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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)
In March 2011, as President Obama’s security advisers gathered in the White House
Situation Room to brief him on the possible use of military force in Libya, “the mullahs in Tehran” were a main concern. The NYT reported that “every decision—from Libya to Yemen to Bahrain to Syria—is being examined under the prism of how it will affect...the dominating calculus in the Obama administration’s regional strategy...,” that is the Islamic Republic of Iran.
A dominant paradigm in US national security circles, the media, think tanks, and the academy views the Arab Spring through a refracted lens that sees Iran as ascendant, Iran as meddling, Iran as reorganizing Middle East politics along sectarian divides. How did this view come to hold such sway over analysts—even as it elides complex histories, neglects significant political economic factors, erases the contours of power and resistance in the very diverse revolutionary movements currently underway across the Middle East? Understanding the roots and legacy of this paradigm, I argue, should be part of our overall teaching of the revolutions in the Middle East. It can be a powerful moment for teaching students on the imbricated nature of power and knowledge. What I argue for is a pedagogical approach that traces the genealogy of ideas that undergird US foreign policy on the Middle East.
The production of knowledge on the Middle East and U.S. policy on the region became increasingly entwined in the Bush years. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were carefully messaged through a nexus of influence in the media, think tanks and the administration. Middle East experts who appeared in the media, wrote editorials in leading newspapers, published influential books, and issued policy briefs at think tanks often reflected the Bush administration’s views. Countervailing arguments were systematically silenced and sidelined. My paper traces the history of neo-conservative involvement in shaping US foreign policy from the 1970s through the Bush years. I argue that the “war on terror” continues to skew US foreign policy analysis on the Middle East—with sectarianism and an ascendant Iran as key pillars of this narrative.
Following the 9/11 attacks, two books became bestsellers: the Quran and Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. Lewis’s book offered a compelling and brief narrative of Islamic decline that fuelled terrorist rage and hatred of the West. Lewis’ success continues to affect the field. Simple and evocative explanations of regional politics can result in profitable book deals, regular media appearances, and U.S. government consultancies. Increasingly, historical, political, and economic analyses of the region have become subsumed under monolithic Islamic explanations.
As the US’ war in Iraq went badly, highlighting sectarian narratives of regional politics allowed analysts to focus on what went wrong after the US invasion, rather than questioning the very validity of the war on terror itself. Pointing to Iran as the progenitor of Iraqi sectarianism further cleansed the Bush administration’s culpability for the aftermath of its war. Increasingly, for some analysts, Bernard Lewis’s question “what went wrong with Islam” seemed to shift to what went wrong with Shia Islam.
The sectarian argument led to another conclusion embraced by staunch critics and supporters of the Bush administration alike: the real victor of the U.S.’ wars was Iran. The rising spectre of an ascendant Iran—and a menacing Shiite crescent—became prominent and enduring themes in regional analysis, a leitmotif in Wikileaks documents of US government officials discussions with some regional leaders, and a decisive factor in determining the Obama administration’s policies on opposition movements across the Middle East.
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