An Informed Commentator
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Juan Cole didn't set out to be a public intellectual. After joining the history department in 1984 as a specialist in Middle Eastern and South Asian history, he focused on what seemed to be obscure topics, the Shiite Islamic denomination, the rise of the Baha'i faith: Egypt's response to colonialism and various other matters that the world at large does not follow on its TV screens. But it's a fact of academic life that if your region of scholarly interest becomes embroiled in a war of strategic interest to the US government, your role may change to one on center stage.
And that's what has happened to Professor Cole. His current research interests focus on Shiite Islam in Iraq and Iran and "jihadi" or "sacred-war" themes within contemporary radical Islamic movements such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Once the US government sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, numerous news media began to interview Cole, and his op ed pieces find ready acceptance by prestigious publications.
After the US invaded Iraq in March 2002, Cole began offering his perspective on the "war on terrorism," the Iraq War, Middle East history, Islam and religion in his own Web log, an innovative Internet form of personal journalism known as a "blog." Cole's blog, "Informed Comment" (see www.juancole.com) began in 2002 as a way to communicate with several hundred other academics. But by this April it had soared "into the blogosphere," he reports, "and the average hits to my Web log rose to 20,000 a day."
Now accorded public-intellectual status throughout the world, Cole accepted an invitation to appear before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations this April 20 to present his views on the war. As readers will see in the following interview for Michigan Today between Cole and Robert Haug, a doctoral student in Near Eastern studies, Cole is unlikely to have reduced the level of anxiety in Washington or elsewhere, for that matter.
Michigan Today: How did the Senate Foreign Relations committee happen to invite you to speak to it?
Juan Cole: Presumably it grew out of my increasing role as a public intellectual and commentator on Iraq affairs, and my Web log. In early April, when the Shiite uprising took place in Iraq, the attempt by the US and the Coalition Provisional Authority to arrest Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite leader in Najaf, became an object of great interest. The US government had clearly underestimated his movement. It so happens that as a result of my Web log, the Middle East Journal had invited me to contribute for the fall 2003 issue. When the Senate staff of the Foreign Relations Committee did a literature search on Muqtada al-Sadr and his movement, mine was the only article that came up. Senate staff and some of the senators, themselves, read it and were eager to have my views on the situation.
What did you say to the senators about the current situation in Iraq?
Well, my argument was that the post-war handling of Iraq has been a huge catastrophe. I have to say that I can think of few attempts by one country to administer another in modern history that have been so plagued by incompetence and a lack of understanding of the local society. Administering another country is always a very tricky proposition. The annals of colonialism are filled with anti-colonial revolts. Although Washington at least has represented this as not a colonial venture, it's in danger of turning into one. For some people, it has always been an imperial endeavor.
I argued that the Bush administration, and the Coalition officials more recently, didn't understand Iraqi society. They thought it was a blank slate, that they could use Iraqis as guinea pigs. Did you know that they introduced the 15 percent flat tax on individual and corporate income in Iraq? Something that some politicians very much wanted to push in the United States without success but in Iraq they do it. I'm not sure that the security situation allows them to actually think about collecting taxes, so it may be all a pipe dream. They also wanted to impose a Polish style "shock therapy" switch to a market economy from the Iraqi socialistic economy.
These kinds of measures should not be taken by an occupying power. In the tradition of the law of occupation, which goes back to the Hague Regulations of 1907 and includes the Fourth Geneva Convention, such measures are not only frowned upon, but also explicitly forbidden by international law. An occupying power has no right to make significant alterations in the character of the occupied society, to change the laws all around, without a strong security reason and so forth. I think a lot of the mistakes that have been made have grown out of this desire to experiment with Iraq and shape it.
