Editor’s note: The following article is an excerpt from The Great Unraveling: The Remaking of the Middle East (Hoover), a series of essays by several distinguished Middle Eastern experts.
The tangled skein of the world’s problems is Gordian knotted in the worst places; in other words, what we call the field of international relations—global studies, foreign affairs, world politics, etc.—in recent years has evolved into one more dimension of professional policy analysis or social science research, as the methodologies of domestic issues are applied with scant success to the larger outside scene.
But there has always been something mysterious and intellectually profound hovering around such matters, something now disdained or forgotten. Hegel conveyed the sense that here, in high world affairs, lay the most significant philosophical and moral questions of the human condition, questions which, if not ultimately answerable, had to be confronted if humanity were to grasp its own meaning. This in turn implied that ideas and assumptions of the greatest consequence might be at work far below the surface of strategy, policy, and daily operations. This essay will attempt to locate and illuminate that realm.
For a hundred years or more the United States has acted as the monitor and guarantor of the international state system and the elemental requirements of world order, sometimes intervening, sometimes standing aside, sometimes deferring to the United Nations and the claims of international law. Now, in the early twenty-first century, it appears that the US is abdicating, no longer willing—and soon perhaps no longer able—to take a leading responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.
Why do nations do what they do? And why do they cease to do so? The source of the traditional American approach to the world has been religion transposed or reconstituted as national strategic interest. When religion as a felt underlying force evaporates, the national strategic interest dries up as well.
A core debate about the meaning of the modern age is whether contemporary political thought is legitimately innovative or whether it is a secularized, sanitized version of religion or premodern beliefs. As the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which originated the modern international system, relegated religion to the sidelines of world affairs and because modernization was declared by Max Weber to progressively erase modern man’s desire for the spiritual, the outcome of the debate is consequential. Put simply, the German-Jewish philosopher Karl Löwith argued that modernity’s commitment to social perfection through national policy has in fact been a disguised version of the belief in eternal salvation through revelation. The German philosopher Hans Blumenberg rebutted Löwith by declaring that the scientific revolution has been intellectually authentic, an advance on an idea that was encompassed by medieval philosophy: nominalism, or the need to grasp the physical workings of this world. So modern scientific developments should not be regarded as a disguised form of premodern spiritual belief.
Although not taking a position on the Löwith-Blumenberg “Legitimacy of the Modern Age” debate, the inescapable conclusion is that the US role in the world across the decades of the twentieth century cannot be understood without awareness of its religious sources and inclinations.
Fouad Ajami, with his perspicacious sense for the clarifying characterization, has called this moment “the Great Unraveling,” the perfect phase for the art of statecraft in our time, especially in the Middle East.
Since remote antiquity, statecraft’s great metaphor has been weaving. Traces of cloth found at Fayoum and depictions of weavers at work on the walls of pharaonic Egypt reveal the centrality of weaving to ordered life in the ancient world.
The Parthenon frieze displays the annual Panathenaic procession. There, amid powerful horses and straining warriors appear young girls carrying a newly woven cloth—the peplos—for robing the statue of Athena, a ceremony central to Athens’s image of itself as a polis or state. To underline this, Plato’s dialogue Statesman explicitly designates weaving as expressing the statesman’s role—helped by the orator, the general, and the judge, whose arts though distinct from statesmanship are akin to it. The challenge is to weave the aggressive and courageous warp of society to the contained and self-controlled weft.
The fey delights of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream mask its grand strategic context: the political and cultural enigma posed by the looming succession crisis produced by Queen Elizabeth’s evasion of every attempt to urge her into a dynastic marriage. In this sense, Elizabeth was following the strategy of Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, unweaving every evening the fabric that she had produced during the day. In the play, Bottom the weaver—he of the donkey’s head and human body—is a weaver in the strategic sense, intertwining the fairy realm with the real world and commoners with the nobility, a wise fool capable of playing and integrating all the theatrical parts.
For America, the great metaphor of weaving is made powerfully central to strategic consciousness through Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick—in the chapter “Moby-Dick”—by a strange reference to the Hotel de Cluny, the fifteenth-century house of the Abbott of Cluny, built on the ruins of Roman thermal baths, themselves built on earlier, primeval foundations—down and down in time and space and thought where may be discovered “the old State-secret,” suggesting that statecraft has roots reaching down to the origins of the political community.
