4 Oct 2012

On Middle East Expertise: The Decline of Narrative

Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings I must have read hundreds of analytical and opinion pieces about the dynamics of the revolts and the role that external powers are playing. The one thing that stands out clearly to me after nearly two years is the total lack of a principled approach among the multitude of analysts and experts writing about the region. While it’s clear that many are now sceptical about the notion of expertise itself, I myself still believe in the role that specialised analysts can play based on extensive study of the historic literature and thorough observation of current developments.

Such a cold analytical approach seems to be at odds with the visceral emotive form of discourse that revolutions produce, but also with the humanitarian prism through which we now almost exclusively see events in other parts of the world. It’s probably that context that is responsible for both the proliferation and impotence of expertise. We are approaching a point at which independent detached observation is becoming obsolete, despite the fact that it is urgently needed.

Look back at those past twenty months or so, the stark fact is that nobody seems to have come up with a compelling narrative of any of the Arab uprisings and consequently enabled a rational understanding of the course they’re likely to take. All we get are piecemeal, eclectic, reactive pieces that seem to be more a product of an instantaneous media culture than deep reflection.

In parallel, and this is becoming a dominant sentiment in parts of the Arab world, the very idea of an external observer or expert is now being questioned on cultural grounds. Arab pseudo-leftism is largely to blame for this suspicion towards the universality of inquiry, as it retreats further and further into a defensive, culturally prescribed from of conceptualising power relationships.

This hostility towards specific writers is often justified, but rather than critically examining and demolishing their arguments, increasingly the tendency is becoming questioning the ability of foreigners to understand Arab culture and political dynamics. This is a reactionary form of mystifying social and political relationships and is inherently chauvinistic. More importantly, it’s a form of political bankruptcy, as we lose the ability to make authoritative pronouncements about our politics.

Hostility towards experts however is unavoidable, partially as a significant number of them work directly or indirectly for Western governments. This is particularly evident, and justified, when they are seen as cheer-leading aggressive Western policies in the region. Regardless of political inclination however, there is a deeper problem which is the readiness to accept the instrumentalisation of their expertise. Instead of building a body of knowledge that informs strategic views of policy, expertise is now often put to use for expedient and immediate implementation in policy initiatives.

And that is precisely the problem. Take for example the question of intervention. There was a variety of US administration responses to each of the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria that were repackaged and sold in each instance as the right approach, despite varying widely from supporting the suppression of the uprising to the exact opposite, albeit reluctantly. This eclecticism had little internal coherence and no clear direction, yet most experts have found little contradiction in this piecemeal contradictory approach.

With Syria in particular, those contradictions have been revealed very clearly. There are many reasons for the US and the West to intervene in Syria, and there are many more for them not to. The problem is that all of those cases are being made in isolation of a broader understanding of what the regional policy should be about and how can it be consistent. Yet the bigger question of whether the West should be playing an active interventionist role in the region is yet to be questioned seriously.

There is a case to be made that the active hands-on approach that the US in particular has used for decades in the region has had very little success and has in fact widely discredited its image and standing among Arabs. Yet it’s curious that in the realm of Middle East expertise there seems to be no serious attempt to question that form of intensive meddling. The variety in opinion revolves around the type of  intervention required in each instance, rather than questioning this intrusive form of foreign policy. (With the exception of few left-wing academics that have maintained a traditional anti-imperialist line, at the expense of abandoning, and sometimes discrediting, the uprisings.)

Yet a broad look at the field of Middle East expertise reveals a disjointed tactically-minded landscape that is incapable of articulating a coherent narrative, neither for the uprisings themselves, (which very few experts expected), nor for a principled and consistent Western response to them. Unlike what many are now arguing, the problem is not with the lack of available knowledge or the idea of expertise itself, but with the absence of coherence and principles that inform expertise and its outlook. What we need is an authoritative narrative, what we are getting are ephemeral media consumables.


  1. You raise an important point about the necessity of "expertise"––a sort of jab at post-structuralist politically-impotent philosophies; however, what you seem to be assuming is a unity in the types of expertise that exist; moreover, this unity seems to also assume a unity of the subject matter that each expert considers: no doubt, experts in various fields are able to produce consistent accounts of the phenomena they work with, i.e., bioligists, animals; physicists, particles; psychologists, persons; historians of Palestine, the History of Palestine, etc..., yet what you unjustifiably suggest is that such normalcy can be indicated in what has happened in the past 20 months in the Middle East. The fact of the matter is that NO such phenomenal consistency has presented itself (a point you demonstrate yourself), as such any imposed narrative risks being fascistic and/or opportunistic. There is no single narrative to be articulated: not because of the ephemeral nature of truth or some other lame excuse, but because in this case there are indeed too many factors that have NOT YET PLAYED OUT.
    This is NOT a post-structuralist rebuttal to the important issue that you are raising––expertise; rather, it is a suggestion that you have over-simplified the task that you think is at hand, and that you have done this in two ways: first (theoretically), by reducing the necessity of the passage of time to the analytical grasp of experts––time needs to pass, it's still too soon, and no amount of courageous and honest analysis can do away with this necessity; second (practically), you consequently hold writers and journalists responsible for a fault they cannot help having since they are inherently committed to spouting "ephemeral media consumables" since they are consciously reacting at the moment and not waiting for time to pass.

    1. fair point, and this blog post itself is an ephemeral consumable, I have no pretensions about that. The one thing that I would say is that in the absence of time, there are principles that observers can adhere to, such as autonomy, self-determination and enlightened self-interest. Those would allow any narrative to be grounded within a conceptually robust framework rather than become opportunistic and arbitrary. Which is the point I'm making.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.