Nathan J. Citino, Envisioning the Arab Future: Modernization in U.S.-Arab Relations, 1945-1967 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
On 6 September 1970, two US airliners and one Swiss aircraft were hijacked by gunmen representing the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the most radical wing of the Palestinian nationalist movement. A fourth plane, El Al flight 219 flying from Amsterdam to New York, was also hijacked by two Palestinian guerrillas, but El Al crew members shot and killed one hijacker and wounded the other. The Palestinian hijackers took one of the planes—Pan Am flight 93—to Cairo, where, after the 170 persons aboard were evacuated, they blew up the plane. The other two planes were flown to Dawson’s Field, an abandoned airfield thirty miles east of Amman, Jordan, where, for the next three weeks, Palestinian commandos and the Jordanian army engaged in a standoff for the safe release of the passengers.
For decades, the hijackings were viewed as largely a response to US and Israeli policy in the Middle East and to highlight the continued statelessness of the Palestinians. More recently, Paul Thomas Chamberlin argued that the hijackings were designed to send a message to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser after he agreed to a US-negotiated ceasefire, in August 1970, which ended the Egyptian-Israeli War of Attrition. But, as Nathan J. Citino argues in his outstanding book Envisioning the Arab Future: Modernization in U.S.-Arab Relations, the Palestinian guerrillas had a far different objective in mind when commandeering the planes. The hijackings, he claims, were the most vivid expression of the “the loss of faith in the modernizing state” (256). Fida’iyyin operations, and especially the PFLP-led hijackings, he claims, were “radical acts in which the individuals and militant cells rejected the authority of Arab governments and leaders, such as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Jordan’s King Hussein, who had staked their authority on the promise of development” (256).
By viewing the events of Black September as a consequence of the failed attempts by both Arabs and Americans to modernize the Middle East in the Cold War era, Citino, a professor of history at Rice University, offers a refreshing interpretation of US-Arab relations that moves away from traditional US diplomatic histories, as well as studies of the Arab-Israeli conflict. “Rather than being fundamentally divided by culture,” he argues, “Americans and Arabs contended over the aims and meanings of modernization within a shared set of widely held concepts from the postwar era about how societies advance” (1). Despite sharp differences over economic policy, Zionism and Israel, and anticommunism, Americans and Arabs often spoke a common language of modernization in an effort to help the Arab Middle East, in Nasser’s words, “compensate for the past and catch up with the future” (2). “The efforts of Americans concerned with modernizing the Middle East brought them into contact not only with the region’s past,” Citino writes, “but also with Arab elites who authored their own agendas (for development) against the global backdrop of decolonization and the Cold War” (5).
Citino is to be congratulated for challenging the growing body of US development studies over the past two decades that defines modernization as a set of ideas formulated in the United States and exported abroad. Citino, by contrast, approaches these issues through the perspective of regional history in order to demonstrate that Arab elites and intellectuals were active agents in the modernization process. Using a wealth of Arabic and English sources, he presents a number of case studies illustrating how Arab modernizers—nationalists, Islamists, and communists—traveled the world searching for ideas about how to transform their own societies and to assess superpower claims as to which system represented a better model of development. This reinterpretation, therefore, not only rejects the idea of modernization as a “narrow concept of top-down transformation” (243), but, as Citino maintains, “it portrays modernization as a shared, twentieth-century framework within which global elites disputed the purpose of social change, rather than a set of American ideas imposed on the third world” (214).
Central to Citino’s analysis is how “speed,” and in particular jet travel, affected the politics of modernization and development in the postwar period. Jet-age speed, he argues in the opening chapter, allowed a cross-section of Arab travelers “compressed encounters” with a range of different societies, which they could then compare as alternative development models. Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb, for example, turned away from a US development model after two years (1948–50) of travel through the United States where he witnessed blatant racism and “America’s sexual immorality” (17). Syrian Foreign Minister Khalid al-‘Azm similarly rejected a US development model after extensive travel through the United States and the Soviet Union. Al-‘Azm’s 1957 visit to the latter, and especially his enthusiasm for flying to Moscow aboard an advanced Soviet jet, and being shuttled around the Soviet Union in elegant luxury cars, convinced him that Syria should accept aid and development assistance from the Kremlin (32–33). The impact of twentieth-century speed was clear, says Citino. “It 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” (17–18).
