The Last Orientalist
Bernard Lewis at 90.
Jun 5, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 36 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Lewis has gained the broadest fame and notoriety for being the intellectual godfather behind the Bush administration's critique of the Muslim Middle East. To quote Ian Buruma in the New Yorker, "if anyone can be said to have provided the intellectual muscle for recent United States policy toward the Middle East it would have to be him." Pedagogically, this, too, would not have been expected. Lewis's complicated ideas are not easily compacted and translated into policy prescriptions, by him or others. He has, nevertheless, been for years a man of public affairs. In 1970, Richard Perle, as a young staffer for Washington senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, observed Lewis giving a speech, and was astonished by his eloquence ("most people speak in sentences; he spoke in paragraphs") and historical reach. Perle later introduced the Englishman to Washington. However, Lewis's comings and goings in Washington and the media have been relatively quiet for a celebrity scholar. While many of his most vocal academic critics trumpet their appearances before Congress or on cable news programs or at VIP private dinners, experience over decades has taught Lewis (if not his critics, who usually have had less knowledge of the mechanics of American governance) that dinners in Washington rarely translate into policy--at least not policy that penseurs would recognize as their own. Lewis dislikes prognostication--the common denominator of policy life in Washington--because an accomplished historian more than others knows the role that blind luck can play in turning history upside down.
And it must be said that the professor's influence has, in all probability, been overstated--both by his friends and most loudly by those who have emotionally and intellectually been unhinged by the Iraq war. Until President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his former deputy Paul Wolfowitz, and White House speech writer Michael Gerson write their memoirs, we really won't know to what extent Lewis, directly or indirectly, shaped their views of the Middle East, radical Islam, al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, and the possibilities for a post-Saddam Iraq. (When the Clinton administration was bombing Saddam's regime on a nearly daily basis in 1998, when its senior officials were routinely describing the damage that the Iraqi dictator could do to us with his WMD programs, was it also under the spell of Professor Lewis?)
I strongly doubt that Wolfowitz, long an advocate of toppling Saddam Hussein and an admirer and serious student of Lewis, pushed war primarily because of what the professor had written or said about the Middle East. When Wolfowitz remarked that a post-Saddam Iraq would be inclined toward being a more liberal state because over 50 percent of the population was female, that opinion surely didn't derive from Lewis, who has keenly understood the magnetic power of traditional Islamic teachings for both men and women, even as he has underscored the extraordinarily debilitating effect that Muslim patriarchy, with its multiple wives and concubines, has had on Islamic civilization's competitiveness. Further from Lewis than Wolfowitz, the president and the vice president in all probability didn't see the necessity for war against Saddam and the establishment of a functioning democracy after his fall primarily through a Lewisean lens. (Ditto, by the way, for most of the pro-war editors of this magazine.)
Thoughtful observers could easily have favored a policy that aimed to replace the Baathist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and to rethink America's reflexive support of the autocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where bin Ladenism was born, and been ignorant of the writings of Princeton University's most famous professor emeritus. This certainly would not have been the ideal intellectual preparation for conflict in the Middle East, but it is a situation that I suspect occurred quite often inside the administration and out. No wild-eyed, Bush-admiring Wilsonian hawk, the New Yorker's George Packer, who chronicled post-Saddam Iraq in his magazine and in the book The Assassin's Gate, doesn't appear particularly influenced by Bernard Lewis's oeuvre, yet he supported the war, however riddled with angst and foreboding. Ditto for Ken Pollack, the military strategist who now hangs his hat at the liberal Brookings Institution. Pollack's The Threatening Storm in the fall of 2002 was the single most influential book explicitly arguing in favor of war against Saddam Hussein. This work is not an extended essay on the cultural, spiritual, economic, and military decay of the modern Middle East à la Bernard Lewis, yet it is a compelling argument for why sensible men could support the war and the American occupation.