Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi is not an extremist or a hardliner in his pro-Palestinian sympathies and activism; he has often expressed his support for a two-state peace with Israel. But he has been a disappointment ever since he turned against the Oslo peace process (reversing his prior stance) during the late 1990s. In doing so, he mistook how the peace process was turning sour under the leadership of the anti-Oslo prime ministers Netanyahu, Barak (to a degree) and Sharon, for its original intent and potential under Rabin and Peres.
Still, I admire the thesis of his major book during that time, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (Columbia University Press, 1997), that “National identity is constructed; it is not an essential, transcendent given….”
I don’t always agree with Prof. Werner Cohn, but his blog posting on Khalidi’s apparent misuse of an alleged quotation provides a thoughtful criticism of the latter’s methodology. And NY Times contributor James Traub also tellingly critiques Prof. Khalidi on his new book, in the March 15th issue of the Sunday NY Times Book Review. The core of Traub’s review is as follows:
“Sowing Crisis” vividly reminds us what it is like to be on the receiving end of American power. But it often reads like a polemic rather than a work of history. Khalidi’s sense of American motives and strategy seems flattened by his own preconceptions. God knows the United States has a great deal to answer for in the Middle East. But is it true, as Khalidi alleges, that President Truman favored Israel, and ultimately agreed to recognize the country, because he had more pro-Jewish than Arab voters to answer to? Only by checking a footnote does the reader learn that this comment, which Khalidi quotes twice, comes from an American diplomat who may not have been in the room when Truman is said to have uttered it.
But the most pressing question “Sowing Crisis” raises is not whether American behavior in the Middle East has been consistently self-serving and expansionist. It is whether Arab failure is, at bottom, a consequence of that behavior. Another way of putting this is: can the problems of the region be reversed by a fundamental change in American policy?
If American policy were chiefly responsible for the Middle East’s difficulties, then the Arab world would scarcely be the only victim. It is hard to argue that the proxy battles of the cold war did more damage to the Middle East than to, say, Southeast Asia. Yet Vietnam is a stable autocracy experiencing rapid growth, and Thailand is a shaky and semi-prosperous democracy. American policy makers were far more cavalier about the sovereignty of Latin American states than of Arab ones, yet Latin America is a largely democratic zone with both deeply impoverished and middle-range countries.
Why has the Arab world remained largely on the sidelines of globalization? There are, of course, many explanations offered. One of the most striking comes from the United Nations’ Arab Human Development Report, written by a group of Arab scholars in 2002. They concluded that Arab nations suffer from a “freedom deficit,” from pervasive gender inequality, from a weak commitment to education and from the widespread denial of human rights. They might have added that the experiences of colonialism and of the cold war have left much of the Arab world with the deeply ingrained habit of blaming its problems on outsiders.