The Angevin Counterfactual

As Andrew Sullivan notes, there’s been a lot of interesting debate about Stephen Walt’s counterfactual from a few days ago. See, for example, here and here and here here. Apropos of all that, and apropos of this Roger Cohen column which technically begins with a counterfactual, I want to offer up a counterfactual of my own – the only one, so far, that could plausibly be the title for a Matt Damon vehicle.

Here’s the scenario.

Imagine, if you will, that the Third Crusade was a smashing success. Richard Lionheart wins a huge and surprising victory over Saladin and recaptures Jerusalem. Saladin’s dominion splinters, and the Saracens are unable to make a renewed assault on the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Instead, an Anglo-French Catholic island survives for twelve generations, succumbing only in the 15th century to the Ottoman assault.

After the Ottoman conquest, the Angevins, as they come to call themselves, scatter across the empire, settling primarily in Syria, Egypt and western Anatolia. There is a brief flurry of enthusiasm for the restoration of their lost kingdom at the time of the Greek revolt, and while it comes to nothing at the time, over the course of the 19th century there is a steady migration of Angevins, promoted by Catholic knightly orders, back to the Levant. Dreams of restoration do not become a reality until after World War I. In the wake of Turkish massacres of Angevins, Britain demanded the League of Nations restore the Kingdom of Jerusalem under British protection. In spite of protests from the Sharif of Mecca, the French government, and the World Zionist Congress, the proposal was accepted and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, stretching from Tyre in the north to Jerusalem in the south, was restored in 1922.

I’ll pass briefly over the next 70-80 years of history – riots by the Samarian Arabs in the 1930s; occupation by, resistance to and collaboration with the Axis; the lopsided victory in the Suez War and its complex aftermath; the abdication and the ascendancy of the Protector . . . By the end of the 20th century, the erstwhile Kingdom of Jerusalem is locked in a seemly endless conflict with the Samarian Arabs. Back when it was a bulwark against Soviet influence, the Angevin state was a logical ally of the United States. But now, realist critics of the Angevin-American alliance argue that it is a millstone around America’s neck – an unnecessary embarrassment and a cause of friction between America and the far more important Gulf oil states. And yet, as the Angevin position gets more and more difficult, America binds herself ever more strongly to her odd little ally.

Why should that be? Obviously, for reasons of affinity. And yet, that affinity itself needs a bit of unpacking. The Angevins speak a different language (Norman French), and have a wildly different culture. They were never a colony of the United States. The traditional Catholicism that predominates in the Kingdom is a relative rarity in America, where most Catholics are tied to the faith by ethnic identity as much as anything. America’s Jews for obvious reasons have always resented the existence of the Angevin state, and the Irish, in spite of a common religion, have never warmed to what many of them see as a relic of British imperialism, medieval and modern. It’s really only among a slice of the American elite – old-line Anglophilic WASPs and traditionalist Catholics – that the affinity is profound. But as these segments are overrepresented in the elite relative to their percentage of the American population, their affinity has an outsized impact on American policy and, as well, on national perceptions.

Now, obviously there is a huge difference between Israel’s history and the counterfactual above. I put out the counterfactual for one purpose only: to highlight a difference in tone between the way we talk about our affinity for Israel and the way I imagine we’d talk about our affinity for the Angevin Kingdom. And the difference is in that word, “we.” If realists were to criticize American policy towards the Angevins, they might well say that Americans are blinded to the facts of the situation because of affinity, and that our blindness wasn’t doing ourselves or the Angevins any good. But they’d be unlikely to suggest that undue influence by a small group was a good description of the problem, because that group would be recognized as part of who we are. And that’s not entirely the case with criticism of America’s strong connection with Israel. When Roger Cohen highlights that there are a whole lot of Jews involved in America’s Mideast policy, and not a whole lot of Arabs or Persians, he’s right – and he’s right to highlight that this might leave us blind to facts, and that it’s worth being self-conscious about reaching out for perspective beyond the usual circle. But it’s not a terribly surprising thing that the discrepancy in personnel exists – Jews are just a much bigger part of the American elite generally than are Arabs and Persians, and broad-based American affinity for Israel is more clearly a consequence of the broad integration of American Jews, particularly into the American elite, than it is a consequence of American Jewish distinction. When the concern is expressed as being about undue influence, rather than being about an American affinity that is blinding us to interest, that suggests a base-level suspicion that, to some degree, the Jewish elite is not “us.” Which I think is what disturbs Jews – and not only Jews – about those kinds of arguments.

Would we be more likely to throw the Angevins over than we have been to throw Israel over? It depends – in part on the details of the circumstances and what we really perceived our interests to be. Perhaps we’d be more likely to do so because we wouldn’t feel the Angevins had the same moral trump card of near extinction, or because we could more plausibly think of the Angevins coming “home” to France or Britain if things went really pear-shaped. Or perhaps we’d be less-likely to do so because the affinity was broader, or because the mere existence of an Angevin state for several centuries in medieval days changed the nature of Arab nationalism in the Middle East in modern times – who knows. I will attempt to shed light on this question as well, by way of a comparison with South Africa – a state for which the American elite (or a segment thereof) had considerable affinity (for a variety of reasons) but which we did (to some extent) throw over. I would venture to say that one reason South Africa lost America’s general support is that many Americans (including many among the elite) felt an affinity for the victims of apartheid – and that this affinity had a great deal to do with a reconception in the post-Civil Rights era of who we are – a reconception that put African-Americans truly within the circle of “us.” That change was historically determined – it didn’t happen because of some abstract commitment to multi-culturalism but because of real facts about American history and real changes in American society. In any event, similar facts and history do not obtain with respect to the Arab side of the conflict with Israel or with my counterfactual Angevins.