Elie Kedourie (1926-1992) was a rigorous interpreter of Middle Eastern history and contemporary affairs, famous for his penetrating style and principled conservatism. In 1970 he published an essay on “The Middle East and the Powers,” as the opening piece in a collected volume named after its most renowned article, The Chatham House Version. Below, we reproduce a key passage from that article (in green, beneath Kedourie’s photograph), on the dangers of illusion-driven diplomacy. In response to our invitation, MESH members Charles Hill offers reflections on Kedourie’s position, and MESH members Bruce Jentleson and Barry Rubin offer comments.
“The sober assumption that Middle Eastern instability is today endemic has found little favour either in Britain or in America. The prevalent fashion has been to proclaim the latest revolution as the herald of a new day, and the newest turbulence as the necessary and beneficent prelude to an epoch of orderliness and justice.
|“The meliorism of western liberals, the activist categories and the hopeful concepts of their political science go far to explain such an attitude, as also their conviction that a stable, universal peace will ensue only when the world is composed of democratic and progressive nation-states. Whatever the truth of this dogma, it is not one which a statesman should entertain, and indeed it is irrelevant to him whether the events with which he has to cope are milestones on a road leading somewhere, or mere variations on an eternal theme eternally repeated.|
|“The ultimate significance of social and political change, and the remote consequences of action, are dim and uncertain. The power of chance, the accident of personality, the ritual of tradition, and the passions of men are always at work to mock benevolence and denature its contrivances. It is enough for practical men to fend off present evils and secure existing interests. They must not cumber themselves with historical dogmas, or chase illusions in that maze of double talk which western political vocabulary has extended over the whole world.”|
|Elie Kedourie, “The Middle East and the Powers,” Chatham House Version and other Middle-Eastern Studies, 1970.|
From Charles Hill
I talked with Elie Kedourie almost twenty years ago, when he was nearing the end of his days and had come to visit the Hoover Institution at Stanford. In my view, no wiser head has ever spoken on the endlessly tangled and violent history of the Middle East.
This quotation from his essay on “The Middle East and the Powers” could stand as a definitive pronouncement on the American diplomatic and foreign policy approach to the region across recent decades during which the United States saw itself as the indispensable manager of the “Peace Process.”
One reason for what Kedourie called the “meliorism of western liberals” simply has been that dimension of American national character which has proved resistless to the lure of “problem solving” in the belief that all peoples everywhere want the same things we want and given a fair chance would eagerly seize the opportunity to turn themselves into good neighbors, resolving their local feuds and cooperating with the larger outside world. No American president has been able to sit still when such a prospect has beckoned.
Of course there has been a second propellant of this approach: the diplomatic community often labeled as “Arabists.” This group comprises a set of sub-groups ranging from entrenched opponents of Israel committed to the position that the Jewish State should never have been permitted to come into existence and recognized as a state in the international system, to those who have remained convinced that a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict has all along been the one and only key to peace, progress, and harmony all across the Middle East, to those who see primarily a human rights “tragedy” involving a muscle-bound Israeli bully pummeling a helpless Palestinian refugee population in ways that damage the former more than the latter. Taken together, all these varieties of “Arabism” have greatly enhanced the project of the Arab regimes to propagandize and subsidize their own populations into an anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, anti-American frenzy that draws their ire away from the oppressions and depredations of the Arab regimes themselves.
Third are the American statesmen who, from one angle of vision, might appear to adhere to Elie Kedourie’s view that “It is enough for practical men to fend off present evils and secure existing interests.” But even these policy-makers found cause to conduct American diplomacy in ways difficult to distinguish from lesser and obviously tendentious officials. Henry Kissinger stressed the importance of maintaining stability and balance in the region, an approach not to be lured into dreams of major, epochal breakthroughs. But Kissinger too considered that at least periodic efforts to focus on and try to push forward an Arab-Israeli negotiating track were essential to his larger “Realist” strategy. George Shultz was the exemplar of the belief that America’s philosophy is Pragmatism. Within this intellectual context Shultz recognized that “nothing is ever settled” either in Washington or in the Middle East. Yet he too was always ready to take up one or another perceived opening in the “peace process,” on the purely pragmatic reasoning that “it’s necessary to be seen to be actively engaged in peace-making; when nothing appears to be going on, the situation region-wide rapidly deteriorates.”
So all this would seem to validate Elie Kedourie’s “sober assumption” that Middle Eastern instability is endemic, and that “It is enough for practical men to fend off evils” rather than “chase illusions”—even though no practitioners of statecraft ever seem to be capable of following that advice.
So Kedourie-ites have, with much justification, taken the position that, as far as the wider world is concerned, the Middle East has been, is, and will continue to be, “the bad part of town,” and therefore that the best approach toward the region is to seek to “manage” and contain it and, above all, never to press forward in the hope of achieving a rapid breakthrough or even of bringing some form of slowly progressing change. To try to do so, they suggest, runs terrible risks of inciting even greater violence launched by those who will cite their frustration with yet another failure to deliver on heightened expectations.
But a new factor has to be considered. Simply put, it is that the Middle East, the bad part of town, has so deteriorated that its pathologies are being spat out into other regions of the world, through tactics of mass terrorist slaughter and ever-spreading cultural and religious intimidation—accompanied of course by vast petro-wealth and a radical ideology that proposes to overthrow and replace the established international state system.
So it seems that the approaches of Realism or Pragmatism, even were they to prove able to follow Elie Kedourie’s advice to eschew Meliorism, are not sufficient to deal with the new magnitude of this danger. President Bush’s post-9/11 strategy to try to bring about the “transformation of the Greater Middle East” through, inter alia, the use of major military power, pressures for political reform from democratization to just plain “good governance,” working for changed information and communications standards, offering cultural exchanges, imposing targeted sanctions, fostering integration into the global economy, arguing for women’s rights and, to be sure, seeing a necessity to try to include the Israel-Palestinian confrontation in this overall strategy, amounts to an historic shift in American policy necessitated by an historic expansion of the threat to world order posed by the malignancies of the Middle East.
The question then seems to be: If not this, then what?
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