Category Archives: History

Thought of the day

It doesn't look that complicated, does it?

I have an Afhgan friend here in Cairo. He’s a brilliant guy, who is both endlessly proud of and frustrated with his country and he loves to give me history lessons. Recently, he brought two fascinating facts to my attention.

First, he boldly asserted over dinner the other day that every single “white” country in the world has invaded Afghanistan. Putting aside the problem of what “white” is–according to the US census Arabs fall under that category—he is pretty much right. Every Eastern European country contributed to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which lasted from 1979 to 1989. So that knocks out a good bunch of “white” countries.

But what about the American-led occupation? Has every single country in Europe and North America contributed troops? Surely, I thought, Sweden doesn’t have soldiers in Afghanistan. I was wrong. Iceland? They do. Macedonia? Yeah. New Zealand? Check.

The second thing he told me, just a few days later, was that Afghanistan is the only Muslim majority country that hasn’t been colonized. This is a little more complicated. Turkey has always been independent. Iran was never formally colonized, but lost half of its territory to to Russia during a war in the Nineteenth Century. Modren day Saudi Arabia was never conquered by an empire, but, as my friend pointed out, all of the strategic positions on the Arabian Peninsula—the coastal parts that would later become the Gulf countries and Yemen—actually were colonized.

The reset of the Muslim world is pretty easy. Name a Muslim-majority country and its former colonial ruler is easy. Egypt? Britain. Azerbaijan? Soviet Union. Comoros? France. Indonesia? The Netherlands.

These facts might sound like trivia, but I think they’re they are telling. I hope they made it into a briefing memo in Washington at some point.


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Filed under Afghanistan, History

Brits are Syrian

Via Josh Landis’s Syria Comment blog:

Most Britons are direct descendants of farmers who left modern day Iraq and Syria 10,000 years ago, a new study has shown.

After studying the DNA of more than 2,000 men, researchers say they have compelling evidence that four out of five white Europeans can trace their roots to the Near East.

That’s right. Most Europeans are from the Middle East. Take that, European Islamophobia!!! The Arabs already took over.

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Restored relations

The State Department announced today that the United States will be sending an ambassador to Syria for the first time in four years.  I, of course, welcome this news and want to congratulate Washington on its sound thinking.  When I wrote my thesis about the Syrian Crisis of 1957 last semester, I spent a lot of time thinking about the future of American-Syrian relations.  I wrote in the conclusion of my paper:

Today, Syria holds the same place in Middle Eastern politics that it did in the 1950s. It is a weak state, but a pivotal actor. Despite Syria’s small military, negligible economy and unimportance as a cultural center, the country still has the potential to alter the balance of power on a number of important regional issues, such as Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the perpetual political turmoil in Lebanon. If Washington wants to solve these problems, it will have to engage Damascus. A successful American foreign policy will reject the rigid thinking that dominated the Cold War years (and resurfaced during the Bush Administration) and appreciate the complexities of the Middle East.

This paper was written during the first one hundred days of the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama. It remains too early to see what course the new administration will take toward Syria, but there are indications that it will pursue engagement with the Assad regime. On March 3, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the State Department was sending to high-level envoys to Syria for negotiations about relations with Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This act alone demonstrates a departure from the Bush Administration’s policy of isolating and undermining Syria.

Where Syrian-American relations will go next is unclear. Hopefully, President Obama, his successors, and the rest of the American foreign policy establishment can learn from history and resist the temptation to view Middle Eastern politics in stark dichotomies, avoid attempts at regime change that subvert democracy and arouse suspicion, and refrain from the use of covert action as a tool for foreign policy. These are the important lesson that Syrian Crisis of 1957 can teach us. They are lessons that we cannot afford to ignore.

Today’s news indicates a step in the right direction.  Obama seems unlikely to repeat Eisenhower’s–or Bush’s–fatal mistakes in Syria.

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Filed under College, Diplomacy, History

Thoughts on an old book

Eric Alterman has a good post about William Appleman Williams’s famous book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy.  Williams’s book feels a bit dated now–it was clearly written before post-structuralism and post-colonial theory infected the American academy–but it’s a good book nonetheless, for its groundbreaking status if nothing else.  Alterman writes:

What’s so striking about Tragedy‘s lasting impact is that it was a full frontal attack on almost everything Americans believed about themselves, to say nothing of the heroic tales told about our nation’s history in college classrooms. Williams–who began publishing in The Nation in the late 1950s–did not merely blame America’s leaders for the imperfect execution of their overly idealistic ambitions, a common refrain since the end of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency in 1921. As Bradford Perkins noted in 1984, Williams proffered a “fundamental assault on the merits of American objectives” themselves.

