Nathan J. Citino, Envisioning the Arab Future: Modernization in U.S.-Arab Relations, 1945-1967. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Nathan Citino (NC): Envisioning the Arab Future is a product of my graduate training in history at Ohio State. There, at the end of the last century, I had the opportunity to combine U.S. with Middle East history fields and to learn to read Arabic. This background opened up exciting possibilities for studying the implications of U.S. power for Arab societies through readings in Middle East historiography and Arabic sources. My cohort of U.S. foreign policy historians included some, such as Salim Yaqub, who were doing similar work in other graduate programs. But I’ve also learned a lot since then from scholars in Middle East studies who have examined the regional imperial role of Americans as successors to the Ottomans, French, and British. At the same time that I was trying to understand U.S. power in a regional context, scholars such as Robert Vitalis and Cyrus Schayegh identified new ways of situating the Middle East within global frameworks. These influences have led me to think about the relationship between global and regional histories, and to look for ways of transcending U.S.-centric perspectives on the Arab Middle East.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
NC: The book uses modernization as a theme for connecting postcolonial Arab history with the history of U.S. policies during the cold war. Prior to 1945, Arab societies had experienced movements for change as part of Ottoman reforms, the Nahda, European colonialism and anti-colonialism, wartime mobilization, and the struggle against Zionism. In the postwar era Arab countries also joined a world of decolonizing states, became part of the “third world,” and confronted the U.S.-Soviet cold war rivalry. So I looked for intersections between these regional and global influences, drawing on Middle East and cold war historiographies. Among others, I read Timothy Mitchell and Omnia El Shakry on modernization in Egypt; Ussama Makdisi on sectarianism and “Ottoman Orientalism”; Orit Bashkin on contending forms of Iraqi nationalism; Martha Mundy and Michael Fischbach on land reform in Transjordan; and On Barak, Yoav Di-Capua, and Pascal Menoret on the technologies and meanings of speed. In addition to conventional research in U.S. and British archives, I sought out Arabic voices from across a political spectrum – nationalists, Islamists, and communists – and worked in collections at the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo, including the rich Hassan Fathy Archive. From this research, I identified the case studies on which I based the book’s chapters: cold-war Arab travel; U.S. oil interests and uses of the Ottoman legacy; community-building and gender; land reform; Iraqi nationalism during the ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim regime; Nasser and Arab Socialism; and hijackings and the crisis of Palestinian statelessness.
The basic argument is that Americans and Arabs waged political conflicts within a shared set of cold-war-era concepts concerning modernization. These included a structural understanding of society as a system consisting of interdependent parts; faith in linear progress and the capacity of the state to transform society and nature; and the essential role of elites in uplifting women, workers, and peasants. The case studies follow the rise and decline of modernization as a contested but hegemonic concept from the end of World War Two until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
My approach challenges several existing interpretations of modernization in U.S.-Arab relations. One is Orientalist or cultural-essentialist: the belief, criticized by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978), that fundamental differences separate Middle Eastern societies from “the West.” By illustrating the ways that American and Arab elites invoked shared concepts to wage political conflicts, the book undermines assumptions about categorical difference. Such assumptions may have been discredited in scholarly circles but remain ubiquitous in popular and media accounts. The book also addresses the ambiguities in Said’s criticism regarding the degree to which the U.S. inherited Orientalism from Europe and in what forms.
Another interpretation comes from the U.S. foreign policy literature that describes “modernization” as a cold-war artifact. This includes scholarship by Michael Latham, who deserves credit for defining modernization’s attributes, as well as Nils Gilman, Nick Cullather, and David Ekbladh. This perspective tends to portray the U.S. as the source of modernization and to focus on attempts at exporting New Deal liberalism to the “third world.” Keeping in mind serious disparities in power, I tried to present Arab modernizers as full participants in debates about modernization, and to consider what happened when U.S. policies out of the New Deal met other societies’ reform legacies, such as that of the Ottoman Tanzimat in the Arab Middle East.
Still another interpretation is the “global cold war” associated with Odd Arne Westad, who portrays the cold war as a universal experience and traces many of today’s international crises to superpower interventions in the “third world.” This influential and stunningly researched study, focused on the binary rivalry across the globe between the superpowers’ antithetical versions of modernity, does not give equal weight to third-way ideologies such as Arab nationalism and Islamism. Greater attention to distinct, regional experiences of the cold war, I argue, is needed to incorporate such ideologies into accounts of the 20th century. Islamist movements are especially neglected in postwar international history prior to the 1970s; historians need to do more research to account for their antecedents and political significance. Envisioning therefore portrays Islamists as participants in cold-war development debates.
