April 23, 2010

Discipline Disconnect: Review of Cohen’s Book Misses the Point

Barry Rubin’s review of Stephen P. Cohen’s book, “Beyond America’s Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East,” is a classic example of the systematic misunderstanding and predictable short-circuiting created by the clash of distant disciplinary perspectives (“Middle East Politics Beyond Cohen’s Grasp,” April 9).

There is a huge gap between historians’ and social psychologists’ standards of evidence and intellectual frameworks. Rubin claims to stand on the evidence that historians draw from archival documents. Cohen’s strength resides in his ability to generate rare insights by combining his remarkable intellectual resources as an astute Harvard-trained social psychologist with the scope of his informal personal engagement with the policy-making elites of the principal protagonists in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Cohen’s complex and rich insights do not lend themselves to the all-too-often neat and coherent narratives produced by historians. But neither social psychologists nor historians have a monopoly over the ultimate definition of reality. Rubin says that Cohen “seems remarkably detached from reality.” I am tempted to ask whose definition of reality he is talking about. If I understand Cohen, what he has been trying to show is how distorted mutual perceptions create socio-political realities that undermine the ability of the various actors in the conflict to pursue their own interests and reach compromises. I must admit that the reasons for the emotional intensity and the extreme language used by Rubin in reviewing Cohen’s book are beyond my grasp.

Cohen gave up a brilliant academic career to walk in this political minefield and discover areas of potential agreement and mutually reinforcing orientations. This may not be the work of a historian, but it is an exercise in political wisdom.

Barry Rubin’s review of Stephen P. Cohen’s book, “Beyond America’s Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East,” misses the point of the book and attacks the author gratuitously. Steve — whom I have known for decades and admired for his tireless dedication to the cause of Middle East peace — set out to write a book that reflected his experience in what is called Track II or informal diplomacy. He used that invaluable experience as a framework for his analysis of past and current events. He did not write a book that drew primarily from archival material, and thus to attack him for the failure to do so is wrong.

Steve has academic credentials and has proved himself in teaching stints at Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Lehigh, the City University of New York, and at institutions in Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. The contributions for which I know him best, however, occurred outside the classroom, where for more than 40 years Steve traveled about the Middle East, met with leaders and influential citizens and argued for peace. There are few people who have done this for so long a period of time, and no others who have enjoyed the level of respect Steve enjoyed among key Israelis and Arabs. Steve always knew that his work would go largely unnoticed and that his successes would reveal themselves in the diplomacy undertaken formally by governments. This was always good enough for Steve; he wasn’t about self-aggrandizement, but rather all about peace.

Thus, a book by Steve that offers his reflections on these 40-plus years of citizen diplomacy is very valuable. One need not agree with all of Steve’s assessments, but it is unfair to attack the book for standards of academic research set by the reviewer to which the author never aspired. For those who measure a book for the story it tells about a lifetime trying to help make peace and the cogent analysis that resulted, Steve’s book is a very valuable piece of work. And Steve himself remains a very valuable American asset for peace.

The writer is a former American ambassador to Israel and Egypt.

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April 23, 2010

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