The Forgotten History of Knowledge and Power in British Iraq, or Why Minerva's Owl Cannot Fly

Priya Satia, Stanford University

In its lofty attempt to restore wisdom to war, Project Minerva promises to harness the formidable intellectual powers of the American university to the anti-intellectual gambits of the “war on terror.” Darkness has fallen, and the initiative heralds the proverbial flight of Minerva’s owl; the DoD has finally confessed it is out of its depth and issued a belated SOS to the wise denizens of the ivory tower.

Or so it might seem. Sadly, bringing the minds of a few egg-heads to bear on this undeclared, illegal, ill-defined, oxymoronically-named war will prove about as productive as the efforts of the Professor on Gilligan’s Island; his coconut-and-bamboo inventions may have made the castaways more comfortable but didn’t get them off the island any faster. The war on terror is not so much island as intellectual abyss; in the Minerva initiative itself, no less than in the Defense Secretary Gates’s coeval obsession with aerial surveillance as a quick technical fix in Iraq, the DoD’s unwillingness to learn from history and historians is on flagrant display: As in the era of British occupation of Iraq between the world wars, the Middle East expert is being called to arms as the fall-guy of failed imperial policy, to vaingloriously seize the helm of unending counterinsurgency in the Middle East.

During the First World War, when the British “liberated” Iraq from the Ottoman Empire and confronted those darn freedom-hating Arabs, they too made a beeline for academic expertise. Long enchanted by the Middle East as a place of fabulous knowledge, mystery, and empirical opacity, “area experts” like Gertrude Bell, David Hogarth, T. E. Lawrence, Mark Sykes, and sundry others, claimed a peculiar, almost inborn genius for understanding this bizarre region of the world. Together, these gentlemanly (and -womanly) scholars of the academic and military establishments formed an intellectual community whose claim to rare knowledge guaranteed it unprecedented influence over policy and military tactics in the region. They were rapidly appointed to various lofty positions at Whitehall and within the military and political establishments in the Middle East and had the imperial government eating out of their hands by the time of the massive Iraqi rebellion of 1920. The imperial state relied on them to at once pacify, know, and administer its newest colonial charge. Clearly, if Iraqis could not recognize the British presence for the salvation it was, they were a queer people indeed; this was a case for SuperAnthropologists (echoed in today’s call for experts on the “social and behavior dimensions of national security issues”).

The experts’ presence on the scene was both comforting and blinding; with such sympathetic characters in charge, how could the forces of the British state possibly go wrong? When Arab resistance persisted, the experts immediately put it down to foreign manipulation — variously the Russians, French, Turks, Germans, and others — anything but genuine local protest against European rule. They simply could not swallow the rebels’ verdict on their so-called expertise. Such conspiracy-thinking was stoked by their internecine competition for influence — the inevitable danger attending state patronage. The academic’s, and especially the genius’s, Achilles’ heel is the lust for influence; hence the appeal of an initiative like Minerva. In the 1920s, the contest that emerged among the handful of claimants to exclusive genius radically skewed interpretation of events in the region; personal politics distorted both the analysis of and approach to anti-British insurgency in the region (an obscuring of truth likely to be echoed in the competitive application for Minerva grants).

The government’s apparent submission to the wise counsels of experts was held up as proof of its humility and earnestness — both at home and abroad. The British press likened Iraqi insurgency to an “inscrutable visitation of divine wrath upon a nation that presumed to aid a fallen land to rise phoenix-like from the dead ashes of the past.”[1] The empire was embarked on a social scientific mission, not a political one, the state protested, with some success: The British were not like other conquerors who had flowed into Iraq “with sword and torch,” noted an American, adding somewhat snidely, “They are children — fussy children — eternally worried over the removal of rubbish, the ‘improvement’ of roads and bridges…the disciplining of the police force and what not.”[2] The problems they faced existed apart from their presence. Invasion was reconfigured as a mission to bring order and development to an inherently fractious corner of the world.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the conspiracy theories of insurgency underwrote the invention of the world’s first regime of aerial surveillance, in which bombardment was used like a police truncheon — again, under the advice of Arabist experts. The approval of those known for their sympathy for the region and its inhabitants sealed the humanity of the British effort in the eyes of officials as much as the British public. T. E. Lawrence, John Glubb, and Gertrude Bell were famous for their passion for Arabia; to the Air Ministry, especially, their participation vindicated all imperial activity in the region as benign, whatever the paranoid allusions of its Iraqi victims. In reality, however, affection proved no guarantee of kindness — except perhaps the kindness that kills: The experts’ insistence on the chivalric, as opposed to humanitarian, sensibility of Bedouin was at once the source of their admiration of nomadic Arabs as of their faith that the innocent deaths caused by bombardment need not trouble the British conscience. Just after leaving his post as Chief of Air Staff, Hugh Trenchard leaned on the expertise of Glubb, Lawrence (an RAF recruit himself), and others as he assured Parliament in 1930, “…these tribes love fighting for fighting’s sake….They have no objection to being killed.” Unfortunately for the Arabs, empathy and intimacy could not change the unequal political relationship that defines colonial occupation. Of course, the cynical reading of Arabists’ cooption by the state is that they were sought after merely for the veneer of legitimacy they could lend to otherwise unethical and inhumane counter-insurgency measures.

