Shibley Telhami, Michael Barnett, eds. Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East. Ithaca, N.Y. and London: Cornell University Press, 2002. vii + 207 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8014-8745-3; $62.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-3940-7.
Reviewed by Nedra McCloud (Department Of History, Texas Tech University)
Published on H-Diplo (August, 2002)
Speculations on Identity
Speculations on Identity
Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East, edited by Shibley Telhami and Michael Barnett, is a collection of essays, all save one of which were first presented at a conference hosted by the Sadat Chair program at the University of Maryland, College Park. As the book's title indicates, all the included essays address a common theme: the role played by identity in the foreign policies of Middle Eastern states. The term "identity" as used in this anthology is elastic enough to include political, national, regional, and sectarian aspects.
The theoretical orientation of Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East, according to its editors, departs from a post-World War II international relations theory associated with the legacy of Kenneth Waltz's Theory of International Politics (1979). This earlier theoretical bias favored a statist, systemic model whereby the tail that wagged the dog in foreign policy decision-making in the Middle East or elsewhere was invariably the viability and integrity of the nation/state in opposition to external threats. In the introduction to their volume, Telhami and Barnett claim that their collection will demonstrate how local, regional, and religious identities supersede the factor of any perceived foreign threat.
As far as the freighted issue of "identity" is concerned--especially the identity of Middle Easterners Arab, Iranian, Israeli, Kurdish, and Turkish--there is less in this book than meets the eye. If a reader thinks, as well a reader might, that Telhami and Barnett's anthology is going to present a cogent, substantiated hypothesis of how "identity" moves and shakes in the Middle East, one will be disappointed; nor is this text an integrated monograph. What the essays offer is a smorgasbord of contradictory theoretical perspectives on a small handful of recent Middle Eastern histories, and of a curiously unexplained selection of nations: Jordan, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. Why no treatment of the crucially important lands of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Lebanon, or Turkey? No rationale for selection of countries is given by the editors. The reader can only assume that no one submitted papers on these countries at the Maryland conference. Therefore, if a reader wants specialized, informed insight into the minds of Saudi Arabians (with all of their regional, sectarian, and even physical differences), that reader had best look elsewhere.
The editors tell us that some of the essays were revised, but we do not learn the dates of the revisions. Details such as these would be of interest to scholars of the Middle East, since events large and small form watersheds in the region. It is always useful to know whether a given essay was penned before or after the odd assassination or amputation. Was any rewriting done after September 11? Would the events of that day have impinged upon these essays? We do not know, as the editors do not tell us. All we know for certain is that Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East finally went to press sometime in 2002.
While making the case that the Middle East as a whole is sui generis (notwithstanding the fact that the region is peopled by Jews, Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Kurds, and several dozen religions and sects, not to mention tens of thousands of foreign workers with their numerous religions and sects), the editors affirm that "in [that region] the state's identity can be quite distinct from national identities of the local population, generating the domestic insecurities apparent to even the most casual observer" (p. 9). (One might wonder whether there are any casual observers in the Middle East.) Carrying this notion further, the editors argue that Arab leaders are distinguished from other Third World leaders by the former's efforts to "shrink the national imagery from its transnational status to the confines of the state" (p. 9). The editors seem now to be thinking exclusively of Arabs (all Arabs? some Arabs?), not exclusively of the Middle East as a whole. One is at a loss to understand why.
The seismic fault lurking beneath the speculations gathered in Identity and Foreign Policy is best expressed unwittingly by Telhami and Barnett in their introduction. There the editors state that "identity [is not] fixed" (p. 17); the anthology will not even dare to "forward a theory of identity formation" (p. 11). Thus the factor of identity, whether now or in the past, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, is assumed to be protean, unstable, and indefinable while remaining the dominant factor in policy-making. "Identity" presented in such terms becomes in the hands of Telhami, Barnett, and their chosen essayists a notion ready-made for speculators and theorists. The reader should not hope to find what this book's title appears to promise: an explication or exegesis of Middle Eastern identity and how it impacts foreign policy decision-making in the Middle East.
In the concluding essay, Stephen Saideman's "Conclusion: Thinking Theoretically about Identity and Foreign Policy" (with "theoretically" being the operative word), the lacuna in the book is alluded to in an unintentionally ironic statement: "It would be interesting to compare Middle Eastern states with those elsewhere to determine whether the impact of communal identity is merely the consequence of Israel, Islam or Arabism, or whether identity may be a factor in most countries' foreign policies" (p. 199). Indeed, answers to these questions would be interesting. Something of the sort was probably what most readers had hoped to find in this book.
Notwithstanding identity's inscrutability, Telhami and Barnett list what they see as the factors that generated Arab (but not Iranian, Israeli, Turkish, or Kurdish) political consciousness, even though they do not dare to define Arab political consciousness, as such things are inchoate, they tell us. Arab political consciousness was generated, according to Telhami and Barnett, by the Arabic language with its capability of communicating in Islamic symbols. Furthermore, Arab political consciousness was generated by new print and media technologies. This consciousness arose in opposition to colonialism and Zionism. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Arab political consciousness has been rendered problematic by the threat posed by "competition among Arab leaders for political prestige" (p. 20). This competition is the root of the "regional instability" (p. 20) in the Middle East in our own day. One can only infer from this that regional instability in the Middle East is a recent phenomenon. Readers would be well advised to look elsewhere for a more accurate assessment of pre-twentieth-century stability/instability in the Middle East.
Stephen Saideman concludes by proffering reasons policy-makers outside the Middle East should ponder "identity and foreign policy" (p. 200), and why they should spend money on books such as Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East, as if any policy-maker worth his or her salt does not and has not been pondering such matters for eons. Saideman argues that policy-makers should "be aware of how identities influence their policies" (p. 200). One can only imagine the wry smiles on the faces of career diplomats and policy-makers as they read this admonition. Saideman ends by assuring us all that these tasks "are not easy, particularly as this book does not provide a clear causal mechanism" (p. 200). Indeed.
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Nedra McCloud. Review of Telhami, Shibley; Barnett, Michael, eds., Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East.
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