Finally, I hoped to ask new kinds of questions regarding the U.S.-Arab encounter besides those related to U.S. policymaking, especially on Arab-Israeli diplomacy, oil, and regional defense. And I wanted to move beyond existing accounts that address the influence of racialized images of Arabs and Muslims in American culture. I tried to read U.S. and Arab accounts of one another as mutually-constituted and as the products of various encounters at multiple sites.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
NC: My first book, From Arab Nationalism to OPEC: Eisenhower, King Sa‘ud, and the Making of U.S. Saudi Relations, began as my dissertation. It was published by Indiana University Press in 2002, with a second edition published in 2010. That book is more of a traditional, bilateral policy study and uses fewer Arabic sources than Envisioning. Still, both books consider how U.S. power intersected with patterns in Middle East history. Both also address regional inequality between oil-exporting and non-exporting Arab states and describe that inequality as the product of an Anglo-American infrastructure of oil extraction built to fuel postwar European reconstruction. Perhaps the biggest difference is that Envisioning is a post-tenure book. I was fortunate to have opportunities to collect sources, present papers, publish articles, and absorb criticism. It took a long time.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NC: I hope that students and scholars both in U.S. foreign relations and Middle East studies will read it. My aim is to continue the dialogue between these two fields, which is essential to developing a critical historical scholarship about U.S. power in the Middle East down to today’s wars. For those of us who study U.S. foreign relations – or, increasingly, the “U.S. in the World” – making the field more international and less U.S.-centric requires greater engagement with regional historiographies and with colleagues who study other parts of the world. Many other historians are pursuing similar approaches for Latin America, Africa, and Asia, as well as the Middle East. This work contributes to the ongoing reinvention of U.S. foreign relations over the last twenty years, in which scholars have focused more on non-elites, transnational phenomena, and non-state actors. I hope that scholars in Middle East studies will take from book a sense that research in U.S. sources can shed light on the nature of U.S. empire and that exchanges with historians of U.S. foreign relations can be of value. Finally, I hope that historians of economic development will find it useful as a study that interprets development in historical context. Working on this theme has brought me into contact with accomplished scholars from whom I’ve learned a lot, such as Timothy Nunan and Alden Young. Those who study development in global perspective tackle really big historical questions, including the origins of today’s inequality and the shifting ways that human beings have imagined progress.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
NC: I’m finishing a spin-off project about the United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, his vision for Arab economic development after the Suez crisis, and his relationship with Nasser. This project draws on new research in Hammarskjöld’s papers at the National Library of Sweden. Many of the most important UN secretariat records from the Hammarskjöld years are there and not in New York. There has been important work published on the UN recently, including a volume edited by Karim Makdisi and Vijay Prashad. My chapter-length project looks at the UN’s economic development rather than peacekeeping role and Hammarskjöld’s bold but also paternalistic attempts at addressing Arab economic inequality through the reinvestment of oil revenues. I’d also like to finish an article project on the Camp David era. In the long term, I have ideas for another book examining the meaning of U.S. empire in the Middle East and beyond.
Excerpt from Chapter 1, “The Age of Speed”
“As for the distances, they are not so important today, for modern methods of communication have shortened them greatly. Baghdad is nearer to Damascus than Aleppo, Hama, Homs, and Beirut were in the past. If these distances did not prevent unity in the age of the camel, they will not do so in the age of the train, the automobile, and the plane. The distances between our countries are small when compared to those in the United States.”
-- Musa Alami, “The Lesson of Palestine”
“[T]he governing classes and students of underdeveloped countries are gold mines for airline companies. African and Asian officials may in the same month follow a course on socialist planning in Moscow and one on the advantages of the liberal economy in London or at Columbia University.”
-- Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
For growing numbers of Arabs in the postwar era, the experience of travel linked Middle Eastern politics with global debates about modernization. This basic fact is apparent from their writings, which are thick with descriptions of planes, airports, trains, ships, hired cars, and even rickshaws, as well as hotels, tourist sites, and showcase development projects. Global travel was nothing new for Arabs with the means to undertake it, and Arab debates about modernity had long incorporated accounts of experiences abroad. But travel assumed particular significance after 1945. As will be seen from the examples presented in this chapter, the increasing speed of travel reinforced the tendency to draw prolific comparisons among development models as a defining feature of postwar politics. Arab elites translated encounters with other peoples into terms that could be employed in ideological conflicts back home. Many also used the experiences of traveling by plane, train, ship, or automobile as metaphors for characterizing their own societies as structures undergoing rapid change and for contesting who had the right to set society’s course. Accounts of trips abroad and depictions of others, whether positive or negative, had helped previous Arab travelers to construct reform agendas and envision what modernity could mean for their own societies. During the era of superpower conflict, swift modes of travel to the United States and elsewhere influenced Arab depictions of modernization. Speed inspired modernizers to represent society’s development over time as acceleration through space.