Tragedy sought to demonstrate that the American empire was no accident. Rather, it was the natural result of what Williams called the American Weltanschauung–a German term that combines a definition of the world with an explanation of the way it works.

And it’s not just that Williams opened the door for critical histories of American foreign policy–a feat that is impressive in its own right considering that he did it during the height of the Cold War, but I read Williams’s book fifty years after it was published and found it applicable to my investigation of the history of American foreign policy.

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New Beginning?

Photo by the New York Times

Photo by the New York Times

After so much anticipation, how did President Obama’s “historic” address to the Muslim world actually turn out?  Who knows if it will actually be the “new beginning” that the Obama Administration billed it as, but it seemed to me like it hit all the right notes.

It may not be the most important thing, but Obama seemed to be making a serious effort to ingratiate himself with the Arab world.  He spoke a few words of (sometimes-mangled) Arabic, he quoted from the Qur’an with comfort, he complemented Arab history and scientific innovation.

I was impressed that from the beginning Obama recognized the treacherous legacies of colonialism, the Cold War and globalization in the Middle East.  Those aren’t obvious themes for an American president to take up, but they are important ones and I suspect that they will resonate well in the Arab world.  It also gave me great joy to hear his recognition of the 1953 coup against the democratically elected Iranian government.  If only he had mentioned the Syrian Crisis of 1957…

The best part of the speech, in my opinion, was his discussion of Israel-Palestine.  Marc Lynch sums up my feelings best:

I’m still struggling to grapple with this truly astonishing portion of his speech.  I don’t think I have ever heard any American politician, much less President, so eloquently, empathetically, and directly equate the suffering and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians. This is the one part which I have to quote:

“Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

For decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It is easy to point fingers – for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel’s founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.”

This is quite possibly the most powerful statement of America’s stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the urgent need for justice on both sides that I have ever heard.  He posed sharp challenges to Israelis and Palestinians alike, directly addressing the realities of Palestinian life under occupation and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza while also empathizing with Israeli fears.  He positioned the U.S. as the even-handed broker it needs to be:  “America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs.” Left unsaid, but clearly in the background, was the fact that he has been matching those words with deeds by forcefully taking on the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

This won’t satisfy most Arabs, I suspect.  The fact that Obama reaffirmed America’s “unbreakable” bond with the Jewish state will probably alone be enough to leave many with a bad taste.  Regardless, I think it is becoming clear that Obama is taking a more even-handed approach to the Israel-Palestine problem than any American leader before him. Israel is still the United States’ ally–that will not change–but it appears that Obama genuinely believes that securing Palestinian statehood should be a priority and he is willing to commit himself to that.  That’s nothing to scoff at.

Did I have any problems with the speech?  It’s hard to say.  I wish that more emphasis had been given to democracy and rejecting authoritarianism, but I know that that would have been diplomatically dicey after his day with King Abdullah yesterday and meetings with Mubarak today.

I think that if Obama really wanted to score serious points with the Arab street he could have come closer to recognizing the trauma that the United States has inflicted on the Muslim world, particularly over the past few years.  Ali Abunimah, with whom I do not agree on most things, makes this point:

It was disappointing that Obama recycled his predecessor’s notion that “violent extremism” exists in a vacuum, unrelated to America’s (and its proxies’) exponentially greater use of violence before and after September 11, 2001. He dwelled on the “enormous trauma” done to the US when almost 3,000 people were killed that day, but spoke not one word about the hundreds of thousands of orphans and widows left in Iraq – those whom Muntazer al-Zaidi’s flying shoe forced Americans to remember only for a few seconds last year. He ignored the dozens of civilians who die each week in the “necessary” war in Afghanistan, or the millions of refugees fleeing the US-invoked escalation in Pakistan.

The Arab reactions to the speech that I’ve read so far haven’t been  kind, but I think that’s probably because it is mostly well-educated leftists who are blogging/Tweeting in English.  But I think that people are reading Obama wrong.  For example, when Obama called Cairo a “timeless city,” Will from KabobFest asked if the line was “just one of those Orientalist tropes his speechwriter read in some Bernard Lewis book or Egyptian tourism pamphlet?”

