Breaking Analysis | May 11th, 2023
Anne Joyce reflects on 40 years with the journal, being a woman in the field, and getting it right about the post-9/11 conflicts.
In December 2002, well before the Iraq invasion, the editor of Middle East Policy wrote:
"Winning an actual war is more than expensive, even for a country as rich as the United States. Leaving aside the potentially decisive issue of casualties, it might be ruinous financially and strategically, alienating friends and swelling the ranks of al-Qaeda with more disaffected Muslim youth."
These words from Anne Joyce were not typical among the mainstream media in the runup to the Iraq War. In the next issue, published in spring 2003, Joyce wrote that the Bush administration’s push for war had a "murky subtext and a flimsy cover story." She continued, "Because modern warfare is so horrific and omens about this war’s aftermath and U.S. staying power so negative, there should be sharp questioning of administration policies. But the major media have in large part been cheerleaders for the government."
When Middle East Policy recently spoke to Joyce about her experience covering the war, she had a simple explanation for why the journal was able to see the landscape of the Middle East more clearly than many in government. “People in power have political reasons for what they decide to do and are not rationally thinking through cause and effect,” she said. “They’re listening to people who agree with them.”
Joyce recently stepped aside as editor of Middle East Policy, capping 40 years with the journal. She first joined the American-Arab Affairs Council in spring 1983 as assistant editor of its publication. By the summer of 1984, she was running the quarterly journal. When Joyce retired at the end of 2022, the journal was ranked third by Google Scholar among publications specializing in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. The American-Arab Affairs Council became the Middle East Policy Council, and changed the name of the journal, in the early 1990s.
As the United States marked 20 years since its invasion of Iraq, Middle East Policy caught up with Joyce to ask her how the journal was able to maintain its skepticism about the post-9/11 wars and be so prescient about the dangers of the intervention. While there was no magic formula, she emphasized that the journal has always aimed to cut through misinformation and deliver facts to policy makers and the public.
Joyce also discussed her experiences as a woman in the field of Middle Eastern studies, her travels in the 1980s and 1990s to meet figures like Yasser Arafat, and her thoughts about whether China can rival American power in the region.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Middle East Policy: Why do you think you were able to see the likely outcome of the Iraq invasion so clearly, so early on?
Anne Joyce: Maybe it’s because I’d lived through the Vietnam War experience of the United States. People don’t think ahead and don’t realize how long and drawn-out and inconclusive a war can be. I don’t think I had any special powers. It was clear through historical experience what could happen, so I don’t think we should have been surprised.
MEP: At that point, it was three months before the invasion. Did you have any hope that the Bush administration would slow the rush to war?
AJ: No, I think it was eager. People wanted a quick resolution of some of our problems. Our governments tend to be interested in going to war because they see it as a solution. There was a lot of support among the establishment for war.
MEP: Your editor's note warning about the invasion appeared in winter 2002, which marked the 20th anniversary of the journal. In that issue, Ronald Bleier wrote that Scott Ritter, one of the main nuclear-weapons inspectors in the 1990s, was sure that the Iraqis not only had no nuclear capability but also no useable chemical or biological agents. On the other side, we know that Vice President Dick Cheney believed in the 1 percent doctrine: If there were even a percentage chance that in this case Iraq had unconventional weapons that threatened Americans, the United States had to act. Do you recall at that time feeling that you saw Iraqi nuclear or unconventional weapons as a threat?
AJ: I think there was plenty of evidence indicating that they were not a threat, even if they had them—and that they probably didn’t have them. This came from good sources, who had been looking for them for a long time. The people who wanted to go to war had political reasons for it, not that they thought Iraq was a tremendous threat to Americans.
MEP: In a time of uncertainty, like the one we faced after 9/11, should we expect cooler heads to prevail at all levels of government?
AJ: No, not at all. But one can always hope. People in power have political reasons for what they decide to do and are not rationally thinking through cause and effect. They’re listening to people who agree with them.
