Lecturehop: How Not to Fix the Middle East

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Bwog correspondent Claire Sabel dives into the murky waters of the MEALAC department

Martin_Kramer_press_photoAs a decorated hero in the world of academic politiking, Professor Martin Kramer was expected to lambaste Columbia’s approach to Middle Eastern policy.  An outspoken critic of Columbia’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture Department (MEALAC), Kramer is currently the Adelson Institute Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, the Wexler-Fromer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the National Security Studies Program Senior Fellow at Harvard.  Since Columbia’s International Relations Forum invited Kramer to speak, though, Kramer compensated; he delivered a somewhat pointed introduction explaining that he intended to adhere to that limited sphere.  Kramer was very upfront in delineating his relationship with the university. He described himself as a “longtime and often sharp critic” of Columbia, but he qualified that he has made his comments both as an academic and as an alum himself (he received an M.A. in History here  in 1976.) He spoke respectfully about his admiration for the institution, speaking of its “diverse approaches and high standards,” but concluded his introduction by qualifying that “politics of the middle east are so much more interesting than politics of middle eastern studies.”

He instead proceeded to critique one of Columbia’s most famous alums: President Obama. Kramer argued that popular opinion in America holds that Obama’s aim is to “shrink the Middle East down to its pre-9/11 size,” an undertaking for which Obama has already been awarded “the down-payment of the Nobel Prize.”  Kramer thus introduced his central point: why the current administration’s Middle Eastern policy is so ineffective.Kramer denigrated the international relations community’s “dithering praise” for U.S. policy in the Middle East as lacking a coherent strategy. He believes that Obama’s less forceful approach — which stands in marked contrast to the infamous Bushism “bring ’em on” — indicates his discomfort with the exercise of American Power. “Sensitive antennae,” in the Middle East, Kramer claims, are aware of this, and this awareness could undermine Obama’s ambitious plans. The Middle East sees the United States as wounded and weakened politically and economically, and believes that “its decline has begun.” Kramer claims this “American declinism” manifests in Obama’s policy and rhetoric and indeed indicates a greater problem in the significance of American power. The White House’s current strategy is a “white glove,” he contends, not because it conceals a fist, but because it is empty.

The response of our allies to American policy has been one of polite condescension as they placate the U.S. with minor gestures while in effect acting without regard to, or indeed against, the pressures applied by Obama and his administration.  Kramer cited Saudi Arabia and Turkey as prime examples.  In the case of our adversaries, whatever progress can be made must be done by a more aggressive assertion of American power; as soon as weakness is perceived, these Middle Eastern states “will snap back to their default position.”  Kramer contends that attitude is certainly not in the interest of the U.S. nor Middle Eastern stability.

Kramer admitted that his commentary was deliberately thin on the proposal of strategies to replace the one he criticizes. He concluded that his primary concern is that “the answer to all of these questions will become moot if the U.S. is just a player among these powers.” He strongly believes that while he still can, that Obama can and should instigate a salvage operation, if not bring about salvation. The crucial argument is not to lose our hold in the Middle East: whatever crises are occurring now, the U.S. must act as a bulwark for crises worse still.

He may have acknowledged his lack of alternative proposals, but Kramer’s omission still frustrated his audience.  In responding to these comments, Columbia’s I.R. Professor Jack Snyder questioned Kramer’s “implied solution” but agreed that he had framed the question very well. Snyder called attention to the approach of the realists, which stresses the importance of an “offshore balance,” yet neither Synder nor Kramer really proposed a conclusion. However there was a reason the evening’s topic was ‘How Not to Fix the Middle East.’  Despite Kramer’s more-than-occasional condescension and aggressive assertion, he provided a rigorous framework to reevaluate Columbia’s own policy in the Middle East — a policy that affects both the ivory tower and the very real world outside it.


  1. uh...  

    Professor Martin Kramer teaches where, exactly? don't you think this is pertinent information for this article? you don't say where he teaches or where he does his work, only that he got his MA from columbia 30 years ago.

  2. I second that uh  

    If Claire Sabel wants to continue masquerading as a journalist, perhaps she could also mention Kramer's ties with the Giuliani campaign (gulp), his slander against academics like Rashid Khalidi (especially during last year's rather sleazy election ploy), his love of AIPAC and the promotion of HR3077, and his general lack of irony which manifests itself in his habit of labeling anyone critical of Israel as \extreme\.

    I'm not suggesting that Sabel simply to brush off Kramer as a partisan shill (I reserve such tactics for Kramer), but it would be nice if this article was slightly informing and used the word \neoconservative\?

    Thank you Bwog correspondent Sabel for generally wasting our time. You'll be big at the Washington Post...

    • huh?

      Are you serious? Stop attacking your fellow students and grow up. Jeesh, your response is incredibly harsh and mean-spirited. Maybe you would be justified if Sabel got some major facts wrong, but she's just reporting what happened at a lecture, not doing opposition-research on the speaker! You betray your own "shill" status in your ridiculous post; just for example: "it would be nice if this article was slightly informing and used the world neoconservative." Oh, yes, neoconservative! I really wish it used that word, that way we could really, really expose Martin Kramer as a fraud! Haha - are you a freshman? Because you sound very foolish.

      • in all honesty  

        "A shill is an associate of a person selling goods or services or a political group, who pretends no association to the seller/group and assumes the air of an enthusiastic customer."

        The commenter doesn't seem like a shill. Maybe you meant "shrill"?

        • huh?

          Well, I knew I was using the word loosely, but didn't realize how loosely. Yes, that's right, too eager to throw the poster's own pejorative back at him/her. What I really meant ot criticize was they seemed like either a partisan or ideologue.

  3. Sure

    Sure, she could have included all of that. But it looks like you already knew it all.

  4. fix-it

    "He provided a rigorous framework to reevaluate Columbia’s own policy in the Middle East." Surely it should read "reevaluate America's own policy in the Middle East." Columbia is big, but not that big.

  5. How to fix  

    The Middle East: Give India clearance to lay Pakistan to waste and move into Afghanistan. We destroy Iran by bombing their military bases to hell and then invading with most of the Marines. We send half of the Army to aid Israel in destroying Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon. We send the half the special ops forces and half the army to organize the Armenians, Greeks and Kurds and invite the Serbians to invade Turkey. Then the Greeks and Armenians split Turkey up. If the Kurds agree to convert away from the religion of peace then they will be welcomed to their original lands. We send the remaining special ops and various forces who have completed their missions to invade Saudia Arabia. The Air force will concentrate on Mecca, making sure the Kabbah is nothing but a smoking hole in the ground. Then, provided that the remaining citizens of the middle east convert away from Islam (and burn their korans as evidence) we will have fixed the middle east.

  6. disgusted  

    let's see.. israel-based, jewish, AIPAC-affiliated, supports the wars in the middle east.. this guy just REEKS of zionism. disgusting.. a disgrace to columbia and an undervaluation of my education

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