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Stranger in a Strange Land: A Historian among Political Scientists

I like political scientists. Much of what I do as a historian overlaps with what they do (particularly in terms of creating patterns that allow for transnational and transcontinental analysis). In fact, some of my best friends are political scientists.

Nonetheless, it will be a cold day in Baghdad before I ever chair another Middle East panel at a political science conference. The only place I’ve ever encountered more Bush-bashing was among American academics at the American Research Institute in Istanbul. Of course, everyone knows that academia is overwhelmingly populated by liberals (folks who voted for John Kerrey and whose 1978 Volvos are held together by “Bush Lied” and “Somewhere in Texas a Village is Missing its Idiot” bumper stickers) and Leftists (folks who think the former are too conservative, not to mention nice). I’ve long since abandoned any hope that this skewed playing field will be leveled any time soon. But is it too much to ask that political scientists, of all disciplines, allow the latter part of their moniker to even slightly intrude upon the former?

I chaired the panel on “The Middle East in Transition” at the Georgia Political Science Association conference a week ago in Savannah. My paper on “Jihad” was accompanied by one on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and two on Iraq: one on how former Iraqi Interim President Allawi allegedly utilized the at best overrated and at worst fictional “threats” of Iran and Syria to–ultimately unsuccessfully–“wag the dog” and win re-election; the other on what a massive mistake the U.S. invasion and attempted democratization of Iraq has been, and will continue to be.

Normally when I speak at conferences on matters such as jihad, scimitars are being sharpened and menacing fatwas composed before I’m even finishing my introduction. Maybe it was the balmy air of Savannah, or the soporific effects of a large Friday lunch, but the audience seemed about as interested in my discussion of jihad as journalists are in reporting that those marauding “youths” in France are mostly Muslim. They were much more interested in–and almost totally uncritical of–the presentations from the two Iraq War critics. (It couldn’t have been that my linguistic, theological and historical deconstruction of “jihad”–such that it almost always DOES mean holy war–was too concrete, and not abstract enough, for a roomful of political scientists–could it? Nah.)

The Allawi-was-totally-wagging-the-dog panelist had laid out on the presenters’ table his unusable overhead transparencies–no one having thought to get that sort of technology laid on–which consisted largely of caricaturish cartoons, mainly ones portraying Bush as an inbred-looking cowboy. (Nothing like cutting-edge scholarship, eh?) At least the other Iraq War critic panelist had a respectable intellectual position: that under a realpolitik analysis, the war to topple Saddam was a mistake. I suppose it was, if one wants to take a totally hard-boiled, national-interest, amoral stance and ignore Saddam’s poison gassing of Kurds, his torture chambers, his masochistic sons, his mass graves. But I thought it was the Republicans that always took this tack, not the enlightened Democrats? How did we get to the point where a Republican president is emulating Woodrow Wilson, and his liberal critics savage him for not being cynical enough? Oh yes, and did you know that the Brits (allegedly) used poison gas against the Iraqis back in the 1920s? I supposed this was thrown out by Professor Realpolitik to point out the hypocrisy of the Brits and Americans on this issue–although following this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, no nation-state (or at least no Western one, especially all those with a “U.” in their names) can even condemn another for something it had EVER done in its past–so I suppose if Bin Ladin nukes Manhattan, we can’t condemn it because we did likewise to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, post-Pearl Harbor and Bataan?

Later, at the reception I approached this panelist colleague and asked “so are you saying that Iraq would be better off with Saddam still in power?” He asked me if I were serious. Assured that I was he said: “Yes.” If I thought this were an exceptional view among academics, I might not be so dismayed. But, alas, I’m willing to bet it is not. And I am not advocating a conservative or Republican approach to political science, history, or any other discipline. I am, however, bemoaning the fact that the overarching template in such academic conferences–and they’re almost as bad at history ones–is not only Left but snobbish, patronizing, condescending, self-absorbed, self-congratulatory and, yes, close-minded. Would it be too much to ask that the political scientists put a little science–or at least feigned objectivity–into their politics? I won’t entertain the fantasy that they might check their predictably Leftist politics at the conference hotel front desk.