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Great History of the Foreign Service and Middle East Policy
on March 28, 2000
This is a fascinating history of one of the State Department's most oft-discussed branches. Particularly among American Jewish circles and those who study the Middle East, "Arabist" has a particular connotation of unjustified anti-Israel bias and a flavor of anti-Semitism. Kaplan's work identifies the origins of the Arabists and, more importantly, tests the level of their bias through analysis of their record on Middle East policy and diplomatic reporting.
Kaplan traces the development of American Arabists (those who learn Arabic and study Arabs, like Sinologists or Sovietologists) beginning with Protestant missionaries in the 19th Century through the development of the Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) Bureau at State. Kaplan, a journalist, tells his story with engaging portraits of the principal actors. He begins with the American view of the Middle East as fertile ground for missionary work and follows the missionaries' children and grandchildren who go on to develop American foreign policy towards the region. Kaplan's protagonists are the quintessential upper-crust (male, mostly) WASP diplomats who went to Deerfield Academy and Princeton and Amherst before returning to their childhood haunts in Lebanon and Syria as missionaries or diplomats. But Kaplan is not out to paint the Foreign Service in a negative light. Rather, he skillfully exposes how the clique of WASP missionary Arabists goes on to become the core of the NEA bureau and how their perspectives shape American foreign policy for good and ill throughout the 20th Century.
For obvious reasons, the majority of the book focuses on the past, when the Foreign Service was the purview of the Ivy League boys' club. But he also notes the State Department's efforts to modernize and the growing participation of a diverse middle-class America in the foreign policy debate. In fact, his synthesis of this process, beaurocratic maneuvers and the effects of the Gulf War lead to an analysis of the NEA bureau today and the direction of American foreign policy planning that is likely to be well regarded for years to come.
Being a Middle East hand myself (and an Amherst graduate), I was particularly interested in The Arabists, so perhaps my perspective is skewed. Nonetheless, this book is a must-read for anyone considering the Foreign Service as a career. Kaplan does a good job with the stories of some of State's big names. Their biographies as well as their career arcs are illustrative for FSO's today. As the book draws to a close, it is clear that the FSO's of today will be less area-focused than the old-school Arabists. This will be a mixed blessing, however, allowing us to avoid the "localitis" that leads to some missteps, but denying us the deep cultural insight that lead to some of the Arabists' greatest foreign policy triumphs.