MEP: A few months later, toward the time of the invasion, you wrote that you were concerned that the media were not questioning the administration about the push for war. How did you see the role of the Middle East Policy journal after 9/11 and in those early years of what became long, drawn-out wars?
AJ: I didn’t have the idea that our journal or our organization could be influential because the powers that be seemed to want to go to war to clear up unfinished business. The people we used to call neocons wanted the war. It was difficult for outsiders to have great influence. Of course, we wanted to publish our ideas about what the truth was.
MEP: What do you think was leading the media to follow the government’s story?
AJ: The major media do that all the time. They explain government policy to the public. People have a tendency to want to follow the government’s line. It’s difficult to resist the government’s position.
MEP: In the lead-up to the invasion, in this late 2002 period and going forward through the invasion, war, and occupation, you covered an enormous array of angles on the Iraq invasion: You had symposiums on costs and benefits, on the potential transformation of the Middle East, and just after the war, the question of what the purpose was. You also had a petroleum executive arguing that the war was not a conquest for oil, another weighing the strategic and the normative implications of the invasion, and a denunciation of the invasion as leading to perpetual war. In fact, in that article, Ronald Bleier notes that Israel was not actually that enthusiastic about the invasion. Looking back on that time, are there any articles you are particularly proud of?
AJ: I think we had quite a few articles that were contrary to government policy. That was really our main business as a publication: to counter the arguments of the establishment because they tended to be extremely pro-war. We tried to offer contrary ideas because it seemed that their ideas were completely politically motivated. Generally speaking, we were following a more reasonable line and a less politically motivated one.
MEP: Were you concerned about potential pushback in Washington or from your readers?
AJ: We try to follow what we consider to be the truth, though I hesitate to use that word because it sounds pretentious.
MEP: By the time we get to summer 2004, W. Patrick Lang is writing in the journal that the Iraq invasion was driven by a small group inside the Bush administration that bullied anyone who disagreed with them into “drinking the Kool-Aid.” Do you think this tells the story of the invasion and the war?
AJ: Yes, I really do. That article was extremely popular. The general public knows that there is a tendency for those in power to jump on bandwagons, often pro-war bandwagons.
MEP: In your time in Washington, as the editor of Middle East Policy, did you see examples of people refusing the Kool-Aid?
AJ: There are people who I admire who are not influenced so much by our government who tend to see things in a more reasonable way. It’s often the case that political factors prevail, though.
MEP: Let’s talk a little about the aftermath of the invasion. For the last 15 years or more, we have seen the nuclear threat being cited as a reason to continue to isolate Iran. Do you see this as a parallel to the Iraq episode?
AJ: We have been trying to counter every move that Iran makes. This harkens back partly to the past, when they took our diplomats hostage. We don’t want countries to be powerful on their own. Iran is not in our orbit, so we try to counter them at every turn. They, of course, are an enemy of many of our friends, including Israel, who genuinely fear Iran’s power and influence, as much as it exists. We tend to exaggerate Iran’s power, I think.
MEP: Right after the Iraq invasion, some Bush administration officials responsible for the Iraq invasion coined the phrase, "Real men go to Tehran." But they were not able to go there. Do you think there was ever a chance the United States would have actually invaded Iran to force a regime change?
AJ: No. Iran, compared to Iraq, is a big, strong country. It’s got a huge hinterland, an educated population. And Iran has influence, although we’ve tried to weaken it as much as possible.
MEP: The United States has, since the mid-2000s, turned back to sanctions instead of military invasion. Now we find that China has stepped in to broker at least a minor rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Do you see China as supplanting the United States as the key outside power?
