America’s Dream Palace: Middle East Expertise and the Rise of the National Security State

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By: Osamah F. Khalil

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. 440 pp. $35.00. ISBN: 9780674971578

Volume: 4 Issue: 12

December 2016

Review by:

Rolin G. Mainuddin, PhD

North Carolina Central University

Durham, NC

The legendary Thomas Edward Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), a British classical scholar, remarked in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom that he hoped to inspire a “dream-palace” of “national thoughts” for the Semitic people. In taking that cue from Lawrence, Osamah Khalil names his book America’s Dream Palace. Alfred Mahan identified British imperial interest with West Asia and South Asia in referring to the region as the “Middle East.” The Middle East became coterminous with cold war interest of the United States by the mid-20th century. The author claims that foreign policy doctrines of successive administrations since Harry Truman were “directly or indirectly related” to that region. Khalil argues that Middle East area studies was tied to United States vital national security interest. In particular, there was a venue shift over time from universities to think tanks which aligned expertise and knowledge production with the United States national security establishment. In taking a historical approach, the book is divided into eight chapters: missionary knowledge, World War II expertise, overseas universities, regional studies programs, modernization framework, privatization of knowledge, and hegemonic limitations. Along with an introduction, there is an epilogue about the Arab Spring in lieu of a conclusion.

Missionaries and oil companies accounted for the two main sources of information about the Middle East before World War II. A secret attempt under the Woodrow Wilson administration was the War Data Investigation Bureau with headquarters in the New York Public Library. It was renamed The Inquiry and relocated to offices of the American Geographical Society (AGS). Under the Franklin Roosevelt administration. The Inquiry was replaced by the Office of Coordination of Information, which was itself transformed into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). In its war effort OSS turned to university campuses in establishing Research and Analysis (R&A) Branch Centers for area studies and language training of military personnel. R&A Branch was moved to the Department of State (DoS) amidst post-war security restructuring. The External Research Staff (ERS) was established within DoS for coordinating DoS, universities, foundations, and think-tanks. ERS took a two-way approach in sharing declassified information with universities, research libraries, and scholars.

Under Philip Hitti the Near East Program at Princeton University became a preeminent Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) Center that combined Arabic, Persian, and Turkish language training with area studies in the social sciences. Working together with the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), the Carnegie Corporation initially funded university-based area studies programs. The Rockefeller Foundation soon joined the efforts. The philanthropic foundations were followed by oil giants Arab-American Oil Company (ARAMCO), Gulf Oil Company, and California-Texas Oil Company. Although the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem was not successful, ACLS viewed overseas research centers to be mutually beneficial for both the United States and the host country. Within a framework of modernization theory amidst cold war “battle for minds,” Chapter 4 is an interesting discussion of two educational institutions founded by American missionaries, what the author calls a “sheet anchor” at a time of United States military weakness in the region: American University of Beirut and American University of Cairo. The sensitivity of Israel for the Arabs played out in global-local dynamics.

There were challenges to area studies programs, however. First, such programs warranted collaboration across discipline-centered departments at universities. Second, partly compounded by the lack of institutional support, universities were losing faculty members to government agencies and the military. Faced with other challenges DoS made some recommendations. Given military deferments for graduate students and greater support for the physical sciences in the military and Congress, expand training for current government employees. Congressional reservation about federal funding for education in creating two-tiers of brains and uniforms warrants judicial use of foundation money. Expanded international commitments demand mastery of “difficult languages,” expertise of “critical areas,” and analytical skills to assimilate multidisciplinary information. Another caveat was that foreign born specialists would not pass the requisite level of security clearance.

The June 1951 Area Studies in American University by Wendell Bennett of Yale University was a landmark report. A dilemma was satisfying government’s expanding need for area training programs without undermining training of research scholars. The report identified three categories of specialties: scholars with a doctoral degree, master’s degree holders, and those with undergraduate or military program training. Priority was given to “integrated area programs” that prepared one for cultural comprehension. However, there was a need to shift emphasis from ancient to modern history.

