Skip to content ↓

Q&A: Associate Provost Philip Khoury on foreign policy in the Middle East

The Ford International Professor of History also talks about how an engineering school benefits the humanities and social science community.
Philip Khoury, MIT associate provost and Ford International Professor of History
Philip Khoury, MIT associate provost and Ford International Professor of History
Photo: Donna Coveney

Philip Khoury, MIT associate provost and Ford International Professor of History, shares his thoughts on foreign policy in the Middle East, MIT's relationship to the policymaking community and how an engineering school benefits the humanities and social science community. Below is a portion of the interview, which was published in the fall issue of precis, a publication of the MIT Center for International Studies. Read the full interview

Q. The Middle East has been at the center of national security and foreign policy discussion for the past 10 years. Do Middle East scholars seek to convert their expertise into policy advice and do policymakers want input from Middle East scholars?

A. The Middle East is rife with political tension — internal, domestic political tension, at least partially connected to the Israeli-Arab conflict — and because scholars often get typecast, rightly or wrongly, as belonging to one camp or another in this conflict, they are often perceived as biased. As a result there has not been a very deep reliance on university academics that specialize in the Middle East. A few have actually served on the National Security Council in the past, but there have not been many. Additionally, the "think-tank culture" of Washington has subsumed some of that because people living in Washington rotate between government and these institutions to craft policy.

Q. What is MIT's relationship to the policymaking community?

A. MIT has frequently sent its talent to Washington, D.C., particularly from the Department of Economics and the MIT Sloan School of Management, but also from the worlds of engineering and science. After all, Jerry Wiesner, who in the 1970s was MIT's 13th president, was the science advisor for presidents Kennedy and Johnson and MIT's 10th president Jim Killian was science advisor to President Eisenhower. Former MIT Dean of Engineering Vannevar Bush, who advised Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, put the research university on the map as we know it today by creating the federal grant system during the heart of World War II, which has driven research in this country ever since. Other noted faculty such as Sheila Widnall, John Deutch and Ernie Moniz have served as senior government officials. So MIT has had a long history of deep involvement with Washington.

Q. Over the last decade the U.S. has been involved in various interventions in the Middle East with a mixed record of success, but do you think limited humanitarian interventions might yield different outcomes?

A. I'd like to be optimistic and think that after the tragic mistakes of Iraq, for which we're still paying the price in terms of Americans and Iraqis killed, we're not that likely to jump into things in quite the same way. Despite triumphant claims, Iraq still isn't resolved and a very wobbly balance remains. Though we went into Libya rather quickly partially on humanitarian grounds, we have hesitated with Syria because it is just a lot more complex. It was much easier to justify getting rid of Muammar Qaddafi than it is to justify ridding the Middle East of the Syrian regime, though perhaps it gets easier by the day as the conflict continues down a very negative path. Simply put, Syria has allies Qaddafi did not have.

Q. So strategically it is more difficult?

A. It is much more complicated. I can't think of another country where an intervention could trigger so many known and unknown negative repercussions.

Lebanon, which saw the worst civil war from 1975-1990, and, it's important to note that this also involved Syria, is already worrying about the spillover effects from Syria and its leaders are doing everything in their power to contain the situation. But equally important, you have a tenuous political situation in Jordan, and Israel watching everything around it through a microscope. Then there is the Iranian connection with Syria that complicates matters. And finally you have Hezbollah in Lebanon, which could become problematic. As a result, going into Syria is not simply going into Syria. It may involve stepping into more messes than we realize.

Also, the Syrian regime will be a lot more difficult to get rid of than the regime in Libya. Syria has much more firepower and can do a lot more damage to an intervening force as well as to their neighbors. There's no question a lot of people are getting killed and more deaths will come, but after the fall of the regime, depending on when and how that happens, there could be real massacres of the regime's allies and especially the Alawite sect that undergirds it.

Q. Given all this, does it seem unlikely the U.S. will lead a coalition to intervene in Syria?

A. No question we're thinking about it but I just don't know how close we are to actually doing anything. I remain doubtful we are going to do anything because we simply don't think in humanitarian terms first and therefore stand to gain little. If events unfold that begin to draw in other actors — if Iran were to intervene more formally and more palpably than it already has — that might oblige U.S. to do something in lieu of Israel taking action.

Q. How did it get to this stage? I remember there was once cautious optimism of economic reform and modernization in Syria under the new Bashar Asad regime.

A. There was a brief period of opening up. When Bashar came in after his father died, he looked like a different kind of leader promoting a younger generation. This perception may have been abetted by his fluent command of English and his Syrian wife's London upbringing and former employment with JP Morgan. He did initiate some reforms and move a few things in a positive direction for Syria. He seemed to promote investments in technology and an information economy, and created opportunities to attract young talent, both within the country and from the Syrian diaspora. He even moved some of his father's old henchmen out of their positions. But as things grew unstable, he had to reinstate some of this old guard to reassert control. He had to rely on people who only know how to do things one way, and that is by ruthlessly dealing with dissent.

Related Links

Related Topics

More MIT News