Detective Team

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And yet, even during the hottest moments of recent history in the Middle East, few diplomats have been more anonymous than the Arabists have. With the exception of April Glaspie, the recent U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Arabists are just an opaque “them,” even to many of their worst enemies. Arabists, I found, are privately talkative, publicly shy. Like other bureaucrats and civil servants, they don’t call attention to themselves. They don’t pontificate on talk shows or op-ed pages. Peter Rodman, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute, who ran the Policy Planning Staff in the Reagan Administration, believes that the breadth, depth, and texture of the Arabists’ knowledge of the Arab world may work to immobilize their analytical thinking about it.

Buffeted by this and other, more sinister judgments about Arabists, I began an investigation of them warily. In what follows I will describe conversations with people who are or have been among the leading U.S. Arabists. I will look at the origins of the calling in the lives and writings of a handful of adventurers and missionaries. I will examine some of the psychological traits that one encounters among Arabists–traits that may help to explain U.S. Diplomacy prior to the debacle in Iraq. Finally, I will describe the emergence in recent years of a newer kind of Arabist, one who is perhaps more suited to an adjusted view of America’s role in the world.