Today, too, embedded anthropologists will not rid our wars of “collateral damage” or remove the stigma of occupation; only the end of war can. In any case, the best of today’s anthropologists are practically paralyzed by their awareness of the way power shapes and corrupts knowledge; apparently the DoD is not troubled by the implication that the mostly likely applicants to their initiative will be the lesser talents of that discipline. It too is perhaps more interested in the aura of respectability the Ph.D.’s dangling after their little-known names will nevertheless bring.

The fall-out of the British regime of Middle Eastern expertise was felt as much at home as in the Middle East. If expertise bolstered the government’s confidence, it undermined that of the fledgling mass democracy emerging from the devastation of total war. Determined to seize control of foreign policy for itself and prevent such catastrophe from unfolding ever again, the British public nagged the government constantly for its elevation of “enthusiastic experts” in the running of the Middle Eastern empire. It was not they but the people who should decide whether to hold onto Iraq, insisted the press, discerning in the standoff between the “executive vs. the nation” an ominous echo of the old “Crown vs. Parliament” dispute.[3] Indeed, the experts were useful to the state not only as a source of legitimacy but as an informal autocracy that made decision-making about the Middle East appear an esoteric affair best kept out of the hands and eyes of the increasingly assertive British masses. The rule of experts was a means to covert imperial rule.

For the sake of American democracy, too, the academic’s place is in public, not in the hidden spaces of public bureaucracy, not so much because of his naturally adversarial posture towards government but because they are needed in the public sphere apart from the state where ordinary people discuss problems and influence political action (e.g. this web forum). The more academics appear beholden to the state, the less authority they will possess in the public sphere. That sphere is the very lifeblood of democracy; its abridgement or cooption is, as the British public discovered too late, the path to autocracy.

Project Minerva does not repeat so much as follow directly from the British experience. It was from the British that the United States absorbed its fetish for academic expertise on the Middle East. In the years leading up to World War Two, as the United States grew increasingly interested in the region, it befriended some of the surviving British experts, particularly the maverick H. St. John Philby (father of the notorious Soviet mole Kim Philby). Through wartime and postwar collaboration with the British, American intelligence services quickly learned the business of shaping the production of cultural knowledge about the Middle East, literally taking over as the masterminds of covert activity in the region. Indeed, a mere two years after the revolution of 1958 finally forced the British, their client monarchy, and their air force out of Iraq, the CIA launched its first attempt to assassinate the new republic’s head of state. The cultivation of social science experts on the Middle East remained a robust federal government preoccupation through the 1960s, when social scientists began to balk at their cooption into increasingly scandalous military activity. In some sense, the Minerva initiative is an attempt to resurrect that relationship. Having punished defiance by withdrawing the funding that once underpinned the social sciences’ prestige, the government is now trying to woo them back from the sidelines. Even the independent, more welfare-minded government agencies that have sustained the social sciences in the meantime, such as the NSF, have been roped into collusion with a “national interest” defined narrowly in terms of security rather than in the terms of their more traditional ecumenical brief for national prosperity, health, and knowledge for its own sake.

A stepchild long starved for attention might easily be tempted into this poisonous paternalistic embrace. But social scientists would do best to heed the lessons of the past and cold-shoulder this presumptuous research initiative. A wallflower might be an object of pity, but not, at least, one of contempt. Indeed, the very notion that the social sciences have been on the sidelines of public debate on Iraq is absurd; it is precisely the enduring prestige and relevance of the social sciences that attracts the DoD. Minerva might be framed as an attempt to tap intellectual resources that allegedly are not otherwise performing their public duty, but in fact they have been influencing the private sector, think tanks, the media, (often unpopular) members of government, and others admirably enough — just not to the precise tune that the DoD would like to hear.

