Through his daily blog Informed Comment (www.juancole.com), Juan Cole has become "a must-read for those interested in the Middle East," as the online journal Slate put it. In turn, the University of Michigan professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian history has also become a widely sought expert and commentator whose articles have appeared in such outlets as Salon.com, The Nation, The Washington Post and The Boston Review. His blog entry for the morning of Feb. 15 was fairly typical, a compendium of commentary, summaries and links to articles from the Western and Arabic press from Kurdish protests against cartoonists' portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad to maneuvers within Iraqi political alliances to complaints about deteriorating public services in the Iraqi city of al-Ramadi to a piece on the prospect of permanent U.S. military bases in that country. There was also a bit of Cole's gallows satire in "Ten ways Iraq is like Whittington," such as "Cheney gave Whittington a heart attack by shooting him in the heart. Cheney gave Iraqis a heart attack by having them bombed relentlessly."
Recently, Cole sat down in a history department meeting room near his university office to explore the big picture of a troubled region. A week after the interview, the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, Iraq, nearly touched off a civil war, underscoring Cole's perception of the Middle East as a tightrope.
Orlando Weekly: Let's start with the Danish cartoons that have been at the forefront of the news recently. Is there something that Americans don't get about this issue?
Juan Cole: One way to explain to Americans the fervor aroused by the caricatures and it's not right to call them cartoons, they are caricatures is to think about it as a form of racism. In Western societies, taking away the ability of the church to suppress things was considered good and a cornerstone of our First Amendment rights and so forth. If you look at this as a matter of religious people demanding that people not say things, then, of course, one's first instinct is to side with the caricaturists. And, certainly, as a general principle, people should be free to express themselves on religious issues.
But if one looked upon it as a matter of racism, I think the American public could understand it better. If someone did a caricature of Martin Luther King as Stepin Fetchit, do you really think that would pass without remark, that the cartoonist, that the editor, that the newspaper would face no public reprisals whatsoever?
OW: It's the amount of violence that people don't understand.
Cole: Each place where protests were held has its own background, its own reasons. I think fundamentalist Muslims use it against the moderate Muslims. On the other hand, some of the more pro-Western forces have whipped this up to establish their bona fides; they might be cracking down on the fundamentalist Muslims politically while making a big deal out of defending the Prophet Muhammad from Danish caricaturists. There is a certain amount of cynicism involved. I don't think there has been that much violence. There's been some, and unfortunately a few people have been killed in these demonstrations. But most of the dead have been killed by police.
OW: But Danish embassies have been burned.
Cole: When you talk about violence, people tend not to see their own violence. How many Americans are even aware that there were race riots in Cincinnati not so long ago? We have lots of violence in this country, including mob violence. We don't think about it, because it's not marked for us. Other people's violence is marked as, you know, those people did it; if we do it, it's not noticed so much.
OW: Is part of the problem that the American public doesn't see the multifaceted forces at work?
Cole: Yeah, I think the American public generally doesn't make a big distinction between Muslims and Arabs, even though we know that Arabs are a minority of Muslims. There are 1.3 billion Muslims, there are something like 250 to 300 million Arabs depending on how you count. I often hear on American television: "Arab countries like Iran." Iran is not an Arab country. Arabic is a language, and people either speak it or they don't. Islam is a religion, and you can have Islam no matter what language you speak. The American people may have difficulty making these distinctions and understanding exactly what's going on.
OW: You have been labeled an apologist for radical Islam by some critics. What is your response to that?
Cole: I do lot of consulting in D.C. with counterterrorism people about how to get rid of al-Qaida, so I don't think it's plausible that I'm an apologist for Muslim extremism. I spend a good deal of my career trying to understand it and trying to defeat it. So, I think it's a sleazeball kind of rhetorical tactic, and I don't think it actually has any purchase.
OW: Do you think the U.S. media conveys to us what's going on in Iraq?
