In a recent volume, The Cold War and the University, the prominent biologist R. C. Lewontin argued that the Cold War was the “high road to professional prosperity for the great majority.” [1] He is referring to those academics who prospered from extraordinary government largesse in a period when the ideological atmosphere inspired “an unprecedented and explosive expansion of the academy.” Those who were in a position to act as conduits for such support, as a result, acquired extraordinary power within the academic bureaucracy and its allied instruments of communication.

The role of government funding is a critical consideration, but more fundamental is the rationale for such funding, which combines the quests for information and legitimation. Social scientists have contributed to both. It is, however, in their legitimation of government policy through the reproduction and dissemination of the canons of official orthodoxy that they have played the most influential role in mediating government policy.

Lewontin’s essay deals with the scientific community. His findings, however, could apply to Middle East studies, as well as African, Latin American, Soviet and East Asian studies — with one significant exception: the impact of such funding. Lewontin argues that there was minimal interference in the nature of scientific research subsidized through government funds. As important is his observation that the damage done on American campuses through the McCarthy period was a function of university administrators and faculty actions and not of state policy. The situation of regional and international studies has historically differed from that of the scientific community. State policies were indeed relevant in these instances, as was the influence of those responsible for the dissemination of funds. The rationale for postwar government funding of social science research was defined — as the title of 1965 Congressional hearings indicated — in terms of “Winning the Cold War.” [2] Such funding was premised on the compatibility of projects with US foreign policy interests, notably those in the Third World. Government funds proved indispensable to the establishment of specialized research centers, the promotion of language training and the dissemination of research findings through conventional academic networks. Non-governmental institutions and foundations (notably Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller and the Social Science Research Council) contributed resources while operating within the same overall ideological parameters.

The parameters of international research were clearly articulated by officials of the Defense Department — the major government donor for social science related to modernization and development studies under the rubric of behavioral sciences and national security in the post-war period — in government hearings held by the Subcommittee on International Organizations and Movements of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives. US officials left no doubt that they perceived social and political change as a risk-laden process which they sought to contain, if not redirect in the hands of ideologically compatible leaders. Modernization, in short, was viewed as an inevitable but potentially dangerous process.

In this context, social scientists were uniquely well situated to provide relevant information. The Department of Defense called on anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, political scientists and economists to serve as an indispensable arm of containment policy. Chronicling and anticipating “social breakdown” [3] was considered a prerequisite to policy designed to channel change in acceptable directions. This relationship between government and the academy in foreign area research also involved the State Department’s Agency for International Development (USAID), the US Information Agency and a host of other agencies. The nature of projects funded and policies pursued is also instructive. Projects on modernization and development focused on nation-building, the role of the military, communications, public opinion, political elites, student movements and economic reform, along with studies of behavioral changes as a result of these processes. The most striking policy concerns were those linking development to counterinsurgency, especially in the context of Latin America and Southeast Asia. The Middle East figured in these deliberations. According to the 1965 Congressional hearings, the Center for Research in Social Sciences, which included the former Counterinsurgency Information Analysis Center, sponsored research projects dealing with internal security, counterinsurgency and psychological operations throughout much of the Third World, including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran. [4] The Human Resources Research Office supported research in development and modernization in Latin America and the Middle East and North Africa, including analysis of “political functions of military elites,” in those regions. [5] The Research Analysis Corporation subsidized strategic studies, including research on counterinsurgency involving southeast Asia as well as Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East.

Revolt against such policies and those who collaborated with them broke out in response to the US war in Vietnam. It was the evidence of academic support for counterinsurgency policies in the name of development, democracy and anticommunism that led to the break with the status quo of cooperation in the academy and the critical reexamination of relations between government and universities. US policy in the Middle East escaped a comparable reaction at the academic level, as the conservative core of Middle East Studies Association (MESA) remained largely impervious to any such response. Breakaway organizations, such as the Alternative Middle East Studies Seminar (AMESS), were clearly frowned upon. The ability of a critical caucus within MESA to challenge policy and theory was reinforced by the 1976 revelations of government-supported intelligence policies affecting academic institutions both in the US and abroad. [6]

Covert programs constitute only a part of the overall problem in the relations between government and academy. Uncritical policy legitimation by influential academics and intellectuals who are in a position to reproduce and disseminate the dominant canons of thought remains a more pervasive issue. The results are apparent in a reconsideration of the dominant trends that colored Middle East studies in the postwar years, though the phenomenon is not unique to this field. [7]

