The Two Bernard Lewises

Ian Buruma, in the New Yorker (June 14-21, 2004):

In the course of a distinguished academic career at the University of London and at Princeton, Bernard Lewis has never been afraid to dip his scholarly hands in the muck of current affairs. A mentor to Henry (Scoop) Jackson in the early nineteen-seventies, and a friend to several Israeli Prime Ministers, Lewis has been especially sought after in Washington since September 11th. Karl Rove invited him to speak at the White House. Richard Perle and Dick Cheney are among his admirers. Lewis has championed his friend Ahmad Chalabi for a leading role in Iraq. And his best-selling book “What Went Wrong?,” about the decline of Muslim civilization, is regarded in some circles as a kind of handbook in the war against Islamist terrorism. Lewis, in short, is a thoroughly political don, and if anyone can be said to have provided the intellectual muscle for recent United States policy toward the Middle East it would have to be him.

Lewis’s latest book, “From Babel to Dragomans” (Oxford; $28), collects essays written over the past half century, on topics ranging from medieval interpreters (dragomans) and Jews in ancient Persia to what to do with Saddam Hussein. Yet, for a man who inspired the neoconservative firebrands, some of Lewis’s ideas are surprisingly cautious. In 1957, he argued that the West should take as little action as possible in the Middle East, since “we of the West . . . should beware of proposing solutions that, however good, are discredited by the very fact of our having suggested them.” In 1991, he wrote about the “age-old autocratic traditions” in the Arab world, and warned that there is “no guarantee” that efforts to democratize “will succeed, and even if they do, after how long and at what price.” As late as 2002, in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, he struck yet another note of prudence. “Democracy is dangerous anywhere,” he said. “We talk sometimes as if democracy were the natural human condition, as if any deviation from it is a crime to be punished or a disease to be cured. That is not true. Democracy, or what we call democracy nowadays, is the parochial custom of the English-speaking peoples for the conduct of their public affairs, which may or may not be suitable for others.”

This is not exactly the stuff that excites readers of the Weekly Standard, or the hotter heads in the Pentagon. There is, however, another Bernard Lewis to be found in this book, a more strident figure who believes not only that the United States was too soft during the Vietnam War but that Middle Eastern dictatorships must be overthrown with force. Negotiating with the ayatollahs of Iran, and with other anti-American autocrats, is useless: “As with the Axis and the Soviet Union, real peace will come only with their defeat or, preferably, collapse, and their replacement by governments that have been chosen and can be dismissed by their people.” As for the immediate consequences of turning such ideals into policies, Lewis, particularly in his more recent writings, is oddly insouciant. He said in 2001 that public opinion in Iraq and Iran was so pro-American that both peoples would rejoice if the United States Army liberated them. A year later, he repeated the message that “if we succeed in overthrowing the regimes of what President Bush has rightly called the ‘Axis of Evil,’ the scenes of rejoicing in their cities would even exceed those that followed the liberation of Kabul.” Most Iraqis did cheer the demise of their tyrant, but Lewis could have offered some words of warning about what might follow the celebrations.

Nor was the fastidious scholar of Middle Eastern subtleties much in evidence when Lewis glibly used the attack on the World Trade Center to advocate a war on Saddam Hussein. In an article written days after the attack, he suggested that seeing the United States go to war with Saddam would be “the dearest wish” of other Arab regimes. Of course, the feelings of most Arab leaders were a little more complicated than that; and the chaos created by the American intervention is now causing almost universal alarm....

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