University celebrity returns, promotes book

By Isaac Wolf

Critic of the war in Iraq and former University celebrity Rashid Khalidi echoed the themes of his new book on Thursday, outlining a history of western hegemony in the Middle East and focusing on the pitfalls of the Bush administration’s current foreign policy.

Speaking as part of the World Beyond the Headlines lecture series at the International House (I-House), Khalidi discussed his new book, Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East.

Khalidi called for an immediate end to the incursion into Iraq. He said that while the U.S. is responsible for the instability in Iraq, its military presence is exacerbating the volatility. “The United States is the biggest factor for instability,” Khalidi said. “It will be by far worse for the people of Iraq, the Middle East, and this country if the occupation goes on.”

The war, Khalidi noted, has engendered a level of anti-Americanism that the world has not seen since the Vietnam War. “The occupation of Iraq is the best possible gift to the terrorists who attacked this country that they could dream of. We have done them an enormous favor—they are the only beneficiaries,” he said.

Khalidi used his professional background to argue that a 200-year history of Western aggression has stymied the development of representative democracy in the Middle East, where there has been a consistent element of constitutionalism and democracy.

“There were constitutions in the Middle East before there were constitutions in most of southern and eastern Europe,” Khalidi said. “This is not a region where the idea of rule of law is completely alien. Quite frequently, constitutional governments were sabotaged by western powers, which did not want independent democratic governments that would demand resources and power.”

Khalidi’s comments were received by a capacity crowd in the stiflingly hot auditorium of the I-House with dozens standing and sitting in the aisles. At least part of Khalidi’s large following is attributable to his relationship with the University, where he taught from 1987 until last year.

Khalidi became the Edward Said Chair and head of the Middle East Studies department of Columbia University, leaving his role at the University as director of the Center for International Studies and professor in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilization department.

“It is fitting that I should speak about this book here at the University of Chicago since most of it was written here and inspired by my colleagues and friends here,” Khalidi said.

Khalidi said that the U.S. has entered an extremely dangerous phase of its involvement in the Middle East, citing the fact that America was, for many decades, a western power with no colonial ambitions.

“It had no ulterior motives,” he said, adding that the U.S. was actually viewed as an anti-colonial power because of its positive involvement in Libya, Egypt, and Iran.

The current administration’s Middle East policy, however, is driven by a series of domestic political interests that pay little attention to actual perspectives from the Middle East. “This has been a war and an occupation that had been waged in the complete absence of expertise,” Khalidi said. “This administration has a faith-based, fact-free foreign-policy.”

He said that the Bush administration systematically ignored people from the State Department and the rest of the intelligence community who had first-hand experience in Iraq and the Middle East. “These people were, with very few exceptions, shut out of decision-making following up to the war.”

According to organizer Susan Gzesh, director of the Human Rights program and one of the event’s organizers, Khalidi was selected to speak because of his expertise on a “terribly important, timely topic.” Citing his ability to draw a capacity crowd on a sweltering afternoon, Gzesh said that Khalidi is “one of the smartest public intellectuals of our time.”

Khalidi’s speech was the last of the “World Beyond the Headlines” series, which began in January. The International House Global Voices Program, the University of Chicago Center for International Studies, the Chicago Society, and the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations have sponsored the series.