Cole: I think that most Americans have no idea what a hellhole Iraq really is at this moment. Baghdad is being starved for fuel and electricity. A fourth of the country lives there. It's the capital. That's not a good situation. In about half of the country there's substantial insecurity, bombs going off, assassinations. It's not everywhere all the time. It's every once in a while in some places. But, over time, it disrupts things. It disrupts the economy; it disrupts people's lives. It makes people more nervous about even going out. I think most Americans just can't imagine that situation. And they're not being given a contextual account of how it's happening in Iraq. I did a piece in September of 2004 where I imagined what the United States would be like if it were like Iraq. That was probably the most popular thing I've ever written.
[Excerpt: "Violence killed 300 Iraqis last week, the equivalent proportionately of 3,300 Americans. What if 3,300 Americans had died in car bombings, grenade and rocket attacks, machine gun spray, and aerial bombardment in the last week? That is a number greater than the deaths on September 11, and if America were Iraq, it would be an ongoing, weekly or monthly toll."]
By mapping those events onto the United States, I made it legible to a lot of people. I don't think it should be so hard for our media to do that, but I've never seen them do it, or very seldom.
OW: We got into this war with this neoconservative blueprint that we would quickly take Iraq, democratize it and move on through the region. Do you see a clear philosophy guiding what the administration is doing at this point?
Cole: No. I think they get up in the morning and they face a set of situations in Iraq and they try to develop policies to deal with those situations, and they get up the next day and there's a new set of situations and they develop policies to deal with those. I think it's reactive. I think it's ad hoc. I don't think there's a big picture. I think they're hoping that they can ultimately muddle through, that things will settle down enough so that they can get out of it with some dignity. I think it's probably a forlorn hope.
In many ways it's over with, it's lost. I hear from my contacts who talk to military people on the ground there, and they say it's over with. If your counterinsurgency operation is about winning hearts and minds, that's finished. In polls of Sunni Arabs, 80 percent say it's legitimate to kill Americans. A larger percentage of Sunni Arabs say that now than the year before, or the year before that. As an enterprise, the Bush administration has admitted it's not going to seek any more money for reconstruction. The vast infrastructure is very bad, and there is some danger of all of the structural improvements made by U.S. firms or the U.S. government in Iraq since the war being lost or degraded, either by sabotage from the guerrillas or because material and techniques were used that the Iraqis just aren't familiar with and so won't be able to keep up afterward. So the whole thing is going south pretty fast.
OW: Some argue that our presence inflames and unifies the insurgency and the best scenario would be for the U.S. to get out as quickly as possible.
Cole: I think the big U.S. footprint in Iraq is counterproductive, and I think we should get our ground troops out of there. But I don't think there should be a complete and rapid disengagement with nothing to replace us. I think there should be a United Nations command in Iraq, and that the United Nations should be a vehicle for getting maybe some Arab League troops in there. The guerrilla movement sees itself as fighting two enemies. One is the foreign troops, the Americans and so forth who have overthrown the Baath Party and demoted the Sunni Arab elite to the lowest of the low in that country and have promoted what they see as Shiite ayatollahs and Kurdish warlords to power. This is not acceptable to the Sunni Arabs, so they want the U.S. out. But they also want those Shiite ayatollahs and Kurdish warlords out. And, were the United States not there, were there no foreign military forces to be there, then they certainly would go after them.
The Sunni Arabs can punch above their weight. People assume because they are 20-some percent of the population, they could easily be overwhelmed by the others. But they were the equivalent of the Harvard MBAs, the West Point graduates, the hardened war veterans; they are the ones who know tactics, military strategy. If Americans just up and left altogether, I think the Sunni Arabs would take the new government out and shoot it, and wrest the few tanks that were left in the country away from the government and use them against it.
OW: You're talking about a civil war?
Cole: You have a civil war now. It's an unconventional civil war. When you have 22 people show up in the streets in the morning with bullets behind their ears, it's a civil war. They were captured and killed by a local militia. The militia can't do it openly during the day, or we would scramble AC-130s and take them out.
In the absence of any outside military force, I think the possibility of an all-out conventional civil war would be high, and I'm not saying that the Sunni Arabs would necessarily win it, but they think they can win it.
OW: So the only alternative you see is to somehow internationalize the foreign presence?