To borrow the phrase of a leading figure in the field of cultural studies, Stuart Hall, “movements provoke theoretical moments and historical conjunctures insist on theories: they are real moments in the evolution of theory.” [8] For the Truman and later the Eisenhower administrations, the relevant movements in North Africa and the Middle East were linked to nationalism and the discontents with the status quo. The historical conjuncture combined the power of nationalism with the forces of socioeconomic change. Its destabilizing consequences were what Washington policymakers feared. Formally, US objectives, as successive National Security Council reports emphasized, were the guaranteed access to oil and the exclusion of Soviet influence. The “theoretical moments” to which such developments gave rise are familiar in the work of those social scientists who shaped the dominant motifs of Middle East studies. Their response to nationalism was the emphasis on nation building and the role of political elites in stemming feared radicalization in the modernization process. In the study of the Middle East and North Africa, the focus was far less on democracy or development than on the identification and classification of pro-Western regimes. The results account for the privileged positions of Tunisia and Morocco in the Maghrib and the subordinate role of Algeria through the 1960s. Further East, the same phenomenon was at work, as the regimes of what John Foster Dulles called the Northern Tier emerged as the reliable fixtures on the political and academic scene. Hence attention was focused on Turkey, Iran, Israel and Iraq (until 1958) leaving the Arabs of the interior divided between client states such as Jordan, Lebanon, and the US national security favorite, Saudi Arabia, and suspect entities such as Egypt and Syria.

The terminology routinized in 1960s scholarship to describe the regimes in favor was marked by political generosity as opposed to analytical rigor. There was the “republic” of the permanent president in Tunisia and the so-called “modernizing monarchs.” There was little critical inquiry into these regimes’ objectives and methods of rule, which include the continuity of privilege and the efficacy of repression.

It was not theoretical moments but political breaks, historical conjunctures in Stuart Hall’s sense, that led to paradigmatic shifts. Thus the outbreak of Lebanon’s second civil war in 1975-1976, Iran’s clerical seizure of state power in 1979 and the onset of the decade-long Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s drastically altered the political climate and the theoretical response to it. Thus, from the mid-1970s through the 1980s the interpretative shift was marked by the changes: Elites were out, social movements were in, and the dualism of religion and politics led to the de facto desecularization of Middle East studies. Israeli studies were included cautiously if at all even when regime changes exposed the critical role of religious blocs. The demise of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc, the combined effects of the Gulf War and the pacification of Palestinians in the form of the Oslo Accords, further affected academic translation of policy, leading to a hasty renewal of neo-liberal orthodoxy.

In a recent article in al-Hayat, that was republished in the summer 1997 issue of the newsletter of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Roger Owen traces the impact of globalization on area studies and confirms influential shifts in academic studies.

Hence, as always, the main drive comes from Washington itself and from the shift in the way in which policymakers view America’s role in international affairs. As always, major shifts of this type work their way through the system with remarkable speed, soon causing the heads of federal agencies, private grant-giving foundations and university presidents all to speak with one voice. [9]

Clearly, not all scholars and researchers working in the areas of North African and Middle East studies conform to the lines described above. The mainstream has never been the only stream, nor the one in which the most creative, insightful and urgent intellectual work is to be found. Generally speaking, however, those who have resisted the canons of orthodoxy have not been the ones to shape the dominant motifs of research.


[1] Noam Chomsky, et al., The Cold War and the University: Toward an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years (New York: The New Press, 1997), p. 2.
[2] Hearings on “Winning the Cold War: The US Ideological Offensive,” by the Subcommittee on International Organizations and Movements of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, December 6, 1965.
[3] Ibid., p. 11.
[4] Ibid., p. 51.
[5] This information comes from “The University-Military-Police Complex: A Directory and Related Documents,” compiled by Michael Klare, North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), 1970, pp. 49-62.
[6] Foreign and Military Intelligence, Book 1. Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate together with Additional, Supplemental and Separate Views, April 26, 1976 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1976).
[7] For more on this theme, see the forthcoming work by Christopher Simpson, ed., Universities and Empire (New York: The New Press, 1998).
[8] Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies,” in David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen, eds., Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 270.
[9] Roger Owen, “Globalization of Area Studies in America,” in The Middle East at Harvard: Newsletter of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies 11, Summer 1997. This article was originally published in al-Hayat, November 17, 1996.

How to cite this article:

irene gendzier "Following the Flag," Middle East Report 205 (Winter 1997).

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