Bernard Lewis revises Bernard Lewis (says he opposed invasion of Iraq!)

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Bernard Lewis
Bernard Lewis

I take this as a good sign: it’s now a blot on your resume to have supported the Iraq war. Cowardly lion Bernard Lewis, 95, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, says that he privately opposed invading Iraq, but didn’t pipe up, even as he was calling for a military takeover of the country and as Cheney was quoting him on television. Here (and below, excerpt) the Wall Street Journal documented his many calls for invasion. When are Ken Pollack and Tom Friedman going to explain that they also were against the war, but didn’t pipe up? CHE’s Evan R. Goldstein interview:

After 9/11, Lewis became an occasional visitor to the vice president’s home and office, and on the eve of the war Cheney went on Meet the Press and name-checked the professor. “I firmly believe, along with men like Bernard Lewis, who is one of the great students of that part of the world, that strong, firm U.S. response to terror and to threats to the United States would go a long way, frankly, toward calming things in that part of the world.”

Lewis’s reported influence in Washington reached an apotheosis in February 2004, when The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about how Lewis’s “diagnosis of the Muslim world’s malaise, and his call for a U.S. military invasion to seed democracy in the Mideast, have helped define the boldest shift in U.S. foreign policy in 50 years.”

In his living room, Lewis seems uninterested in rehashing recent history. He listens patiently, stone-faced. His disagreement with the Bush administration, he explains with a sigh, was not over the goal (regime change), but the tactic (full-scale invasion). Lewis says he argued for recognizing the leadership in northern Iraq as the country’s legitimate government and arming those forces if necessary. In the decade since the first Persian Gulf war, he says, Kurds and Arabs had managed to build a nascent democracy under the protection of the no-fly zone.

“That was the way to do it,” he says. “Simply to invade was the wrong way to do it, and I thought so and said so at the time.” Why didn’t he speak out before the invasion? “I didn’t feel at that crucial moment that it was right to take a public stance against the war.”

Here is that Wall Street Journal piece from 2004, documenting Lewis’s call for invasion:

Eight days after the Sept. 11 attacks, with the Pentagon still smoldering, Mr. Lewis addressed the U.S. Defense Policy Board. Mr. Lewis and a friend, Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi — now a member of the interim Iraqi Governing Council — argued for a military takeover of Iraq to avert still-worse terrorism in the future, says Mr. Perle, who then headed the policy board.

A few months later, in a private dinner with Dick Cheney at the vice president’s residence, Mr. Lewis explained why he was cautiously optimistic the U.S. could gradually build democracy in Iraq, say others who attended. Mr. Lewis also held forth on the dangers of appearing weak in the Muslim world, a lesson Mr. Cheney apparently took to heart. Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” just before the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Cheney said: “I firmly believe, along with men like Bernard Lewis, who is one of the great students of that part of the world, that strong, firm U.S. response to terror and to threats to the United States would go a long way, frankly, toward calming things in that part of the world.”

The Lewis Doctrine, in effect, had become U.S. policy.

Bernard Lewis has been the single most important intellectual influence countering the conventional wisdom on managing the conflict between radical Islam and the West,” says Mr. Perle, who remains a close adviser to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “The idea that a big part of the problem is failed societies on the Arab side is very important. That is not the point of view of the diplomatic establishment.”..

After Sept. 11, a book by Mr. Lewis called “What Went Wrong?” was a best-seller that launched the historian, at age 85, as an unlikely celebrity. Witty and a colorful storyteller, he hit the talk-show and lecture circuits, arguing in favor of U.S. intervention in Iraq as a first step toward democratic transformation in the Mideast. Historically, tyranny was foreign to Islam, Mr. Lewis told audiences, while consensual government, if not elections, has deep roots in the Mideast. He said Iraq, with its oil wealth, prior British tutelage and long repression under Saddam Hussein, was the right place to start moving the Mideast toward an open political system.

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Show him up as an early war-monger and imperialist — now claiming, not very believably, also to be a coward who feared to speak up — and as a real dummy on likely outcomes of USA military intervention in Iraq.

Whereas men like Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Juan Cole were presumably ignored because their sympathies were with truth, justice, human rights, and everything that opposed anti-human-rights, imperialist, military intervention.


Generations will soon be changing.

Lewis’ correction of his bad judgement about the invasion of Iraq is what the rest of us call hindsight.

Bernard Lewis is really a specialist in Turkey, but of course he considers himself an expert on everything. For example, he endorsed the book by Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial, which claimed that Palestine was uninhabited when the first Zionists arrived. Lewis has been a longtime supporter of using force against Arabs, because “that’s the only language they understand”, meaning that’s the policy the US practices and Lewis endorses. The 2003 Second Persian Gulf War… Read more »

It’s been a long time since I read Lewis’s 2002-3 books What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam, but my recollection is that he said Iraqis would welcome an American invasion. Can anybody confirm this?