“American Orientalism” by Douglas Little

by Joshua H. Liberatore

American Orientalism, Douglas Little’s sweeping thematic survey of American foreign policy in the Middle East since 1945, was published in the fall of 2002, just as the Bush Administration was beginning the hard work of lying to both Congress and the United Nations that Iraq was a central front in the “war on terror” and that Saddam Hussein had ties to the September 11 hijackers. October 2002 is a date rich in irony for Little’s subject, just months before those lies inveigled our armies and our national resources into a full-scale foreign policy calamity but long enough after the attacks of Black Tuesday for it to be equally apparent that the mission in Afghanistan was plagued by the same misunderstandings and arrogance that had characterized Middle East policy for two generations and that, thus, a review of that recent history was urgently necessary, if not long overdue. Little builds on the pioneering work of Edward Said, whose original application of the term “orientalism” was in the fields of literary criticism, history, and anthropology but obviously had foreign policy implications as well, implications on which Said himself wrote with consummate wisdom and accuracy. Orientalism, in short, is a set of attitudes, clung to in the West but in particular by Americans, positing the Arab or the Muslim or the entire Middle East as fundamentally Other, exotic, irrational, and prone to fanaticism and violence. The theory itself is rather complex, but Little observes with conviction that its manifestation in politics has been nakedly simple for over 60 years.

    American Orientalism is particularly useful because of its convenient organization into broad themes of diplomatic history. After introducing the general history of orientalist attitudes in American culture, working back from Mark Twain’s insights in Innocents Abroad and citing specific films and popular magazines, Little undertakes an administration-by-administration analysis of Middle East policy from various lenses: oil acquisition, democratization and regime change, Arab-Israeli negotiations, Cold War detente, and counterterrorism. Each chapter thus overlaps in chronology but explores in depth a different aspect of this layered history in Middle East relations. The desired effect of this arrangement, I suspect, is not to achieve a mere reinforcement of detail but principally to assert the vexing interconnectedness (and often deleterious interaction) of these various factors in shaping U.S. foreign policy, even when publically, only one or even none is acknowledged as the primary motivation. This convergence is critical to our understanding of our government’s perennial missteps in the Middle East, for just as our cultural imagination has tended to simplify “orientals” as backward, monolithic, and untrustworthy, our leaders have consistently simplified our actions and commitments in the Middle East. And we have allowed them to do so out of ignorance and laziness.

    Although Little was writing before the extent of the Iraq fiasco became painfully clear, the themes of arrogant overstepping, persistent underestimating, and bullish miscalculating were sufficiently well documented for anyone who cared to look. Middle East policy since World War II was never coherent or consistent, was always expensive in treasure and lives, and has always overshadowed other international priorities with mounting detriment. In his section on the American involvement in Arab-Israeli conflicts, Little cites Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban’s blunt adage that “the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” which in turn becomes a kind of leit motif for the behavior of all parties in the region. Little concedes the truth of Eban’s remark for Palestinian actions from 1948 to 1967, but faults the Israelis for succumbing to the same defeatism since the Six-Day War through the present. The phrase also applies to the many American presidents and State Department officials who have tried to tackle the conflict, and may well serve as a global mantra for our more recent efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq and the intensifying rhetoric against Iran and Syria, all of which bear the marks of an orientalist heritage not yet shaken in the American consciousness.

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