The Legacy of Bernard Lewis

May 21, 2018 Topic: Society Region: Americas Tags: Middle EastHistoryIraq

The Legacy of Bernard Lewis

There were many views of the man—none alone gets us to the truth.


Bernard Lewis, who died on May 19 at the age of 101, wrote more than thirty books. Yet his favorite review of any of his works, or at least a review he referenced often and with obvious relish, was for The Middle East and the West. First published in the United States in 1964 by Indiana University Press, the book was later translated into Arabic by the Muslim Brotherhood. Lewis’s affection for the review was due to the translator not quite knowing what to make of the author.

"I don't know who this person is, but one thing is clear,” the translator wrote of Lewis in the preface. “He is, from our point of view, either a candid friend or an honest enemy . . . ." Friend or enemy, the either-or decision here is one of stark opposites. Yet it’s also a decision muddled by both sides being more or less truthful. Oddly enough, looking back at the century-plus his life spanned, the scholar, adviser, teacher, and commentator leaves a legacy that is best understood in exactly these terms—at least for now.


It depends on one’s point of view. Lewis was either a pioneer as the first professional historian to study, teach, and write Arab history in England — or he was the last of the outmoded Orientalists roundly dismissed by the late Edward Said. He was either the avuncular professor known to his students as “Uncle Bernie” — or he was the canny confidant of kings and queens, prime ministers and presidents. Either Lewis was wise to the threat of Islamic terrorism well before 9/11, sounding the alarm about Osama bin Laden as early as 1998 — or he was the first academic scribbler to gin up the idea of a “clash of civilizations,” which has soured debates about the Middle East ever since. Finally, Lewis was either more influential than anyone in shaping the West’s understanding of the Middle East over the last few decades, at a time when such understand was sorely needed — or, as the scholar most admired by neocons and neocon-adjacent hawks in the George W. Bush administration, he did more than anyone to lay the intellectual tarmac that led the United States into the Iraq War.

Each of these views is truthful, more or less. None alone gets us to the truth.

There was much more to the man who lived for 101 years, after all. Born in London before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Lewis harbored early dreams of becoming a poet. Later he made a try at the Law. Neither panned out. Instead, he followed an interest that first arose when he was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, an interest in the Middle East, beguiled as he was by all of its romance and mystery. So there and then he decided to turn his fledgling but persistent interest into a career, and to do so at a time when studying Middle Eastern history in England was at best an eccentricity. He began his studies at the University of London.

Yet as would reoccur later in his life, the politics of the present soon came crashing down on his otherwise scholarly and innocent pursuit of the past. World War II broke out. Pausing his studies and working for MI6 during the war was, as Lewis later told it, a Flemingesque detour that saw him put his burgeoning skills in foreign languages to use decoding intercepted communications. At the end of the war he shuttled from Jerusalem to Cairo, and from Damascus to Baghdad, working for British intelligence. Even decades later his recollections of WWII focused on the swashbuckling aspects of his service. The terrors of battle and the tales of innocence lost so abundant in other personal accounts were absent in his. What stuck with Lewis instead was having collided, even obliquely, with the good and the great. He lamented just missing meeting Winston Churchill (Lewis was away that day), but it was a small consolation to have met with “C,” the head of the British secret service. “I account myself very fortunate to have had a relatively comfortable war and to have come out of it alive and unscathed,” he wrote.

The war ended, but resuming academic life was no less adventuresome for Lewis. His work took him from London to Tokyo, and from Moscow to Los Angeles, with sojourns to everywhere from Khartoum to Lahore interspersed. In a coup for a young scholar, he was one of the first Westerners allowed into the Imperial Ottoman Archives in Istanbul. In 1974 he landed a post at Princeton University, where he would spend the rest of his career. New Jersey was within striking distance of Washington, D.C., and Lewis soon came to the attention of Richard Perle, then an assistant to Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. The connection would keep him more or less in the orbit of Washington politics for the next few decades.