Cole: It would be very difficult, but I advocate a Cambodia-type solution for Iraq. Cambodia went into substantial chaos when the United States involved it in the Vietnam War, and there was a genocide by the Khmer Rouge, and the Vietnamese actually came in and occupied Cambodia. But as they left, the United Nations took it over in the late '80s and early '90s, and the United Nations nursed it back to having elections and some form of legitimate government. The United Nations operation in Cambodia was not perfect, but I think it was a relative success. Iraq would be a much bigger project, much more difficult to pull off. For one thing, the Khmer Rouge had been marginalized by the time the United Nations arrived in Cambodia, so there wasn't an active guerrilla force that was very violent and capable any longer. In Iraq, the Sunni guerrilla movement has tens of thousands of fighters, and they are not mollified. But I think the United Nations might have a legitimacy in Iraq that the United States just can't aspire to. It's one thing to take orders from the world the United Nations Security Council it's another thing to take orders from George W. Bush; the former case doesn't raise the anti-colonial hackles in exactly the same way.
OW: Do you see discussions like that going on in the foreign policy establishment?
OW: You linked [Feb. 15] to a piece by Tom Englehardt about permanent bases being built in Iraq. Is it a fallacy to be talking about a pullout?
Cole: Oh, I think the U.S. policy establishment wanted a permanent base in Iraq. Wanting to do that and being able to do that are not the same thing. In my view, the day the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the Shiite spiritual leader, wakes up and gives a fatwa of "no foreign troops in Iraq," those bases are toast. He hasn't given that fatwa because I think he knows that for all of his dislike of being militarily occupied by a foreign power, they are doing something about peacekeeping. However, he may change his mind about that. There have been rumors that he might give such a fatwa.
OW: Would there be any U.S. troops in the Middle East if it weren't for our dependence on Middle Eastern oil?
Cole: Most people don't understand the structure of the world energy market, or the petroleum market in particular. Some 83 million barrels a day or so it fluctuates of petroleum are produced in the world. The United States consumes about 20 million barrels a day, about a fourth of the total although it has only about 6 percent of the population. It produces, I believe, 5 and a half itself uses all that and imports the rest of the 20. Two-thirds of the proven petroleum reserves in the world are in the Persian Gulf region. If you don't have the Persian Gulf production Kuwait and Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia then you really would have to think about walking to work.
The whole transportation system of the industrialized democracies of Europe and the United States depends heavily on petroleum. Decisions have been made along the line to push petroleum on the economy. For instance, rail is more energy-efficient, and yet it requires a big investment in infrastructure and probably some public subsidy, and the public has been unwilling to subsidize it.
On the other hand, the trucking industry, which depends entirely on petroleum also, requires a big public subsidy, which is hidden from us. You travel on the interstate highways every summer, and they're all torn up and people are fixing them. Why do they need to be fixed every summer? It's not because of the winter snow and the salt and things like that; it's because trucks are really heavy and they tear up these highways. Cars don't nearly to the same extent.
So all the money that the public pays to repair the interstate highway system every summer, and the states pay to rebuild their own state highways, really is a hidden subsidy to the trucking industry. If we spent the same kind of money on the rails, we'd use much less petroleum, we'd be less beholden to foreign powers, and we'd all be much better off. There is something odd about the U.S. psychology when it comes to this, but I think we will be forced by rising petroleum prices to rethink this system eventually.
OW: But there's a danger because prices can go up very quickly because of instability, but infrastructure can't be built quickly.
Cole: There is a problem, and I don't think people have any idea how much of a tightrope we're walking in the Gulf region. If Iraq did go to a conventional civil war; if it drew Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey into it; if you have generalized guerrilla war among countries, and if they started hitting pipelines the way they're hitting pipelines in Iraq, you could really send the world into another Great Depression.
OW: We were going to ask you about the worst-case scenario.
Cole: That's the worst-case scenario. The three of us standing in a breadline.
OW: And what do you think is the likelihood that could occur?
Cole: I would give it 5 percent. I don't think it's a high probability. It's out there as a possibility.
OW: And what do you think is the best-case scenario?