On a cloudy, sultry, lazy day, Ishmael and Queequeg are mildly employed in weaving a large mat of the sort ships require to protect their beam sides from clashing against docks or other ships. Ishmael says: “As I kept passing and repassing the filling or wool of marline between the long yarns of the warp, using my own hand for the shuttle, and as Queequeg, standing sideways, ever and anon slid his heavy oaken sword between the threads, and idly looking off upon the water, carelessly and unthinkingly drove home every yarn . . . it seemed to me as if this were the Loom of Time.”
Ishmael explains the factors at work are the straight warp of necessity; chance (though restrained in its play between the lines of necessity); and free will “plying her shuttle between given threads.” The shuttle, or sword, carries the thread across the loom in order to weave the weft with the warp.
That we are invited to consider this as a profound metaphor for the management of the human condition becomes clear. The ways of the world are “as a weaver’s loom,” and the supreme “weaver-god, he weaves.” As an epic, Moby-Dick must have an invocation. Uniquely it is to the weaver-god as “the centre and circumference of all democracy!”
We may say that in the international system states are the warp, the necessary foundation of the system. Regimes, or governments, are the weft, somewhat constrained within the four corners of the state but able by chance of circumstance to shape the directions and purposes of the polity. And free will is the shuttle that is plied in and around the composition through policy-making decisions and the use of force and craft (i.e., diplomacy) in tandem. The missing element in the modern, Westphalian international state system—or perhaps the stroke of genius that has made it universally acceptable—is that it matters not what kind of regime governs the state. In Moby-Dick the regime that the weaver-god intends is democracy, but that political form, in Melville’s time, is distinctively American and not yet acceptable to the world
Melville’s Moby-Dick is a manual for statecraft, at least for American statecraft; it contains and is surrounded by references to the Middle East as the Holy Land, references that point back and forward in time and which provide both a duty to maintain world order and the necessity for a leader capable of making decisions, all materials for the work of weaving.
Among the Middle East factors in and around the epic are these: while Moby-Dick was being written, there took place the extraordinary 1848 United States Navy expedition down the Jordan River to the Dead Sea under the command of Lt. William F. Lynch, whose mission had nothing to do with naval or international security matters but was to try to locate the biblical sites of Sodom and Gomorrah. The central consciousness of the book is Ishmael, whose name recalls the child of Abraham and Hagar and who is considered the ancestor of the Arab people.
At the end of the work, when the Pequod and its crew are lost, Ishmael is rescued by the ship Rachel, namesake of the mother of the Jewish people. And of course there is the biblically named Captain Ahab, who transformed the purpose of the voyage from commercial whaling to a monomaniacal metaphysical quest when he nailed a doubloon to the mast. Starbuck, the ship’s leading Christian, envisions the Trinity in the coin’s engraved surface; but for others it is a golden calf, spreading confusion. As the novel ends, with Ishmael clinging in the sea to Queequeg’s coffin, “the old State-secret” remains unrecognized, unpracticed. Ishmael will survive to write the epic book about it, a work that will go far beyond the measuring of bones that he once thought might explain the mystery of the white whale. Ahab the captain has gone to the ocean depths bound to Moby-Dick. America still awaited its statesman.
There is a long foreground to this, reaching to the origins of the American psyche, character, and polity.
No key unlocks the meaning of Moby-Dick; as one of the greatest works of literature, it leaves all interpreters floundering in its wake. But one image is unmistakably clear: the Pequod is the American ship of state, with its 30-man crew—30 states at that time—drawn from every imaginable racial, religious, linguistic, and geographic place and people. It is a voyage that imagines its purpose as all things to all men. For our Middle Eastern interests, it self-defines America as uniquely able to hold the trust and play the statesman’s role for Arabs and Jews alike. That moment would not come until the mid-twentieth century.
After Moby-Dick was published and largely ignored, Melville made a personal expedition to the Holy Land in the hope, not to be realized, of finding answers to his doubts about religious faith. This he would chronicle in “Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage to the Holy Land” in 1876. Longer than “Paradise Lost” and just as much a journey through biblical texts, “Clarel” like Moby-Dick, but with more reason, was also ignored.
Moby-Dick’s, and Melville’s, obsession with Palestine was a central contribution to the definition of American identity both before and after the Civil War. But the strategy the United States followed through the nineteenth century was not designed for shaping world order; it was a mission to “bring in the sheaves” of souls for the next world.