"Lewis Doctrine," you're likely asking? "What the hell is that?" I'm referring, of course, to the neoconservative's court-historian, Bernard Lewis, Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, whose pontifications have provided the authoritative "academic" rationalizations for the foreign-policy misadventures in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and South Asia under the administrations of both Bush the Elder and Bush the Younger. The term "Lewis Doctrine" was coined by Peter Waldman in an article in The Wall Street Journal (3 February 2004) entitled "A Historian's Take on Islam Steers U.S. in Terrorism Fight," a short yet incisive commentary on the outsized influence that Lewis' assertions regarding the fundamental nature of Islam—and the inexorable and morally imperative "Clash of Civilizations"—held among the Bush/Cheney cabal as they crafted U.S. policy in MENA and South Asia.
Romney's foreign-policy address at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) on 8 October 2012 and Ryan's responses to MENA-related questions during last night's debate demonstrate beyond doubt that the Lewis Doctrine remains the framework within which events and processes in MENA are rationalized, and on the basis of which policy recommendations are justified. Let us not neglect that during an interview with the Washington Examiner on 17 May 2012, in response to a question regarding his foreign-policy experience, Ryan made the preposterous claim to have read all of Lewis' books. I suspect that very few academics in relevant disciplines have read all of Lewis' books, but perhaps Ryan read Lewis' opera as he ran his sub-three-hour marathon.
To exemplify Lewis' influence on Bush/Cheney MENA policy, Waldman quotes David Frum:
Bernard comes with a very powerful explanation for why 9/11 happened. Once you understand it, the policy presents itself afterward.Equally pernicious, Lewis' popular writings (especially What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle East Response , reissued with a new Afterword as What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East , and The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror ) have served directly and indirectly to inscribe his opinions as uncontested a priori "knowledge" among broad swaths of the American public and media.
Follow me below the ṭa'mīya al-burtuqālī for a discussion of the operative "facts" of the Lewis Doctrine and its pervasive influence on neoconservative views of the nature of MENA and U.S. policy, including the views of Romney/Ryan. I've also included some closing thoughts on the manner in which the Lewis Doctrine girds the conspiracy-theorizing in the Right-Wing Noise Machine. Bon appétit...
What, then, is the Lewis Doctrine? Allow me to quote from Jonathan Lyons' recent Islam Through Western Eyes: from the Crusades to the War on Terrorism (2012). Nota bene: Lyons is one of us, and he hasn't been shy about mentioning that fact (so I'm not "outing" him in any way), so if you happen upon his diaries then give him some T&R love, would you? Better still, buy and read the book :~)
Where was I? Oh, right. In short, the Lewis Doctrine is a series of unproblematized and unsubstantiated a priori "facts" constituting a representation of Islam and MENA from which (as Frum's quotation above demonstrates) U.S. policy naturally flows forth. Lyons succinctly describes these "facts" and the resulting policy formulation:
Islam is inherently violent, fundamentally antimodern, unable to develop politically or economically without outside intervention, and all the while enmeshed in impotent, anti-Western rage, Lewis write, reprising familiar themes he had long professed.Now, these sorts of essentializing statements about the fundamental nature of Islam have long been a component of Lewis' thought. As Zachary Lockman discusses in his Contending Visions of the Middle East: the History and Politics of Orientalism (2nd ed., 2010), Lewis' punditry related to Islam and MENA began in 1953 when, stepping away from his historical academic interests in the Ottoman Empire, he delivered a policy lecture on the subject of whether Islam might facilitate or impede the spread of Communism ("Communism and Islam," International Affairs (1954). Lewis' method was to distinguish accidental factors (i.e.: historical context) from essentials, those factors that "are innate or inherent in the very quality of Islamic institutions and ideas."
[T]he Lewis Doctrine called on the United States to intercede forcibly to bring forth what the Muslim Arabs were incapable of achieving on their own: a recognizable—that is, Western-style—democracy. (Lyons 2012: 115)
Lewis' distinction between accidental and essential factors was clearly rooted in his conception of Islam as a civilization with a distinct, unique and basically unchanging essence. It was this framing of the problem which made it possible for Lewis to largely ignore local contexts and histories as well as the very different ways in which contemporary Muslims might perceive the world and act in it. (Lockman 2010: 132)Lewis' essentializing statements about Islam and Muslims in this article must be understood in the context of the Cold War, as he was seeking to denote the essence of one civilization (Islam) with reference to the essences of two other civilizations: Western Democracy and Soviet Communism. Such ahistorical (and counter-factual) civilization-level thinking has been a hallmark of Lewis' explicitly political writings throughout his career, and is at the root of his "Clash of Civilizations" thesis so beloved of neoconservatives. The Lewis Doctrine, embodied in the neoconservative worldview, can be summarized thus: just as it was in the American Twentieth Century an existential and moral imperative to vanquish Communism, so now is it in the American Twenty-First Century an equally existential and moral imperative to vanquish Islam, to free "them" from "their" essence and usher "them" into modernity. The unquestioned premise, of course, is that the proper and necessary telos of history is Western-style secular democracy, in the form of the Western nation-state, fully integrated within a Western-dominated capitalist global economy. "Resistance," they say, "is irrational and futile."
We have heard elements of the Lewis Doctrine throughout Romney's and Ryan's bland statements on foreign policy, most recently in Romney's foreign-policy address at VMI on Monday as well as Ryan's responses during last night's vice-presidential debate. We'll undoubtedly hear more in the final two presidential debates. What Romney and Ryan posit is a quasi-religious belief in the compelling logic of "the West" and a peculiar missionary zeal to "save" Muslims from Islam, by force as necessary. Have no doubt... for Romney and Ryan—as for Lewis and the cabal of neoconservative retreads from the Bush/Cheney Administration who advise Romney/Ryan, all steeped in the discourse of Orientalism—MENA policy is a Crusade. This is their desired "New American Century" and this is their vision of "American Exceptionalism."
Now, it's difficult to "get" the attraction for Bernard Lewis amongst presentable neoconservatives and their less presentable allies on the fringe of the Right-Wing Noise Machine without also making reference to Edward Said. They are representative of two wholly different approaches in Middle/Near East Studies to understanding the processes associated with the modern Middle East. One of the most significant differences in their approaches is that while Said (and "Saidians," though I kinda' hate the term) look sensibly to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century power-dynamics among Western nations and MENA to understand the formation of patterns of resistance to Western imperialism in the proper historical context, Lewis and "Lewisians" maintain that the answer to the question "why do they hate us?" (there's that "they" again) is the ahistorical essence of Islam. Per the Lewis Doctrine, then, there is no point in even considering that the difficulties confronting U.S. policy-makers are related to... well... the history of U.S. policy itself.
This division between a School of Said and a School of Lewis (I'm simplifying here, of course, but it's not too far off) is what lies at the heart of Gingrich' comment that President Obama has an "anticolonial worldview," and explains why the execrable Dinesh D'Souza goes to belabored (and factually wrong) effort to describe Said as one of Obama's five Founding Fathers. As for the fringe, dip a toe in the fetid cesspools hosted by Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and the host of derivative sites representing Islamophobia, Inc. and survey the invective hurled at Said as well as the frequency with which the Obama-Said relationship is represented as profound (and it's not, though I personally wish it was.) Lewis' method of essentializing Islam, thereby absolving the U.S. and the West of responsibility for policy-issues we face in MENA, is a cornerstone of the Right's deep antipathy toward Islam.