Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee pick, Congressman Paul Ryan, doesn’t have a lot of foreign policy experience. But neither does Romney himself, nor did President Barack Obama when he was nominated by the Democratic Party four years ago. Romney’s selection confirms the conventional wisdom that, barring unforeseen developments, this will be an election almost entirely fought over domestic policy issues, particularly the economy.
But Ryan has tried to stake out some foreign policy credentials in the past, telling the Washington Examiner, “I’ve read all of Bernard Lewis’ books” about the Middle East. I rather doubt that. Lewis has had a long and complex career as an academic and a public intellectual, and his bibliography is extensive and in many ways eclectic. I wonder, for instance, if Ryan ever picked up Lewis’ short, thoughtful and erudite volume History — Remembered, Recovered, Invented (Princeton University press, 1975), in which he sketches the use and abuse of history by several contemporary Middle Eastern states, including Israel.
To those familiar with the true range of his work, there are almost two versions of Bernard Lewis: the mild-mannered Dr. Lewis who writes serious and learned books like History by day, and the hyper aggressive Mr. Bernard who emerges at night to champion the superiority of Western culture and pen apologias for Israel and—when it was a close Israeli ally—Turkey as well. Indeed, Lewis has been dogged by controversies regarding his strangely shifting positions on the Armenian genocide during the First World War.
Lewis’ writings appeal to hawkish conservatives, among others, because they have consistently championed an aggressive, and sometimes even belligerent, attitude towards the non-Western, and above all Arab, worlds. This was particularly the case in the run-up to the Iraq war, which Lewis strongly supported.
In the later part of his career, Lewis has argued with increasing stridency that the West and the Islamic world, particularly the Arabs, are engaged in a long-standing “clash of civilizations,” a term he coined and was subsequently popularized by Samuel Huntington. “I have no doubt that September 11 was the opening salvo of the final battle,” in this epic confrontation, Lewis told Michael Hirsh of the Washington Monthly in 2003. Lewis reportedly had a series of influential meetings with then Vice-President Dick Cheney in which he urged swift and decisive action against the regime of Saddam Hussein, a view he also promoted in numerous publications.
Lewis never argued that Saddam was actually involved in the 9/11 attacks, an argument restricted to only the most paranoid conspiracy theorists. But he did suggest that by allowing Saddam to remain in power after the 1990-91 Gulf War, the United States had created the impression that it was “a soft and demoralized enemy,” that could be attacked “with impunity.” The main purpose of the invasion of Iraq, he argued, was to reverse that misapprehension. He also argued, as did some neoconservatives, that overthrowing Saddam would somehow improve the chances for Palestinian-Israeli peace, although this naturally proved totally incorrect.
At a deeper level, Lewis attributes not just the essential features of modernity to Western culture, but all the values and aspirations associated with human rights, democracy and individual equality. His writings leave Western readers with the comforting sense that almost everything valuable in the world not only stems from the West, but can only be acquired by postcolonial societies through mimicry.
Moreover, he doubts that the Islamic world is capable of even such mimicry, suggesting that, “traditional Islam has no doctrine of human rights, the very notion of which might seem an impiety.” This is supposedly in contrast to Judeo-Christian traditions in which human rights are innate and God-given, but the same argument might just as easily be applied to those faiths as to “traditional Islam.”
Lewis is essentially a defender of colonialism or, more precisely, a critic of anti-colonialism. For without colonialism, how could right-thinking, modern decency have ever penetrated the non-Western world, since, in his view, all other cultures lacked any of the essential bases for a healthy modernity?
It’s almost impossible to argue with the contention of the late Edward Said that Lewis’ modus operandi essentializes both the West and the Islamic world, constructing them as polar opposites in a binary struggle that sometimes degenerates into a Manichaean vision of good versus evil. No wonder it played so well in certain sections of the George W. Bush administration. After all, you were either with us or with the terrorists.
If Paul Ryan is ready to put aside the wretched tomes of Ayn Rand and delve deeply into scholarship on the Middle East, he would do well to begin with Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples (Faber and Faber, 1991) as an outstanding starting point. There is no reason not to read Bernard Lewis, in combination with many other authors, but any reader, including Congressman Ryan, should understand where, exactly he’s coming from, and that his worldview led us into the Iraq war fiasco, among other mistakes. The lessons of history are important. But so are the lessons of following the advice of some historians.