AJ: I think that’s going too far, but they certainly have a lot of power and prestige. It’s difficult to predict how this will shape up in the future. I don’t see China as a country that is really interested in pursuing its policies through military means. It’s more interested in economic factors and maintaining the flow of oil. The United States goes all over the world with its military, keeping people in line. I don’t see China doing that. But it’s a strong country with a lot of friends and tremendous trade. It’s close to the region, of course. It seems to me that we exaggerate a lot of the strengths of a lot of our “enemies” over there in an effort to keep our friends satisfied that we are going to pursue their interests.
MEP: Let’s go back to the beginning of your tenure: About 40 years ago, you went to work at what today we would call a fledgling startup, the American-Arab Affairs Council, which is now the Middle East Policy Council. What was the mission of that new organization in 1981?
AJ: It was started by people retiring from the US State Department who had spent their careers in the region. They saw our foreign policy as one-sided, and they wanted to bring balance into our Middle East policy. It’s been the case for a long time that the United States has protected certain of its friends and tried to isolate others. These founders believed that this was out of balance. There were other small organizations starting up at the same time, as well. The end of the Carter administration and beginning of the Reagan years was a time of growth in this area.
MEP: What made the American-Arab Affairs Council different from those groups?
AJ: One thing is that our founder, George Naifeh, wanted to produce a publication. After some consideration, he decided it would be a quarterly journal—what is now Middle East Policy. That made it possible to put ideas into the public in a permanent form. It’s an expensive project to start a printed journal that’s not just a newsletter. Immediately, we were inundated with articles from academics seeking publication. At the time, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy were the two main foreign-affairs journals, but they didn’t have much space for articles on the region—or for fresh thinking about Middle East policy.
MEP: Take us back to the politics of the time. The first issue of American-Arab Affairs was published in the summer of 1982, as Israel pulled out of the Sinai and invaded Lebanon. The journal's first editor, Erik R. Peterson, wrote in his introduction that the contributors had many different viewpoints but "generally agree that the United States needs to formulate an active, long-range policy to bring peace to the area." At that time, long before Yasser Arafat left Tunis, before the Persian Gulf War of 1991, before the Oslo Accords, what did scholars generally mean by a peace policy?
AJ: US policy was determined so much by Cold War factors and support for Israel that it could not be considered evenhanded. In fact, the word “evenhanded” was considered to be code for an anti-Israel position. We disagreed totally with that approach and felt there was a real need for balance in our policy toward the region. We were doing our best not to have a bias toward left or right. It’s hard to avoid being labeled, though. We had articles sent by conservatives and liberals.
MEP: While advocating for a balance between Israeli and Palestinian rights was not popular at the time—and perhaps not now, either—you found support early on from an array of politicians, academics, policy makers, and businesspeople. Some of your early board members included former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie and Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, who later became president of the council. What drove these Washington insiders to back the council and its work?
AJ: They saw us as a place that was not controlled by US interests. We offered a critique of US policy that was different. And we didn’t want to be just an academic institution. We wanted to be a place for discussion of national security and foreign policy.
MEP: It’s not easy for a nonprofit to survive. Was there a moment when you realized that the council would endure?
AJ: We didn’t have the possibility of dreaming of a long-term future. George Naifeh was in the foreign service for about 30 years, and he decided to enter a risky business.
MEP: In the 1990s and into the 2000s, you had very high-profile leaders at the council, McGovern and Chas W. Freeman Jr. How did McGovern’s leadership advance the work of the council?
AJ: He was a very liberal Democrat, but he was a very fair and straightforward person who drew more attention to our organization. He was not a mouthpiece for one side or the other in the region. He was a longtime friend of Israel, and it drew positive attention for us.
MEP: You became editor in 1984. What prepared you to take the top spot?
AJ: I had worked under some very brilliant and impressive people in the early days of the council. The editor, Erik Peterson, had become the assistant to the council’s president. He started the journal after serving as editor of the SAIS Review. He was extremely talented. His associate editor was impressive, as well, and taught me a great deal. I had experience in writing and languages, so that saved them a great deal of time. I advanced up the ladder as the young and ambitious editors above me left.
