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By Michael Kolodner



The Arabists:
The Romance of an American Elite
By Robert D. Kaplan
(New York: The Free Press, 1993. Pp. 333; 1995 reprint, $2.99 paper available at

This is a fascinating history of one of the State Department’s most oft-discussed branches. Particularly within American Jewish circles and among Middle Eastern scholars, “Arabist” has a special connotation of unjustified anti-Israel bias and a flavor of anti-Semitism. Kaplan’s work identifies the origins of the Arabists and, more importantly, tests the level of their bias through analysis of their record on Middle East policy and diplomatic reporting.

The author traces the development of American Arabists (those who learn Arabic and study Arabs) beginning with Protestant missionaries in the nineteenth century through the development of the Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) Bureau at State. Kaplan, a Jew and a journalist, tells his story with engaging portraits of the principal actors. He begins with the American view of the Middle East as fertile ground for missionary work and follows the missionaries’ children and grandchildren who go on to develop American foreign policy towards the region. Kaplan’s protagonists are the quintessential upper-crust WASP diplomats who attended elite private schools and Ivy League universities before returning to their childhood haunts in the Middle East as missionaries or diplomats. But the author is not out to paint the Foreign Service in a negative light. Rather, he skillfully exposes how the clique of WASP missionary Arabists goes on to become the core of the NEA bureau and how their perspectives shape American foreign poicy for good and ill througout the twentieth century.

While Kaplan devotes most of the book to the origins of the Arabists, he does describe the State Department’s efforts to modernize and notes the growing participation of a diverse middle-class America in the foreign policy debate. In fact, his synthesis of this process, the bureaucratic maneuvers, and the effects of the Gulf War lead to an analysis of the NEA bureau today and the direction of American foreign policy planning that is likely to be well-regarded for years to come.

Overall, this book is a must-read for anyone considering the Foreign Service as a career. Kaplan does a good job with the stories of some of State’s big names. Their biographies as well as their career arcs are illustrative for today’s FSO’s, who will be less area-focused than the old-school Arabists. This will be a mixed blessing, however, allowing us to avoid the “localitis” that leads to some missteps, but denying us the deep cultural insight that led to some of the Arabists’ greatest foreign policy triumphs.  

Michael Kolodner, an Amherst graduate, expects to enter the Foreign Service before the end of the year.

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