President Obama is a former professor, a well-educated liberal who used to read Frantz Fanon when he was in college.  The American president is not listening to Bernard Lewis anymore.  That’s going to be hard for a lot of people to accept–they’ve become so accustomed to dismissing and disdaining American leaders.  But hopefully it is a transformation that will happen soon.

An Egyptian friend of mine suggested that Arab bloggers and analysts are skeptical and angry out of fear that Obama’s charm is part of some elaborate conspiracy.  I suppose, though, that it is in a way an elaborate conspiracy.  The aim of the conspiracy is to make large parts of the world stop hating the United States.


Filed under Democracy, Diplomacy, History, Israel-Palestine, Terrorism


We were discussing Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal in my intro to modern Middle East history class today.  As the conversation moved toward Nasser’s charisma and popularity someone in the class suggested that Colonel Nasser had a lot in common with President Obama.  The discussion quickly turned sophomoric, which maybe shouldn’t be surprising considering how many of my classmates are sophomores.  But it was interesting food for thought.

I don’t think one can really make serious comparisons between a military dictator and a democratically elected president, regardless of either one’s charisma or popularity level.  I also think that the Nasser-Obama comparison doesn’t do justice to Nasser’s status as a nationalist leader, specifically an Arab nationalist leader.  Nor does it appreciate what Obama is and stands for–whatever that might be.  Food for thought, nonetheless.

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Postmodern Holocaust denial?

There’s an interesting dialogue at Standpoint Online (I’d never heard of it before) between Israeli author AB Yehoshua and British author Howard Jacobson.  (Via Jeffrey Goldberg, of course.)  I don’t agree with everything they say, but really appreciate their discussion the legacy of the Holocaust and how it intersects with discourse about Israel:

AB Yehoshua: …Where is this coming from, this extraordinary hostility, this attempt to deprive the Jewish people of its unique suffering?

Howard Jacobson: I can tell you what it is, but I’m not sure I can tell you where it comes from, because it comes from many sources; from outside Jews, and also very crucially from within Judaism. Lots of Jews are up to this trick, or whatever we call it. I see it as a new and much more sinister kind of Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial we can deal with now. Most of the world knows about it. We recognise the look of the people who do it and we know the nonsense of it, we just leave them alone and let them get on with it. But this is much more sinister and much more appealing, this one goes: “It was a terrible thing that happened to the Jews. We all know what a terrible thing Auschwitz was. Look, we concede it, you poor Jews.” It’s necessary that they demonstrate their degree of empathy for us. But what follows the sympathy is an analysis – a psychoanalysis – that is far from sympathetic: “You were traumatised by the Holocaust into visiting a Holocaust of your own upon the Palestinians.” It’s like the abused child who grows up and abuses the next child. We are now described as abusing the Palestinians in exactly the same terms as the Germans abused us – “abused” for God’s sake! And in this way, we are actually made to pay for the Holocaust itself. I talk about it as a kind of retrospective guilt for the Holocaust. It’s almost as if we’ve turned time the wrong way round, that because of what we are now doing to the Palestinians, we lose the right to the dignity of the Holocaust, if you can call it dignity.

This is a very sinister move. It’s at the heart of the Caryl Churchill play [Seven Jewish Children, performed at the Royal Court Theatre] and you get a lot of it at the universities, because it’s appealing in its neatness, it’s vaguely post-modern, you can mention Freud, you can chase around the names of several fashionable intellectuals. It is also very sinister, because it begs the question of what Israel is in fact doing or not doing to the Palestinians. Jewish trauma elides into Palestinian trauma, the cruelty Jews suffered into the cruelty Jews now dispense. It is not only that unequal things are equalised, but that the equalising settles the question of what is happening between the waring parties. Accept that the done-to have become the doers and the issue is settled…

I have to say I agree with Jacobson here.  It’s an absurd and tragic symptom of the obsession with collective psychology that we are even engaging in this discussion.  Despite all of Israel’s shortcomings when it comes to human rights,it is despicable to me to equate the Israelis with Nazis.  I think that Jacobson begins to explain why.

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Filed under History, Israel-Palestine, Jews, Postmodernism