It wasn’t exactly summer reading, but it was remaindered, only $5.98! Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian would finally clarify the role of its author in the Middle East and U.S. policy. I snapped it up.
The author, Bernard Lewis (now 101 years old) has seen and said a lot. A renowned scholar and historian, he is an expert on Islam, the Ottoman Empire, and Turkey. He has been a counselor to presidents and policymakers, a frequenter of officialdom in Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Israel. Lewis has long been in my Caveat Lector file—read with robust skepticism. He was, I long thought, part of the neoconservative intellectual machinations that entangled the United States in the Middle East, especially the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Part memoir, part apologia, Notes on a Century reveals Lewis as a raconteur and devoted teacher, first at University College, London, and then at Princeton. Born in 1916 and raised in London, he landed in an MI6 intelligence unit during World War II, thanks to his aptitude for languages. After the war, that aptitude plus his experience and knowledge of Turkish history launched him on a career as scholar, adviser, and authority on Islam. (No further mention of MI6.) He sees himself as an honest friend of Middle East harmony, a disinterested expert in a divided world.
Were my suspicions unfair? Was Lewis misfiled under Caveat Lector? When experts and scholars begin advising governments, do they distinguish their expertise from their politics? Lewis seemed not to, at least in Notes.
I turned to other of his many books (not remaindered): What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam, dating from just before and after 9/11, and From Babel to Dragomans, a collection of essays spanning many decades. Over time, Lewis had obviously changed his mind, contradicted himself, and drawn weighty conclusions from large generalizations.