Shibley Telhami Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

U.S. Foreign Policy and the Search for Peace in the Middle East: Conversation 
  with Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development, University 
  of Maryland, College Park; 11/8/01 by Harry Kreisler.

 

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Conflict and Conflict Resolution in the Middle East

Your first major work as a political scientist was on the Camp David accords and the negotiation of a peace treaty between Israel and Sadat, which was totally unexpected. So how did all of what you've just talked about come together intellectually, so that you could grapple with the problems of the Middle East?

The Middle East literature in those years is looked at the Middle East as a peculiar region, as a region that didn't fit into our scheme of international politics, as being inherently unstable, as being full of leaders and regimes that didn't make any sense. There was a sense of irrationality about the Middle East, as portrayed not only by the popular media, but by some scholars as well. And, certainly, by policymakers.

Now the Waltzian frame, and my own conclusions that had preceded [reading Waltz], provided a way to understand what seemed to be puzzling events, which fits nicely into the rest of international politics. In this particular case, it was clear to me that [the reason that] Egypt essentially severed its relations with pan-Arabism and moved into a relationship with Israel can be explained not merely by focusing on Sadat himself as an individual, and not merely by focusing on some peculiar domestic variables that happened to explain it, nor by looking at it as an unpredictable event in international politics, but by looking at a broader historical perspective and understanding the role of power.

What I got out of Waltz, especially, is the distribution of military and economic power in the global community as a structural feature that constrains, at a minimum, what states do and don't do. I was able to show, by focusing on these variables in the Egyptian case and looking at it at a regional and global view, that the changes and distributions of power had a dramatic impact on how Egypt viewed its interest and how Israel viewed its interest, leading to the Camp David negotiations. That insight, by the way, still inspires me, and it's my starting point in looking at international politics.

What has happened since then, I would say, is that I have moved a bit away from it -- not moved away from it as a starting point, but that framework did not provide answers to motives of states. It said, essentially, the more powerful a state is, the more it can do, the more it can get away with. It explains why one state prevails over another state. In some instances it explains motives, particularly when security is at stake, but by and large, motives of states are not explained by the structure of power globally.

Let's take the example of the United States. The history of American foreign policy during the Cold War is a history that clearly can be, in part, explained by the distribution of power, the bipolarity with the Soviet Union, the competition. But then, the U.S. had motives that could not be explained by that. For Waltz, the invasion of Grenada was something that the U.S. should not have done. For Waltz, the Vietnam episode should not have occurred. For Waltz, the nuclear arms build-up is something that the U.S. did not need to do. Those are all things that the U.S. could do, because it was powerful -- power allowed it to do it -- but it doesn't explain why the U.S. wanted to do it.

So the motive, which I think is a very important issue in foreign policy -- it's a very important issue of foreign policy of every state, but especially the superpowers -- was not captured by that paradigm. And a lot of the work that I've been doing since focuses on the sources of the motives, sources of the ideas, that give rise to intentions in international politics.

You've touched on an interesting point, which is the interface between theory and practice. The evolution of your thinking must have been related to your increasing interest and involvement in policy issues as they affected the Middle East. Talk a little about that. How does reality help us shape, and maybe tweak or change our theories?

Well, you know, I always wonder whether I am in one community [theoretical] or another [practical] ... just, again, because of the different components of my own self. When I say "components," I'm not only talking about the ethnic ones -- those are very obvious, that are always at play, because the issues in which I'm focused are always relating to those elements -- but also in terms of my own background as someone who's been in mathematics and philosophy, and political science, and played various roles that are competing roles. [I wonder] whether my tendency is not always to try to create harmony within these competing components, whether my sense of being at peace with myself does not drive my wanting to be at peace with my world, and to create peace around me, and to, therefore, reconcile competing traditions both in international relations and in the policy community.

If you look back at the first book that I wrote [Power and Leadership], an aspect that I had not thought about very clearly was the problem of the level of analysis. I certainly believed that individuals matter. I think Sadat mattered a lot, even though I say that the Egyptian state was moving in that direction anyway.

So how do I reconcile those two? I found that, essentially, the theoretical puzzle for me was to create harmony within these. I think there is a lot that comes from my own background that pushes me in that direction.

Beyond that, there's also the tradition. I have, perhaps, a sense of self, who I am. I come from a family tradition of peacemakers. My grandfather was the arbiter in conflicts. People would come to him to arbitrate conflicts, often between different communities -- Muslim, Christian, Druse. My father, before he passed away a couple of years ago, played the same role. People would come to him and would go to him to go arbitrate, especially between different communities, not just within community but across communities, and people reached out to him. I wonder whether the roles that I ended playing, both in terms of policy and in terms of theory, were not, in part, affected by this sense of tradition. I may be rationalizing this one, but I can't help but notice that there is a tradition that affects my own sense of self and how I see my role.

I have also evolved over time. I mean, one can see continuity of the self, and, obviously, you need to, in order to relate to the same person you were twenty years ago. But there's no question that one changes. I don't think there's a human being that doesn't change. [One] changes in terms of the whole notion of the self, but also the whole notion of the role. There was a time, perhaps in the past ten years, [when I began to] see what I'm doing as a sense of destiny, a lot more than I ever felt before. I see that I was destined to do what I'm doing, that I am well positioned to do what I'm doing, and that my understanding of the Arab world and Arab culture and language, and my understanding of Israel and Judaism, and my understanding of politics, and my understanding of America, and my involvement in all of these come together to give me a sense of destiny that I want to use. To the extent that I'm already driven by this need to create harmony, it adds to this sense that I have a role to play and I'm trying to play.

And you're able to realize this very important role as the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at Maryland.

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