Bernard Lewis, a British-American historian of the Middle East, has been formidably influential in America – his policy ideas have towered over Presidents, policy-makers and think-tanks, and they still do. Though he died last year, his baleful views still shape America’s thinking about Iran. Mike Pompeo, for example, has written: “I met him only once, but read much of what he wrote. I owe a great deal of my understanding of the Middle East to his work … He was also a man who believed, as I do, that Americans must be more confident in the greatness of our country, not less”.
Bernard Lewis (center) passed away in May 2018 at the age of 101
"The world lost a true scholar and great man, Bernard Lewis, this past week. There is less knowledge and less wit with us today following his passing. I met him only once, but read much of what he wrote. I owe a great deal of my understanding of the Middle East to his work. Mr. Lewis was a hard-nosed defender of democracies around the world — including in the Middle East. He was also man who believed, as I do, that Americans must be more confident in the greatness of our country, not less. Thank you Mr. Lewis for your life of service, well done." (Mike Pompeo, May 20, 2018)
The “Bernard Lewis plan”, as it came to be known, was a design to fracture all the countries in the region – from the Middle East to India – along ethnic, sectarian and linguistic lines. A radical Balkanisation of the region. A retired US Army officer, Ralph Peters, followed up by producing the map of how a ‘Balkanised’ Middle East would look. Ben Gurion too had a similar strategic ambition for Israeli interests.
Lewis’s influence however, went right to the top: President Bush was seen carrying articles by Lewis to a meeting in the Oval Office soon after September 11, and only eight days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Lewis was briefing Richard Perle’s Defence Policy Board, sitting next to his friend Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress. At that key meeting of a board highly influential with the Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the two called for an invasion of Iraq.
Lewis seeded too the broader idea of a backwards-looking Muslim world, seething with hatred against a modernising and virtuous West. It was him, and not Samuel Huntington, who coined the phrase ‘clash of civilisations’ – implying further, that Islam and the West are embroiled in an existential battle for survival.
Through the Evangelical prism of today’s policy-makers, such as Pompeo and Mike Pence, this dark prognostication has metamorphosed from a civilisational ‘clash’ into the cosmic battle of good and evil (with Iran particularly pinpointed as the source of cosmic evil in today’s world).
This is the key point: Bringing regime change to Iran – the primordial threat, in Lewis terms – was always a Lewis fantasy. “Should we negotiate with Iran’s ayatollahs?” Henry Kissinger asked him on one occasion; “Certainly not!” came Lewis’ uncompromising retort. The overall stance that America should adopt to the region was presented in a nutshell to Dick Cheney: “I believe that one of the things you’ve got to do to Arabs is hit them between the eyes with a big stick. They respect power”. This Orientalist advice naturally applied ‘in spades’ to Iran and its ‘Ayatollahs’, Lewis held: “The question we should be asking is why do they neither fear nor respect us?”.
Well, now, inspired by his intellectual hero (Lewis), Pompeo, together with Richard Perle’s PNAC colleague, John Bolton, seem to be itching to try it, using the Lewis recipe of ‘hitting Iran between the eyes with a big (sanctions) stick’.
We have been here before. The US did not just leaf through Lewis’ books, as it were; it has been acting on it for decades. As early as the 1960s, Lewis had published a book which picked up on the potential vulnerabilities, and therefore the potential use, of religious, class, and ethnic differences as the means to bring an end to Middle Eastern states.