Furthermore, the Coalition Provisional Authority didn't understand Shiite Islam. When the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is a very major figure and has enormous power in Iraq, issued a ruling, or fatwa, on June 28, 2003, that any delegates to a constituent assembly that wrote the new constitution would have to be popularly elected, Paul Bremer the US civil administrator of Iraq, refused to take Sistani's ruling seriously and is said to have asked someone to get another cleric to issue another fatwa that would rebuke Sistani. Well, Shiite Islam is hierarchical. Sistani is a grand ayatollah. There aren't other persons who can overrule him in that system. And in the end, Sistani won because even the members of the interim governing council whom Mr. Bremer himself appointed, sided with Sistani. So this anecdote is just one example of how we didn't understand things.
Take the decision in early March to arrest Muqtada al-Sadr. It was made apparently without knowledge or understanding of the nature of his movement or how widespread it is. Muqtada's father, back in the 1990s, had opposed Saddam and had established a sectarian kind of organization, especially in the slums and the poor areas of the Shiite cities in the south, and these young men from the Shiite ghettos are armed and militant and angry. Going after their leader like that provoked an uprising throughout the south in many important cities. I believe that the American administration of Iraq has been arrogant, has pursued policies that are illegal in international law and has been ignorant and incompetent. I said this very forthrightly to the senators.
As someone who has been intensely following and publicly commenting on the war in Iraq since its earliest stages, have any developments surprised you?
That's a loaded question, because I don't want to sound cocky, but I wrote a piece for the International Institute here at the University that appeared in January 2003, before the war. It's instructive to go back and look at that because I was asked to write about the pros and cons of going to war in Iraq. One of the cons that I mentioned was the danger that destroying the secular Baath party would cause Sunni Arabs in Iraq to become radicalized and to increasingly support radical religious movements like al-Qaeda.
I also warned that it was entirely possible that Shiite Iraqis would become mobilized and approach fellow Shiite Ayatollahs in Iran. I also argued before the war that the administration was underestimating Arab nationalism and Iraqi nationalism, that it was not going to be as easy to rule Iraq as they thought. So I have to say that I haven't been terribly surprised by what has happened in the aftermath.
Things that I was surprised by were on the margins. For instance, I was a little surprised that the Shiites didn't rise up against Saddam and the Baath party across most of the country when the Americans moved in March and April of 2003. It also surprised me a bit when Grand Ayatollah Sistani staged major urban demonstrations in January 2004 to insist on early, popular, one-person one-vote elections. Sistani is from a quietist tradition of clerics who don't get involved in day-to-day politics, and I think he has a deep fear of social unrest. I was a little surprised, too, that in less than eight months, the opposition could manifest itself on a fairly large scale. I remember sending a message to "H-Diplomatic-History," an e-mail discussion list, in the spring of 2003 in which I said: You remember in Star Wars, when the characters are in a trash compactor, and one says, "I have a bad feeling about this." That's how I feel about this enterprise.
Do you think we will see a relatively quick pull out of US troops from Iraq? An increased presence by the UN? Do you see stability coming in the near future to Iraq?
I believe that there were people in the current administration who would very much have liked to take care of Iraq quickly, stabilize it, reduce forces there to about a division that's 20,000 people and then go on to Syria and Iran and pursue an objective of American conquest, reshaping the region by force. I think those voices have been marginalized. It's inconceivable to me that Congress would authorize such a thing. And the military, particularly the officer corps, would not go along with the idea of trying to conquer and occupy Syria or Iran at this point. The United States simply doesn't have an army large enough to make that possible to begin with. But it is also very clear what would happen if we tried. Iran is three times bigger than Iraq. I think that the super-hawks in the administration have lost. Iraq has turned into a nightmare for them. I don't see a good exit strategy, and I am worried about that because, whereas when things got extremely bad, the United States could simply leave Vietnam, get on helicopters and fly away, Iraq is a major petroleum producer at the head of the Persian Gulf and could not be allowed to fall into chaos. I think it's very unlikely that the US administration would allow that to happen or remain in power for very long if it did. So even if there is a change in November, I don't see what way the US can get out of Iraq now. Until a new Iraqi military force can be established that can provide security, the US is going to have to do it. I don't think there are many allies in NATO who are going to be eager to send lots of troops to Iraq after seeing what happened to American troops.
