Charles Tripp is a key figure in the study of the Middle East. He was called to No 10 before the invasion of Iraq but, he tells Michael North, Tony Blair has not asked him back.
Charles Tripp’s expertise on Iraq has been much in demand of late. Shortly before the alliance forces invaded, Tripp and five other academics were called to an “informal” meeting at No 10 Downing Street with Tony Blair and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary. Tripp says: “At one point, Blair said something like: ‘Isn’t Saddam Hussein uniquely evil?’ There was a muttering from this group of 21st-century academics as if to say: ‘What’s this man on about?’ I thought, no, Saddam’s not unique, and as for evil, well, that’s his statecraft!”
However, Tripp says his views have not been sought by new Labour since the war and that he is considered “unsound” on Iraq. “I have been saying things they regard as ‘sustained negativity’. I have not embraced wholeheartedly the notion that we are building a new, democratic Iraq.”
His off-message warnings to the Government stem from more than a decade of research into the region that culminated in 2000 with the publication of A History of Iraq (Cambridge University Press), now in its second edition and translated into numerous languages. The work has boosted his already-considerable reputation in Middle East studies. Avi Shlaim, professor of international relations at St Antony’s College, Oxford, calls it Tripp’s “greatest contribution to the field”, adding: “I have read half a dozen histories of modern Iraq and this is the one I rate the most highly.”
Shlaim says further evidence of Tripp’s move to the “front rank” of Middle East experts was his 1995 election as general editor of the Cambridge Middle East Studies series. “This is the most prestigious Middle East studies series in the world and, as general editor, Dr Tripp deserves a share of the credit,” Shlaim says.
Tripp’s early inspiration to specialise in the Middle East came from growing up in the region - first in Sudan, then Dubai, Bahrain, Jordan and Libya - where his father was ambassador. “I went to a typical cold, dark prep school in Shropshire. When you come out of an English winter and fly to Bahrain, you think the Middle East is a wonderful place,” he says.
His connection with the Middle East now extends to his marriage; his wife, Venetia Porter, grew up in Lebanon and is curator of Islamic art at the British Museum.
In the final year of a politics, philosophy and economics degree at Oxford University, Tripp chose an option on Middle East politics. His inspirational tutor was Roger Owen. A PhD focusing on Egypt followed at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where Tripp is now reader in politics. His supervisor, P.J. Vatikiotis, imbued in him an interest in political theory and “larger questions of community, legitimacy and authority”.
“I realised you could do research on Middle East politics that wasn’t simply studying the Middle East, but looked at some of the political issues through the Middle East and used the Middle East as a way of interrogating some of those theories.”
Tripp’s books are broad ranging, dealing with everything from regional security to the Iran-Iraq War and Saudi-Iran relations. He has just completed a work on “Islamic responses to capitalism” for CUP. Mahjoob Zweiri, director of the Centre for Iranian Studies at Durham University, says: “Studying the history of the Middle East in the 20th century without referring to his books seems very difficult and unacceptable.”
Tripp has also been a contributor to other key textbooks in the field: The War for Palestine (edited by Eugene Rogan and Shlaim), The Foreign Policies of Middle Eastern States (edited by Anoush Ehteshami and Ray Hinnebush) and Islamic Fundamentalism (edited by Abdel Salam Sidahmed and Ehteshami).
Empirical research has not been easy in the volatile political climates of Middle Eastern states. Tripp recalls a visit to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s when meetings with fellow academics were decidedly uncomfortable. “Unless they were very confident people who were well connected, they looked increasingly nervous during visits. You realised you were like a kind of plague carrier. They knew that the next day they would be visited by people asking: ‘How did Dr Tripp know your name?’”
He contrasts his meetings with Syrian state officials in 1983. “They were cynical, they didn’t believe in the ideology explicitly, they said outrageous things. In Syria, if you weren’t actively working against the regime, it could not care less what you were doing. In Iraq, unless you were actively proclaiming your support for the regime, you must be up to no good.”
A more active political role in the Middle East has never appealed to Tripp, and he was not tempted to follow his father into diplomacy: “I didn’t want to represent, support or advocate policies that I thought were utterly daft.” Just before the recent occupation of Iraq, however, he was surprised to be asked to join the staff of General Jay Garner, Washington’s first viceroy in Iraq. He declined.
“I asked, why me? They said we think you know something about Iraq... but equally important, when Donald Rumsfeld [the US Defence Secretary] pushes the button on his computer at the Pentagon, your name doesn’t come up.”
Tripp laments the “ideologues” and “utterly ignorant” people “playing out their games of democracy, diplomacy, of liberalisation” in Iraq since 2003. He also refers to the UK’s “criminal part”. “We didn’t say how we would ensure the Iraqis’ security, how we would give these people jobs, these poor people who have been struggling under the weight of something we partly created and to whom we owe a responsibility.”
Asked to make a prediction about Iraq’s future, he says that the most optimistic interpretation of the current situation is that in five years the country will “look like Lebanon on a good day - powerful local leaders with quite a tight hold on their communities, their own militias if they need them, plus a representative parliament in which they divide the spoils of oil wealth.”
But, he points out with a touch of menace, “Lebanon on a good day was the prelude to Lebanon on a very bad day indeed.” Like Lebanon, Iraq could become a “precarious republic” dependent on what happens in the rest of the Middle East.
Tripp will contemplate such tensions and their impact on neighbouring states in his next commission for CUP: “I’ll be trying to look at the patterns established and the ones that have lasted, what are the constituents of political conflict and social tension in the Middle East.”
It may be a book that Tony Blair would be wise to read.