Cole: The best-case scenario is that Iraq ends up being somewhat like Lebanon was. The Lebanese had a civil war between 1975 and 1989, and in 1989 the Saudis and others intervened and brought the big Lebanese politicians to a place called Taef in Saudi Arabia, and they hammered out a new accord, a new power-sharing arrangement among the various communities of Lebanon. From that point forward, they decided to disarm their communal militias and re-establish the Lebanese central government and its army.
OW: And between the worst-case scenario and the best-case scenario, is there something that you see as the most probable?
Cole: Well, I've outlined the case where you have a regional guerrilla war and widespread pipeline sabotage, or you could have an internal Iraq war that doesn't spill so much onto its neighbors, that would be a middle case. But that the whole thing comes together and everyone is full of peace and love within two years and the Iraqi military is established in such a way that it's able to restore order in the country within two years that just doesn't seem possible to me.
OW: You wrote about the top 10 myths about al-Qaida perpetuated by the Bush administration. No. 1 was that the administration vastly overestimates the size, sweep and importance of al-Qaida. How large and dangerous do you see it to be?
The fact is the average American is much more likely to die from a lightning strike or falling in a bathtub than from being killed by a terrorist. It's psychologically a much more damaging risk to have a fair number of people blown up than to have random people across the country struck and killed by lightning. But it's not the kind of threat that should make us eager to give up the liberties in our Constitution or to give up domestic programs that are important for the lives of ordinary Americans or to give up our ability to handle crises like New Orleans and so forth.
OW: Do you see al-Qaida evolving?
Cole: Al-Qaida as a discrete organization is finished. Its command and control has been very substantially degraded, and what's been happening in the past few years has been the rise of al-Qaida wannabes, copycat organizations that take the name the way you might have a local restaurant that makes hamburgers and suddenly it's a Burger King or McDonald's it'll buy a franchise name. In the same way, you have some local group in Morocco or in Western Europe which has its own uses for wanting to bomb something and will announce that it's al-Qaida in Morocco or al-Qaida in Iraq or whatever. It doesn't have any operational relation to the original al-Qaida.
This is a disturbing development because very small groups are very hard to surveil and hard to monitor; they haven't typically been infiltrated because they were unknown by local security forces. So they can make some strikes like the Madrid train bombings and the London underground bombing that psychologically can have a big impact. That's been the major development, the way the organization has become even more asymmetrical and has morphed into these scattered wannabe copycat organizations.
OW: What about the claim that the great threat today is a kind of Islamo-fascism and al-Qaida is at the heart of that?
Cole: Well, I object to the term Islamo-fascism because Islam is a religion and it shouldn't be associated with a secular, destructive Western political ideology. Certainly al-Qaida and kindred groups are highly authoritarian and they envision a society that is extremely repressive, and they are dangerous and violent people who would like to impose that vision on others, and I am glad to associate myself with the fight against them. But they must be kept in perspective.
The radical groups are different than the fundamentalist groups. But the Muslim desire for a Muslim emphasis in politics which some people call political Islam appears to me as analogous to the American Christian right, and there is a difference between the American Christian right and the Timothy McVeighs and so forth. The radical extremist groups are a relatively small phenomenon; they are not important everywhere, and the idea that the Muslim world is full of fascist regimes is just not true. I find the Muslim world full of regimes that range from being extremely friendly to just fairly friendly the two exceptions being Syria and Iran. Even there, after Sept. 11, 2001, Syria was perfectly willing to join in the war against terror. It was the United States' decision to break off relations and try to push over that regime.
To tell you the truth, I think it's like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where the curtain is lifted. I think that much of the war on terror is an illusion. I think what you've really got is 4,000 or 5,000 jihadis that you should be tracking down through local cooperation and Interpol and the FBI, on the one hand. And you've got the Sunni Arab guerrillas of Iraq who are sore that we overthrew the Baath government on the other hand. And you have some tensions with Syria and Iran. But I don't see how this makes for a coherent enemy. I think Washington misses the Cold War, and the great tragedy is that the Muslims are just not going to be providing the analogy. We can talk as though they do, but they don't, and eventually this whole smoke-and-mirrors thing is going to collapse.
A version of this story originally appeared in Detroit's Metro Times.firstname.lastname@example.org
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