Senator [John] Kerry and Senator [Joseph] Biden and others have called for an internationalization of the Iraq enterprise. I just don't understand under what circumstances other nations will be willing to be drawn into what looks increasingly like a major quagmire. My main expertise is in the past, but if I have to extrapolate into the future, I would say: no good news any time soon and an obvious exit strategy is not apparent to me.
Do you see your involvement in public affairs as a continuation of your academic research or is this a totally different sphere for you?
Throughout my career, I've been extremely interested in contemporary Middle Eastern politics, events and movements. I lived in the Muslim world for 10 years. Unlike a lot of American specialists in the Middle East, who did one Fulbright year and now find their language is rusty, I kept up my Arabic. I speak Urdu quite a lot, too, and I read a lot of Persian. Also, I lived in lots of different places in the region — Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Pakistan, and I traveled widely elsewhere. In between finishing my master's degree at the American University in Cairo and going for my PhD at UCLA, I spent a year working for a newspaper in Beirut, mainly translating Arabic newswire stories into English. I would put them into inverted-pyramid form, which is the American way of doing things, with the most important subject and information first. Although I've focused on the early modern and modern periods, I hadn't, before September 11, written anything major on contemporary history. This was not for a lack of interest in contemporary affairs or a neglect to follow them, but because I felt that the roots of modernity in the Muslim world were still poorly understood, therefore that was the contribution I could make. Public interest in most of the Middle East was slight at that time; the Arab-Israeli conflict was all that people were interested in and that was not my specialty. I find that subject so thoroughly depressing that it's hard for me to work on it. But September 11 marked a big change in the sense that the public was suddenly interested, and as a professor at a public university I felt a responsibility to respond to all of the inquiries about the Islamic world.
In general, what role do you think should be played by academics in the public and political discourse?
I think it's really unfortunate that academics have been sidelined in most important policy debates. If you watch the cable news channels, you very seldom see academics. Most of the talking heads are self-appointed experts who lack the credentials we would insist on in academia. The vast majority of the people you see talking about the Middle East on television haven't lived there and don't know Arabic or another Middle Eastern language, and yet they are representing themselves as founts of wisdom. I laugh often because they can't pronounce the names and places and yet they have been brought in front of the camera as an expert. I think that there's been an unfortunate tendency for right wing think tanks to dominate these discussions. They often produce very shoddy studies and policy recommendations, which are nevertheless taken very seriously.
We're also seeing inroads into academia of groups like Campus Watch, which has singled out you and a few other academics for being "too political" in the classroom. What is your view on the place of politics in academic research and the university classroom?
Partisan politics has no place in the classroom. It's not proper for a professor to go before a class and promote one party or another. That's not academic scholarship. We're trying to understand the world. I think it's inevitable that as you teach something like modern Middle Eastern history, your point of view as a private individuals human beings we're political animals will certainly affect your research agendas, your judgments and so forth.
I think that academic modes of thinking and evidence are anti-partisan in their nature, and so I think things balance out in that way. I reject the argument that balance is achieved by making sure that you have both sides of the story. This is very common in journalism, especially television journalism, and it appeals to politicians and the public. There are not "sides to a story" when doing research. There is evidence, and there are explanations that the evidence reveals. One would not want a cancer institute at a major university to be forced by the government to make sure that they had a balanced view of the causes of cancer and to be forced to hire some researchers who insisted that smoking does not cause cancer. I don't accept the argument of people like David Horowitz that the government should impose some sort of predetermined political balance on academic research. We would end up with a lot of academics in that kind of situation who would maintain that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons, which was what was being maintained by think tanks and talking heads on television and government officials, precisely because they did have this flawed idea of "balance" that they were trying to pursue. If actual research had been done, then this error could have easily been exposed.