On a rainy evening along the banks of the Tigris river soon after U.S. forces had entered Iraq and defeated Saddam Hussein's army, I began to search for one of the U.S. soldiers--a sergeant--who regularly patrolled the streets of Baghdad. He was the tip of a U.S. spear planted in the Middle East. His duty meant encountering face-to-face the political, linguistic, cultural and religious cauldron about which I had to write more abstract reports back to Washington. He had ground truths--albeit anecdotal and his alone--that went beyond the assiduously curated information digitized on my computer screen. He reminded me of the early days of intelligence gathering in the ancient Near East by military scouts of Achaemenid Persia and Alexander the Great. I envied his immediacy. I recalled that the earliest histories of the ancient Near East are preserved in an ancient Greek prose in which the verbs "to see" and "to know" have the same root--a useful linguistic truth for an analyst to remember and a reason for searching out the sergeant.
I caught up with my scout as he was returning from his patrol with the taut expression of a professional operating in a high-threat environment. When the pillars of law and political order crumble to dust in war, it is the soldier on patrol with one leg hanging out of a jeep and a finger on the trigger of his long weapon that fills the space. The burden is visible on each soldier's face. That night he sighed as he recounted how little communication he had with those locals around him. He pulled out a thin metal extension rod from his pocket and confessed that he often had to resort to threatening people with it to gain compliance from those confused by his incomprehensible commands. He was thoughtful and troubled by his failure and, turning to me, he asked pointedly, "Do you have any suggestions on how this could go better?"
There we stood, the most recent, modern, lawful and civilized invaders of the land between the rivers--Mesopotamia, the Tigris-Euphrates basin--and I, the supposed government expert, struggled to respond. The one thing I knew not to do was to ask him if he was familiar with Michel Foucault--the twentieth-century French social theorist and influencer of academic approaches to the Middle East--a postmodern assault on meaning seemed grossly ill-suited for a soldier in search of understanding. Nor would I ask if he had considered the virtues of aggregating the interests of competing groups within political parties or appreciated the need to develop the organs of civil society between rulers and ruled. Perhaps a reminder of the universal appeal of liberalism and the proven stability and wealth generation of democratic capitalism would serve as counsel for my mission partner. In every potential syllogism, however, there was a disturbing lack of coherence and relevance as we sought to explain the moment in which we were living.
There are many important approaches to thinking about the Middle East well underway in the public domain, but the use of ancient history to conceptualize contemporary problems in the region has generally not been among them. Scholarly aversion to anything that hints at "Orientalism;" a modest and often shrinking presence within the academy of classics and other disciplines associated with the study of antiquity; a new turn to algorithms and massive data sets; and the general dominance of social science methods in our approach to the region--all have left the study of ancient history on the sidelines of strategic thinking about the contemporary Middle East. The extent of upheaval in the Middle East though requires a reconsideration of these intellectual strictures. It is not sufficient to approach the ferment in the region with only the intellectual tools and constraints of the last century--an era that in many respects no longer exists.
The revival of ancient history as an analytic tool offers the possibility for thinking in new ways about the role of the United States in the region by mapping the ancient communities, identities, and patterns which U.S. policies and actions will inevitably affect. The United States has been engaged in the Middle East since its early nineteenth-century wars with the Barbary pirates, inheriting much of the political and military influence of a collapsing British empire, confronting Soviet regional ambitions in the Cold War and eventually serving as guarantor of the region's supply of oil to global energy markets. Throughout these two centuries, the United States has rarely had to face directly the complexity of the region's internal political and religious culture. No longer.
The echo of ancient patterns and precedents has already been audible in the region's political and cultural trends in the post-Cold-War era. An Arab Egyptian president in 2002, for example, recreated the Library of Alexandria of the third century BC and invited the world to attend its grand opening...