Wonder and curiosity. Long gone are the days when British colonialists or early American missionaries packed their meager worldly possessions into coffins to head out over the tameless horizon. T.E. Lawrence wrapped up like a marauding Arabian warlord. Gordon Liang hacked almost to death by the treacherous Touaregs, crawling injured at last into Timbuktu for which he searched all his life. That hunger of discovery, of reconnecting with something grand and glorious and lost, to find that thread of civilization which when pulled takes us back farther and farther and farther still.
The Arabists of old were like this. Back when Dubai was only a poor stop for Chinese Junks or British sailing vessels. When the Omani royal family fled their desert intrigues to set up on the tropical island of Zanzibar, chased back to the peninsula by – yes – the British.
American diplomats have always – for some reason – been a poor substitute for the British. Our empire of mac-and-cheese, McDonalds and John Grisham is a wonderless place; air-conditioned containers with cable TV and internet stacked atop each other behind razor-wire beside a chancery building which looks like every other chancery in the world. We could be in Accra; or Riyadh; or Kabul – makes no difference. And no contact with the locals, except the curated professional locals who speak English and are shined up and invited to our cocktail parties – marched unceremoniously through the metal detectors.
It is worse since 9/11 – fear and unknowing, not wonder and curiosity, are the modern hallmarks of American diplomacy. “Indeed, as middle-class life in America becomes more pressurized, the desire among FSOs for ‘pasha status’ becomes more acute. There is a real motive for ‘protecting your empire,’ says one Arabist, which means staying abroad in a prestigious post where you and your wife have servants, while the U.S. government pays for your kids’ private schooling.” Writes Robert D. Kaplan. He’s not wrong – I’ve seen it over and over; “I hate Washington!” I’ve head time and again. “I’ve avoided D.C. as long as I can” says another diplomat over his 4th glass of wine. Not for love of the field, I’ve come to learn, but for fear of the mediocrity which he escaped – and the tenuousness of that escape.
The ‘modernization’ that Kaplan writes about the Foreign Service, which began he says in the 50s when it became no longer an institution of the Ivy League elites and ‘democratized’ has been as bad as it has been good. Because of the consequences; embassy life now is much less taken from the pages of W. Somerset Maugham and instead is an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. Wonder and curiosity, or fake privilege with that sinking desperate feeling that perhaps it is ephemeral and unearned.
Yet I digress – “The Arabists” by Kaplan is a good snapshot of 100 years of engagement by empire (British and American mostly) in the Arab world. During a time when oil turned the region from desperately poor nomads to almost limitless wealth – and what this did to society, good and bad, and what we did to their societies, good and bad. Of the days before Arab nationalism was replaced by Islamic fundamentalism as the guiding force of rebellion. And of the always complicated issue of Israel; the first country – sitting on the sands long before any of the others, millennia before – yet seen somehow as an interloper. Jews among Arabs. Democracy among despots. Judaism among Muslims. This book, written before the 2nd gulf war, before the Islamic State, before Afghanistan and 9/11 still holds as it still shows trends. Fateful trends, ‘end of history’ trends which lent hubris and inevitability to the middle class opinions of the curiousless FSOs.
My last point. I recently was having a talk with a young college student who wants to be involved in foreign policy. They were asking guidance, and I was giving it the only way I know how – explaining my last 20 years and some of the lessons I learned. Lesson #1, I said, was to go overseas. To live in communities with people, work with them, build relationships. Those days, for me, were still the most rewarding and meaningful – even though there was no commissary in which to buy Budweiser and mac-and-cheese. “Huh, go overseas,” said the foreign policy want-to-be, “I never even considered that.”
Um, say what?
And with that I must end this review, except that as you know I read a lot of Kaplan and by now you know I recommend him to anybody interested in our world.