Richard Curtiss and the Death of Arabists in the US Government

The death of Richard Curtiss made me think about the plight of Arabists: those who specialized in Arab affairs in the US government and who were seen as the promoters of the welfare – not of the Arab peoples, but of the Arab regimes.

The American foreign policy establishment before the rise of Ronald Reagan was split between those (mainly Democrats) who argued that US national security interests require a close association and alliance with the state of Israel, while others (mainly Republicans) argued that American interests should be tied to the oil-producing Arab regimes. And the Republican party was the national habitat of oil companies and multi-national corporations with interests in the Middle East region.

US presidents, however, consistently sided with the first group, but the second group was represented in the US Senate (by influential senators like Charles Mathias, Charles Percy, and William Fulbright) and in the House of Representatives (by less influential members like Paul McCloskey and Paul Findley).

And the Arabists were clearly associated with the second group and clearly identified with the oil companies that operate in the Middle East. The Middle East Institute was the natural home of retired former State Department officers who served in the Middle East. They were all close to and advocates of Arab oil and gas regimes. Back then, Gulf regimes clashed with Israel on many issues including on their repeated requests for arms sales. The Israeli lobby would muster all of its forces to defeat Arab gulf regimes’ requests for arms. US presidents, motivated by profit and electoral reasons, would support Gulf regimes’ requests, but the Israeli lobby would raise alarm about the dangers to Israel from Arab arms even in the hands of the submissive ruling kings and emirs and sultans.

But many things happened over the years, especially after the Reagan era, and later on, the 1990 Gulf War. The Reagan era put an end to the role of Arabists in the making of US foreign policy in the Middle East. Qualifications and expertise became less important than ties to the Israeli lobby in considering appointments to key Middle East policy positions in the administration. It was then that the Washington Institute for Near East Policy began to ascend, and its success crowned in 1993 when Bill Clinton made its non-American founder his key Middle East policy chief.

In 1990, the loyalty and subservience of Gulf regimes increased and the US government made their end of rhetorical and economic hostility to Israel a condition for continued friendship with the US. It was when the Arab-Israeli conflict – at the state level – ended and when Gulf regimes increased their covert alliance and cooperation with Israel. AIPAC suddenly ended its traditional opposition to arms sales to Gulf ruling dynasties. Previous warnings from Congress that the advanced US weapons in Arabia posed a threat to Israel were a thing of a bygone era.

Arabists in the State Department became embarrassed by their jobs and even at their expertise. Any Arabist who showed his Arabic fluency or his knowledge of the region risked being marked or stigmatized by the watchful eyes of servants of the Israeli lobby in Congress and the US government. Arabists became extinct and those with political ambitions, like Jeffrey Feltman (who was ambassador to Lebanon before assuming the position of assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs), cultivated ties with the Israeli lobby and its research arm, WINEP, instead of acquiring knowledge. That was a smart gambit for careerists in government.

Arabists were shunned and even the name became a stigma. I once spoke about Arabists at Georgetown University in the last decade and a former assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, Robert Pelletreau, approached me afterwards and said that he agreed with my assessment, but pleaded that I refrain from using the term “Arabist” because it had acquired bad connotations in the city.

I write all this to conclude by writing about Richard Curtiss, who just passed away. He was a career foreign service officer and founded with his friend and collaborator, Andrew Killgore (a former ambassador to Qatar) the American Educational Trust, which produced the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. I knew both Curtiss and Killgore some (my first ex-wife, Kathy, worked for them) and got to develop an opinion of those retired Arabists.

I always wondered why those Arabists became vocal against the Israeli lobby only after they left government. I also noticed that some of those Arabists were motivated not so much by passion for the Palestinian cause, but also were motivated (in some cases) by classical anti-Semitism (as was the case with Killgore).

I also was disturbed by the close association between those Arabists and Gulf regimes (Richard Murphy AND his wife worked for Rafik Hariri), and noticed that their criticisms of Israel were in synch at the time with the stance of Gulf regimes. So I wonder if the death of the Arabists was a symptom of the end of Arab regime hostility (rhetorically and diplomatically) toward Israel.

Finally, those Arabists promoted a very fallacious view of US foreign policy that suited their conservative bent: they basically argued that US foreign policy was altruistic and good, if not for the undue influence of the Israeli lobby. They were advocates of Empire just as much as the elements of the Israeli lobby. Their disputes are disputes within Empire.

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