Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Conceiving Arab nationalism: Culture, diplomacy, and the genesis of U.S.-Syrian relations, 1918-1928
by Ercole, Nicholas, Ph.D., American University, 2016, 327; 10103166
Abstract (Summary)

Routinely oblivious to broader regional issues, U.S. diplomats, missionaries, and private citizens tended to perceive their initial post WWI encounters with the Arab populations of Greater Syria (roughly from northeast Aleppo, south past Damascus toward Palestine, and west to Beirut on the Lebanese coast) through a convoluted prism of normative stereotypes and progressive national values derived from home. Typically, their observations and reports on local conditions reinforced America’s culturally conditioned truths regarding dynamic Western innovation and homogenous Eastern stagnation. Especially during the first decade of the interwar period, domestic cultural manifestations of Syrian or Arab independence quickly materialized which, much like those produced abroad, selectively appropriated predetermined methods for judging other races. More often than not, however, these historically ethnocentric American worldviews were reformulated to address new geostrategic realities and shifting cultural norms brought on by the rise of nationalist aspirations in the Levant. In such instances, U.S. interests easily accommodated unforeseen developments by simply changing the nation’s enlightened rhetoric from religious to secular, and the motivation from a civilizing mission to one of altruistic benevolence.

America's non-committal policy of aloofness and its persistent inability to grasp key transformations in Greater Syria after 1917 was, therefore, the combined result of inexperienced "experts" (state and non-state) as well as their misguided procedures for interpreting new political issues through a pre-conceived ideological lens. The collective mindset derived from this evolving set of beliefs drew heavily on certain expository themes inherent in the language and thinking of American Orientalists from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Once entrenched within an overarching framework, these ethno-cultural constructs were then easily adapted to meet the changing geopolitical conditions in Greater Syria and the Middle East more broadly following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The overlapping structure of binary symbols and popular perceptions present in America's diplomatic language during this decisive period included Orientalist convictions of: Islamic East (old)/Christian West (new), sectarian instability (religious Group affiliation)/national cohesion (shared secular governance), Syrian-Arab traditionalism (backwards)/White-Protestant modernity (forwards). Though not exhaustive or entirely representative of all viewpoints, this fluctuating lexicon centered on the monolithic notion that Arab Muslims were inferior, unacquainted with progressive ideas, and therefore in need of Western, preferably American, salvation in righting these wrongs. The prevailing wisdom among U.S. officials working on the complex interplay of Syrian politics, Arab nationalism, and neo-orthodox Islam was that fundamental realignments were a prerequisite for the emergence of any authentic nationalist movement in the Levant.

The formative years of 1918-1928 constructed the discursive foundations for much of the imprudent post WWII logic that frequently characterized U.S. debates about Arab affairs, Syrian nationalism, and political Islam up to and including the current crisis over protracted civil war. Influential Americans did not conceive of the Middle East in a vacuum following WWII, owing simply to the outbreak of the Cold War or heightened U.S. involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet conventional scholarly accounts generally assume 1939-1949 was the first period of significant diplomacy in which modern America comprehensively engaged with ideas of Syrian identity or Arab nationalism at all levels of society. In order to remedy such an imbalance, this dissertation backtracks two decades and evaluates America's initial foray into substantive negotiations over Levantine political culture and Syrian nationalism in early 1918 by starting with Washington's post-WWI planning apparatus for the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, experiences from the nineteenth century compelled various influential classes of Americans already stationed throughout the region - missionaries, travel writers, biblical scholars - to formulate a universalizing, yet inimitably Americanized, system of conceptual beliefs permitting others back home to formulate comparable opinions of the Middle East based on shared sets of ideational principles. Nonetheless, these intermittent encounters from prior centuries never paralleled the geo-political magnitude inherent in attempting a cogent peace settlement that acknowledged indigenous Arab aspirations alongside European colonial ambitions.

Choosing 1918 as a point of derivation for studying U.S.-Syrian affairs over the following decade, this dissertation underscores a seminal stage in America's ideological evolution vis-à-vis Syrian/Arab nationalism. The intuitive investigative techniques employed throughout each chapter serve as an invaluable example of Washington's customary cultural-political discourse on Levantine affairs. In addition, these explanatory schemas developed their own internal pluralism enabling several ostensibly detached or intertwined ideas to inhabit the same ideological space concurrently, thereby rendering the overarching perception upon which narratives were originally procured an entirely new set of supplemental meanings. With such broad-based presumptions readily accommodating any number of semantic configurations by 1928, deductive points of reference were effortlessly adapted into the various socio-political circumstances necessitating Washington's imprudent Cold War outlook in the region - one predominately formed during the waning stages of WWI not WWII. The limited amount of secondary literature on U.S.-Syrian diplomacy during the 1920s has maintained an almost exclusive focus on the perspectives of major players: French colonial officials, Jebel Druze chiefs, or elite Damascene Nationalists. Correspondingly, authors have consulted American archives only peripherally in order to complement French or Arabic materials; in turn, this has generated entirely French or Arab based accounts of key historical events.

By recovering and comparing the major sources of American discourse pertaining to Greater Syria's governmental (bureaucrats), religious (missionaries), and socio-economic (private financiers) realignments, the subsequent analysis brings attention, arguably for the first time, to the dysfunctional policy arrangements which hampered Washington's erratic relationship with opposing nationalist platforms and divergent religious agendas operating under an unstable Levantine political system/mandate. Following along these topical lines, the major political events meriting special consideration in this dissertation include: Colonel House's 1918 Inquiry (American Preparatory Commission) established ahead of the Paris Peace Conference (PPC) in 1919; the failed King-Crane Commission (KCC) later that same year; the collapse of Faisal bin Hussein's Damascus-based Arab Kingdom of Syria at the hands French occupational forces in 1920; Charles Crane's 1922 return visit to Damascus and continued patronage of particular nationalist circles throughout the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925-1927; and, finally, the growth of indigenous anti-missionary sentiment at decade's end.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Friedman, Max P.
Commitee: Aksakal, Mustafa, Kunkle, Lynn
School: American University
Department: History
School Location: United States -- District of Columbia
Source: DAI-A 77/09(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: Middle Eastern history, American history
Keywords: Culture, Diplomacy, Nationalism, Syria, United states, World war i
Publication Number: 10103166
ISBN: 9781339667492
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