This chapter focuses on travel in order to understand how the cold war affected Arab modernization debates. It examines Arab memoirs and political writings to make three related arguments. The first is that after 1945, Arab elites used travel experiences to the United States, the Soviet Union, and other “third world” regions to formulate ideas about modernization. These cold-war travel experiences built upon the long-established practice in Arabic letters of using encounters with Europe to imagine modernity. The second argument is that the bipolar competition between the superpowers intersected with an existing, multi-sided rivalry among anti-colonial ideologies within the Arab world. Appropriating cold-war terminology, some Arab elites reconfigured anti-colonial movements from the early twentieth century – including Islamism – as modernizing “systems” modeled on those of Washington and Moscow. The third argument is that as Arab modernizers grew accustomed to traversing the globe, many employed speed metaphors to characterize their preferred paths to development. The metaphor of “take-off,” popularized by economist and presidential advisor Walt Rostow in The Stages of Economic Growth, is the most famous use of speed to represent modernization. Rostow held up the “high mass-consumption society” of the U.S. as a universal development model. But his modernizing formula shared imagery and assumptions with those of Arab elites who rejected U.S. policies. The presence of similar elements in Arabic writings points to shared concepts among otherwise dissimilar modernizers, including their structural interpretation of society, concern for elite authority, comparative methodology, and use of speed to represent progress.
Following World War Two, Arab travelers observed America and other societies in a global context defined by rapid mobility. For instance, Jordanian diplomat ‘Abd al-Munim al-Rifa‘i (1917-1985) served the Hashemite kingdom in Cairo, Damascus, Athens, Tunis, and Teheran before becoming ambassador to Washington. He summered in Maine, wintered in Miami, and motored by causeway to Key West. From these experiences, he found American society “incompatible with intellectual complexity [ba‘id ‘an al-ta‘qid al-fikri].” In 1959, he accompanied King Husayn to Taiwan and across the Pacific to Hawaii and the continental U.S., where they appealed for economic and military aid. The pair flew from Amman to Dhahran, Karachi, Bangkok, Taipei, Wake Island, and Honolulu, before arriving in San Francisco. Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) visited America between 1948 and 1950. Qutb cruised by ship from Alexandria to New York and then traveled to Washington D.C., Denver, Palo Alto, and San Francisco. He studied education in Greeley, Colorado, where the sight of adolescents dancing at a church social to the tune “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” confirmed his belief in America’s sexual immorality. In a lament written from the U.S., whose material wealth he both admired and criticized, Qutb longed to discuss something other than “dollars, film stars, and car models.” Qutb returned by plane to Cairo, where members of the Muslim Brotherhood met him at Faruq airfield. He soon took off again for Saudi Arabia on the Muslim pilgrimage. Syrian foreign minister Khalid al-‘Azm (1903-1965), scion of a notable family and known as the “Red Pasha,” arrived in New York in 1955 following a route that had taken him from Damascus to Beirut, Istanbul, Munich, Paris, and Boston. Al-‘Azm had been invited to San Francisco to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the United Nations but felt snubbed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Instead, al-‘Azm met Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, an encounter captured by a photographer from Life magazine. Playing the tourist, al-‘Azm ricocheted between destinations on the two coasts by plane and train, seeing only Chicago in the heartland. From the Empire State Building, al-‘Azm observed how Broadway staggered across Manhattan’s grid like a “drunk,” and in Los Angeles he studied the movie stars’ handprints pressed into the cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater. He marveled that his flight from L.A. to Washington, D.C., which reached 650 kilometers per hour, matched the airspeed record for 1955. From Washington, he took a “fast train” that delivered a smooth ride without any “vibration [al-ihtizaz]” despite reaching New York in just three and a half hours. Two years later, al-‘Azm would undertake a similar tour of Soviet Eurasia. Despite their political differences, these three figures shared the experience of fast movement across the globe. Speed gave postwar Arab travelers compressed encounters with America and other societies, which they could then compare as alternative models for development.
Twentieth-century speed empowered Arabs to judge other societies comparatively, a prerogative that had previously been claimed by European colonizers and one that would become U.S. cold warriors’ stock-in-trade. Global travel helped to make Arab and other “third world” elites active participants in conflicts over development, which for them, as much as for the Americans and Soviets, served as a vehicle for achieving power. “Speed,” writes Enda Duffy, “has been the most empowering and excruciating new experience for people everywhere in twentieth-century modernity.” Not only should speed be regarded as political, Duffy argues, “but speed, it turns out, is politics: the expression of a new order of the organization of global space.” The ubiquity of speed metaphors to represent modernization reflects the shared structuralist concepts that underlay global development debates following World War Two. Assumptions about the interdependence of social, economic, and political changes, which formed the basis for Keynesian economics and modernization theory, gained currency even among modernizers who did not share American agendas of liberal capitalism and anti-communism. Speed metaphors also served as arguments for the necessity of elite authority over development. Just as the airplane, train, or automobile operated on the basis of a complex system managed by technical skill, so too did society advance according to a complicated process requiring leadership by those who understood how the parts functioned in relation to the whole. Anthropologist James C. Scott has observed how reformers attempt to “cash in on the symbolic capital” of the term “streamlining” to evoke the “bureaucratic equivalent of a sleek locomotive or jet.” Such references to advanced modes of transportation indicate a shared understanding of development as a process of interdependent change and correspond to descriptions of postwar modernizing ideologies as “systems.”
[Excerpted from Envisionining the Arab Future: Modernization in US-Arab Relations, 1945-1967 with author permission (c) 2017.]