As is often the case, Lewis’s academic work had begun by carving out narrow areas of expertise. An early subject of his was the Ismaili Shiite sect of the 11th and 12th centuries, for example. Yet after arriving at Princeton his writing increasingly aimed at, if not the general reader, then certainly the generalist policymakers in the US capital. He found a ready and receptive audience not just for his knowledge of history, but also for his uncanny ability to see just beyond the horizon of the present. In 1990, as the world was wondering what would come after the Cold War, Lewis wrote an essay in the Atlantic that referred to the conflict between the West and the Middle East as a “clash of civilizations.” Samuel Huntington liked the phrase so much that he used it as the title for his watershed work published a few years later. In 1998, too, Lewis translated for Foreign Affairs a recently composed list of grievances against the United States by a little-known religious leader of a little-known outfit of misfits and bandits. The leader was none other than Osama bin Laden. Lewis’s What Went Wrong?, a historical survey of the reaction by the Islamic world as it saw its preeminence eclipsed by the West, went to press just as the Twin Towers fell in 2001. The book became an overnight bestseller as Americans sought to understand the motivations of the murderous ideologue who headed Al Qaeda. “Osama bin Laden made me famous,” Lewis would later deadpan.

But if bin Laden brought him fame, then the runup to the Iraq War in 2003 added a note of infamy to Lewis’s legacy. His earlier consultations before the First Gulf War in 1990-1991 had brought Lewis to the attention of the then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. After 9/11, Lewis was brought in again to advise the Bush administration on the Middle East, which he did over several meetings with the president, vice president, military leaders, and members of the National Security Council. What happened next is disputed. “My role in policy making was, at most, minimal,” Lewis later pleaded, adding that he was opposed to the invasion in no uncertain terms.

Yet any opposition expressed by Lewis at the time seems to have gone unnoticed by those who were most adamant for war and most admiring of the historian. Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz explained in 2002, "Bernard has taught us how to understand the complex and important history of the Middle East, and use it to guide us where we will go next to build a better world for generations to come." Vice President Cheney said on Meet the Press in 2003, "I firmly believe, along with men like Bernard Lewis, who is one of the great students of that part of the world, that [a] strong, firm US response to terror and to threats to the United States would go a long way, frankly, toward calming things in that part of the world." The Wall Street Journal dubbed it the “Lewis Doctrine”—“fostering Mideast democracy is not only wise but imperative,” the newspaper explained.

Strength and democracy promotion, then, are what the hawks heard Lewis advise, and not without reason. “Get tough or get out” was, after all, Lewis’s own conclusion for what the United States should do in the Middle East, as he explained in a 2001 essay for National Review. There was little appetite for the latter option. Indeed, it was Lewis’s apparent eagerness for a demonstration of strength that Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush, would later says was critical in what unfolded next. “It’s that idea that we’ve got to hit somebody hard,” Scowcroft said in a 2005 essay in the New Yorker. “And Bernard Lewis says, ‘I believe that one of the things you’ve got to do to Arabs is hit them between the eyes with a big stick. They respect power.’”

It is certainly possible to read what Lewis wrote in the runup to the Iraq War and interpret it as support for an invasion. He was quick, for example, to point out that the United States had at that time largely avoided quagmires and fiascos in the Middle East. He was also adamant that in Iraq (and Iran) the popular mood was strongly pro-America and there were democratic oppositions ready and willing to form new governments. “We, in what we like to call the free world, could do much to help them, and have done little,” he wrote in 2003. Finally, he cast the democratization of the Middle East as the natural continuation of the postwar order overseen by the West. “In successive phases,” he wrote, “the free world enabled the peoples of Axis-ruled Europe and Asia to create or restore democracy. More recently, we helped give the peoples of the former Soviet bloc the opportunity to do the same, and some are well on their way. Now it is time for the countries of the Middle East to join the free world and recover their rightful place in the forefront of civilization.”