Revered and Reviled: Bernard Lewis

November, 16 2011

To his admirers, his views of the two civilizations made Lewis nothing less than a modern-day seer. Says Ajami: “Islamic fundamentalism, which became the story of the world—he foresaw it before anyone. He has an ability to see things, buck the trend, differ from his contemporaries and step out of the consensus. The 1990s were an era of globalization, when people talked about the differences in the world being erased by a common marketplace. There were two men—Bernard Lewis and Sam Huntington—who said, ‘it ain’t so.’”

For Lewis, the clash of civilizations had finally made it to America’s doorstep. The situation had reached a dangerous boiling point and could no longer be ignored. The attacks of 9/11, he warns, must be seen as a battle in a larger war of jihad. According to the first stage of jihad, infidel rule in Islamic lands must end. “That has been, in the main, completed. All the states that were formally ruled by Russians and Frenchmen and Englishmen are now ruled by people of their own land.” The second stage, he says, is to recover lost lands of Islam—i.e., countries like Israel and Spain that were once ruled by Muslims but no longer are. The third and final phase is extending Islamic rule to the whole world, where inhabitants can either embrace Islam or become second-class citizens. “There is no doubt” that 9/11 is part of this struggle, he insists. “Osama bin Laden expressed himself quite clearly —this is part of global jihad and initiation of the final phase, bringing the true faith into the lands of unbelievers.”

Israel and the unsettled Palestinian question is not—as so many claim—the root of Arab hatred of the U.S. “Israel serves as a useful stand-in for complaints about the economic privation and political repression under which most Muslim people live, and as a way of deflecting the resulting anger,” Lewis says in a November 2001 issue of The New Yorker.

Since American foreign policy under George W. Bush was conducted by a group of men with whom Lewis was well-acquainted, he had rare access to the White House after September 11th, 2001. He had a “quite friendly relationship with Cheney” at the time, he recalls, and he was a guest speaker at the vice president’s residence only weeks after the attacks. On the eve of the Iraq invasion, Cheney, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, invoked the name and philosophy of the then-octogenarian professor. “I firmly believe, along with men like Bernard Lewis, who is one of the great students of that part of the world, that strong, firm U.S. response to terror and to threats to the United States would go a long way, frankly, toward calming things in that part of the world.” President Bush reportedly read a well-worn copy of What Went Wrong, which was given to him by Condoleezza Rice, who also met privately with Lewis, according to reports. And Karl Rove is said to have invited him to address White House staffers, military aides and staff members of the National Security Council in a closed meeting, where Lewis reportedly discussed the failures of contemporary Arab and Muslim societies and shared his opinions about the origins of the Muslim world’s anti-Americanism.

Once again Lewis was instrumental in providing an intellectual foundation for government policy, but this time the men he influenced were in control. Peter Waldman called this framework the “Lewis Doctrine” while describing Lewis’ outsized influence in shaping Middle East policy in the Wall Street Journal in February 2004. “Though never debated in Congress or sanctified by presidential decree, Mr. Lewis’ diagnosis of the Muslim world’s malaise, and his call for a U.S. military invasion to seed democracy in the Mideast, have helped define the boldest shift in U.S. foreign policy in 50 years,” Waldman writes. “As mentor and informal adviser to some top U.S. officials, Mr. Lewis has helped coax the White House to shed decades of thinking about Arab regimes and the use of military power. Gone is the notion that U.S. policy in the oil-rich region should promote stability above all, even if it means taking tyrants as friends. Also gone is the corollary notion that fostering democratic values in these lands risks destabilizing them. Instead, the Lewis Doctrine says fostering Mideast democracy is not only wise, but imperative.”

Lewis was not unwilling to combine his academic expertise with policy advice. He published op-eds frequently and in one 2002 Wall Street Journal piece appropriately called “Time for Toppling,” he predicted “scenes of rejoicing” in Iraq should “we succeed in overthrowing the regimes of what President Bush has rightly called the ‘Axis of Evil.’” He did the talk show circuit as well. When Charlie Rose asked him in a 2004 interview why invading Afghanistan would not have been enough to prove that the U.S. was more than a “paper tiger,” as Bin Laden called it, Lewis said plainly, “Afghanistan was not sufficient; one had to get to the heart of the matter in the Middle East.” During that same interview, he also backed his friend Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial Iraqi politician who claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. When pressed by Rose on whether the Iraq invasion was “worth it,” Lewis replied pointedly: “Yes, I think it was necessary to do something. One has to consider what the alternatives were.”

Lewis’ influence on the formulation of the Bush administration’s controversial Middle East policy drew critics en masse. Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent at the National Journal and author of the highly critical 2004 article “Bernard Lewis Revisited,” says that Lewis’ credentials gave the Bush administration’s policies “intellectual credence.” “It was a mistake to say [that 9/11] was an expression of anger that represented the mainstream of the Arab and Muslim world,” Hirsh tells me. “Really, the U.S. had to just wipe out Al Qaeda, but instead, they took on the entire Arab world. That’s where people like Lewis led us astray and I don’t think anyone would cite him today without some sense of irony.” Hirsh goes on: “By his own volition, he left the academic world to become a political figure and that was the beginning of the end of his reputation.”

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