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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.
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on June 15, 2004
Again Kaplan does what he does best -- he gets to the heart of a matter by talking to individuals who have experienced it. The flip side of that is as glaring here as in his other works -- he uses the experiences of a few individuals to draw broad conclusions which he presents as the unquestioned truth. The truth about the Arabists is that Kaplan presents a "truth" that is HIGHLY contested by many ex-state department officials who were not interviewed, but who were every bit as involved. I found Google searching the title of this book yielded some interesting refutations of it.
I found this book very informative both in what it said and what it left out. I learned a great deal reading it, not least of all because I was inspired to find out more about the issues he presents from other sources. I would definitely recommend this book, as it brings to light the history of our country's diplomatic dealings with the Middle East -- about which none of us can afford to be ignorant.
Read it, but read it as one man's side of a very complicated, politicised, and polarized story. Then start reading the books he cites.
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on December 22, 2002
Kaplan strings together pearls of biography to create a historical review of an interesting segment of the State Department's Foreign Service. Beginning with T.E. Lawrence and several other well-known British, the author weaves together a story of diplomatic intrigue in the Middle East. I found two particular segments especially fascinating - the rescue of Jewish Falashas from Sudan and the history leading up to the Gulf War with Iraq, in light of a potential repeat in world affairs.
Although Kaplan does highlight the tensions between Arabists and those with pro-Israeli sympathies, the work serves to demonstrate through historical biography the evolution of western influence in the region. He makes the case that the Palestinian-Israeli issue has not strictly defined the Middle East. Kaplan doesn't write from personal recollection, however, as he did with Balkan Ghosts. This book is research based through reading and extensive interviews with many from the State Department and elsewhere.
The last portion of the book focuses on events in the State Department leading up to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Kaplan blasts many of the Arabists, former ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie foremost among them, for attempting to appease Saddam. Although he qualifies his critique by portraying a lack of policy emphasis from Washington leaving the embassy staffs in the Middle East to find their own way forward, Kaplan claims the Arabists continued to view Iraq and other totalitarian regimes through rose colored glasses. Had they represented U.S. interests instead of romanticizing from within embassy walls, he argues that our diplomats could have sent Saddam the signal that the U.S. would respond to aggression.
Overall, I found the book provided an interesting historical background on the Middle East region through the eyes of the diplomats that have served there. Kaplan provides good background reading up to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Given the current tension surrounding the Iraqi regime, I found much of the book relevant to contemporary affairs. Well worth the read!
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on April 15, 2004
This book describes in detail the exotic lives of American Foreign Service officers. The amount of research and related firsthand interviews is unprecedented. These characters are truly interesting. Kaplan categorizes them in two groups that can be simply referred as the old breed and the new breed.
In Part I and II of the book, Kaplan describes the old breed as a true intellectual and academic elite. They graduated near the top of their class from Ivy League universities. They were fluent in several languages including Arabic. Thus, they were able to confer with the locals, read the local press, listen to the local radio. They often lived for decades in Arab countries. From this experience, these individuals developed an unparalleled understanding of the Middle East. But, their recommendations were at odds with the government hierarchy. These "Arabists" had a deepened bias to maintain diplomatic relations no matter how dire the situation. Such a vision was self-serving. For them, the potential of their embassy closing meant a devastating blow to their own careers. They had no intention to recycle themselves as Washington DC bureaucrats.
In Part III, Kaplan describes the spectacular failings of these old breed Arabists blinded by their self-interest (maintain their foreign assignment jobs) and idealism. The most egregious case is with April Glaspie, one of the more formidable Arabists, yet one who made the gravest error of judgment. She met with Saddam Hussein in 1991 a week before Iraq invaded Kuwait. According to confirmed reports, Hussein shared his intent to attack Kuwait to Glaspie, and she responded that she would recommend that the U.S. stays out of this conflict, and maintain relationship with Iraq under any circumstances. As they say, the rest is history. And, history has not been kind to Glaspie.
Additionally, because of their perceived leniency towards Arab dictators and totalitarian regimes, these "Arabists" were also perceived as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. Some "Arabists" did state that the formation of the state of Israel ruined everything, as related tension throughout the entire Middle East disrupted the continuity in many of their careers.
As described in Part IV, the new breed of Arabists is different. They are more likely to have graduated from a state university than an Ivy League. But, they are much more pragmatic than their predecessors. This is for three reasons. First, their language skills now typically include not only Arabic but also Hebrew. Second, they don't view a temporary post in Washington D.C. as a demotion. Thus, they are a lot more mobile back and forth between country assignments and Washington assignments. Third, they are most entrepreneurial from a street sense perspective. Many of them have graduated from long and successful stint with the Peace Corps where they honed their survival skills so to speak. The mix of their language skills and career mobility makes them a lot more pragmatic and objective in their judgment of the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. As a result, their judgment is better trusted in Washington D.C. than their predecessors.
If the old breed was much like Indiana Jones, advantureous and brilliant individuals with a romantic view of the Arab World; the new breed is more like "The Recruit" much less affected by ideals, and better able to handle policy ambiguity.
Throughout the descriptions of these colorful characters, Kaplan imparts a fascinating history of the Middle East that is now more relevant than ever to understand current events.
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on April 18, 2006
The first thing that needs to be said about the book is that Mr. Kaplan is a former Israeli soldier (though he doesn't exactly advertise that fact very often). He doesn't exactly come to the subject with a detached political view.

