Saturday 24 Feb 2018 | 17:34 | SYDNEY
Saturday 24 Feb 2018 | 17:34 | SYDNEY

Middle East: It's all academic, really



1 December 2008 12:37

Attending the annual Middle Eastern Studies Association meeting in Washington last week, it was hard not to be struck by the lively debate about any number of topics concerning a region which continues to be a central focus for US policy planners. 

The depth of academic expertise on show was very impressive, although the view that it has not been well utilized in the policy debate in the past was evidenced by the first night’s panel discussion. The feeling that serious scholarly understanding of complex regional issues that were deeply influenced by culture, religion and history had been largely ignored in the policy debate was a main concern. But there was also acknowledgement that some areas of the scholarly community had not kept up with areas that were of prime interest to policy professionals.

Naturally, the recent US election was an area of keen discussion outside the presentations, and it was fair to say that most people felt that, while the new administration was going top face a complex regional picture, their relative lack of ideological rigidity meant there was an opportunity for subject matter expertise to be used to a greater degree than under the current administration. But the conference provided few answers on the hard regional issues: Gulf states want the US to do something about what they see as Iranian expansionism but can’t articulate what the ‘something’ is; concerns are voiced about Hizbullah’s political strength without any ideas for diluting it. The list goes on.

Still, it wasn't all heavy Middle East policy discussion. There was time for some mildly amusing observations, such as the programing of presentations from the Association for Israel Studies and the Institute for Palestine Studies at the same time in adjoining rooms separated by a ‘temporary’ partition (I will remain silent on the respective attendances). Some also questioned the utility of a paper entitled ‘The Economy of Queer Sex in Francophone Maghrebian Literature as a Response to Western Identity Politics’.

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