David Wise and Thomas Ross argue that there are two sides to the United States government. Drawing on that notion of “two governments,” Khalil names Chapter 5 “(In)Visible Government” and takes a critical look at the national security establishment. The author traces Orientalist influence not only to immigrant British scholars Hamilton Gibb and Bernard Lewis, but also to George Lenczowski and Halford Hoskins. Earlier in Chapter 1 Khalil observed that the Orientalist lens of AGS disavowed self-rule for “The Arab Problem.” Also, the Sykes-Picot Agreement divided the Ottoman Empire into Anglo-French “direct rule” and “spheres of influence.” Whereas Husayn-McMahon correspondence promised an independent Arab state, furthermore, the Balfour Declaration guaranteed “civil and religious rights” of Palestinian Arabs without assuring their “political rights.” Along that line Chapter 8 discusses neoconservative attempts to remove, what Martin Kramer calls, the “culture of irrelevance” of Middle East studies for United States national security–and Israeli interest in the region, Khalil adds. This includes the 2003 House Resolution 3077 (H.R. 3077) that countermanded National Defense Education Act (NDEA) protection of academic freedom from federal agencies. Even though terrorism studies date back to the 1970s, since 2003 the Department of Homeland Security has established university-based “centers of excellence.” The National Science Foundation has also become a conduit for terrorism research funds.

In his 1954 report, The National Interest and Foreign Language, William Parker of New York University made language training a national security priority. An important development was the 1958 NDEA. With ACLS identifying six “critically needed foreign languages” that included Arabic, NDEA’s Part-A of Title VI was earmarked for language development. Part-B of Title VI for language institutes was eliminated and moved to Title XI. However, the counterinsurgency component of Project Camelot, funded by Army’s Office of Research and Development, stained relations with the social sciences in the academia. An interesting revelation was that the American Zionist Council funded the American Association for Middle East Studies (AAMES) and the Council for Middle Eastern Affairs. AAMES was shut down and replaced by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) with funding from the Ford Foundation.

Chapter 6 is a deeper look at the modernization theory framework, which pivoted counterinsurgency with development, that shaped anti-Arab sentiment within the national security establishment. In particular, Khalil addresses works by Daniel Lerner, Manfred Halpern, Walt Rostow, Lucian Pye, and Samuel Huntington. The author is specially critical of Harold Glidden for proposing “de-Arabization” in overcoming a pathology of shame and vengeance and Raphael Patai for insinuating sexual repression for hostility. Furthermore, Khalil notes a division between modernization theorists and area specialists in the academia.

Given its negative image of area studies the United States government shifted attention from academic institutions to students. Nevertheless, under the 1991 National Security Education Program the Pentagon funded both institutions and students for language learning. However, Title VI did not draw enough graduate students to area studies. This resulted in a further shift to think tanks in reverting to privatization of knowledge. There were already the American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution, Heritage Foundation, and Hoover Institution. On the left emerged the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) in 1971; on the right was established the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) in 1985. Knowledge production has come full circle, as a private endeavor, from missionaries (and oil companies) to think-tanks.

There is an Orientalism thread and resultant anti-Arab bias decried in America’s Dream Palace that could have been more explicitly addressed earlier in the book. The work provides a treasure-trove of background information, albeit somewhat scattered, for those in Middle East area studies. However, the forest may be lost for the vastness of the trees. The author propounds that National Security Council Intelligence Directives 2, 4, and 7 promise a future research agenda (p. 78). Three additional points warrant further exploration. First, balancing area studies training programs for national security with producing research scholars (p. 101). Second, bridging any gap between comparative politics and Middle East area specialization (p. 202). Third, promoting dialogue between area studies and security studies. Those in the emerging security studies would benefit from a better understanding of the gulf that undermines collaboration from colleagues in area studies (p. 249). By the same token, it would be incorrect to presume that university-based centers of academic excellence would succumb to “groupthink” (p. 293). Notwithstanding the aforementioned comments, America’s Dream Palace: Middle East Expertise and the Rise of the National Security State by Osamah Khalil would be a valuable reading for the general audience, scholars, and policy-makers.

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