The book is a thinly veiled attack on a generation of State Department officials who actually cared about the countries they served in. Who valued their cultures and tried to understand the countries.

Kaplan is dismissive of such attitudes. In this book he is dismissive of such attitudes because they clashed with his pro-Israeli political views. But the book is interesting in that when seen in the broader context of Kaplan's more recent works. In his most recent book, "imperial grunts", Kaplan views the entire world beyond "the west" as "injun country". An area similar to the old american west in need of civilization by the US army. In "the coming anarchy", he presents large parts of the world as inhabited by uncivilized peoples whose very existance is a threat to what he calls the west. And in "Warrior Politics", he promotes a pseudo-fascist militarism in place of Jewish/Christian traditional ideas of morality.

Seen in the context of those works, Kaplan's problems with the Arabists is not really that they are anti-Israel, its that the arabists treated arab culture and arab peoples with a level of respect. To Kaplan, such peoples be they in the middle east or Africa are savages without a culture and in need of the firm civlizing hand of a western army rather than the understanding of diplomats. The savages in "Injun country" need to be beaten down and taught how to be little Americans rather than having Americans adopt what he sees as the customs of savages.

The Kaplan mentality is illlustrative of how the US blundered into a disaster in Iraq. While Kaplan glories in the "defeat" of the Arabists and their departure from the scene, the US has paid the price in having lost the very experts who might have made a difference in Iraq.
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on July 2, 2002
Mr. Kaplan does an excellent job of pulling together information, quotations, and raw data from numerous sources to paint a compelling picture of the forces that shaped this mysterious, interesting, and oft-misunderstood region.
More balanced than one would expect for a book with this title, Mr. Kaplan nicely straddles the line between fact and commentary, with only a couple times succumbing to interjections of personal opinion. However, without such points, a rather dry, far less thought-provoking, piece of academia would have resulted.
A book guaranteed to broaden the knowledge of anyone interested in this fascinating part of the world.
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on January 20, 2007
Arabists, at least the "old" generation, tend not to like this book because they feel that it unfairly stigmatizes them as hopelessly affected with clientitis, diplomats who have "gone native," and who are fundamentally biased towards Israel and out of touch with U.S. interests. Yet in highlighting these Arabists Kaplan provides an excellent introduction to the field: the legendary figures of the U.S. Foreign Service in the Arab world, among them diplomats like Bill Eagleton, Richard Parker, and Hume Horan. Also included are some of the "new" Arabists like Alberto Fernandez, who as of this writing heads up the public diplomacy efforts of the Near East Bureau in the State Department. He's one of the few U.S. government officials whose Arabic is good enough to frequently appear on Al-Jazeera talk shows.
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on May 13, 2012
A refreshingly traditional and personable approach to modern history - Kaplan wanders about and interviews many of his subjects - and one can't get more first hand than that. In doing so he draws an intricate impression of affairs of State that have influenced US policy in the middle east over the last century.

