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif’s memoir, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, constituted a veritable festival of ideas and inspiration, based on the belief that young Egyptians could, in fact, “change the world.” But now, in 2020, we know that all that happened was the resumption of the dynasty of despotic, Nasserite pharaohs, with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi proving to be more bloody and ruthless than Mubarak even. Others will try though, and in the end may yet prove Kedourie wrong.

But it could well be a long process, in which protesters will have to adhere to that tough measurement set by Albert Camus, who, in The Rebel (1951), declared that those who rise up against central authority must lay out a better regime with which to replace it, or else they, too, are morally inadequate. Kedourie in his lifetime never saw Camus’ standard met in the Middle East. Only in 1979 in Iran was a regime toppled and an equally developed framework of authority quickly put in its place. The Iranian Revolution, as repugnant as it has been, was the product of an age-old state and civilization harking back to antiquity, with a penchant for philosophy and abstractions. Few places in the Arab world evince the sophistication of Iran. The Iranian Revolution was a true world-historical event, unlike the coups in the Arab world. Meanwhile, we still wait, even as flash mobs in Iraq, which have no realistic alternative in mind, roil the Baghdad government. And so the Middle East as it still exists, with some exceptions, is the same one that Kedourie describes in his historical analyses. Uncomfortable, unappealing to many as his work may be, the searing quality of his analysis is such that we can only label it as timeless.

Robert D. Kaplan is a senior adviser at Eurasia Group. He is the author of nineteen books, including, The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian, to be published in October by Random House.

Image: Reuters