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  • Imagining the Middle East: The Building of an American Foreign Policy, 1918–1967
  • Dr. Lawrence Davidson (bio)
Imagining the Middle East: The Building of an American Foreign Policy, 1918–1967, by Matthew F. Jacobs. 318 pages. $39.95.

Matthew Jacobs has written a competent book describing the various groups and individuals that sought to shape American perceptions of and policies in the Middle East from the end of World War I to just after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. A brief epilogue brings the story up to the present.

Jacobs’s thesis is that these various elements constituted an “informal network” the individual participants of which “shared a professional and policy-oriented interest in the Middle East” (p. 4). They were mostly missionaries, academics, businessmen, and diplomats, but eventually included ideologically- driven lobbyists. Collectively, their influence created “mutually reinforced ways of understanding the region that helped to establish the boundaries of debate” (p. 10).

Though of differing origins and occupations, each of these groups “imagined” the Middle East based on assumptions derived from American culture and history. According to Jacobs, the primary assumption was that the United States had a “secular and sacred” mission to better the world along with the “authority, expertise and knowledge” to achieve this goal (p. 35). The interests and desires of indigenous populations, such as the Arabs, were often ignored or misunderstood.

Jacobs shows how this network of experts evolved over time from a generation of missionaries (and often their adult children) with direct experience in the Middle East, to a generation of academic area specialists and diplomats, to a generation of State Department bureaucrats and lobbyists. As this evolution took place the Middle East became “imagined” in terms of “problems:” the problem of religion (Islam), the problem of modernization, the problem of charismatic leaders and mass politics, and finally the problem of the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All of these problems were influenced by other, parallel issues such as war (cold and hot), economics (oil), and ideology (Zionism).

It was the participants of the informal network who struggled to solve these problems by influencing US foreign policy in one direction or another. As Jacobs tells us, they did not always agree, but they did generally agree that there were multiple issues impacting US interests in the region. Also, their range of credentials sufficiently impressed politicians and government officials to keep them in the policy making loop. All this lasted until about 1967. Then, within a decade, the informal network fell apart.

Jacobs’s last chapter and epilogue tells the sad story of this demise. The author is careful to describe this collapse in neutral terms. “Overall, the inability to come to terms with the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict demonstrated the limits of the network’s influence and abilities when confronted by an issue large and politically powerful segments of the U.S. population cared very deeply about” (p. 234). [End Page 390]

What this translates into is something like this: the array of experts who provided input on the Middle East to policy makers for the first 60 or so years of the 20th century were experts in the affairs of that region. Very few of these were also experts in Zionist affairs, which, after all, was in its origins a European affair. And almost none of them saw why the interests of Zionists should trump what they considered to be the interests of the United States relative to millions of Arabs. However, by 1967 the Zionists were so influential in the country’s domestic politics that they were able to transform Israel and its interests into an “imagined” extension of US interests. So influential did they become that they were able to eventually dictate the “boundaries of debate” for US policy in much of the Middle East.

Under these circumstances, only those members of the informal network who were willing to adopt the Zionist criteria for successful policy formation were now given a hearing by politicians and government officials. So the informal network collapsed. Now there was (and continues to be) one, formal, well-financed and rather ruthless “lobby” to offer its “expertise.”

Lawrence Davidson

Dr. Lawrence Davidson, Department...


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pp. 390-391
Launched on MUSE
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