How do you kill a zombie argument? Middle East studies edition

6 May 2021, 1119 EDT

I’ve started practicing mindfulness, partly to deal with the stress of being a Professor and parent of small kids in a pandemic, and partly to reduce the number of times I become unreasonably angry over bad policy arguments. I experienced a major setback this week, when I encountered yet another evidence-less argument on Saudi-Iran relations. What’s worse, it looks like this zombie claim is not only refusing to die, but it is–in zombie apocalypse fashion–replicating itself and spreading.

The offender was this article in Slate by Fred Kaplan. Reports have emerged of secret talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, intended to ease long-standing tensions between the two countries. According to Kaplan, “by all accounts, this shift was spurred by recognition that the United States is moving away from the Middle East.”

Sounds plausible enough. If America is less involved in the region, the Saudis can’t count on us for support and thus have to work out problems on their own. So what are all the accounts Kaplan rests this argument on?

Well, there’s statements from Biden Admin officials that the Middle East will be less of a priority. That…doesn’t really prove that’s why the Saudis are getting closer to Iran, though.

So what other evidence does he present? He points to a recent Foreign Policy piece that makes this claim. Fair enough, that’s a good magazine. I’m sure they wouldn’t print something without evidence. So I checked it out…and there’s no evidence here either.

Zombie claims and Middle East studies

What is going on? Are respected foreign policy experts just baselessly repeating a claim because they heard it from someone else? Are they drawing major conclusions about America’s role in the world on vague assumptions?

Yeah, basically.

And, like a zombie plague with a long incubation period, this argument has been spreading for some time. I noticed it back in early 2020. Numerous Middle East experts on Twitter were claiming the then rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia was due to Trump’s failure to retaliate for Iranian aggression. The New York Times picked it up. But no one had offered any evidence for this claim–the Times article just quoted the people who had been saying this on Twitter.

I wrote a frustrated piece about this trend here. A “common wisdom” had somehow developed among Middle East policy experts without any real debate or evidence. Now, a year and a half later, that “common wisdom” had taken hold so deeply people just assume it to be true, as in Kaplan’s piece.

Again, this argument may be true. But there is a plausible alternative. As I discussed in that Duck piece and in the Monkeycage, there is evidence the Saudis were spooked by Trump’s erratic behavior and actually tried to rein him in by reaching out to Iran. This set in place the foundations for current talks.

My argument could very well be wrong, but…I did point to actual evidence for it, instead of just referencing other people who said it. And how will we know which of these two competing explanations is correct if we don’t…assess and debate them?

Fear the zombie apocalypse

I’ll admit this is frustrating on a personal level, as my argument–which has been validated by ongoing events–has mainly been ignored, while people parroting this “common wisdom” with no real analysis keep getting quoted. But it’s a bigger problem than just my own ego.

Middle East studies (like many policy-scholarly communities, I assume) has powerful gatekeeping forces. These gatekeepers aren’t people as much as they are assumptions about the region. If you want to get an article past peer review, get invited to speak at a think tank event, get considered for a political appointment, you need to demonstrate that you are serious and informed. The best way to do this is to repeat the dominant takes on the region, and avoid saying anything too out there.

So Middle East experts are saying Saudi Arabia and Iran are drawing close because America is pulling back. If I am writing on the Middle East, and want to prove my credentials, I repeat that claim. I may even, as Kaplan did, base my own argument on US foreign policy on the veracity of that claim. And thus the argument spreads and spread with no evidence, until it becomes truth.

I suspect that this claim in particular is so persistent because it is so convenient. Everyone wins. Those calling for restraint in US foreign policy can say things get better when we’re less involved. Those who want more intervention says America’s allies will turn against us if we aren’t involved in the region. And those who support Biden can say things are getting better because of him (even though, as Hussein Ibish reported recently, this has been a long-building development).

Prevent the next zombies from arising

This isn’t the only zombie claim, in either policy or academia. How do we stop them?

Honestly, I’m not sure. Putting alternative ideas out there clearly isn’t enough. Favoring in-depth analysis (like Ibish’s piece) over tweet-length takes may be the way to go.

I worry, though, that–just like in every zombie movie–we’ll ultimately have to just learn to live with the new world the zombies have created.