Prof. Barry Rubin, a long-time columnist for this paper, passed away last week after a battle with cancer.
Barry defined prolific. He wrote and edited almost 100 books, over a hundred book chapters and journal articles, and thousands of op-eds and blog posts. Having worked closely with Barry for nearly a decade (1998-2007), whenever I would meet with people, especially academics, the first question they invariably asked was how on earth he did it.
Barry’s overwhelming legacy, however, creates a bit of a conundrum for those interested in exploring that legacy: where should you start?
So while several people have eulogized Barry, here I want to outline what I think are some of his most interesting and noteworthy contributions Barry made. Consider it a sort of “Introduction to Barry Rubin” or “Barry Rubin 101”.
Many of Barry’s earliest works, like The Arab States and Palestine Conflict and Secrets of State, are formidable historical tomes based on exhaustive archival research. Yet, in one of my favorite books he ever authored, Istanbul Intrigues, Barry took this seemingly dry historical material and stitched it together in a narrative that makes the history of Istanbul during World War II jump off the page like a murder mystery thriller. Without introducing even an ounce of fiction to ease his task, Barry created compelling character portraits of the story’s main protagonists, showed their foibles, and brought to life the real spy caper in which the characters were engaged.
Besides his lucid prose, one of Barry’s greatest strengths was his keen analytical mind. He could distill major events quickly and with profound insight. One of the best examples of this is his Paved with Good Intentions, which was not only one of the first books to be published on the Iranian Revolution, but impressively, it is also still considered by most Iranian experts to be one of the best books on the subject.
Another fantastic work which demonstrated Barry’s prowess was an article published in the journal Foreign Affairs entitled, “The Real Roots of Arab Anti-Americanism.” Published a year after 9/11, Barry skillfully dispelled the most stubborn myths about what motivated Islamist groups like al-Qaida to attack the United States. Rejecting the common wisdom at the time that American policies had naturally caused this hatred, Barry argued that a careful examination of actual American policies in the Muslim world reveals “policies that, if anything, have been remarkably pro-Arab and pro-Muslim over the years.” Instead, Arab anti-Americanism “is largely the product of self-interested manipulation by various groups within Arab society, groups that use anti-Americanism as a foil to distract public attention from other, far more serious problems within those societies.”
As is the case with many trained historians of his generation, Barry had little patience for abstract political theory. Which is unfortunate because Barry was actually quite skilled at producing broad theoretical insights. For instance, in 2001, he edited a book with Tom Keaney called Armed Forces in the Middle East. The book’s chapters are a country-by-country empirical analysis of the interplay between civilian regimes and their militaries written by various experts. Barry’s introduction chapter, however, is a beautiful inductive synthesis of this empirical material. He points out a number of key patterns about how leaders keep their militaries under control, such as their policies of “divide and conquer,” where they play one part of their military off the other in order to prevent a coup.
It was a combination of these works which set the groundwork for what I consider to be Barry’s most important theoretical contribution, and that is his study of Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes, called Tragedy of the Middle East. (I’m sure Barry is somewhere above shaking his head in violent disagreement to my use of the word “theoretical” to describe his work.) Still, I think his book is best read as a theoretical exploration of how Middle Eastern autocracies maintain power, delving into the methods dictators use to keep in check all those who would seek to take it from them.
Finally, Barry’s intellectual interests went well beyond Middle Eastern politics. To me at least, his most important work in this regard was his Assimilation and Its Discontents, which is a history of Jewish assimilation in Europe and America in the modern era. Barry makes his argument by describing the lives of prominent individuals, particularly intellectuals and famous cultural figures, who either abandoned Judaism or toyed with the idea before returning to the faith of their ancestors.
The book’s thesis is riveting. Barry demonstrates the “remarkable parallels among [Jews] who lived in different countries or centuries,” both in terms of how they assimilated and why. The voices of German Jewish intellectuals of the nineteenth century, he would argue, echo in remarks by many Jewish Americans today. What so troubled Barry about Jewish assimilation was not just that so many educated people could so easily abandon the traditions of their forefathers. Instead, Barry argued, when Jews do “become totally assimilated, a powerful, positive, and productive psychological and intellectual force is lost.” In other words, it is not only the Jews who lose out from assimilation.
Cameron S. Brown is a Neubauer Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, Israel.