MEP: What did it take to get the journal out the door every three months?
AJ: I learned immediately not to let the perfect drive out the good. When you get so many articles and interviews, there are a lot of choices to be made. We were considered to be prestigious from the beginning, which is a tribute to George Naifeh, who demanded excellence at all times.
MEP: Many women today see you as an inspiration. How did you feel at the time as a woman taking over as editor of the journal?
AJ: I didn’t think much of it. The associate editor above me was a woman, and she had taught me a lot. I had proven my worth over 15 months as assistant and associate editor. Once the top job opened, George Naifeh felt I could take the responsibility. You just have to go do it.
MEP: Did you ever feel that you faced obstacles as a woman in the field?
AJ: Not really. George Naifeh had checked with some of his Arab and Arab-American friends, mentioning that he was thinking of making a woman the editor of the journal. They didn’t see any problem at all with having a woman as a top officer. I traveled extensively in the region, usually in small groups but sometimes alone. I was well treated. There’s a myth that there might be some resistance in Middle Eastern culture to having a woman in a high position.
MEP: One of those trips to the Middle East included a meeting in the late 1980s with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, when he was holed up in Tunis. What was it like to visit the Palestinian leader well before the Oslo Accords, when he was facing assassination attempts and bombing runs?
AJ: I won’t say it wasn’t a little scary. I wasn’t alone. There were officers of other organizations, mainly Arab-American organizations, who were part of the group. It was sort of nervous making. I sometimes look back on it and wonder why I wasn’t more nervous. We had to meet in the middle of the night because Arafat changed domiciles every day so nobody would know where he was. Arafat was very casual with us, and he took off his keffiyeh when we sat talking. But when it came time for pictures at the end, he put the keffiyeh back on so he’d look like the “real” Arafat.
MEP: Before that trip, you traveled to Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War. What was that like?
AJ: It was not extremely scary. I was with other Americans. We were very well treated. We were escorted around the capital by government officials, and we were briefed on political topics. I don’t consider that we were getting secret information. We met with many women in Baghdad who were at very high levels of culture and politics. At the same time, there were Iraqi artists visiting Washington, so it was known that Iraq was a country of art and culture. It was horribly sad to see it all come apart later.
MEP: As associate editor and then as editor, you conducted numerous interviews with policy makers and academics. Is there an interview that stands out?
AJ: Noam Chomsky. Before coming to the council, I had just completed a master’s in linguistics and had studied Chomsky’s work. When I came to the council, I noticed that he was a charter subscriber to our journal. I wrote to him when I first became editor, in the summer of 1984, and asked him for an interview. I flew up to Cambridge and visited his office at MIT. I took with me my copy of Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, his principal work, for him to autograph. It was a tremendous experience for me to get to know him. For nearly 40 years we corresponded from time to time. It was something I had no idea would ever be possible when I was studying his work as a graduate student.
MEP: Now that you’ve wrapped up your editorship of the journal, academics around the world are wishing you well and thanking you for your service. One wrote, “Your kind support and our experience of publishing with the Middle East Policy have been critical in our professional development since graduate school. Now that we are teaching our classes, almost no week on the syllabi goes without a MEP article.” What was your philosophy of working with academics?
AJ: I almost always chose articles based on the subject matter and the quality of the writing. I didn’t pay much attention to bios.
MEP: As you survey your career and experiences, is there anything that should give us optimism?
AJ: I’m not sure that’s a reasonable hope. Problems really don’t get solved; you just trade up for better problems. There are certain things about geography and commerce and realities in the world that you can’t overcome easily. There have been many false dawns when people thought that peace was at last breaking out. It doesn’t last very long. I refer people to our journal for more detail on that.
This has been 40 years of—I won’t say pleasure—intellectual fulfillment.
Ex-Middle East Policy Editor: We Sought ‘Truth’ on Iraq