INTERVIEW WITH OSAMAH KHALIL, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF HISTORY AT SYRA- CUSE UNIVERSITY
Please tell us about your educational and professional background.
I received my doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2011 with a dual concentration in U.S. and Middle East History, specializing in the history of U.S. foreign relations. I joined Syracuse Universityin the fall of 2011. To date, my classes have focused on the history of U.S. foreign relations, America and the Middle East, the history of the Cold War, the Vietnam War and popular culture, and the history of International Relations.
You successfully published your first book last year. Tell us more about your book.
My book, America’s Dream Palace: Middle East Expertise and the Rise of the National Security State, is based on my doctoral dissertation. It examines the relationship between U.S. foreign policy and the origins and expansion of Middle East studies and expertise from World War I to the global war on terror.
One of the main questions that the book attempts to answer is how did this area we now call the “Middle East” become a site for the exercise of American power and hegemony? A related question is, how did the evolution of U.S. foreign policy in the region and globally influence how the Middle East has been studied?
In part, my book is an institutional history and it focuses on how several major academic institutions in the U.S. and the Middle East interacted with U.S. government agencies. It also examines the relationship between Washington and philanthropic foun-dations, academic societies, and think tanks. The book is also an intellectual history that explores how U.S. foreign policy inter-ests were reproduced in Middle East studies and expertise over the past century.
How do you think political developments and changes in the U.S.’s foreign policy toward the region have affected the fate of Middle Eastern studies programs?
As I detail in the book, Middle East studies in the United States followed a similar trajectory to other area studies programs. Although some elements existed before the Cold War, university-based area studies programs found increased support from U.S. government agencies, philanthropic foundations, and academic societies in the post-World War II era. The establishment of Middle East studies programs were driven in large part by Washington’s increased interests in the region, as well as global efforts to contain the Soviet Union. This culminated in the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which formalized federal funding for area studies and language training and was directly linked to U.S. national security interests.
The book also traces the emergence of think tanks and how they competed for influence with university-based area studies centers and scholars. I discuss how a split between government agencies and academia emerged during the Vietnam War era and think tanks benefited from this rift. While academic centers and scholars were important for the foreign policy and national security establishments during the early Cold War era, by the late and post-Cold War periods, I discuss how they were effec- tively supplanted by private think tanks.
How do you foresee the prospect of Middle Eastern studies programs?
It is important to separate the academic study of the Middle East and the exciting research that is being conducted from themacroeconomic and political issues and trends that have had an impact and will continue to affect Middle East studies programs and centers. There are a number of excellent monographs that have been produced in recent years and others in process by junior and senior scholars. I expect that groundbreaking work in the field will continue to inform how we understand, study, and teach about the region.
At the same time, the prevailing political trends in the United States are troubling. The short term, and perhaps the long term as well, will be difficult times for university-based Middle East studies centers and programs. Extreme elements in the RepublicanParty, especially members of the “Tea Party” and the new Trump administration, are ideologically and politically opposed to federal funding of higher education, and public education more broadly. As I discuss in my book, this aligns with pre-existingefforts by conservative and neo-conservative think tanks, individuals, and organizations to target Middle East and Latin Ameri-can studies. They argue that these programs are not aligned with U.S. national interests, which they define narrowly. But they also boast that cutting funding to area studies is just the beginning of efforts to reduce or eliminate all federal funding for higher education.
The early reports appear to indicate that the Trump administration and the Republican-led Congress will institute large cuts to, if not the elimination of, funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment of the Arts, the National Science Foundation, as well as other programs and agencies. These budget cuts will likely have a long-term negative impact on academic research well beyond Middle East studies.