Speed also affected the language of political debates about modernization and development, as Americans and Arabs used similar speed metaphors to represent modernization. US economist and presidential adviser Walt Whitman Rostow, says Citino, compared developing countries’ achievement of “self-sustaining economic growth” to the “takeoff” of a jet airplane to help popularize development as an anti-communist foreign policy doctrine at the height of the Cold War (47, 255). Arab writers from the same period also made use of such evocative metaphors to represent modernization. Magdi Hasanayn, a military officer who directed Egypt’s Tahrir Province desert reclamation project in 1950, wrote that Egypt’s development was like “riding horses galloping to catch up with the procession of the age of civilization . . . if we know the language of the age and its spirit, means, and laws, then we can exchange this horse for cars or air planes” (48–49). For Citino, such metaphors had deep meaning as they described development as a journey whose success demanded competent navigation. “If a society’s members are collectively bound for a common destination,” he argues, “then its most capable leaders must be at the controls to ensure a safe arrival” (47–48).
Of course, jet speed and travel were not the only things that brought elites from the United States and Arab world into dialogue on modernization. Arabic historiography, American social science, and an appreciation of the Ottoman legacy of land reform created new avenues for Arab elites and US policymakers to address the universal problem of development. In this regard, Citino claims, “the theme of modernization revealed that U.S. relations with the Arab world encompassed more than just battles over Israel” (5). In perhaps the most fascinating case study of the book, Citino brilliantly shows how Nasser and US State Department official William Polk, working under Rostow on the Policy Planning Staff, developed a close personal relationship during the Kennedy administration based on their “shared understanding of the problems of modernization” (215, 238). Both men placed their faith in Egypt’s ability to promote economic and social transformation through large-scale development projects, population control, state-led industrialization, and nuclear power. Polk, says Citino, legitimized Nasser’s authoritarian approach to development through a historical comparison with that of Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha, the nineteenth-century military ruler of Ottoman Egypt, and he shared Nasser’s view that the Muslim Brotherhood represented the “vestige of a traditional past” (246).
Yet the promise of development that Polk saw in Nasser, and the age of speed that offered Arab modernizers new opportunities to transform their societies, came to a crashing halt with the Arab defeat to Israel in 1967. The June War not only shattered the political value that aerospace offered to Egypt and other Arab countries as a modern symbol of the state’s authority, but, Citino argues, it rendered a “highly disparaging verdict about the success of Nasser’s campaign to modernize Egypt and the Arab world” (265). When the Palestinian fida’iyyin hijacked the airplanes in September 1970, they not only represented the grievances of stateless Palestinian refugees, but, says Citino, they exposed “the hollowness of Arab officials’ claims that they could deliver economic progress and victory over Israel” (253). The use of the airplanes to drive home their message was also intentional as it served as a “potent symbol” that Third World leaders like Nasser and King Hussein of Jordan, himself a pilot, employed as “an emblem of modernization” (259).
To be sure, Citino’s speed metaphor seems too convenient at times. Why, for example, were Palestinian guerrillas so concerned about speed in 1970, when they hijacked planes to Egypt and Jordan, but not so concerned about it two years later when they took eleven Israeli athletes hostage at the Munich Olympics? I would also like to have seen Citino broaden the discussion to include Arab leaders in North Africa who were engaged in similar debates with Americans about modernization. Tunisian President Habib Bourgiba, for example, worked particularly closely with specialists from the Rockefeller Foundation on issues such as population control and family planning during the 1960s. Should the experience of Arabs and Americans in North Africa be excluded because of some arbitrary geographical line that defines “the Middle East?” Despite these quibbles, Envisioning the Arab Future is certain to become required reading for students interested in Arab studies, US relations with the Arab world, and the history of the modern Middle East, and will hopefully spawn more literature on US relations with the Arab world from the vantage point of development, which will not only highlight the far reaches of the Cold War in the region, but also the longstanding American efforts to transform the Middle East in its image, whether through economic or military power.