For all its likely inconsequence in the battlefield, Project Minerva promises a pronounced impact on university research and operations. Offering grants approaching $18 million in its first year alone in an often chronically underfunded branch of the academy it has the potential to radically reorient social science research towards its favored “areas of strategic importance to U. S. national security policy.” Our traditional financial relationship with the state — through government grants for research aimed at some general good — is dramatically different from what is on offer now: participation in a program in which knowledge will be instrumental in the achievement of some specific objective — most likely military action — over which the producers of knowledge shall have no control. The peer-review standards allegedly guaranteed by the NSF alliance will do nothing to address this basic problem. Today, as in interwar Iraq, experts are being asked to lend their intellectual authority to open-ended counter-insurgency in the Middle East; but unlike then, today’s experts are almost without exception tied to universities that offer them an alternative institutional perch from which to speak and offer the government a go-to site for independently-gathered knowledge — the kind of knowledge that is actually best for the government, whatever its compulsive straining after knowledge tailored to its preconceptions.

The most efficient way for the DoD to support social scientific research is to expand the funding, without strings, of existing agencies like the NSF and the NEH. Academics do, after all, live in the real world; it is arguably what inspires much of their work. The DoD can trust them to turn to pressing practical questions of their own accord.

The point is not that the state should not consult experts, but that it should not repeat the British mistake of seeking out congenial advice from experts whose very proximity to the state prevents them from seeing problems from any but the state’s already blinkered perspective. I appreciate the DoD’s belated recognition of the value of intellectual capital (to the extent that it is not entirely cynical); but, arguably, the department will obtain intellectual capital of much greater quality if it culls its knowledge from academics evolving their research programs organically. It’s an epistemological question: Is knowledge best gained by funding a self-selected set of researchers who define or redefine their questions the way the DoD, in the midst of its misbegotten adventures, has or by actually researching the knowledge already available, albeit organized more haphazardly under a range of rubrics? Leaving aside active consultation, can’t the DoD, at the most elementary level, at least Google its problems? Indeed, had they merely Googled “invasion of Iraq” in March 2003, they would have found plenty of information cautioning against such folly. The answers to their questions are out there, but they need to know how to grasp things that are not necessarily neatly prepackaged to their frame of thought. Part of what intellectuals do is invent new ways of framing questions and new methods for answering them. The DoD needs to learn how to access their knowledge; the change needs to come within the department, not in its relations with universities and intellectuals. The separation of state and academy is perhaps as crucial to national health as that between church and state (not that our government has respected that fundamental either).

Our objective should not be to wither the DoD’s newfound interest in knowledge, but rather to encourage the department to seek us out on our own turf, to seek out knowledge framed by researchers thinking independently rather than within the narrow confines dictated by an imposing patron. Today’s preoccupations — Iraq, Islam, Terrorism, and China — loom large in Minerva’s predefined research areas, but we need knowledge of those unanticipated areas of tomorrow’s conflicts, and an open-minded approach to areas of conflict today. It was precisely by thinking through stereotyped categories like “Islam,” “terrorism,” and “despotism” that British analysts missed entirely the meaning of Iraqi rebellion after the Great War. Today too these are unlikely to prove the best rubrics for gathering and producing the knowledge that will help us understand the range of discontent, violence, and protest emanating from the Middle East and South Asia.

In general, the notion of “security science” is intellectually unproven and depressingly defensive, signaling the DoD’s belief in the permanence of the hostilities known as the “war on terror.” It is the wrong mentality for a DoD trying to find a way out of our present discontents, a call for coconut telephones when what we need is a raft off this island. They would do best to turn their sights instead to an imaginary community of “peace science” researchers, an episteme that would complement rather than subvert the traditional — and rightly — cosmopolitan commitments and origins of the American academy, which is really, after all, the richest stage of the global academy. Asking academics to subserve their knowledge to national interests would, literally, take us back to the era of World War One.

But, then, had they an awareness of history, the DoD might have named their initiative less ironically in the first place. For the Romans, Minerva embodied wisdom and the warrior ethos, but since the nineteenth-century invention of historicism, wisdom has lost its transcendent quality. Hegel famously observed that, on this earth, if not in the heavens, wisdom comes only with the passage of time, that it is the bittersweet fruit of suffering and error, that, in his lapidary phrase, the owl of Minerva flies only at night. But even this gloomy tag has proven too sunny for our heedless time: Minerva’s owl is apparently one of those birds, like the chicken and the ostrich, that doesn’t fly at all. Not at night, not ever. Unless, perhaps, she is not the Roman owl symbolizing wisdom but, say, an Indian one. Then she is that winged creature we spy aloft all day, every day: In India, the owl is a fool.

[1] “Lest We Forget,” Times of Mesopotamia, 3 May 1924. See also “The League of Nations and Mosul,” Spectator, 12 Sept. 1925, 398; Economist, 10 May 1924, 955.

[2] Roger Casey, Baghdad and Points East (London: Hutchinson, 1928), vii-viii, 98.

[3] “Parliament and the Mandates,” Times, 22 March 1921, 11.

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