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The Creeping Senility of Bernard Lewis

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Recently I was up at Princeton listening to some faculty trade barbs about Bernard Lewis.
Lewis is a media darling, but some folks who deal with Middle East studies as a profession think his ideas are off the rails. I first chalked this up to academic envy–Lewis writes interesting books, and his work on The Assassins in particular is a classic. But having read his last op-ed piece at the Wall Street Journal, I see what the critics mean.

Lewis does a side-by-side comparison of United States and Soviet foreign policy towards the Middle East. Evidently, Americans are weaklings who can’t stay through a conflict, who withdraw when barracks are bombed in Beirut (oh my God, an attack on Ronald Reagan) and now who are preparing to quit Iraq. On the other hand, Soviets have gumption and staying power, which explains why they are so damned successful.

If you did anything to annoy the Russians, punishment would be swift and dire. If you said or did anything against the Americans, not only would there be no punishment; there might even be some possibility of reward, as the usual anxious procession of diplomats and politicians, journalists and scholars and miscellaneous others came with their usual pleading inquiries: “What have we done to offend you? What can we do to put it right?”

So, Lewis puts it to us that the Soviets had exactly the right approach to the Middle East.

Which explains several things. The glorious victory of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan against the mujahedeen, for instance. Then the spectacular fashion in which the Russians smashed the Chechen Islamicists in the North Caucasus. And the effective Russian suppression of the Muslim upstart states in the Soviet Union’s southern periphery, followed by the spread of fraternal Russian treaty relationships across the Muslim world.

Obviously, Prof. Lewis is living in a different universe from the one I inhabit. In mine, the Soviet Union is no more, with its empire having been consigned to the dung heap of history. The Russians were reduced to a peripheral role in the Middle East, largely the consequence of the historic setback that the Soviet Union faced in Afghanistan and the failure of a policy that leveraged rogue states and terrorist organizations.

But one thing about Lewis’s analysis impresses me. He has a penchant for seeing things exactly the way that the leadership of Al Qaeda does. He wants the United States to stick it out in Iraq, committing ever greater numbers of troops and more matériel. And they’re delighted with this prospect. It’s given them a recruitment tool of which they previously couldn’t even have dreamt.

I’m no expert in the Middle East, of course. But neither, it seems, is Bernard Lewis.

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