The author begins with the American missionary attempt in Syria and Lebanon in the 1800s. The goal of converting the natives turned out to be rather naive - the Muslims were both secure and knowledgeable in their faith, nor were they unfamiliar with Christianity, more so than the Americans were with Islam. Further compounding the problem the local Christian cultures were essentially closer in outlook to Catholicism than Protestantism. Besides, the French Jesuits and Lazarists had already staked out a European relationship with the Maronites and the Greek Orthodox Church. What these early ambassadors of Christian good will did manage to contribute was organization and funding for schools, notably the American University of Beirut (AUB) and hospitals.

The 2nd wave of contacts tended more to be dilettantes and adventurers, "collectors of gongs and trinkets [and rugs]" Here Kaplan focuses more on the British, men like Sir Richard Burton (who translated the 1001 Nights), T. E Lawrence, Jack Philby who winds up going completely native in Saudi Arabia, Charles Doughty (author of the highly praised and influential Travels in Arabia Deserta and Gertrude Bell, considered by some to be the mother of modern Iraq, and often castigated as such for trying to revive mythic Britannic version of the Abbasid empire. Oddly missing from this assortment is Sir John "Glubb Pasha" Bagot who served King's Abdulla in Jordan. These are complemented by portraits of Americans Charles Crane (bathroom fixture heir and sponsor of George Antonius) and anthropologist Carleton S. Coon Sr.

The next generation represented by career diplomats and the establishment of the Near Eastern Affairs desk in the State Department. Loy Henderson "Mr. Foreign Service" and Horan Hume are portrayed as the ideal - analytic, pragmatic service oriented Ivy League educated professionals but to some extent elitists and representative of the same Protestant milieu as the 1st group. Those profiled include Joseph Sisco who eventually became Assistant Secretary of State for the region and Malcolm Kerr who grew up in Beirut, the son and grandson of AUB professors, taught at AUB and eventually became its president, until his assassination in 1984. Another interesting profile was that of Jerry Weaver (Ch 11), dubbed "Indiana Jones" and figured prominently in Operation Moses. Kaplan does a nice little sidebar on Sadat while he was Vice President (pp165-167). Another interesting discussion deals with Nixon's mistrust of the State Department, and Kissinger's "shuttle diplomacy" which largely sideline the established diplomatic corps. Kaplan also does have kind words for April Glaspie who had the unfortunate distinction of serving as Ambassador to Iraq and not foreseeing or forewarning that Saddam was about to invade Kuwait.

An excellent historical read up until the time of publication and one deserving of an update to the present. To some extent the modern coverage is biased towards the Arab/Israeli conflict, ie: the 1969 revolution in Libya and the Algerian War of Independence are skipped, and Nasser's attempt to acquire US backing for the Aswan Dam from Eisenhower along with Jacquelin Kennedy's good will diplomatic coup in rescuing Egyptian artifacts from destruction by the subsequent creation of Lake Nasser are missed entirely. Nor do we learn about Kurds, Turks, Armenians and other ME minorities. Kaplan does however capture the structural problems of the State Department and US foreign relations at different points in time. Diplomacy is policy, but it's also people, and Kaplan makes the connection.
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on September 15, 2014
As an American this book gave me an understanding of what has been going on over there and about the PEOPLE who live there. We think we know but we do not. This area has been here for thousands of years and they are still trying to move from place to place like nomads. The maniacs will always have control because the people see them as leaders and listen to them.
When missionaries were sent there before the first world war they dressed like them and spoke Arabic. I can not say anymore only that every one should read this book
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on October 5, 2013
It may have been already one of the old books for the Anglophone readers, but it is quite interesting for a Japanese average reader like myself to reconsider how the American Protestant missionary activities to win the souls for Christ among the indigenous population turned out to be a failure in the Middle East and Japan. It is more interesteng to compare the superficial similarities and essential differences in the attitudes towards the Christian missionaries between the Arabic-speaking Middle East and Japan.
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